Maybe Kim Jong Un’s uncle tried to talk to him about Obamacare over Thanksgiving.
Supporters of Obamacare decided to start saying that the website is now basically working, never mind its inability to communicate information reliably to insurers. Then the administration announced that it is asking insurers to accept payment after the start of the year for coverage starting January 1, to treat out-of-network doctors as in-network, and to keep covering prescriptions under people’s old plans even if the new ones do not cover them. The administration hinted that insurers who comply will be more likely to keep being allowed to sell insurance on Obamacare’s exchanges. The insurers are committed to this law and its promise of new, coerced customers, but their calculations may change if the administration keeps pushing them to take either losses or blame. Meanwhile the poll numbers on the law, and the president, keep dropping. The president told Chris Matthews that the law’s difficulties do not reflect problems in his “personal management style” but rather the flaws of government agencies, “some of which are not designed properly.” But why choose between those explanations? Whatever else the new year brings, it will not bring an end to the lawlessness and dysfunction of Obamacare.
Time made Pope Francis its “person of the year,” a savvy marketing choice. A slideshow about the contenders on its website described him as having “rejected church dogma” and thus won hearts. He has done no such thing, although the wish of his journalistic fans that he would is palpable. He has, however, heartened the Left with the recent remarks about economics contained in his apostolic exhortation. There is much more to that document than his attacks on “trickle-down economics” and economic inequality, but they are predictably what got the headlines. In the pope’s view, inequality is rising and therefore so is violence. On the global scale, actually, both are falling. Accused of “Marxism” as a result of his rhetoric, the pope replied that he rejected Marxism but is not offended by the claim because he has known Marxists who were good people. We are not offended by his remarks, either, since we have never known anyone who advocates “trickle-down economics.” We do hope Francis widens his circle of acquaintances to include advocates of actual markets.
“There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people,” said Barack Obama at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. As well he knew, having just shaken hands with Cuban president Raúl Castro on his way to the podium. Fact checkers were quick to note that this was not a presidential first: Bill Clinton had shaken Fidel Castro’s hand in 2000. That opened the doors of the Castro-family island prison, didn’t it? If there were any sign that the administration was pursuing a successful carrot-and-stick strategy with Cuba, then shaking the hand of even an anti-American despot might have some point. But when the administration’s foreign policy consists of sweeping statements, no follow-through, floating with the tide, and random left-wing impulses, better for the president to keep his hands to himself.
It was the selfie seen round the world: Barack Obama, Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, and British prime minister David Cameron, caught by an Agence France-Presse photographer as they took a shot of themselves at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. Their insouciance, like that of girls at the mall, sparked some grumbling; it was ironic that it should have been caught on camera. Live by the selfie, die by the snap. But the deed was done two hours into a four-hour ceremony. Maybe the statesmen and -woman recognized that even Mandela’s exequies had gone on long enough. Maybe the South Africans themselves recognized it: The tone of the affair was celebratory. Is it possible for leaders to live in the panopticon of meta? Is it possible for ordinary folk? Maybe Nelson Mandela checked out none too soon.
The U.S. is preparing to return to negotiations with Iran, in the hopes of reaching a long-term agreement over that country’s nuclear program. In November, the parties reached an interim deal that grants Iran significant relief from international sanctions in exchange for largely symbolic restrictions on its nuclear work. A number of U.S. senators are considering proposing the imposition of new sanctions on Iran if it violates the existing deal, or if no final deal is reached within the six-month negotiating period. The Obama administration has held off this possibility by persuading Democratic senators that such a measure would drive the Iranians away from the bargaining table (Iranian officials have said as much, too). If enforcing the terms of a weak existing bargain would imperil negotiations, that is as good a sign as any that, for now, negotiations are not worth holding at all.
When they voted to end the filibuster for most presidential appointments, Senate Democrats claimed they were only trying to end a procedural abuse and get middle-of-the-road nominees confirmed. Among the first nominees they have used their new power to confirm is Nina Pillard, who will now be a judge on the powerful D.C. Circuit. Pillard took a view of religious freedom that the Supreme Court unanimously rejected as too narrow in a case last year. She has argued that courts should use the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to determine whether schools’ sex-ed curricula are sufficiently progressive. Some middle-of-the-roader. At the same time, Democrats have abandoned the longstanding practice of advancing Republican and Democratic nominations to bipartisan boards together. Without the filibuster, Republicans have no power to insist on that practice. The next Senate elections cannot come soon enough.
