We wouldn’t be surprised if they lip-synched the oath of office, too.
House Republican leaders have announced that they will raise the debt ceiling enough to let the federal government continue to borrow for a few more months, provided that Senate Democrats finally produce a budget (which they have not done since 2009). The extension will give the parties time to negotiate over legislation to fund the government for the next year, and over whether to replace the automatic spending cuts that are starting soon. The Republicans say that they will not grant a longer-term increase in the debt ceiling without budget reforms and cuts. We hope they are not bluffing but fear that they are. They may be hesitating because of the potential economic cost of a struggle over the debt ceiling. One way to reduce that cost would be to pass a bill that stipulates that even if the ceiling is hit, the federal government may continue to borrow to service its existing debts. (Rolling over debt can involve a small amount of additional borrowing.) The threat of default on older debts would be off the table permanently, which the Democrats can hardly lament. Hitting the debt ceiling would still be a painful experience for both parties, since the spending cuts that followed would be drastic, rapid, and indiscriminate, but more deliberate spending cuts, made in advance, would be a ready solution to that problem. House Republicans should pass this bill, and get back in the fight.
As the price of accepting the temporary debt-limit extension, conservatives in the House demanded that the House leaders commit to a plan to balance the budget in the next ten years. They say that they will, and the budget looks easier to balance now than it did a year or two ago — mainly because the Congressional Budget Office is projecting higher economic growth, and not so much because of recent budget deals. Which suggests that spending cuts, as important as they are, should not be allowed to swallow up the rest of the conservative economic agenda.
Amusement gave way to bemusement as we witnessed a strange idea gain currency, as it were, among a class of pundits and Twitterers who found the standoff over the debt ceiling too tedious to bear. In an odd alcove of federal law meant to enable the minting of commemorative specie for numismatists, they purported to discover the authority for the Treasury to strike a trillion-dollar-denominated platinum coin, which could be deposited directly into government accounts at the Federal Reserve, bypassing the need to issue new debt — not to mention the Republican House. Leave to one side the dubious legality of this device. And forget the possible inflationary consequences. What about the politics? The proponents of “minting the Coin” claimed it was part modest proposal, part legitimate escape hatch to avoid default, and part absurd response to equally absurd Republican obstinacy. Politics ain’t Dada. Still, we agree it would have been quite the spectacle to see the president print twelve zeroes on a souped-up nickel and use it to Win the Future. Alas, the Republican party is no luckier in 2013 than it was in 2012, and the executive dismissed the platinum plot, banishing it back to Twitter.
What is that whining sound, like a distant buzz saw? Could it be Colin Powell? Just the other day he said, of the GOP, that “there is a dark vein of intolerance in some parts of the party. . . . They still sort of look down on minorities.” He indicts Romney spokesman John Sununu for calling Obama’s first debate performance a sign of laziness, which Powell takes to be a racial slur. In fact, Powell’s career was cherished by the GOP — specifically, by Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes — like a Fabergé egg: national-security adviser, chairman of the joint chiefs, secretary of state. Republicans might well have made him the first black president, had he run. We mean no racial slight in saying that, in this controversy, it is Powell who is being lazy, and cheap.
Traveling in Italy, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met the pope, who said to him, “Thank you for helping to protect the world.” There is a man, born in Germany between the wars, who knows something about history, geopolitics, and reality.
Senator Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) had some worries about the prospect of his former colleague Chuck Hagel’s becoming secretary of defense, but after a 90-minute meeting in the West Wing, Schumer gave Hagel a thumbs-up. Schumer emphasized Hagel’s views about Iran. As a senator, Hagel favored negotiating with Iran and forswearing sanctions, but now, said Schumer, he “expressed the need to keep all options on the table . . . including the use of military force.” But the two biggest options on the table, not mentioned by Schumer, involve Beltway job security. Hagel wants the Pentagon job, and will say or unsay anything to get it, while Schumer wants to become top Senate Democrat whenever Harry Reid moves on (defying a Democratic president would be a stone in his path). In The Second Jungle Book, Kipling describes a conversation between a jackal and a crocodile (mugger). “Now the jackal had spoken just to be listened to, for he knew flattery was the best way of getting things to eat, and the mugger knew that the jackal had spoken for this end, and the jackal knew that the mugger knew, and the mugger knew that the jackal knew that the mugger knew, and so they were all very contented together.”
Attorney General Eric Holder joined the chorus of calls for gun control, saying that we must keep guns “out of the hands of those who are not and should not be allowed to possess them” and impose tough penalties on people who “help funnel weapons to dangerous criminals.” We take it this means he will be turning state’s evidence against those of his underlings involved in Fast and Furious.
