The entrant from Alaska was poorly qualified and awkward, she kept taking wrong steps, and the experts gave her low marks, yet she attracted plenty of votes because of whose daughter she was. But enough about Lisa Murkowski . . .
The latest info dump of WikiLeaks was a quarter of a million American diplomatic cables sent during the last three years. On first pass, none of the strategic revelations seemed very surprising — Arab states want the United States to smite Iran: indeed — while the personal items resembled a foreign-policy Page Six — Moammar Qaddafi travels with a bosomy Ukrainian “nurse.” Altogether they have a chilling effect on negotiating and snooping, both vital diplomatic tasks; and who knows what details could be dangerous, even lethal, to their sources or their recipients? WikiLeaks’s founder, Julian Assange, is an arrogant fraud, an anti-American masquerading as a libertarian Zorro (leak some Chinese cables, big guy). Pfc. Bradley Manning, the Army intelligence analyst who stole these and other secrets, is being tried for his deeds. One hopes he gets the stiffest possible sentence, pour encourager les autres.
One reason the Transportation Safety Administration is reduced to relying upon the gross and random physical violation of airline passengers’ privacy and dignity is that its agents are denied the more sophisticated tools that could partly supplant such intrusions. For example, a “red shirt” program under which travelers submit to extensive background searches in exchange for expedited security screenings at the gate would be of great value to frequent flyers, the elderly, and disabled passengers, especially those with prostheses or medical appliances that can be a nightmare when handled insensitively. Likewise, the TSA should have access to all of the traveler information at the disposal of U.S. Customs, which keeps relatively sophisticated records of who is coming and going. The fact that there remains a wall of separation sequestering this useful data all these years after 9/11 is more of a scandal than anything the TSA’s agents have got up to. And, now that America has entered the happy, post-racial Age of Obama, we should take the opportunity to outgrow our national paranoia about “racial profiling” and allow our security forces, including those at the TSA, to employ the best information-analysis tools available, including data-driven profiles that incorporate demographic information. More scoping, less groping.
Taxes are scheduled to rise in January. The Democrats first proposed to let them rise for families earning $250,000 or more, which would wallop a lot of small businesses: Households with income exceeding $200,000 account for about half of all small-business income in the United States, meaning that they represent the sort of small businesses that actually employ people and generate significant profits. That plan petered out, and now Sen. Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) has proposed a tax hike on families earning $1 million or more. A “tax on millionaires” is heavyweight rhetoric but featherweight economics. The Democrat-led CBO found that raising taxes on families earning more than $250,000 would have negative effects on economic growth compared with keeping all of the current federal income-tax rates in place. A tax hike on $1 million households — which represent a great number of the nation’s business owners and business investors — is likely to do even more damage to the economy for every new dollar in tax revenue raised. Class war isn’t cheap.
The trouble with unemployment benefits is that they reduce the incentive for their recipients to find and take a job. They increase unemployment by subsidizing it. But given the state of the economy today, they are helping far more people than they are discouraging from working. Under the circumstances, then, the benefits should be extended — so long as they are coupled with reforms to create jobs. Republicans could insist on delaying scheduled tax increases or relaxing Davis-Bacon regulations on construction projects. Our main focus should be not on extending unemployment benefits, but on making them less necessary.