The American Civil Liberties Union has apparently decided that religious freedom is not a civil liberty. It is seeking through litigation to force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions. This is not a case about the legality of abortion or the regulation of abortion, but simply about the right of those who object to the procedure to decline to perform it. Simple-minded types on the pro-abortion side used to say mockingly: “If you don’t like abortion, don’t have one.” Surely they’d extend the courtesy to “don’t perform one” as well? Not if the ACLU has its way.
Jack Phillips is on his way to becoming a political prisoner in Colorado, an occupational hazard more often associated with human-rights campaigners and democracy activists than with men in his occupation: He is a baker. Phillips was asked to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding, and he declined, as such ceremonies run strongly contrary to his religious beliefs. But as with the ACLU and abortions in Catholic hospitals, the Left does not in fact value the “diversity” it is always going on about: It demands homogeneity. The two men took Phillips to court, where he was ordered to bake them a cake — and if he refuses, he is to be fined. If gay Americans really want a live-and-let-live regime, then they should look to their self-appointed leaders, who are making that impossible.
The first anniversary of the horrific massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School has now come and gone. Predictably, the event was marked by political posturing and willful dishonesty — and, too, by the scurrilous insinuation that Congress failed to demonstrate the requisite “courage” when, in April, it refused to pass new legislation (which wouldn’t have prevented a Sandy Hook–type shooting anyway). In fact, legislators made the right call. As reality and calm have intruded upon emotion and ignorance, support for new regulations has plummeted. Back in January, 37 percent of Americans strongly favored new gun laws, while 27 percent were opposed. Now, the numbers are equal. Moreover, as Gallup’s review of which issues are important to voters shows, gun control barely figures on most people’s list of priorities. The bottom line: Over the past few decades, Americans have been broadly convinced that a lack of gun control is not the problem.
President Obama has an Uncle Omar, who has lived for many years in the Boston area. Two years ago, he was arrested for drunk driving, which meant he faced deportation back to Kenya. At the time, White House officials said that the president had never met his uncle. That recently changed, however, when Omar Obama said in a deportation hearing that his nephew had lived with him for a few weeks. This was just before the future president began law school at Harvard. They stayed in touch for a period thereafter as well. Jay Carney, the presidential press secretary, admitted that all this was true. So why the denials in 2011? “Back when this arose,” said Carney, “folks looked at the record, including the president’s book, and there was no evidence that they had met.” (The press secretary seems to have adopted his boss’s annoying habit of using “folks.”) After Omar Obama’s most recent testimony, Carney decided to take up the issue with the president himself. There is no great scandal here. But the ongoing mystique and delicacy about this president’s past are absurd.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) is best known nowadays for having given American guns to Mexican drug cartels without having worked out a reason for doing so. A Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel study, released in December, demonstrates that such behavior is par for the course, showing as it does that the ATF does not so much fight known and real threats to public safety as it seeks to manufacture crime — and, too, that it has no moral qualms about how it does so. Among the bizarre tactics that agents have recently employed are the use of mentally disabled Americans to unwittingly broker crimes, the establishment of operations in supposedly gun-free zones such as schools and churches, and the provision of alcohol, drugs, and sexual invitations to minors. In all cases, the schemes were conducted on the off-chance that someone might be caught. When no one was, agents improvised, sometimes going so far as to urge individuals to illegally buy or modify weapons and then arrest them when they complied. Their broader philosophical differences to one side, most Americans can presumably agree: Whatever the federal government is for, it is certainly not this.
The Obama administration, which talks a great deal about the “investments” it wants to make on behalf of the nation, has sold the last of its shares in General Motors, at a loss of $10.5 billion — or a return of negative 21 percent. Put another way, that’s a loss of $136,363 for every GM employee in the United States. The GM bailout was a mess from the beginning, violating longstanding principles of bankruptcy law regarding the treatment of secured creditors and the treatment of asset sales in order to line the pockets of the president’s union supporters. The company’s shares have been stagnant, their value today roughly what it was in early 2011, and it employs fewer than half as many people as it did in 2001. It is in the news of late mainly because of the sex of its new CEO. It is well that the government is no longer in the business of being part owner of an automobile company, but the episode suggests very strongly that such “investments” are losers — because they are not really investments: They’re subsidies for politically connected business interests.