In the wake of the Newtown shootings, New York’s state legislature rushed to passage an ill-conceived gun-control law at the behest of Governor Andrew Cuomo, who already is picturing himself as a presidential candidate. The signs of hastiness are upon the legislation, and may be its undoing: The new law bans magazines that hold more than seven rounds, but there are few magazines that hold seven rounds or fewer, making the law in effect a ban on practically all handguns other than revolvers, and on many rifles with detachable magazines. This broad reach probably puts the law in violation of the constitutional limits established by the Heller decision. New York assemblyman Al Graf pointed out that the law does not include an exemption for police officers. The act puts new reporting burdens on mental-health practitioners, who in turn have protested that it will make troubled people less likely to seek professional help. The law also expands the definition of “assault weapon” and tightens other provisions. None of these, it should go without saying, would have made a whit of difference at Sandy Hook. Adam Lanza was carrying a semiautomatic rifle and several magazines, and most of his victims were little children; if he’d had a dozen seven-round magazines rather than a few 30-round magazines, nobody would have stopped him from reloading — which he in fact did, sometimes discarding his magazines before they were empty. New York’s new law is counterproductive and probably unconstitutional, and will make the world safer only for the lawyers who will be enriched through the coming litigation.
The actor Danny Glover has a quaint theory about the Second Amendment, which he learned from a 9/11 “truther” and radio host named Thom Hartmann and shared almost verbatim with students at Texas A&M. “I don’t know if people know the genesis of the right to bear arms,” Glover instructed the crowd while celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. “The Second Amendment comes from the right to protect — for settlers to protect themselves from slave revolts, and from uprisings by Native Americans.” Not quite, Danny, no. That so many Americans have been denied their unalienable rights is certainly a stain on the country’s history. But slave revolts were not a serious concern when the Second Amendment was ratified, nor were they mentioned in the drafting process or in attendant debates. Instead, the focus was on protecting the preexisting rights of Englishmen in the new constitutional order. Time for a survey course.
The governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer, has been a trenchant critic of Obamacare, but nonetheless has signed off on an expansion of Medicaid associated with the new law, in order to collect some $2 billion in federal payments. The structure of the Medicaid expansion is an exercise in simple deviousness: States that sign on collect new benefits, first at no out-of-pocket cost and then at a cost of ten cents on the dollar. Governors and state legislators can then boast that they have secured billions of dollars in benefits at little or no cost to the taxpayers of their states — the old free lunch. But of course Arizona taxpayers also are federal taxpayers, and so will be burdened with the enormous new debt that the deficit-driving expansion will create — some $800 billion worth. That is fairly crude as fiscal sleight-of-hand goes, simply shifting the pain of taxation away from state authorities who are more easily held to account and onto distant powers in Washington. The Obama administration has no legal power to compel Governor Brewer to join it in this project, only the power to offer a payoff. Governor Brewer’s decision to take it is short-sighted, and will cost Arizona’s taxpayers a great deal more in the long run than $2 billion.
John Mackey, co-CEO of the upmarket supermarket Whole Foods, found himself in more hot water than a batch of organic quinoa when he used the F-word to describe Obamacare. In an interview with NPR, Mackey was asked about a 2009 article in which he called the Affordable Care Act socialist. Mackey took the opportunity to revise and extend, saying that, in fact, Obamacare is more fascist than socialist. “Socialism is where the government owns the means of production,” said Mackey. “In fascism, the government doesn’t own the means of production, but they do control it, and that’s what’s happening with our health-care programs and these reforms.” One might quibble with Mackey’s diction. “Corporatism” and “syndicalism,” for instance, both capture the way in which whole sectors have colluded with the state to control the health-care market, and neither conjures the Nazi associations that “fascism” does. Regardless, there is much to justify Mackey’s distinction, and it is unreasonable that he was so quickly compelled to apologize for making it — not least because many of those who took umbrage are of the sort who casually compare their political opponents to the fascisti, and with far less warrant.