Ratifying the New START treaty became a matter of the utmost urgency after the midterms. The Obama administration all but broke out the Doomsday Clock and counted down the minutes to our destruction if the treaty goes unratified. But this rush to get it through the Senate obviously has more to do with circumventing an enlarged Republican minority next year than with any other exigency. The administration makes much of the expiration of our inspection regime with the end of the old START treaty last December. But it could have negotiated an interim inspection arrangement with the Russians, and failed to do so. It’s not as though our current lack of inspections is going to enable some sort of nuclear breakout by the Russians (not in the cards, for many reasons) or make Russia’s strategic warheads atop missiles vulnerable to theft by terrorists (their tactical nukes would be a more natural target, and New START doesn’t cover them). The fact is that the treaty isn’t a particularly good deal for us. The Russians are already beneath its limit of 700 launchers, so they won’t have to cut their total at all. And technicalities in the treaty’s counting methods allow them to deploy more warheads than the treaty’s notional 1,550 limit. We are the ones who would have to cut, and we have also agreed to provisions that may crimp our ability to deploy missile defenses and “prompt global strike,” a system to deliver precision conventional weapons anywhere around the world. All such concerns should take a backseat, in the administration’s view, to the need to placate the Russians and boost Pres. Dmitri Medvedev vis-à-vis Vladimir Putin. This vastly overestimates our ability to fine-tune Russian politics to our liking. Whatever the fate of the treaty, Russia will be Russia.
Supporters of the new health-care law love to talk about how it helps people get coverage for their adult children, and many Republicans have said they support that provision. It would be a fine idea, if polls trumped economics. What the law says is that if health plans offer dependent coverage, they must offer it up to age 26. Now the Service Employees International Union, which heartily advocated the law, is responding to this all-or-nothing choice by ending all of its dependent coverage. The union is not alone in experiencing a rude awakening. Readers of the New York Times were recently informed that the law is inspiring a lot of mergers of medical practices, something opponents of the law had been warning about all along. Congress, meanwhile, is taking up legislation to defer long-scheduled cuts in Medicare payment rates — a move that reveals how unrealistic is the law’s attempt to achieve savings through price controls. President Obama pledged to be the last president to take up health-care reform. Future presidents will keep busy dealing with the consequences of his success.
The Democratic party, in an effort to prove to Hispanics that it’s not just stringing them along with immigration-policy promises, is pushing hard to pass the DREAM Act during the lame-duck session. President Obama told congressional Democrats that he wanted the legislation passed as a “downpayment” for more comprehensive reform later on, and House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid are trying to round up votes. The act would allow young adults brought here illegally when they were under the age of 16 to gain legal status in exchange for two years of attending college or working for certain government agencies or the military. The incentive for future illegal entries is obvious. Let’s solve our current illegal-immigration problem before creating a new one.
Former House majority leader Tom “The Hammer” DeLay was convicted of money laundering for his role in raising and directing political contributions in several Texas races in 2002. But if DeLay was guilty of anything, it was of shrewdly working our byzantine campaign-finance laws. DeLay solicited $155,000 of corporate contributions to a PAC he headed; that PAC in turn contributed $190,000 to Texas’s arm of the RNC; and the RNC then contributed $190,000 to seven candidates endorsed by DeLay. Since direct corporate contributions to candidates are illegal in Texas, this chain of events was enough to convince a jury that DeLay had “laundered” the money. Never mind that each step in the chain was fully legal, or that such “soft money” cash flows to party apparatuses were commonplace in the days before McCain-Feingold. The Washington Post editorialized that DeLay was right to see in his conviction “the criminalization of politics.” For his many opponents, that’s the point.
After the House ethics committee voted 9–1 to censure Rep. Charles Rangel, he vowed to get his punishment reduced by the full House. Censure — one step down in severity from expulsion — requires the guilty member to stand in the well of the House and listen to its formal rebuke. Rangel will argue that he deserves the lower penalty of a reprimand because he took no bribes and sought no personal gain. He did not take bribes, but he offered one, in the form of a loophole for an oil-drilling company whose CEO pledged a million bucks for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College. His personal gains may have been modest as such things go, but failing to report income on his Dominican vacation condo did lower his taxes (he made no errors that cost him money). Rangel’s constituents are fine with his conduct: They just elected him to his 21st term. But the House is responsible for its own reputation. Rangel’s long service and high position make his crimes more conspicuous, hence more scandalous. His actions call for censure, at least.