The so-called Volcker Rule, the centerpiece of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act, will soon come into full effect, preventing banks from engaging in many kinds of “proprietary trading” — investing their own money rather than their customers’ funds. This is yet another non-solution to the underlying problems that produced the 2008–09 financial crisis. Proprietary trading was not a major factor in that episode, a fact acknowledged by, among others, Paul Volcker himself. We’ve seen this before: Wall Street critics have long argued for the return of the Glass-Steagall Act, which forbade commercial banks to participate in investment-banking operations. No less a foe of financiers than Elizabeth Warren has conceded that Glass-Steagall would not have prevented the financial crisis or such troubling subsequent events as JPMorgan’s $2 billion trading loss. Other liberal enthusiasms, such as limiting executives’ pay, are still further removed from addressing the real, enduring problems in the financial system. The fact is that we have a political class that does not really understand finance and yet is disproportionately dependent upon Wall Street for financial support and personnel, as the rotating cast of investment-banking characters in Obama’s White House demonstrates.
You Beast, You!
‘It’s trying to eat her face.”
That was my wife’s reaction to a credit-card ad showing a woman looking out the window of a tour bus in the Arctic at a polar bear, standing on its hind legs, its nose just inches below. Or at least I think it was a credit-card ad. It doesn’t really matter, because no matter what the product or the venue, if it features bears in a charming, friendly, or cartoonish light, the missus is quick to point out that bears eat faces.
When my daughter was three, we were watching a documentary in which someone is feeding grizzly cubs. My wife stumbles in like she caught me exposing my daughter to the director’s cut of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake (“Now with even more desensitizing violence!”). “What is this?” she asks.
“Oh Mommy. Look at the baby!” my daughter replies.
“It’s bear propaganda. It will grow up to eat your face.”
Now, as many readers know, my wife has somewhat special dispensation to complain about bears; she’s from Fairbanks, Alaska, where bears aren’t an abstraction (though they do stay out of the city proper). Every summer when I head up there, the local newspaper has at least a couple of stories about bear attacks, occasionally with face-eating.
This all came to mind after I read a piece by Ross Pomeroy for Real Clear Science. Pomeroy, a zoologist by training, took it upon himself to fact-check a new short film about the Coca-Cola polar bears directed by Ridley Scott. As gently as he can, Pomeroy details how virtually every single thing about the film is, as my wife would say, “bear propaganda.” Polar bears — particularly vicious carnivores — don’t live as nuclear families. The fathers spend about a week with the ladies for a “last tango in the Arctic” and then live solitary lives. The moms chase off the cubs once they’re old enough. Oh, one other thing about the dads: If the supply of adorable and delicious seals runs low, the grown males can get peckish and, when that happens, they’ve been known to eat polar-bear cubs.
Odd how that scene didn’t make it into the Coca-Cola cartoon.
Animals have the best PR teams in the world. There’s nary a Muppet, Disney, Looney Tunes, or Pixar critter whose real-life habits aren’t bizarre, disgusting, or barbaric by human standards. Even chimpanzees — so like us, you noble citizens of the forest! — are pretty horrifying once they grow out of their human diapers. This is a family publication, but suffice it to say that you men out there should count yourselves lucky if a chimp attacks you and merely eats your face.
It seems to me that bear propaganda — as well as monkey spin, bunny agitprop, lion lyin’, and pig puffery — has increased as humanity has come to like itself less. In the Middle Ages, animals were creatures to be feared. It’s only when humans become the bad guys that the animals become the good guys. The irony, of course, is that the only way we can sell wild animals as better than humans is by making them act like idealized humans in animal costumes. There’s something oddly touching about that.
America’s mental-health system is a failure, as the massacres perpetrated by deranged individuals in Newtown, Aurora, and elsewhere have made tragically clear. While 10 million people in America suffer from serious mental illness — including 200,000 on our streets, and 300,000 in our prisons — the federal government has in recent decades placed a higher priority on treating those with mild problems than on the worst cases. Representative Tim Murphy (R., Pa.), a psychologist, has introduced a bill that would finally begin to reverse this. The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act would focus federal funding on serious mental illness, rather than spread it across milder ailments, and empower families to seek treatment for those who cannot make such decisions for themselves. President Obama has boasted of allocating more funding for mental health; but spending more on a broken system, one in which Medicaid will not even pay for hospitalizing the mentally ill, will do little to fix the problem. Large parts of the federal government’s mental-health bureaucracy question whether serious mental illness is even an affliction that can be treated, instead of just a different way to order one’s mind. Deinstitutionalization and the rights revolution of the ’60s and ’70s distorted beyond recognition the federal government’s efforts to address mental health. Representative Murphy’s bill would be a big step back in the right direction.