A number of large U.S. mortgage lenders have agreed to make $3.3 billion in direct payments to homeowners who lost their houses through improper foreclosure processes, and another $5.2 billion of restitution in the form of loan modifications. That comes on top of the $10 billion that Bank of America has agreed to pay to mitigate the misdeeds of Countrywide (which it acquired), and the $25 billion the banks agreed to pay as part of a settlement with 49 states. Whether the banks are getting off too easy in dollar terms is open to argument, though the fact that these payments will be treated as a tax-deductible business expense has raised the ire of men as different as Chuck Grassley and Sherrod Brown, and it is indeed unseemly that the cost of violating the law should be treated as an ordinary business expense. There has been a great deal of misconduct in the mortgage-lending business, up to and including criminal fraud, on both sides of the transaction. Worse, the problems of improper or uncertain documentation in foreclosures remain unresolved. The Uniform Commercial Code contains rules that would simplify these matters, but those rules are not universally applied. While the billions that the banks have agreed to pay may satisfy the appetite for a pound of flesh, further investigation and further reform are called for, and these settlements should not be allowed to forestall them.
The presidential limousine has a new license plate that reads, “Taxation without Representation.” The change was made, President Obama’s spokesman told reporters, because the current arrangement is “patently unfair” to those who live in the nation’s capital. In keeping with his general commitment to fairness, the president is now set upon “the principle of full representation” and “voting rights” for the District of Columbia’s denizens. This all sounds rather nice, but the nation’s Founders would have disagreed as to its wisdom — as should all who understand America’s system of government. Washington, D.C., is a federal city, deliberately independent and explicitly set apart from the usual rules. In Federalist 43, James Madison explained that D.C.’s being discrete is an “indispensable necessity,” a means of ensuring that the capital’s host state does not exercise disproportionate influence over the government and undermine the basic principles of federalism. So we can see why Obama disagrees.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced in January that emergency rooms in New York City’s public hospitals would henceforth be prohibited from prescribing more than three days’ worth of certain painkillers to most patients and from dispensing other long-acting painkillers, such as OxyContin, at all. He cited a spike in prescription-drug abuse and deaths caused by overdoses in the city as justification for the move. When critics of the new regulations protested that doctors might be in a better position than the mayor to judge what drugs their patients need, and that many poor people who rely on emergency rooms for primary care could have conditions requiring more than three days of pain relief, the mayor was unmoved. “So you didn’t get enough painkillers and you did have to suffer a little bit. . . . Come on, this is a very big problem,” he said on his weekly radio show. He has finally found his political master principle: unnecessary pain.
We don’t win wars anymore. We don’t even end them. We simply exit, with handshakes all around. This was President Obama’s endgame in Iraq, and he is inclined to repeat it in Afghanistan. His administration is talking of pulling out all our troops in 2014, or leaving fewer than 10,000 — enough, perhaps, to undertake some counterterrorism operations, but not enough to give the Afghan army the support it still needs. When we left Iraq, it slid right into Iran’s orbit. In Afghanistan, our exit will create more breathing room for al-Qaeda and perhaps reignite a full-scale civil war. “A decade of war is now ending,” President Obama said in his second inaugural, a falsehood appropriately rendered without any hint of agency. He once portrayed Afghanistan as the good war; now it, too, is to become an afterthought.
Thrown up by the Arab Spring to be president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi was an unknown quantity. Though a lifelong member of the extremist Muslim Brotherhood, he had spent many years in the United States, and two of his children are American nationals. Optimists hoped the latter facts would overcome the former. It turns out, though, that in a video from 2010 Morsi urged Egyptians to nurse their children and grandchildren on hatred for Jews and Zionists, and in a television interview he went on to describe them as “the descendants of apes and pigs.” Since the slur is a quotation from the Koran, a Muslim Brother takes it literally, not metaphorically. Confronted, Morsi used the tried and tested excuse that his words had been taken out of context. When he spoke of Jews in this derogatory way, he explained as though it were self-evident, he meant only Zionists.
The recent Israeli general election had one clear result, namely that Prime Minister Benjamin (“Bibi” to all) Netanyahu won but at the same time lost. In a Knesset of 120 seats, he and his party, Likud, held 42 before the election. Contrary to almost everyone’s expectation, Likud slipped to 31, though it is still the largest party. The Israeli model of proportional representation condemns Bibi to complicated backstairs bargaining in order to form a coalition with the magic figure of 61 members. The Labor party won 15 seats but refuses in advance to join a Likud government. International criticism and the likelihood of war have marginalized the entire Left in Israel. Two new party leaders, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, have erupted with special dynamism on the scene. Both are rather unknown and untried political quantities, and it is astonishing that they would bring to a coalition 19 and 11 seats respectively. The former, a TV personality, campaigns to remove the privileges enjoyed by Orthodox Jews at the expense of the secular — for instance, rescinding the exemption from military service to which many of them are entitled. The latter took votes from Bibi by opposing a Palestinian state and would instead incorporate into Israel as much of the West Bank as is deemed necessary for security. It’s a tall order to reconcile Likud with one party well to its left and another well to its right. Cautiously, some of the soothsayers are already suggesting that a government of national unity is a real possibility and the best that the country could hope for in the circumstances.