Cornel West, Princeton professor, rapper, and ideological man about town, compared Barack Obama to George W. Bush, and not flatteringly. Bush, West conceded on Democracy Now! (a left-wing TV/radio show), probably does not hate blacks individually. But “his policies were racist in effect. . . . And I would say that” — here is the kicker — “even about the Obama administration.” West cited “Wall Street downplaying Main Street” and black imprisonment rates. “There is simply no mention of poor people’s plight.” West thinks of himself as a prophet; non-acolytes will think of him, when they do think of him, as a preener. But he is both a bellwether and a barometer. The Left has had to swallow a fair amount from its messiah (e.g., staying in Afghanistan). Electoral defeat is an even more bitter pill. Unhappiness and anomie in Obama’s base is one more thing he does not need.
Coming Back – from Farther Down
In 2002, Harvard economist James Stock and Princeton economist Mark Watson penned a paper that reviewed and extended a then-new literature that seemed to show that the volatility of the economy had declined over time. That paper gave the phenomenon a name, “the Great Moderation,” and helped ignite an explosion of research.
Subsequently, a number of factors were identified that caused the Great Moderation. In 2008, University of Chicago economist Steve Davis and James Kahn of NYU published an influential paper documenting that improved supply management and the shift of the economy toward service production were the key factors making the world appear to be a safer place. The former, in particular, was found to be quite powerful. U.S. firms no longer experience massive inventory overhangs that induce sharp declines in production.
The widespread acceptance of the view that the economy has undergone a dramatic decline in volatility with identifiable causes is painfully ironic, of course, given that the economics profession converged on this judgment precisely at the moment when it became impossible to write about the economy without including the words “worst since the Great Depression.”
The nearby chart, however, suggests that it might be too soon to discard the notion of the Great Moderation. The chart compares GDP growth at the start of this recovery to that of all post-war U.S. recoveries.
Specifically, the National Bureau of Economic Research recently determined that the latest recession ended in June 2009. The U.S. has subsequently seen 5 quarters of growth that have been disappointing enough to create a political tidal wave. The chart compares the current experience to the first five quarters of all other post-war recoveries.
It tells an interesting story. Recoveries used to be rapid. The typical recovery before 1980 saw growth in the five quarters after the business-cycle trough of 7.4 percent. After 1980, the average growth in the first five quarters has been only 3.6 percent. If we exclude the robust Reagan recovery of 1982, the average falls to 2.6 percent, 0.3 percentage points below the current experience.
It is surprising to say it, but the current recovery is slightly stronger in growth terms than has been typical. It feels worse only because the economy fell so far to begin with.
The current recovery suggests that the economy is a massive oil tanker that has been swept from its course by a powerful storm. It’s turning toward the right direction now, but ever so slowly.
Is there a word in the Koran for chutzpah? Sharif el-Gamal, developer of the Ground Zero mosque, has asked for a $5 million federal grant to be funneled through the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. El-Gamal says the money will go to social-service programs open to all Manhattanites — he mentioned art exhibits and Arabic-language classes — and not to the mosque itself. Is there a word in the Koran for fungible? The same First Amendment that allows el-Gamal and his partner, Imam Feisal Rauf, to build a mosque estops the rest of us from paying for it. No doubt there are bureaucrats in Michael Bloomberg’s New York City obtuse enough to sign off on this deal, but it would wrap the dodgy project in one more layer of scorn.
In 2005, Portland’s elected officials, egged on by their friends at the ACLU and already protesting the Patriot Act, pulled city police out of the FBI’s local joint terrorism task force — one of several such federal-state confederations. On November 26, the JTTF nevertheless thwarted an attempted jihadist bombing that could have claimed more lives than were lost on 9/11. Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a 19-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen from Somalia and a student at Oregon State University, twice attempted to detonate what he believed was a powerful truck bomb at the Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony in Pioneer Courthouse Square, annually attended by 25,000 revelers. Months earlier, Mohamud had reached out to al-Qaeda hotbeds overseas to seek terrorist training. Thanks to aggressive surveillance of international terrorist communications — a staple of Bush counterterrorism that Obama criticized as a candidate and continued as president — he came to the FBI’s attention. As a result, his “collaborators” turned out to be undercover agents rather than real jihadists. He repeatedly told them he hoped to kill as many infidels as possible. Portland’s new mayor says he’s reconsidering the city’s stance on the JTTF. Good idea.
