The get-together between President Obama and Pope Francis was a meeting of giants: One is held by his flock to be infallible, the other merely the Vicar of Christ.
Rand Paul appeared at Berkeley, the Colonial Williamsburg of campus radicalism, to condemn the NSA and offer measured praise of Edward Snowden (the intelligence community, he said, is “drunk with power, unrepentant and unwilling to relinquish power”). He was warmly received. Paul aims to show that libertarianism can appeal to audiences outside the GOP’s orbit, but he set himself an easy test: He did not try to sell the kids on repealing Obamacare, or defending gun rights and the right to life. Paul is trying to juggle the Tea Party, the GOP powers-that-be (he is friendly with fellow Kentuckian Mitch McConnell), and the supporters of his father, many of whom were left-wing anti-Americans. If he manages that, forget the White House, hire him for Cirque du Soleil.
When Chris Christie’s bridge-lane-closing scandal burst upon the world, the New Jersey governor asked Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, a prominent New York law firm, to review his conduct. A dozen lawyers, five of them former federal prosecutors, interviewed 70 people and combed through Christie’s e-mail and the iPhones and Blackberrys of his staff. Their conclusion: Christie had no knowledge of the scheme. This will not end the matter; the investigators did not interview the suspected perps, former aides Bridget Kelly and Bill Stepien, and David Wildstein, a Christie appointee to the Port Authority, who are keeping mum, presumably in hope of immunity. An investigation by the Democratic-run legislature hangs fire. Traffic report for the Christie campaign: Long detours still ahead.
The Federal Election Commission sent a letter in March to Senate majority leader Harry Reid to ask for details about more than $16,000 in funds his campaign had paid to a “Ryan Elisabeth” in 2013 for what were described only as “holiday gifts.” Reid reluctantly admitted to the press that Ryan Elisabeth Reid is his 23-year-old granddaughter. He said his campaign had purchased “thank-you gifts” for staff and supporters from her jewelry company, and though he insisted that he had complied with the law, he planned to reimburse his campaign because, he told a reporter, “I just wanted to avoid, and [pause] I’m just very fortunate I could write that check. . . . I’m not going to answer any — read my statement.” Some more digging into Reid’s campaign-finance reports revealed that the reimbursement check would need to be larger than initially anticipated: The senator’s campaign had paid his granddaughter at least $14,000 in 2012 as well. Ryan Reid is also the founder and artistic director of a Brooklyn-based theater company, which, oddly enough, lists various Nevada companies and Democratic donors as financial supporters. Their support for the arts is no doubt as disinterested as Harry Reid’s selection of a jewelry vendor.
Bruce Braley, a four-term Democratic congressman running for the Iowa U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Tom Harkin, told a roomful of supporters that if Republicans won the Senate this November the Judiciary Committee would be chaired by “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.” How many ways was this wrong? The “farmer” in question is Chuck Grassley, Iowa’s other senator, a popular six-termer. Braley was addressing trial lawyers (a demonizable interest group) in Corpus Christi, Texas (bad-mouthing home folk out of state). And Iowa, apart from a few cities and towns here and there, is essentially a checkerboard of farms. Braley apologized but the video is rolling around the Internet and GOP ads. Hint to Braley: Once the GOP primary is decided, don’t say of your Republican opponent that if he only got a pension he would sit in his log cabin with a jug of hard cider for the rest of his days.
President Obama proposed changes to the NSA’s controversial bulk collection of phone-usage “metadata” — subscriber numbers involved in a call plus its time and duration, but not the substance of communications. Though maligned by libertarians and the Left as snooping on calls, the NSA database does not even contain name and address information to identify subscribers; nor does it collect records on every call made in the country (it’s actually about 20 percent of them), because it omits cell-phone traffic — meaning it does not track people’s travel from place to place. Unlike the IRS harassment of conservative groups, a unilateral executive-branch project, the NSA program is governed by statute and monitored by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and Congress. In his familiar style, Obama said the program was legal and necessary to national security — but failed to defend it vigorously and decided it should both continue and change. His major alteration would have the phone companies, rather than the government, maintain the records. This will make the program less efficient, more expensive, and, ironically, more intrusive (phone companies do maintain cell-phone records), which is what happens when presidents prefer pandering to persuasion.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued its report, and, as usual, the rhetoric is dire while the numbers are mixed. If we take the IPCC’s math as gospel, then the likely costs of future global warming will amount to something between 0.2 percent and 2 percent of global economic output, while the cost of enforcing anti-warming policies would add up to about 4 percent. Those who seek aggressive anti-warming policies dispute that those figures can be meaningfully compared, and they have a point — but not the one they think. Both figures assume that policy changes will produce predictable atmospheric changes. The former figure compares a global-temperature increase of 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit with a no-warming scenario; the latter figure compares the economic costs of enacting stringent emissions controls with those of continuing the current policy; but neither accounts for the very likely possibility that policy changes in the developed world will have little or no impact on a global scenario that includes China and India, neither of which is likely to comply with an international agenda that will leave its citizens materially worse off, whatever agreements their leaders accept. While there is a robust and important debate about the science of global warming, policy does not proceed with mathematical inevitability from climate models, even very good ones. Modeling climate is science; modeling human behavior a century hence is omniscience.