Mali is home to a free-for-all struggle for power between a would-be president, the army, the Tuareg (Saharan nomads who want a breakaway state), and, most important to Western interests, various Islamist groups that come together under the acronym AQIM, or al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Taking over tracts of the country, Islamists introduced sharia law, complete with public floggings and executions. The French, former colonial rulers, have huge interests in nearby Mauritania, Niger, Chad, and Senegal. The famous Foreign Legion went in to sort out AQIM in a replay of Beau Geste. Whereupon an AQIM offshoot known as the Signed-in-Blood Battalion and about 40 strong attacked the huge natural-gas plant at In Amenas, a few miles on the Algerian side of the border with Libya. The leader of the AQIM Battalion, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, long wanted and under sentence of death for common crime as well as terrorism, praised the attack as “this blessed operation.” A high number of the 700 or so employees recruited from a dozen countries were held hostage. In the 1990s, the Algerian government fought a civil war with Islamists that cost as many as 200,000 lives, and at In Amenas it did not hesitate to deploy maximum force and ask questions later. By the time the shooting was over, the terrorists were all either dead or captured, but about 80 hostages had also been killed. The search is on for Belmokhtar, who left the fighting to his lieutenants. The French concede that they are at the start of a long war. They would welcome help from the United States and Britain, but will get only soft words.
To be an orphan in Russia under the rule of Vladimir Putin is about as bad a start in life as it was to be an orphan in Communist days. Too many orphans, not enough families willing to adopt — that’s a constant. There were never many Americans offering to adopt, but quite a number of them took disabled children. Recent Russian legislation, though not actually ruling out adoption of Russian children by Americans, uses the bureaucracy and courts to make it nearly impossible. The U.S. Agency for International Development was suddenly kicked out. Radio Liberty in Moscow is no longer allowed to broadcast. Many of these moves are a protest against the Magnitsky Act, passed by the U.S. to fight Russian corruption. The Russian government is making a show of its fearsome power, or at least deploying it against orphans.
Liu Yi, an artist in Beijing, could paint any number of subjects: flowers, landscapes, buildings. None of them would land him in trouble. But he has chosen to paint portraits of the 100 or so Tibetans who have immolated themselves in protest of China’s death grip on that nation. Liu says he can do no other: It is his way of bearing witness to this injustice. Such courage — a reckless courage, given what the Chinese Communist Party does to dissenters — may be hard to understand, but it’s admirable all the same. “When I’m painting them, I always feel that I am receiving blessings,” says Liu. “These people are not attacking other people, they are completely sacrificing themselves.”
Bob (not his real name) was, by all accounts, a model computer programmer. But Bob was both more enterprising and less diligent than his employers imagined, as they discovered when an investigation last year into what they assumed was a security breach revealed that Bob was in fact outsourcing his job to someone in China for a fifth of his six-figure salary. His browsing history, posted online by the Verizon security team that conducted the investigation, revealed a typical day at the office: “9:00 a.m. Arrive and surf Reddit for a couple of hours. Watch cat videos. 11:30 a.m. Take lunch. 1:00 p.m. Ebay time. 2:00 p.m. Facebook updates/LinkedIn. 4:30 p.m. End of day update e-mail to management. 5:00 p.m. Go home.” Though he had received several excellent performance reviews for his clean, timely, and well-written code, Bob’s employment was terminated.
Yankee Stay Home
‘Some of the southern areas have cultures that we have to overcome.”
That was Representative Charlie Rangel the other day on MSNBC, setting off a small brouhaha. He wasn’t playing the usual liberal game of talking about the South as if its racial policies hadn’t changed since 1952 — or 1852, for that matter. No, he was talking about guns. Rangel believes that Southerners are still backward — about guns, of course.
You’d think the longtime representative from Harlem, of all places, would be a little more circumspect about so cavalierly generalizing about the shortcomings of a specific region. On second thought, maybe you wouldn’t.
Regardless, the reason I bring this up isn’t to defend the honor of the South, even though I’d be perfectly happy to do so if asked. Anti-southern bigotry is one of the last remaining fashionable forms of prejudice in America. Nor is it to note that many of the northeastern areas have cultures that could profit from taking a nice, long personal inventory.
Rather, I’d just ask the reader to make a mental note of this story and remember it the next time you hear about how the Right always tries to “impose” its values on the rest of the country.