New York City mayor-elect Bill de Blasio turned to the Giuliani era for his police commissioner: Bill Bratton, who had the job from 1994 to 1996. Bratton was an apostle of tough, intelligent policing. The second adjective was as important as the first, as he got cops to track daily shifts in patterns of crime and think proactively. Bratton had the support of Rudy Giuliani, the mayor who hired him, until their big egos drove them asunder. This time around, Bratton will need all his patience and cunning to lead his force, to please Mayor de Blasio, and to stroke the city’s race hustlers sufficiently to ensure their acquiescence. For de Blasio to tap such a man shows that he knows the city’s safety is a vital achievement. Oremus.
When China declared control over the airspace of the East China Sea in late November, the U.S. Air Force’s decision to fly two B-52 bombers through the territory was a good start. But it was far from sufficient. All the countries surrounding the zone, and the U.S., have refused to recognize China’s demand that aircraft flying through the area identify themselves to the People’s Republic, but these are pro forma protests. Only Japan has told its airliners not to comply when traversing the area, while the U.S. has instructed pilots to submit. China’s claim is an act of hegemony that goes beyond what any other country asks of those traveling through its international airspace. The U.S. could have supported its allies and stood up for freedom of movement by regularly flying joint military patrols through the area, or even agreeing to escort civilian flights that refuse to identify themselves to the Chinese. It has not, so China’s brinkmanship will only continue. In the long term, ceding the Pacific as a sphere of influence to the Chinese will be a catastrophe for global security — especially if it coincides with ceding Eastern Europe to Russia, or the Middle East to Iran. China cannot dominate the region now, but if the U.S. does not increase its assertiveness and properly maintain its military might, that will change. Without a course correction, the supine posture we assumed in the wake of China’s latest power grab may become a permanent one.
Protesters have occupied Ukraine’s national square, the Maidan, for weeks now, despite the best efforts of that country’s thuggish president, Viktor Yanukovych, to remove them. They took to the streets to protest Yanukovych’s hostility toward a free-trade agreement with the European Union, and his increasing intimacy with Russia. They now have a new problem: Yanukovych went ahead and signed a pact with Moscow that provides $15 billion worth of government loans and years of discounted gas for eastern, Russophile Ukraine’s heavy industry. Bankrupt as “Europe” is, it or the IMF could have stepped in to provide the former. The question of whether Ukraine is to sign a trade deal with Russia or the West is still to be decided, and Europe must make every effort, and offer every financial, economic, and political guarantee, to persuade Yanukovych and his supporting cast of oligarchs to break with Putin. The crisis has shown as well as any the problems of trying to present a strong, common foreign policy on behalf of a number of disparate and timid actors. Which might leave the United State to intervene, and snatch Ukraine back from Putin’s growing influence. But for now, despite the importance of ensuring that Eastern Europe does not return to Russia’s orbit, the U.S. has been no more assertive than the EU, which should not be a hard hurdle to clear.
For speaking strong words in an interview published in the French edition of Rolling Stone magazine last year, Bob Dylan faces legal charges of committing “public injury” and “incitement to hatred.” He implied that Croats are to Serbs as Nazis are to Jews. Offended, a group representing Croats in France brought their case to the Paris Main Court, where Dylan will be tried on a date not yet determined. During World War II, hundreds of thousands of Serbs died at the hands of Croatia’s Nazi-supported Ustashe government. Most Croats living today were not yet born. Dylan imputed to them the sins of their fathers or, an even greater stretch, the sins of their neighbors’ fathers, perpetuating exactly the brand of nationalist stereotyping and bigotry that he meant to decry. Dylan was wrong, and Croats are right to say so. But they’re wrong to treat his error as a crime that the state is supposed to deal with.