Nearly four years into its experiment with the Common Core, Indiana became the first state to withdraw from the national standards that 45 other states and the District of Columbia have signed on to. Governor Mike Pence (R.) said decisions on education should be made at the state and local levels, and that academic standards in Indiana would be “written by Hoosiers, for Hoosiers.” The decision shows the worst fears of Common Core’s foes — that the program is a federal takeover — to be an exaggeration, since Indiana retained the ability to leave (as all states do). It also shows the basic unworkability of the idea of creating common national standards without a federal takeover. The education world appears set to spend the next several years doing nothing more productive than fighting over the implications of a paradox.
The Obama administration’s buried announcement that the Department of Commerce would be relinquishing oversight of the Internet was met at first with an alarming indifference. But a few voices are starting to ask a simple question: Why? First, former president Bill Clinton teamed up with Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, to express his fear that the measure would lead to foreign governments’ “cracking down on Internet freedom.” Then Senators Tim Scott (R., S.C.) and Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) joined the fray, announcing their intentions to make an issue of the plan in the Senate. Finally, six House Republicans introduced a bill that would subject any changes to congressional approval. Touting this legislation, Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) was defiant, telling reporters that “America shouldn’t surrender its leadership on the world stage to a ‘multistakeholder model’ that’s controlled by foreign governments.” The case for American leadership is a slam dunk and, in an election year that disfavors Democrats in red states, conservative proponents have nothing to lose from making it.
The Vatican and the White House had different takes on President Obama’s meeting with Pope Francis, the latter saying that the administration’s attack on religious liberty had been discussed and the former placing emphasis on their concord on issues of economic inequality. Charles Krauthammer had the best reaction, asking whom we were to believe, the pope or “the man who said, ‘If you like your plan, you can keep your plan’?” The Vatican’s statement was quite reminiscent of the one it released after Obama met with Pope Benedict XVI. If Obama expected anything different, he was misled by the press.
Leland Yee never seemed like the brightest politician in San Francisco, but the alleged antics that got the California state senator arrested by the FBI required a certain genius for stupidity. An FBI special agent representing a large team that worked for over a year affirms that, among other things, Yee openly discussed assisting in an illegal heavy-weapons deal between organized criminals and the Philippines’ Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Not only that, but the deal involved a man Yee knew to be both a repeat felon and a former snitch for the federal government. “People want to get whatever they want to get,” Yee told a federal undercover agent in February. “Do I care? No, I don’t care. People need certain things.” That’s a decidedly more laid-back view than Yee took less than a year earlier when he pushed wide-ranging bills in Sacramento to require micro-stamping, restrict magazine choice, and regulate private handling of legally owned weapons. Yee’s alleged dealings with storied Chinatown mobster Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow have earned him charges on multiple felonies. Yee has been suspended with pay from his $95,291-per-year state-senate seat, but seems certain to remain a public charge for some time to come.
The Washington Post’s Wonkblog site, the operation formerly run by liberal wunderkind Ezra Klein, has been letting its bias flow a little too freely recently. Case in point: Two environmental reporters devoted an entire piece to alleging that Charles and David Koch have more to gain than any big oil firm from the construction of the Keystone pipeline. Their source for this information was hazy data from a hysterical report by a left-wing group. In reality, as John Hinderaker of the blog Power Line pointed out, Keystone is irrelevant to the Kochs’ Canada holdings. Their U.S. refining operations, the brothers’ main business, would likely be harmed by the pipeline’s construction. No matter, the wonks responded: Hinderaker’s fisking is “strong evidence that issues surrounding the Koch brothers’ political and business interests will stir and inflame public debate in this election year. That’s why we wrote the piece.” By this logic, any baseless attack posing as reporting is legitimate as long as someone is moved to criticize it. Bilderberger conspiracy theorists have higher standards than that.