Ahmed Ghailani’s trial for the 1998 embassy bombings was to be Attorney General Eric Holder’s monument to the civilian justice system’s effectiveness against al-Qaeda. He cherry-picked Ghailani because the case seemed like a cinch: It had already been prosecuted in early 2001, resulting in life sentences for four terrorists. But then reality butted in. Prosecutors shied away from telling the jury about Ghailani’s 2007 confession to the FBI for fear of opening the door to the CIA’s harsher interrogation in 2004. Thus jurors did not learn that Ghailani became an al-Qaeda celebrity after the bombings. The court then barred the testimony of a key witness who had sold him the TNT used in the Tanzania bombing — the judge fretting over the alien terrorist’s supposed Fifth Amendment rights because the witness’s name first came up during Ghailani’s CIA questioning. Free to portray himself as a hapless dupe, Ghailani was acquitted on 284 of the 285 charges — a compromise verdict that found him guilty of bombing conspiracy but unaccountable for the 224 murders the bombing caused. Ghailani will do at least 20 years, but suffice it to say the administration is no longer chatting up a civilian trial for KSM.
The restructured General Motors, enjoying its first profitable year since 2004, raised $23 billion in the largest initial public offering of stock in U.S. history. A strange transaction: Most of the shares were sold by the U.S. Treasury, which remains GM’s largest shareholder, and the bailed-out automaker’s IPO was underwritten by a clutch of bailed-out banks: Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan, Bank of America, and Citigroup. Shares currently are trading around $33 and will have to hit $50 for American taxpayers to break even on their “investment” in the firm — an unlikely situation that would see GM growing to twice the size of its more profitable, non-government-owned rival, Ford. The heavy hand of politics is not helping matters: GM has bowed to administration pressure to add more small, fuel-efficient cars to its sales mix and has warned that this could hurt fourth-quarter profits. And it has announced plans to swell its Democrat-supporting unionized work force with 1,000 new engineers tasked exclusively with working on GM’s new GoreMobile, the Chevy Volt — that’s one full-time engineer for every ten Volts GM expects to sell in 2011. Perhaps there are some Volga veterans looking for work.
Of all the children born in Nevada in 2008, 26.3 percent — more than one in four — were born to non-citizen mothers. In California the figure was 29.1 percent, getting on for one in three. These numbers come from the American Community Survey, taken every year. (They do not distinguish between legal- and illegal-immigrant mothers.) Americans have in recent decades been extraordinarily open to foreigners’ settling in our country, even to the degree of granting amnesty to illegal immigrants in 1986. Many Americans take pride in this open-handedness as an expression of our generous national character. Yet . . . one in four? One in three?
Mixing alcohol with caffeine is a longstanding tradition, resulting in classics like Irish coffee and trendy concoctions like Red Bull with vodka. The latest incarnation is Four Loko, a fruit-flavored fusion of alcohol and caffeine sold in a large can. The beverage, which is enormously popular on college campuses, has offended Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) and the FDA. Schumer is calling for a ban on packaged caffeine-infused alcoholic beverages, while the FDA sent warning letters to Four Loko and three other manufacturers, stating that adding caffeine (deemed an “unsafe food additive” in this context) to alcohol had not been approved. A duly chastened Four Loko has agreed to stop including caffeine in the beverages. Apparently, Millennials will have to resume the traditions of their elders, manually adding the caffeine themselves instead of enjoying the efficiency of a pre-mixed beverage. Who said liberals were always for progress?