For the past 15 months, Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini has been imprisoned in Iran — first at Tehran’s Evin Prison, now at the deadly Rajai Shahr — for his involvement with Christian house churches. On December 12, his wife, Naghmeh Abedini, testified at a joint congressional subcommittee hearing: “My husband is suffering because he is a Christian. He’s suffering because he’s an American. . . . Yet his own government did not fight for him when his captors were across the table.” Although President Obama mentioned Pastor Abedini when he phoned Iranian president Hassan Rouhani in September, neither the pastor’s release nor that of other American captives in Iran was part of recent nuclear negotiations. “Each day he remains in that dreadful place could mean a death sentence,” Mrs. Abedini said. “Any day could be execution day.” Since his incarceration, Pastor Abedini has been threatened, robbed, subjected to psychological torture, and repeatedly commanded to convert to Islam. Malnourished and covered from head to toe in lice, he’s stood firm in the face of pain and pressure. If only his country would do likewise.
It is the totalitarian myth of Icarus: Some No. 2 or No. 3 rises too high for the comfort of No. 1, and is cast down. The history of the 20th century is full of examples: Ernst Röhm (destroyed by Hitler), Genrikh Yagoda and Nikolai Yezhov (by Stalin), Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao (by Mao). But this month the consummation was televised. Kim Jong Un’s uncle by marriage, 67-year-old Jang Song Thaek, was filmed being rudely seized under the arms at a meeting of North Korean top brass, then bowing under duress to inquisitors. Official press releases trumpeted his evils in the gibberish of despotic exorcism (“anti-state,” “human scum”). Execution followed swiftly. The dead man was thought to be Kim Jong Un’s mentor, and the regime’s liaison with China (either one reason enough for his removal in the realm of dog-eat-dog). Nameless ordinary North Koreans, if they had ever doubted it, know again that no one is safe in their country.
While the British media were exhausting the lexicon of superlatives for Nelson Mandela, finally likening him, on the BBC, to Jesus Christ, a Mr. Neil Phillips, a 44-year-old shopkeeper in rural Staffordshire, turned dyspeptic. He posted, “My PC takes so long to shut down I’ve decided to call it Nelson Mandela,” and also, “Free Mandela — switch the power off.” It is dangerous to make jokes, especially if they are tasteless. A Mr. Tim Jones, on the bottom rung of British politics as a member of the local council, complained. The police arrested Phillips and held him for eight hours, took fingerprints and DNA, and examined his computers. “Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour: England hath need of thee; she is a fen of stagnant waters.” Things have hardly changed since Wordsworth wrote those lines. Amid outcry, the section of the Public Order Act that gave rise to Mr. Phillips’s persecution is to be repealed this coming February. Unwittingly, Mandela’s last gift has been this bolstering of free speech.
Hunter Yelton, age six, had a crush on a girl in his school in Cañon City, Colo. In reading group one day, he leaned over and kissed her on the hand. He was promptly suspended for two days for “sexual harassment,” an offense to be entered on his record. Hunter’s mother, in an interview with a local news station, was incredulous: “How can you do this? How can you say this about my child?” The school superintendent explained that Hunter’s behavior met the definition of “unwelcome touching” under the district’s sexual-harassment policy, and furthermore, it was a repeat offense — he had previously been disciplined for kissing the girl on the cheek. After a few days of negative media coverage, the district agreed to downgrade his offense to “misconduct.” One news report noted that “no criminal charges have been brought against the first-grader.” How reassuring.
The issue of black quarterbacks has been touchy from time immemorial, or so it seems. When Doug Williams was the Super Bowl MVP at the end of the 1987 season, that was held to be an important milestone. All these years later, the touchiness continues. Williams quarterbacked the Washington Redskins, and so does “RG3,” or Robert Griffin III. Coach Mike Shanahan benched him, however, for poor play. This led a couple of ESPN commentators to suggest that the benching was racial. At this juncture, it ought to be possible for coaches to be coaches and quarterbacks to be quarterbacks without the specter of racism over their heads.
If a keen satirist were to roll all of modernity’s asinine cultural pathologies into one grand story, he might end up with the case of the arrested sock monkey. In early December, a woman at a TSA checkpoint inside a Missouri airport was pulled over by an agent after a toy monkey dressed as a cowboy was discovered in her hand luggage. The monkey, named “Rooster Monkburn” after the John Wayne character of the almost-same name, came with a tiny two-inch pistol in a fabric holster. This, authorities said, wouldn’t do: “This is a gun,” an agent told the woman. “If I held it up to your neck, you wouldn’t know if it was real or not.” The woman suggested that, not being blind, she would, in fact, be able to tell. But she declined to press the matter. “I understand she was doing her job,” the monkey’s owner informed local news, “but at some point doesn’t common sense prevail?” Alas, in a country in which children are routinely sent home from school for pointing pencils at one another while saying “Bang!” it would appear that the answer to this question is “No.”