The D.C. Abortion Fund wins marks for truth in advertising — no “reproductive health” euphemisms in that name — but earns demerits in the categories of taste and history. The organization is distributing pendants in the form of wire hangers to its donors in gratitude for their financial support of its mission of dismembering children. As an example of bad taste, the wire-hanger pendant is in Donald Trump’s league; it is also misleading. Despite the myth of the brutal “back alley” abortion and tens of thousands of women maimed or dead from self-administered abortions in the years just before Roe, Planned Parenthood’s own research from that period found that abortion was “no longer a dangerous procedure,” owing to the fact that the great majority of them — 90 percent by Planned Parenthood’s estimate — were performed by physicians. We are able to confirm only one documented case of a hanger being used in a self-induced abortion — and it was in 2009, not in 1962. Abortion is a grisly and inhumane act of violence, and the fact that outlawing it will not eliminate it does not set it apart from other crimes. In the matter of abortion, the question the hanger-pendant set never can ask or answer is: Safe for whom?
After the Crisis
At the beginning of the Great Recession, economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff warned that the recovery might be a long one because the recession had been preceded by a financial crisis. Typically, recovery from financial crises takes at least a decade. While Keynesian ideologues predicted a normal V-shaped recovery because of the Obama stimulus, those with a sense of history warned that long-run policies such as permanent tax cuts were the only medicine capable of delivering sustained growth.
More than six years after the start of the U.S. financial crisis, with GDP growth still slow and steady and the unemployment rate only recently falling below 7 percent, the early predictions based on the Reinhart and Rogoff data look spot-on. Unfortunately for the U.S., the economy has followed a path remarkably close to that of other countries recovering from a financial crisis. If anything, the U.S. experience is slightly worse than average.
The accompanying charts use data on 15 separate financial crises from a follow-on paper by Carmen Reinhart and Vincent Reinhart to show where the U.S. stands. The top chart shows how real per capita GDP has changed in the U.S. before and after the financial crisis, compared with the median performance of countries similarly stricken. (On the vertical axis, real GDP in the year of the financial crisis is indexed to 1, to make a visual comparison easier. On the horizontal axis, the crisis year is labeled “T,” and time before or after the crisis is measured in years.) The bottom chart compares the unemployment experience of the U.S. with that of the median crisis country.
Overall, U.S. performance has been a good bit worse than the median experience of other countries. Real per capita GDP in the U.S. is about 6 percent below where it would have been if we simply had followed the median path. The unemployment rate is slightly below the median of other affected countries, but most of that difference is likely due to a decrease in labor-force participation, a pattern that has been more dramatic in the U.S. than in other countries and is in part attributable to the great increase in the percentage of the work force claiming disability insurance.
The massive efforts at stimulus, then, have had little visible impact on the relative performance of the U.S. economy — contrary to a recent White House report on the impact of the stimulus that made the following claim: “Thanks in significant part to the actions of President Obama, the economic picture today is much brighter.”
In early March, the West Virginia legislature passed HB 4588 — which made abortions later than 20 weeks after conception illegal — with overwhelming support. Had it been signed, West Virginia would have been the first Democratic-controlled state to institute such a ban. Alas, Democratic governor Earl Ray Tomblin has vetoed the bill, calling it “unconstitutional,” but also saying that “I believe there is no greater gift of love than the gift of life.” Just not at 20 weeks, apparently.
California’s ban on race preferences in admissions to state universities, adopted by referendum in 1996, resulted in a surge of Asian-American students. Asian-American opposition defeated a recent attempt to revive the preferences. Diversity is turning out, once again, to be the enemy of “diversity.”
New York City’s charter schools, bugbears of the local teachers’ union and their ally, Mayor Bill de Blasio, got a lifeline in the latest New York State budget — money from the state, and a guarantee that facilities will be found for them in existing schools or in rented space. Their rescuer was Governor Andrew Cuomo: “We want to protect and grow and support the charter-school movement,” he said. Teachers’ unions hate charter schools as competition, but the parents of children saved by them (many of them black) love them even more intensely. Cuomo may have found a winning issue. If so, de Blasio’s patrons — another New York politician, more recently U.S. secretary of state, and her husband — had better start boning up on it.