This is the great myth of American politics. The conservative coalition as we know it today was, in almost every respect, an antibody response to the Left’s initiation and successful prosecution of the culture war. From abortion to gun rights to religious liberty, the Right has been fighting against the self-proclaimed “forces of change.”
And let’s be fair: The forces of change were on occasion fighting good fights. Starting a fight doesn’t always make you the bad guy. Even if you want to fault the Left’s initiative or its credit-taking on civil rights, feminism, gays, etc., the simple fact is that the Left acknowledges that it’s the aggressor in the culture war whenever it feels boastful about itself. President Obama’s line about Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall in his second inaugural address illustrated this point nicely. So did his promise to “fundamentally transform America.”
This is hardly a new point, but what’s interesting to me is how certain regional cultures in America can’t mind their own business. It’s not just the Northeast and the West Coast. Historically the cheese curd–and–beer regions of the upper Midwest may have been disproportionately isolationist in foreign policy, but in domestic policy they certainly didn’t keep their schemes to themselves. Obviously progressivism, an ideology that recognizes no legitimate constraints on, or barriers to, its vision for society, is a big part of that story. But culture matters too. For instance, New York and, in particular, New England were founded by busybody stock, and that culture has grown beyond the mere boundaries of genetic lineage. And culture has consequences, which may explain why the West and East Coasts are in such bad fiscal shape (to their credit, the cheese-curders have embraced conservative reform). Meanwhile, Texas, founded by people more well-disposed to individual liberty, is doing much better.
Speaking of Texas, Republican congressman Ted Poe, responding to Rangel, said, “In Texas, we have the freedom to legally own guns and drink Big Gulps. Frankly, we don’t really care how you do it up North.” Just so. And that might also explain why so many from up North — and out West — are moving to Texas.
If you’re the quarterback of a championship team, you can date the prettiest girl in the state. This is the happy position of A. J. McCarron, quarterback of the national champion Alabama Crimson Tide, whose girlfriend — Miss Alabama, Katherine Webb — is strikingly beautiful even by Alabama’s stringent standards. While broadcasting the BCS championship, Brent Musburger made a couple of appreciative but innocuous remarks on her pulchritude, which inspired a penitent statement from ESPN: “We apologize that the commentary in this instance went too far and Brent understands that.” The supposed offense here is unclear. Being judged on the basis of one’s looks is what being a beauty-pageant contestant is all about, and the indignities that contestants put up with — crash dieting, glue and duct tape in uncomfortable places, being expected to know which countries are on which continent — far outstrip the occasional clumsy compliment from an aging sportscaster. But if Musburger wants to be on the safe side next time, instead of complimenting a beauty queen on her looks, he can instead earn universal acclaim by asking about her position on same-sex marriage.
It’s hard to believe, but we live in a universe where Archie Comics is more progressive than Star Wars: Archie has had gay characters for several years now, while Star Wars is just introducing them. In an update due this spring, the computer game Star Wars: The Old Republic will include a planet populated by homosexuals (no, it’s not the same one that Superman is from). This would seem a sure recipe for demographic decline unless, like the island dwellers who survived by taking in one another’s washing, they adopt one another’s children. In any case, a critic points out that “there were no LGBT characters in any of the Star Wars movies.” (C-3PO was just sensitive.)
In a rare attack of common sense, the U.K.’s speech police have decided that it is not a hate crime to make homophobic remarks to animals. One case that gave rise to this decision occurred when an Oxford student asked a policeman, “Do you realize that your horse is gay?” For this hate-filled diatribe he was jailed and fined £80, which he refused to pay. More recently, a teenager in Newcastle was fined £50 plus £150 in costs for saying “Woof” to a police dog. One might think this is about all you can say to a dog, if you want to start a conversation at least, but the word “woof” turns out to have a slang meaning suggesting doubts about the animal’s sexual preferences. These episodes, which exhibit the British constabulary’s lack of humor in all its glory, inspired the House of Lords to suggest an amendment legalizing speech that is “insulting” but not “abusive,” which the government accepted. So if you were wondering what the House of Lords’ job is, there’s your answer. Makes the whole Magna Carta thing seem worthwhile, doesn’t it?
Dogs are known for being faithful to their masters, but a German shepherd named Ciccio, of Brindisi, Italy, exhibits a different sort of faith by attending Mass every day, a regularity that would shame most humans (especially in Europe). Ciccio used to go to church with his owner, and since her death, in a display of Pavlovian piety, he returns there every day when he hears the bells ring, supposedly hoping to see her again. We will not speculate on where Ciccio’s devotion (which might be called Fidoism) will lead; but the purity and simplicity of his faith can perhaps hold a lesson for many human believers.