A professional spends a career moving from gig to gig, and if he is talented and fortunate he can look back on two or three memorable achievements. In 1962 Peter O’Toole starred in Lawrence of Arabia, one of Hollywood’s last great epics, exciting, gorgeous, and serious. His own performance went over the top now and then (if you had been any prettier, Noël Coward famously told him, the movie would have been called Florence of Arabia). But no matter: When a film hits the sweet spot all its parts lift each other to greatness. Then in 1982, in My Favorite Year, he did a comic turn, wry and self-mocking, as a fading star, dimmed in the new glare of television. Time sends us all offstage, but to how many of us is it given to pre-enact our own exits, and with such good humor? Dead at 81. R.I.P.
A Disappointing Deal
A predictable consequence of Republicans’ losing a shutdown fight is exhaustion with spending fights. It’s what we saw in the 1990s, and the Ryan–Murray budget deal is, in part, a reaction to the GOP defeat of early October. Republican appropriators and defense hawks sick of the sequester felt empowered by the shutdown debacle, and Paul Ryan and the leadership are desperate to forestall yet another one.
Hence the House’s passage, by an overwhelming margin, of a disappointing deal. The agreement rolls back a portion of the sequester over the next two years in exchange for other spending cuts over the long term. The sequester is a blunt instrument that hits defense much too hard, but it had provided a rough-and-ready discipline on spending. If the deal passes, it means that there won’t be a third straight year of declining spending in 2014. The history of budgeting is that once budget caps are breached the first time, it becomes a habit. It is also a bad practice, as a general matter, to trade more spending in the short term, $65 billion over the next two years, for promised spending cuts in the long term. The deal supposedly reduces the deficit by $23 billion over ten years — in other words, by the 2020s, when the Obama years will be a distant memory.
The savings are gimmicky. The deal doesn’t raise income taxes, but it does raise taxes on airline flights. The spending reductions come from entitlements, but not any entitlement you are likely to have heard of. Supporters of the deal argue that it creates the precedent for replacing cuts to discretionary spending with cuts to entitlements, but that’s not a precedent that will mean anything to Democrats in the future.
The deal has some upside. It raises defense spending, as its Republican advocates say — although the need for this increase was created by the sequestration bargain they themselves struck with President Obama in 2011. It very modestly pares back the lavishness of future federal employees’ pensions and increases fees for federal subsidies for some companies’ pension plans. These changes will be written into law, and thus harder to reverse than discretionary spending cuts, which are revisited in each year’s budget. And it makes another shutdown much less likely, and therefore diminishes the chances of Republicans’ rescuing President Obama from various political problems of his own making, foremost among them his catastrophic health-care law.
At the moment, though, it is causing a bigger fight among Republicans than among Democrats, and both sides of that fight are losing perspective. The deal is not a sellout or a betrayal, as some of the critics say. It is also not “ridiculous” and a sign of bad faith for conservatives to oppose it, as Speaker of the House John Boehner said in a fit of pique. Perhaps the best that can be said for the deal is that it is much too small to justify such drama.
Unequal to the Task
“Economic inequality” is to be the great theme of the remainder of the Obama administration, the president announced in a speech that combined rank economic ignorance with shallow demagoguery. And the first item on Barack Obama’s new economic agenda is an increase in the federal minimum wage to $9, higher than the minimum wage in any state excepting Washington.
A higher minimum wage is a cruel sentence of unemployment for young and low-skilled workers, for whom the real minimum wage is $0.00 per hour. It is also a poor way to help poor people. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the last minimum-wage increase (to $7.25 per hour) would increase wages by some $11 billion in the subsequent year but only by $1.6 billion for poor families, meaning that it would cost $6.88 to provide $1 in economic gain to poor households. Some of that additional income no doubt flowed to families that are low-income but above the official poverty line, which is to the good, but many minimum-wage earners are nowhere near poor; rather, they are low-earning members of reasonably well-off households, including young people and parents working part-time. If our policy goal is to make work more rewarding for people at the lower end of the labor market, raising the minimum wage is a clumsy and inefficient instrument. Wage subsidies such as the Earned Income Tax Credit certainly have their problems as well, but they are economically less destructive, as are more straightforward measures such as the reduction of payroll taxes, which eat away at the wages of the poor disproportionately.