The National Labor Relations Board has decided that the members of the Northwestern University football team are not amateur scholar-athletes but employees of the university and therefore entitled under federal law to form a union. There is some satisfaction in doing away with the fiction that major-college football players are anything other than semi-professional entertainers in what amounts to a farm system for professional franchises, but the NLRB’s extension of the federal snout into the question of university scholarships is unwelcome. If the gentleman-scholars of Northwestern wish to work their way through college as union men, there are any number of occupations open to them, albeit none with cheerleaders.
Brendan Eich, recently named the CEO of Silicon Valley web-browser firm Mozilla, has a past that is neither dark nor secret, but it has his employees in a state of mutiny: He donated $1,000 to the campaign for Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative that amended the state’s constitution to define “marriage” as a union between a man and a woman — a fight that ended when a federal court distilled from the ether a finding that California’s constitution was unconstitutional. Mr. Eich’s donation has been a matter of public knowledge for some time, but his elevation to the top job has led to renewed calls for a boycott of his firm, his firing, or, at the very least, an apology. If Americans want to punish a chief executive for having expressed in 2008 the belief that marriage properly understood is between a man and a woman, they might set their sights a little higher than the executive suite at Mozilla — the one at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, perhaps.
It was business pretty much as usual at the University of Michigan. The “BDS” movement was creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. “BDS” stands for “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions,” and those measures are aimed at one country, and one country only: Israel. BDS-ers at Michigan staged sit-ins, yelled slurs, and made death threats. They employed virtually the entire nasty repertoire. At least one pro-Israel student called the cops for protection. The student government actually voted down a motion to divest — by 25 to 9, with five abstentions. The vote was taken by secret ballot, because the anti-BDS members feared what the BDS-ers would do to them. Over in Chicago, the Loyola University student government passed a BDS motion. “They did something remarkable,” said Sharif Abdallah, a spokesman for Loyola Students for Justice in Palestine. They certainly did: They took a shot at the only democratic country in the Middle East, a country to which such unfortunates as Palestinian homosexuals have to flee. Maybe the Loyola students will grow up one day. Meanwhile, Israel must find ways to survive worldwide ignorance and hatred.
Mike Adams sued the University of North Carolina–
Wilmington, where he is an associate professor of sociology and criminology, for discriminating against his political (conservative) and religious (Christian) beliefs when it denied him promotion in 2006. A federal judge in 2010 held that Adams was not entitled to freedom of speech in his capacity as a public employee. Late last month, a federal appeals court overturned that decision, arguing that “many forms of public speech or service a professor engaged in during his employment” were protected under the First Amendment. The court found that Adams’s political commentary at Townhall.com and elsewhere was a “substantial or motivating factor” in the vote against his application for a full professorship. UNCW has said it will appeal. Advocates of academic freedom have cause for celebration but not complacency.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s march to power in Turkey is awesome. After more than ten years as prime minister, he’s calculating whether it’s time to appoint himself president for life. With the Islamic card in his hand, he’s squeezing out the secular opposition. The prisons hold hundreds of military men and journalists whom he has accused of plotting against him, and he’s replaced judges and senior policemen also by the hundred. When leaks opened him to accusations of corruption and exposed plans for intervening in the Syrian civil war, he tried to control comment by banning Twitter and YouTube. It seemed probable that he and his ruling party would be trounced in the municipal elections that were due. Not a bit of it. The Islamic card saved the day for them, and they have won fairly handily. In a victory speech, Erdogan as usual conjured up the specter of foreign conspirators, concluding with a clear threat of mass arrests: “Tomorrow, there will be those who have to flee.” The telephone conversations that seemingly reveal financial corruption, he says, were faked, and “espionage” lies behind any talk about what Turkey might do in Syria. A court has ordered the removal of the ban on Twitter and YouTube, but the argument about free speech is still running. Erdogan’s hard line with protesters has already turned the secular element against him in a vicious cycle that looks bound to become more vicious still.