Abel Mutai, the bronze medalist in the steeplechase at the 2012 Olympics, took a comfortable lead in a cross-country race last fall in Burlada, Spain, but stopped short of the finish line by about ten yards. Then Iván Fernández Anaya, running second, caught him — almost. He, too, stopped short when he saw that Mutai had mistakenly assumed he’d crossed the line and won the race. Not speaking any of the languages of Kenya, Fernández Anaya resorted to hand gestures to direct to the finish line the athlete he considered the “rightful winner,” as he described Mutai afterward. “I didn’t deserve to win it,” he said. “I did what I had to do.” As news of his remarkable conduct has spread, the acclaim showered on him by sports fans worldwide has grown. The high-fives to him on Twitter continue to stream in. His coach said he wasted an opportunity, but many more competitions likely await the 24-year-old distance runner. What may never come his way again is the opportunity to demonstrate such magnanimity. Fernández Anaya gives new meaning to the expression “moral victory.”
Lance Armstrong has had a dramatic life. He survived cancer to win the Tour de France seven times — seven times in a row. He set up a foundation, Livestrong, to help those affected by cancer. Throughout his cycling career, he “doped,” which is to say, used illegal, performance-enhancing drugs. And all the while, he lied about it, hotly and viciously. He lied to friends and associates. He lied to reporters on and off the record. He lied with a fiery, self-righteous, Clintonian conviction. He hounded, harassed, and slandered those who told the truth, and sued them, and sometimes won. Finally, when organized cycling had left no doubt of his guilt, he partially confessed, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey. He did it in his accustomed style: self-righteous, rationalizing, Clintonian. Armstrong is 41 years old, and has plenty more living to do. There will be no cycling glory, but he can live better, and we hope and trust he will.
That politicians do not cease to be self-interested upon taking public office is hardly an original insight — Plato knew as much — but James M. Buchanan made a science out of it, and in the course of his life’s work changed our understanding of the nature of the political enterprise. Working with his longtime colleague Gordon Tullock, Buchanan established what is today known as public-choice theory, the key insight of which is that individuals in the public sector respond to self-interested incentives in much the same way that individuals working in markets do — “politics without romance,” Buchanan called it. He helped make the mysterious failings of politics a good deal less mysterious. His work led both to technical economic insights and to a broader understanding of the real forces at work in political institutions. Buchanan was no stranger to the operations of the state: His grandfather was a governor of Tennessee in the 1890s, and he himself served on Admiral Nimitz’s staff during World War II. He was a champion of strong constitutional limits on government and a lifelong skeptic of political ideology. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 1986 and was a major force in making the George Mason University economics department a center of innovative thought. Dead at 93. R.I.P.
Numbers never tell the whole story, but in baseball they’re the place to begin. Over the course of his 22-year career, Stan Musial won seven batting titles, appeared in four World Series, and contributed to three world championships for the Cardinals, the only team he ever played for. He shines even brighter in the light of various statistical metrics that have been developed since his retirement in 1963. In career total bases, Musial ranks second, behind Henry Aaron; in runs created, third — one place behind Babe Ruth, and one ahead of Aaron. Baseball cognoscenti are quick to emphasize Musial’s rightful place in such elevated company, although average fans outside St. Louis need constant reminder. In ESPN.com’s list of the most underrated athletes in the history of sports, he’s No. 1. A gentleman, he was never ejected from a game and is said to have never ignored a fan’s request for an autograph. He was a model of civility when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball in the 1940s. “Stan Musial is the nicest man I ever met in baseball,” his teammate Bob Gibson said, expressing a sentiment echoed by many over the years. Musial proved Leo Durocher wrong. Dead at 92. R.I.P.
Pauline Phillips (Abigail Van Buren to you) was in her heyday one of the most widely read women in the world. The other, Eppie Lederer (a.k.a. Ann Landers), was her twin sister. We don’t know what it was in the water of Sioux City, Iowa, but it turned two daughters of Russian Jewish immigrants into international advice mavens. Pauline assembled her nom de plume from the Bible (“Blessed be thy advice,” says David to Abigail, 1 Samuel 25:33) and the eighth president. “Dear Abby,” the column she began writing in 1956, was a pint-sized dose of good sense and mild voyeurism (people do that?), all leavened by her wit. She did not lead any of the great, mostly damaging social changes of the Sixties, but generally followed them at a discreet distance. As the millennium drew down she relinquished her responsibilities to a daughter, who continues the column. Dead at 94. R.I.P.