The main problem facing poor families is not a low minimum wage, but high unemployment. While the president likes to cite poorly understood income figures (which tell us little or nothing about the incomes of actual households at any given economic level, because the people who are in the top 20 percent or bottom 20 percent change from year to year and significantly from decade to decade), he ought to be looking instead at the data concerning household net worth and continuity of employment, which reveal problems connected tangentially at most with statutory wage floors.
In his minimum-wage speech, the president declared: “If you’re a progressive and you want to help the middle class and the working poor, you’ve still got to be concerned about competitiveness and productivity and business confidence that spurs private-sector investment.” This we agree with. Unhappily, though, the president has moved in the opposite direction, for instance making part-time workers more attractive than full-time employees through his expensive health-care mandate. And in the one key field in which the president enjoys almost full autonomy from Congress — regulatory reform — he has done nothing at all.
Raising the minimum wage is a symbolic project, the main point of which is to engage in cheap demagoguery when Republicans vote against it, as they will and as they should. There is much the president could be doing to help the working poor, from regulation to school reform, but he does little more than make the occasional misguided speech.
Nelson Mandela, R.I.P.
Among world leaders, Nelson Mandela had unmatched moral authority. When George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002, he said, “It is this moral stature that has made Nelson Mandela perhaps the most revered statesman of our time.” Bush could have done without the hedge-word “perhaps.” Mandela was by far the most revered statesman of our time. Every July 18 is Nelson Mandela Day. The United Nations declared it so, in 2009. Mandela was born on July 18, 1918. He has died at 95.
The reverence the world feels for him has to do, in part, with the nature of his adversary: the white, racist apartheid government of South Africa. A Havel or a Sharansky could not achieve equivalent stature: Hatred of their adversaries is far less universal. The United Nations would never declare a global Havel or Sharansky Day. In our time, white racism is held to be the greatest of all evils. And Mandela was a lion against it.
He was a founder of Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation — the military wing of the African National Congress. When he was apprehended, he narrowly escaped the death penalty. He was sentenced to life in prison, and he spent 27 years there. Because he advocated the armed struggle, he could not be counted a prisoner of conscience. He was imprisoned, not for what he thought or said or wrote, but for what he was doing. He never renounced violence. But in 1990, the government, led by F. W. de Klerk, released him anyway.
For the next few years, he and de Klerk engaged in painstaking negotiations. They ultimately worked out a transition to full, multiracial democracy — whereupon they won the Nobel Peace Prize. Accepting the award in Oslo, Mandela famously declared, “Let a new age dawn!”
It did, and Mandela’s inauguration on May 10, 1994, was one of the great political occasions of the age. Some 45 heads of state attended. Then Mandela rendered his greatest service: his presidency. This was a presidency of truth and reconciliation. South Africa could have gone the way of Zimbabwe, with the attendant thuggery, murder, and tyranny. Many feared it would, and not unreasonably. Instead, South Africa took a democratic path, however stony. And that was largely thanks to Nelson Mandela, who set a shining example.
Is there more to Mandela than his democratic greatness? Sadly, yes. During his long imprisonment, he was supported by some of the worst actors in the world: the Soviets, Qaddafi, Castro, Arafat, and so on. They did not support him because they were kindhearted, democratic gents; they supported him because they were at war with the “West,” of which the apartheid government was considered a part. It was only natural for Mandela to appreciate support wherever it came from, and whatever the motive. But it should also have been natural, especially after his release, to recognize that his supporters had their own political prisoners. And these prisoners were kept in infinitely worse conditions than those he had to endure.
He chose not to use his moral authority in behalf of these prisoners. That was one thing. But he used his moral authority to defend, hail, and perfume their jailers and torturers. He praised Qaddafi’s “commitment to the fight for peace and human rights in the world.” Of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, he said, “There’s one thing where that country stands out head and shoulders above the rest. That is in its love for human rights and liberty.” A word from Mandela, the most revered leader in the world, would have done a lot for the prisoners.
His moral sense could be horribly askew. He opposed the Iraq War, as many did, for various reasons. But he would admit no moral value at all in removing Saddam Hussein from power. “If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world,” he said, “it is the United States of America.”
Nelson Mandela, like many another great man, had blind spots and other defects. His selectivity where human rights were concerned was hard to fathom. But he certainly knew that apartheid was wrong. And the good he did, especially as president of the new South Africa, was enormous. The continent of Africa could do with more such leaders, and so could the world at large. His Nobel Peace Prize was richly deserved, and so is the gratitude of his country.