When the federal government first mandated warning labels on cigarettes in the late 1960s, it had a good reason: Cigarette companies had been claiming, publicly and against all evidence, that smoking was harmless. Four decades later, the justification for warning labels remains strong, but is somewhat less so; even without them, it would be virtually impossible for an American child to reach the age of ten without being told — forcefully and repeatedly, both in public schools and by the media — that smoking can kill him. And there is no justification at all for the warning labels the feds now plan to plaster all over your next carton of Marlboros: “Images of corpses, cancer patients, and diseased lungs are just some of what’s in store,” as one news report put it. Americans know the dangers of smoking, are capable of weighing those risks against the pleasure they derive from the habit, pay extra taxes to compensate for any burden they place on public health resources, and in dying prematurely lessen the burdens on Social Security and pension funds. Warnings belong on cigarette packs to inform citizens, but the government has no business browbeating them.
St. Thomas Aquinas held that adultery is worse than fornication: The more a sexual act departs from the marital ideal, the more corrosive it is for character. Pope Benedict XVI was making a similar point when he suggested that a prostitute who uses a condom might be making a turn — partial, of course — toward moral responsibility. Just as Thomas was not blessing fornication, the pope was not altering Catholic teaching on contraception and sexual morality. His comment was, however, widely misunderstood, and he cannot be absolved from blame for the confusion. He must know that Church teaching was already poorly understood and should have appreciated that off-the-cuff remarks in an interview were unlikely to clarify them. The blunder was reminiscent of the Vatican’s 2009 decision to lift the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson before, evidently, becoming aware that he was a Holocaust denier. We are not saying that the Church should become just another institution concerned primarily with avoiding public-relations hits. We are saying that its exercise of its teaching office has to take account of the media (and larger social) environment.
On November 23, less than a week after the world learned of a new North Korean uranium-enrichment facility, Pyongyang launched an unprovoked artillery assault on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, which is home to both a military base and a quiet fishing community. The attack killed four South Koreans, including two civilians. In response, Washington and Seoul authorized joint naval exercises in the Yellow Sea and pushed for tougher sanctions against the North, while China refused to blame Pyongyang explicitly for the incident and urged a resumption of the futile six-party talks. Robust sanctions can slow the nuclear program, limit the North’s ability to proliferate, and increase U.S. leverage over the ruling regime, which is currently in the midst of a leadership transition. In addition to boosting sanctions, the U.S. should re-list North Korea as a terror sponsor and make the Yellow Sea naval drills a permanent feature of the East Asian security landscape. We must convince Pyongyang and Beijing that our response to North Korean bellicosity will be serious and unrelenting.
Shortly before 9/11, the U.N. held its World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. It quickly degenerated into a festival of hate against Israel. The U.S. delegation, under Colin Powell, walked out. In 2009, President Obama gave the woman who presided over that conference, the Irish politician Mary Robinson, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. When some criticized this award, Robinson said, “There’s a lot of bullying by certain elements of the Jewish community.” Also in 2009, the U.N. held “Durban II,” in Geneva. The U.S. did not show up at all to that one. And it turned out to be the same as the first. The main speaker was Ahmadinejad. Now Durban III has been scheduled: for New York City, on Sept. 11, 2011 — the tenth anniversary of the attacks, adding insult to obscenity.
When Aung San Suu Kyi went to Oxford, she met her future husband, Michael Aris. While they were courting, she wrote to him, “Sometimes I am beset by fears that circumstances and national considerations might tear us apart just when we are so happy in each other that separation would be a torment.” She was the daughter of Burma’s independence hero, Aung San. Before they were married, she asked Michael to take a vow before the vows, so to speak: that he would never stand between her and her country. In 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi flew to Burma to take care of her ailing mother. She also took up the cause of Burmese democracy. And she has not been out of the country since. She has been under house arrest, off and on: mainly on. She has been detained, cut off from the rest of the world, for 15 of the last 21 years. When she received the Nobel peace prize in 1991, her husband and two sons went to Oslo in her stead. Her husband died in 1999, on his 53rd birthday. He had last seen his wife at Christmas 1995. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, after seven years, a few weeks ago. It is hoped that she will be able to see her grandchildren for the first time. Burma’s dictatorship, one of the most brutal in the world, seems afraid of this beautiful, refined, and strong woman. They are quite right. She is dangerous to them. She and her fellow democrats are a dagger aimed at the place where their heart would be.