The President’s Gun Fetish
President Obama has initiated 23 executive actions related to gun control, ranging from the unobjectionable to the trivial. He has also called on Congress to enact intrusive and possibly unconstitutional new restrictions on the right of Americans to keep and bear arms.
Before the substance, a note on style: The president announced his new measures encircled by beaming children, and read from letters written to him — spontaneously, we are sure — by various tots. “I feel terrible for the parents who lost their children,” the president read. “I love my country and I want everyone to be happy and safe.” As opposed to those meanies on the other side who don’t feel terrible about slaughtered children, who don’t love their country, and who don’t want everybody happy and safe. The president then ratified the dignity of the moment by high-fiving the child. This is grotesque theater, a shameful spectacle and an act of child exploitation that should repulse all decent people. President Obama has done a great many embarrassing and distasteful things in his day, but this ranks high among them. Barack Obama likes to compare himself to Abraham Lincoln, but he conducts himself like P. T. Barnum.
The substance of the president’s executive actions included some fairly tangential and trivial things: The acting head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is to be made its permanent head: Bold move, Mr. President. Providing law-enforcement agencies with better training to handle live-shooter situations is a fine idea. Directing the Centers for Disease Control to engage in gun-death research conflates crime and contagion, and is a naked attempt to subvert federal laws barring the CDC from engaging in gun-control advocacy. Which is to say, this is mostly routine business and shallow politics.
Asking Congress to renew the ban on so-called assault weapons and to ban magazines capable of holding more than ten rounds will do very little to prevent gun deaths. Two-thirds of the gun deaths in the United States each year are suicides, for which a single-shot weapon usually will suffice. Accidents account for another portion. A great deal of attention has been paid to guns sold at gun shows, at which private parties (as opposed to licensed firearms dealers) conduct exchanges that do not always involve background checks. (Some gun shows require background checks and make resources available to conduct them.) According to the Department of Justice, less than 1 percent of the guns used in crimes were purchased at gun shows: another triviality masquerading as a major issue. Likewise, while “assault rifles” give liberals the willies, rifles as a category — not just the scary-looking ones, but all rifles — are used in a small minority of gun-related crimes. And guns categorically are used in fewer crimes than you might imagine: There is no gun present in one out of three homicides, in four out of five aggravated assaults, and in the majority of robberies, according to National Institute of Justice figures.
Background checks are reasonable, though making them universally mandatory at the federal level, as President Obama proposes, would involve massive practical hurdles. But more background checks will neither prevent another Sandy Hook — those guns were legally owned by Adam Lanza’s mother, who passed the relevant background checks — nor prevent the most common kind of violent crimes involving guns, which are in the main perpetrated by people who do not come by their guns legally. A ban on high-capacity magazines would not have enabled a roomful of first-graders to stop Adam Lanza from reloading. We do not suffer from a dearth of gun-related statutes on the books.
Incidents such as Sandy Hook and Columbine are akin to acts of terrorism: Far from fearing the possibility of being caught and punished for their crimes, the perpetrators seek notoriety — or death, or both. It is very difficult for conventional law-enforcement measures to prevent crimes when the perpetrators have no fear of punishment. The scarcity in these situations is not of gun-control laws but of the political will and moral clarity to treat people with serious mental illness. Not every mass shooting could have been foreseen, but many could have.
Murderers will always be with us — like usury, murder is ancient enough to have an Old Testament prohibition against it, and therefore is a permanent feature of the human condition. But the political spotlight remains on the relatively unimportant question of “assault weapons,” leaving President Obama and the Democrats in the position of the drunk looking for his car keys under the streetlamp not because he lost them there but because that’s where the light is good.
The Middle of the Journey
The crowds were smaller for Barack Obama’s second inauguration, and the buzz softer. No one is likely, in this term, to compare him, as Evan Thomas did during his first, to God.
Still, Barack Obama is the first Democrat to win more than half the popular vote twice since FDR. He killed Osama bin Laden, passed national health care, and made “trillion” an everyday word — all considerable feats. What lies ahead for him?
Obama ended America’s role in Iraq and is ending it in Afghanistan. Yet Islamic radicalism still stalks the world. Obama wants to talk down the Iranians and work with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and he hopes for the best in North Africa. The murder of Ambassador Stevens at the end of his first term and eruptions of al-Qaeda in Algeria and Mali pose early threats to this strategy; time will tell how Iran’s arms race and empowered radicalism in Egypt turn out.
Unemployment still lingers at 2009 levels. Obama’s stimulus was a load of pork.