The opening sentences of a New York Times report out of Kabul said a lot: “The Taliban assailants apparently thought they were attacking an unprotected Christian-run day care center. But they mistakenly burst into the compound next door, where an American government contractor’s employees were heavily armed and ready.” It’s so much pleasanter to attack unprotected Christian-run day-care centers, n’est-ce pas?
An Israeli cabinet minister was speaking anonymously to the press in the Knesset. He was talking about the U.S. and Ukraine — and his own country. “The lesson of this crisis screams to the sky. U.S. foreign policy is collapsing all over the world. . . . Israel cannot be Ukraine. It is ridiculous to hear about American guarantees for Israeli security, which would at best last a few weeks. When we’re in danger, they won’t be there to defend us. We must be the sole guarantors of Israeli security.” Our White House and State Department object to such words, which is understandable. But the words are understandable too.
The British press reported in March that several hospitals in Great Britain were incinerating the remains of thousands of aborted and miscarried babies alongside medical waste, in some cases at “waste to energy” facilities that powered the hospitals. British bureaucrats reacted to the revelations with measured disapproval. The chief inspector of hospitals from the Care Quality Commission was “disappointed” that parents weren’t being consulted (in the case of miscarriages, one presumes). Health minister Dan Poulter described the practice as “totally unacceptable” and asked National Health Service medical director Sir Bruce Keogh to put a stop to it. Keogh agreed that while not illegal, it was “inappropriate” in “these sensitive situations” to treat human remains as trash. He did not explain why it was acceptable and appropriate to have dismembered those bodies while they were living.
Sexist speech will be illegal in Belgium under new legislation expected to be enacted later this month. A written or spoken remark that is judged to “reduce” persons “to their sexual dimension” will be punishable by a fine, imprisonment, or both. Belgian politicians who support the measure are responding in part to a recent documentary about the catcalls and sexual insults that women routinely experience as they walk down the street in Brussels. Among Belgians, as among most people, opposition to incivility is broad, but the proposed law is broader still. It amounts to a license for judges to find any reference to sexual difference criminal. Sexism is that elastic a concept. They might as well pass a law against wickedness.
Divorce is for the polloi. The actress Gwyneth Paltrow and her husband, Coldplay singer Chris Martin, announced in March that after ten years of marriage they would be undergoing a “conscious uncoupling.” In a post under that headline on Paltrow’s lifestyle blog, Goop, they wrote that while they “love each other very much” and “are closer than we have ever been,” they have chosen to separate and would like privacy as they “consciously uncouple and coparent” their two children. Paltrow followed up by posting a 2,000-word treatise on conscious uncoupling from her New Age guru Habib Sadeghi, a Los Angeles–based osteopathic doctor, and his wife, Sherry Sami. Sadeghi and Sami tell their clients that the “drama of divorce” can be avoided by “releas[ing] the belief structures we have around marriage that create rigidity in our thought process,” such as the idea that marriage should be a lifelong commitment. They conclude that by “choosing to handle your uncoupling in a conscious way . . . you’ll see that although it looks like everything is coming apart; it’s actually all coming back together.” The kids might not see it that way.
ABC Family had a new drama in the works: Alice in Arabia, a not-so-clever play on Lewis Carroll’s tale. Written by Brooke Eikmeier, a former cryptologic linguist in Arabic for the U.S. Army, the show told the story of an American teenager who is forced to relocate to Saudi Arabia to live with her extended family in the wake of her mother’s death — and aimed to spark a conversation on women’s issues in the Middle East. Instead, it sparked outrage, on Twitter and among the media and some Muslim groups. “Alice in Arabia sets the scene for a nightmare in which our western heroine must break free, instantly setting up Saudi Arabia as an evil other, a different and dark place where bad things happen to American women,” Raya Jabali wrote in the Guardian. The Council on American-Islamic Relations worried that the show would encourage the “bullying” of Muslim children, and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee accused ABC Family and its parent network, the Walt Disney Company, of continuing “to unabashedly perpetuate harmful stereotypes, orientalism, and Islamophobia.” ABC Family capitulated to the demands to nix the show, saying that the “current conversation surrounding our pilot was not what we had envisioned.” “If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense,” the Mad Hatter says in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. His world doesn’t seem so far removed from our own.