Washington is the city where George Will caused a sensation by wearing bow ties. Milan or Paris it is not. Representative-elect Frederica Wilson (D., Fla.) intends to give it a fashion jolt. She has a closet full of hats, from church lady to cowboy, which are her trademark, and she wants to be able to wear them while the House is in session. That would require a change of House rules, which require members to go bare-headed. We favor the rules. They ensure dignity (when do high spirits cross over into narcissism and self-promotion?). Even more, they suggest the equality of the people’s representatives. Henry Clay, in his first year as speaker, made a similar point when he forbade John Randolph to bring his dogs onto the House floor. Randolph, like Wilson, was an eccentric, but the job of a congressman is politics. Working with (and even more, against) one’s peers requires decorum and comity.
This November, for the first time in 42 years, a flag was raised in a military ceremony on the Columbia University campus. Having received permission from Columbia’s University Senate, which had previously banned all military activity on campus, a group of ROTC cadets now plans to hoist the Stars and Stripes every Monday morning. This is a small step away from the Ivy League’s intense allergy to all things military, and should be celebrated as such. But there’s still a long way to go. These cadets, though enrolled in Columbia’s colleges and schools, are obligated to train in Fordham University’s ROTC: The program is still banned at Columbia and at most other Ivy League universities. Harvard cadets must go to MIT; Yale cadets must drive an hour to UConn. Several justifications are advanced for the elite universities’ attempts to sever their students from the military. Some academics claim that ROTC classes don’t pass academic muster. We will be willing to entertain this argument when Columbia also forces its women’s-studies department to Fordham. Some claim ROTC will be welcome back when “don’t ask, don’t tell” goes. We’ll see about that. While we celebrate the permitted flag-raising, we should remember what a bizarre academic world it is in which this — a simple military ceremony, as requested by students — is considered a major concession.
Thirteen-year-old Cody Alicea attends Denair Middle School in northern California, where the student body is 38 percent Hispanic. Cody liked to fly a U.S. flag on the back of his bicycle out of respect for military veterans in his family. That brought complaints from other students. Rather than discipline the students making the threats, school bureaucrats hauled in Cody — just before Veterans Day! — and told him to cease his provocative display of Old Glory. The story has a happy ending. Faced with nationwide protests, the educrats at once backed down. Even better: The following Monday, Cody, with bike and flag, was escorted to school through the streets of Denair by a hundred townspeople waving flags and singing patriotic songs, and fortified by contingents from the American Legion and a local Hells Angels chapter. Patriotism is not mocked, even in northern California.
In Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World, the bioengineered World State of the future is populated by happy, healthy consumers conditioned and drugged to accept without question their lives of frivolous entertainment, predetermined careers, and recreational sex. The old, unregulated style of life, with all its freedoms and discontents, is allowed to continue in a few reservations. The inhabitants thereof are called “savages,” and John the Savage is the book’s protagonist. Unfortunately, John’s reservation is in New Mexico, and the book’s description of it suggests that most of the savages (though not John) are American Indians. Offended by this, the mother of a student at Nathan Hale High School in Seattle is petitioning the school board to remove Huxley’s classic from its approved reading lists — or as she puts it: “to take a stand against institutional racism.” There is no chance that this lady has any grasp of irony, but we’ll go ahead anyway with the observation that she would make a model citizen of Huxley’s World State in the year 632 After Ford.