Like the cavalry in the third reel, American and Canadian oil and natural-gas production could save everything, though Obama’s green instincts work against his self-interest in reaping the benefits.
Obama’s inaugural address threw out bait for the base. He pushed for same-sex marriage (“the love we commit to one another must be equal”), gun control (invoking Newtown), and “sustainable energy” (invoking “the overwhelming judgment of science”).
More important than these policy details was the framework of his speech, which sought to advance the century-old progressive project of conflating liberty with positive liberty. The first is freedom from force, oppression, and corruption; the second is fulfillment through common action. The first is God-granted; the second is orchestrated by the state. Obama equated the struggle for emancipation with building railroads and highways, regulating the economy (“rules to ensure competition and fair play”), and maintaining the safety net. He seemed never to have heard of the entitlement bulge that threatens our solvency. Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, he said, “strengthen us.” No prospect for reform there, unless events drag him into it.
An aesthetic note: Can we abandon the notion that this man is a great orator? An early echo of Lincoln’s second inaugural was particularly jarring. Instead of Lincoln’s poetry, Jefferson’s clarity, or Reagan’s warmth, he handed us a hefty bag of talking points, many of them smelly.
Second terms are almost all unhappy. Fortune is guaranteed to hand the president unpleasant surprises. But he remains an attractive figure with serviceable political instincts. He has taken America far down his path — the wrong path. Resisting and rolling him back will require principle, savvy, and determination.
An Enduring Wrong
The New York Times got the story wrong from the very beginning. “The Supreme Court overruled today all state laws that prohibit or restrict a woman’s right to obtain an abortion during her first three months of pregnancy,” its front page reported on January 23, 1973. “The vote was 7–2,” the Times continued. “In a historic resolution of a fiercely controversial issue, the Court drafted a new set of national guidelines that will result in broadly liberalized abortion laws in 46 states but will not abolish restrictions altogether.”
What the Supreme Court had actually done, through the combined effect of Roe v. Wade and its companion case, Doe v. Bolton, was make abortion legal at any stage of pregnancy for any reason, which is a considerably more liberal policy than that encoded in the law of any state or supported by public opinion then or now. The next day the Times ran an editorial that repeated both the three-months spin and the news story’s implicit prediction: “The Court’s verdict on abortion provides a sound foundation for a final and reasonable resolution of a debate that has divided America too long.”
Nineteen years after Roe, the Court confronted its frustrating failure to resolve the issue in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The Court explained that when it makes a ruling like Roe, it “calls the contending sides of a national controversy to end their national division.”
Yet still the controversy endures. No matter how many times pro-lifers have been authoritatively invited to put down their placards and accept the slaughter of innocent unborn children as one of our founding ideals, they have refused — sometimes patiently and politely, sometimes angrily, always firmly.
Now 40 years have passed since Roe, and nobody pretends that our division is ending. Time just ran a cover story declaring that “abortion-rights activists” have “been losing ever since” 1973. Nearly half of Americans think of themselves as pro-life, often a larger percentage than considers itself “pro-choice.” State governments are passing what protections for unborn children they can, given the Court’s hostility. The number of abortions has been dropping, if slowly, for years.
Pro-lifers are not winning: The suggestion is obscene. Nearly 56 million human beings have been killed in the womb since Roe, a toll that rises another million each year. The pro-life movement’s achievement is a witness, not a victory. We have maintained resistance to an injustice rather than vanquished it.
But neither have we suffered a final defeat, nor will we so long as Americans remain who are willing to stand for the country’s true founding principle: that all men are created equal by their Creator; that all of them have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, whatever their creed or station, their race or their place, their might or their weakness. The Supreme Court has been a formidable enemy of this principle for much of our history. It struck down laws against slavery in an attempt to settle that issue and call the contending sides to end a national division. It blocked congressional attempts to protect civil rights following the Civil War. Pro-lifers who are tempted to despair should remember that Plessy v. Ferguson was on the books for even longer than Roe has been.
Roe has always been bad constitutional law, something that even honest supporters of the abortion license admitted they could not plausibly find in the Constitution. The Casey Court that portentously affirmed Roe studiously avoided saying that it follows from the Constitution. Abortion itself seems to inspire the same kind of bobbing and weaving. (Imagine an NRA that committed itself to the absolute defense of “the right to own” but could not bear to give its verb an object.)
Over on the other side of the debate, we labor under no such handicaps. We know that whether we will live to see victory over abortion is not in our hands. We also know that standing for truth, for mercy, and for justice is always within our power, and so we will keep doing it for as long as the evil endures.