Skidmore College is offering a summer course called “Sociology of Miley Cyrus,” tracing the petite centimillionaire’s cultural impact through her artistic development from a winsome ingénue into a siren who simulates sex acts on stage. To be sure, this won’t be the first college class to bury an ephemeral entertainment phenomenon under heaps of scholarly jargon (nor, for that matter, is this the first time we have commented on a pop-tart transformed into a pistol). And, to be sure, it’s entirely possible to analyze the philosophical implications and semiotic significance of sultry Miss Cyrus — or of Beyoncé (Rutgers), Mad Men (Northwestern), or Star Trek (Georgetown) — while meeting the most rigorous standards of modern academic scholarship. In fact, that’s the problem.
In July 1965, Commander Jeremiah Denton of the U.S. Navy was shot down over North Vietnam, where he was tortured, tortured, and, for variety, tortured. In 1966 a Japanese film crew was allowed to interview him; while answering their questions he spelled the letters “T-O-R-T-U-R-E” by blinking them in Morse code. Which made the behavior of his captors harsher. Released in 1973, per the Paris peace accords, he said, “We are honored to have had the opportunity to serve our country under difficult circumstances. We are profoundly grateful to our commander-in-chief and to our nation for this day. God bless America.” One term as a U.S. senator — a distinction that other men caper and cheat to attain — lies like lint on his coat. A great patriot, a great man. Dead at 89. R.I.P.
For a while, James Schlesinger, the economist who became CIA director, then secretary of defense in the Nixon–Ford years, seemed like a lonely good guy in a Republican Washington too inclined to accommodate itself to living with the USSR. Gerald Ford fired him, and he supported Ronald Reagan’s 1976 run for the GOP nomination. Then Schlesinger switched to Jimmy Carter, who made him energy secretary. He backed nuclear power and deregulating natural gas, but also hectored Americans for driving too much, which led to his second presidential firing. “Independent-minded” is usually Beltway code for trending left, but Schlesinger truly was. His conversion from Judaism to Lutheranism typified his go-it-aloneness. Dead at 85. R.I.P.
Fred Phelps was a cult leader best known for organizing pickets of military funerals, based on the theory that, as the placards had it, “God hates fags” and has willed the death of our soldiers as punishment for our failure to express that hatred. But do not mistake Phelps for a single-issue activist: He also sued the Reagan administration for sending an ambassador to the Vatican. He would later receive 30 percent of the vote in a Democratic Senate primary. Many of his children and grandchildren fled the cult, saying he was physically as well as emotionally abusive. Now he is dead, and, we pray, discovering that God is more merciful than his demented imagination could allow. R.I.P.
A Season of Obamacare
While successfully urging Congress to pass a sweeping health-care law in 2009 and early 2010, President Obama and his allies made three main promises: The law would reduce premiums, dramatically expand coverage, and leave people who liked their insurance plans and doctors undisturbed. With the official sign-up period for Obamacare’s exchanges now over, we can say that none of those promises have been kept.
We have, it is true, gotten a modest increase in insurance coverage. Gallup suggests that the percentage of Americans with health insurance has been rising from a recession trough but has not yet recovered to its level before Obama took office. Even the most favorable accounts of Obamacare’s effects suggest, first, that the increased coverage is well below the initial projections. They suggest as well that many more people have gotten coverage through Medicaid and through staying on their parents’ plans than through the law’s vaunted exchanges (which appear mostly to have signed up the already insured). Moreover, many of the new Medicaid enrollees are from states that have not participated in the law’s expansion of the program, raising the possibility that a publicity campaign could have replicated part of the law’s effect on enrollment.
Among the things we do not know about the new exchange enrollees: how many of them have paid their premiums, how many were uninsured, and how healthy they are. Thus we also do not know whether taxpayer subsidies will be needed to protect the insurance companies selling policies on the exchanges from losses.
The administration has tried to take partial credit for the relatively modest rate of increase in health-care costs in recent years. The trend of declining medical inflation, however, started in 2003 (or, depending on how you measure it, even earlier). The $2,500 reduction in premiums that Obama promised has not materialized. The keep-your-plan, keep-your-doctor promise has long been exploded.
The main benefit that the newly insured have gotten is the peace of mind that comes from knowing that medical events cannot bankrupt them. That benefit could have been won more cheaply, and for more people, by modifying public policy to make catastrophic insurance more affordable. The federal government would not have had to mandate essential benefits for everyone and trample on consciences in the process, or to create a constitutionally suspect board to try to centralize medical practice, or to tax medical devices, or to subsidize abortion, or to make an ongoing mockery of the rule of law by executing it with an editor’s pen. There were better alternatives. There still are.