The rock star/financier Bono, of the band U2, told the New York Times of his latest project: “We’re wrestling with the same stuff as Rilke, Blake, ‘Wings of Desire,’ Roy Lichtenstein, the Ramones — the cost of feeling feelings, the desire for connections.” An elevated and vertiginous mix, to be sure. And what has Bono (along with bandmate The Edge) come up with after weaving together these diverse strands? Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. After all, when you combine the artistic essence of Rilke’s “Forgetting still has a shape in the kingdom of transformation” with the Ramones’ “I don’t wanna walk around with you / I don’t wanna walk around with you / I don’t wanna walk around with you / So why you wanna walk around with me,” the result could obviously be nothing other than a massively expensive Broadway musical based on a human-spider mutant. Unfortunately, when previews commenced, the elaborate flying apparatus malfunctioned, and a confused plot caused puzzled audiences to leave the theater hmmm-ing. For the keys to success on Broadway, the composers might profitably forget Comp Lit 101 and try to merge a less high-flown set of influences — say, Rodgers and Hart with Lerner and Loewe.
The Southern Poverty Law Center of Montgomery, Ala., has been exposed numerous times as an aggressive money-making operation with a small public-interest legal arm. To keep the funds flowing, the SPLC must always be uncovering new agents of “hate” and exaggerating the threat from old ones. These efforts may be approaching a point of diminishing returns. Latest additions to the SPLC’s “hate groups” list are the Family Research Council and the National Organization for Marriage — both guilty, says the Center, of “demonizing propaganda aimed at homosexuals and other sexual minorities.” Who will be next on the list — the Catholic Church? Meanwhile on the exaggeration front, an SPLC-produced video aimed at law-enforcement officers warns of the threat — real, but minute — from crazy militia types, and advises that bumper stickers with anti-government messages are a warning sign of such. So if you don’t want the cop at your next traffic pull-over to come at you with sidearm drawn and cocked, it might be wise to scrape off that bumper sticker saying: I’ll Keep My Guns, Freedom, and Money, You Keep the “Change.”
Here’s the ideal Christmas gift for a British tot: Happyland Goosefeather Farm, a brightly colored little tabletop play-set. It has a farmer, a tractor, a dog, a chicken in a coop, a sheep and a cow in a pen, a horse in a stable, and a sty. The sty, however, is empty. A button can be pressed to produce an Oink! sound, but there is no pig. Where is he? One baffled purchaser called Early Learning Centre, the toy’s distributor, to ask. She was told that the pig had been removed in case it upset Muslim or Jewish parents. Apparently it’s never too early to learn the multicultural cringe. This incident is one of a series in the U.K. going back at least to October 2005, when a welfare-benefits office in the English Midlands ordered an employee to remove a tissue box featuring Winnie the Pooh and Piglet out of deference to Muslim sensibilities. Happily there are faint indications of a trend toward stiffer spines: Early Learning Centre has rehabilitated the pig, though only for the British market.
When it comes to dinosaurs, we are proud to call ourselves “paleoconservative.” So we reacted with a fine, guttural “Harrumph!” on learning that scientists now say there was no such species as triceratops. With its Elizabethan neck ruffle and its trio of pointy protrusions (which always made us think of Jeanne Tripplehorn), triceratops was the most flamboyantly dinosaurish dinosaur, and a staple of grade-school science classes. Yet fossil evidence has established that the winsomely punkish triceratops was not a separate species but merely an immature form that grew, like Triceratopsy, into the drab, middle-aged torosaurus, which resembles an English vicar with its high forehead and solemn demeanor. We say: Faugh! First they took the brontosaurus away from us (it was actually the same as apatosaurus, if your day hasn’t already been ruined enough), and now another long-familiar dinosaur has vanished in a trice. Why, if dinosaur species keep dropping off like this, pretty soon they’ll all be extinct.
In December 1910, the university press of Cambridge, England, published the first volume of Principia Mathematica. Second and third volumes followed in 1912 and 1913, for a total of 4,500 pages. The aim of the authors, Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell, was to show that all of pure mathematics could be built up using only a small number of principles drawn from logic, like their Proposition 1.3: “If q is true, then ‘p or q’ is true.” PM (as it came to be known by interested parties) was the most ambitious reductionist endeavor in intellectual history. Not until Chapter 52 were the authors able to define the number 1. Few can have read PM for pleasure, but the book was a great milestone on the road to our modern information society. Its symbolism and methods clarified notions that led to the code-breaking triumphs of WWII and the general-purpose electronic computer. Though now of mainly historical interest, PM belonged to the category of things that had to be done by someone, somewhere, before further progress could be made. The first part of it was done, and presented to the public, 100 years ago this month.