Hobby Lobby Goes to Court
The question before the Supreme Court is whether one may sell scrapbooking supplies to the general public without also subsidizing the purchase of mifepristone for one’s employees. Hobby Lobby is a craft-supplies store owned by a trust controlled by the Green family of Oklahoma, who are conservative Christians. The so-called Affordable Care Act mandates that they include various kinds of contraception in their employee-insurance programs, including intrauterine devices and “morning after” pills that the Greens fear cause abortions. They do not wish to subsidize the purchase of such products; the Obama administration says that they must.
While there are constitutional issues implicit in the case, Hobby Lobby is appealing to the straightforward statutory language of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed by a near-unanimous Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993, which requires that even in those instances in which the federal government can demonstrate a compelling state interest in burdening the free exercise of religion, it must do so in the least restrictive fashion. Among the many problems with asking an organization that enjoys the services of a navy to act as an insurance broker is that phrases such as “least restrictive” are difficult to reconcile with the blunt-force measures generally deployed by national governments. Hence the Supreme Court is being asked to answer the question of whether a national mandate for employer subsidies of contraceptives of almost every description and the enforcement of that mandate through the gentle offices of the Internal Revenue Service is the least restrictive means of achieving the pressing national business of helping Americans to purchase a product available for $9 at Walmart. The answer to that question is self-evidently “No,” though whether that will be evident to the ladies and gentlemen of the Supreme Court is unknown.
By handing out exemptions to some religious groups, the Obama administration has implicitly conceded that the contraception mandate is a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion. But it habitually takes a narrow view of religious liberty, as if questions of conscience were relevant only when one is within sight of an altar. The Left’s tireless Kulturkampf requires that its own mores not only prevail in the culture but have the force of law behind them, which is a funny position for people who are inclined to complain about “legislating morality.” The Greens ask only to be let alone and to conduct their business in a way that does not do violence to their consciences. The law is on their side, and the Court should be, too.
President Obama seems to fancy himself some kind of tough-minded practitioner of realpolitik. So how does he think Bismarck would respond to Russia’s invasion, occupation, and annexation of Crimea? No one can really know the answer to that question, since Bismarck lived in a very different legal and international environment than today’s. But he would certainly have exploited the fact that Putin’s Russia is a weak and even declining regional power economically, demographically, and militarily. He would probably not have said so, unless it served some purpose beyond making him feel briefly macho, and he would have known that a regional power is likely to be stronger than most rival powers if the battleground is its own region.
But he would have realized that Russia could probably not afford to invade and occupy the rest of Ukraine if it meant a protracted struggle against Ukrainian guerrilla forces after an initial “victory,” or a long-drawn-out imposition of Western economic sanctions, or a long-term shift by Western European energy consumers from Russia to other suppliers, or, still worse, all three. If he believed that Russia might be a long-term threat to his own country, he might even have tried to provoke Putin into a rash invasion that would act as a catalyst for Russia’s decline by bleeding a population already weakened by alcoholism, kleptocracy, and other social diseases.
What he would certainly not do is to offer concessions to stave off any such incursion. For he would know in his bones that such concessions would reward and legitimize Putin’s seizure of Crimea, strengthen him at home and internationally, and give him breathing space until he decided which slice of Ukraine he would seize in the next salami tactic. If his bones were no help on this occasion, he could consult recent Caucasian history, in which Putin seized two chunks of Georgia, stopped before conquering the whole country, offered to negotiate diplomatically, and was rewarded for his moderation by the West’s forgetting the whole thing. Putin, however, remembered it. The result is that Secretary of State John Kerry is currently negotiating with his Russian opposite number, Sergei Lavrov, not over Russia’s withdrawal from Crimea — that’s seemingly off the table — but over whether Kiev should accept Russia’s demand for a federal Ukraine that would facilitate its next seizure of some area in eastern Ukraine.
Doing nothing at all would be an improvement on such diplomacy. And if the U.S. ends up pressuring Ukraine to accept some such compromise, we will add shame to folly — and face the same crisis in another part of the forest before too long. Realpolitik? Bismarck would scorn to consider it. And Neville Chamberlain would claim with justice that he was dealt a far worse hand at Munich and played it a great deal better.