Our best wishes to Martin Rayner, the terrific actor playing the title role in Freud’s Last Session, who gave audiences a little more drama than they had expected when he collapsed on stage to the sound of air-raid sirens at the play’s climax. The audience thought it was part of the show until the medics showed up. In the play, Sigmund Freud debates C. S. Lewis on the subject of the afterlife, something very much on the mind of the famed psychoanalyst, who is dying of cancer. Mr. Rayner’s collapse was related to complications from his own cancer, which is, unlike the play, unhappily nonfictional. But as he was wheeled away from the stage on a stretcher, he protested that he’d be back for the evening’s show. That and many more, we pray.
Henryk Górecki was an extraordinary man, and an extraordinary composer. Sick for much of his life, he displayed physical courage. He displayed political courage, too: A Pole, and a believer, he was part of the struggle against the Communist dictatorship. He also displayed musical or artistic courage. He began as a serialist composer, like everyone else. It was not just the fashion, it was virtually the law. But he gradually broke free of musico-ideological restraints, and composed the beautiful and spiritual music that was in him. His Symphony No. 3 — the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” — became a shock hit. A recording of it sold more than a million copies worldwide, maybe not a big deal for a pop album, but practically unheard of for classical music, and essentially unthinkable for a contemporary composition. In 1987, he composed an unaccompanied choral piece for one of John Paul II’s pilgrimages to Poland. This piece, Totus Tuus, is beloved the world over, and rightly so. Górecki died last month at 76. His music will last a lot longer.
In the weeks after the midterm election Washington, D.C., began to focus with slightly more seriousness on the deficit. The president’s commission on it issued a promising draft report, and Republican representative Paul Ryan collaborated with Clinton-administration budget chief Alice Rivlin on a plan to rein in Medicaid.
This last initiative has our unqualified approval. Allowing state governments to expand benefits and eligibility while having the federal government pick up half the bill is a formula for excess. The Ryan-Rivlin plan would instead have the federal government give the states a set amount — what it has given them in the past plus an adjustment for inflation and population growth — and let the states allocate it. A cap on federal spending on Medicaid is a precondition for drawing up a sensible budget.
Our approval for the presidential commission, chaired by former Republican senator Alan Simpson and Clinton-administration chief of staff Erskine Bowles, comes, on the other hand, with several qualifications. The commissioners were right to call for reducing future Social Security benefit levels: Future retirees should get the same benefits as today’s retirees, adjusted for inflation, but we cannot afford to give them more. They were right to attempt to simplify the tax code by, for instance, ending the deduction for mortgage interest, while also cutting tax rates.
The net effect, however, is to raise taxes, and our preference is for a heavier emphasis on spending cuts. Some research also indicates that successful deficit-reduction initiatives — ones that reduce debt as a share of the economy — tend to have a slightly higher ratio of spending cuts to tax increases. Some of the commission’s suggested tax increases are especially unwise: They would raise taxes on investment, including investment in children, when those taxes are already too heavy.
Another serious error by the commission is to leave the new health-care law untouched. In this it reflects the incoherence of the Obama administration, which professes its commitment to both deficit reduction and the creation of a new middle-class entitlement.
The Left has so far been far more critical of the commission than conservatives have. They have lambasted it, above all, for proposing cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Never mind that those cuts would fall most heavily on the affluent and thus make the programs more progressive. The Left’s reaction provides further proof that in practice it is more devoted to a political strategy of garnering votes through handouts than it is to budget-balancing or even redistribution. Nancy Pelosi has called the commission’s proposals “unacceptable.”
Republicans have been more constructive. But they recognize that action over the next two years will require presidential leadership: specifically, a clear break by Obama with the left wing of his party. No deal is possible otherwise.