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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - Robert Tracinski

RealClearPolitics - Articles - Robert Tracinski

Last Build Date: Thu, 09 Apr 2009 00:30:23 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2009

Women's Rights as a Measure of Civilization

Thu, 09 Apr 2009 00:30:23 -0600

As for the right, I detect in their recent interest in women's rights a quest for a kind of payback against the left. Having been vilified for decades as a bunch of a male chauvinist pigs who are opposed to the rights of women (which they have been, when it comes to abortion and some forms of contraception), the right has been eager to proclaim, in the context of the battle against Islam, that they are more in favor of women's rights than the feminists. Yet the political right does deserve credit for taking up this cause, because they are onto something important when they regard the treatment of women as especially emblematic of the evil of radical Islam. It is an issue that is worth defining more clearly. Women's rights and the treatment of women are a profound measure of the progress of a civilization, for a reason that modern feminists will not necessarily acknowledge: because women are the weaker sex. I mean that women are physically weak relative to men, who are on average much larger and stronger, with a far more developed musculature. Thus, the treatment of women in a society is a revealing measure of that society's attitude toward physical force. In a society where might makes right, where the rule of brute force has been thoroughly unleashed, women are always the first victims. Even the poorest and meanest man, the guy on the lowest rung who is oppressed by others above him who are bigger and stronger-even he can find one person he is still able to dominate and oppress: a woman, whether it is his mother, his wife, or his daughter. And he will oppress her-if the oppression of others by force is the accepted norm of the society he lives in. For examples, look to the Muslim world with its "honor" killings, arranged marriages, sexual segregation, and special restrictions on the travel and attire of women. This is a complete contrast to the kind of society in which force is subordinated to morality. A society in which a woman can do whatever she wants without fear is a society in which the physically weak can rely on being protected from the physically strong. In fact, in a civilized society the physically weak feel safe because of the physically strong. The mark of such a society is a sense of chivalry-the idea that a man's superior physical strength is properly used to protect rather than to dominate, to serve the cause of justice and freedom rather than to assert arbitrary power over others. In the Forbes piece I linked to above, Varadarajan aptly describes how the Taliban torturer beating the young girl is deriving "a twisted, vile satisfaction derived from a twisted, vile social code." He does not say whether the code he is referring to is the specific theology of the Taliban or that of Islam as such. My own view is the latter. Islam is the worst religion, because it has the distinction of being founded and wholly shaped by a prophet who obtained significant political power in his own lifetime, establishing himself as a plunderer of Arabian trade routes and as the tyrant of the city of Medinah. In other words, Islam is a religion founded by a criminal, who codified in its tenets the criminal's justifications for the arbitrary exercise of brute force. This is the broader significance of the new Taliban video: it demonstrates the central failure of Islamism, revealed clearly even to those in the Muslim world. The Islamic theocrats offer their supporters one central promise: to establish the rule of virtue on earth. But they always provide the exact opposite: the rule of brute force and the doctrine of "might makes right." Their code actually banishes morality from public life, subordinating it to force. The routine brutalization of women and girls under the rule of Islam is a constant and vivid reminder of this fact. The Taliban and al-Qaeda-organizations distinguished by their routine use of atrocities-are the fullest examples of this. That is part of the reason why they were ultimately rejected by the Sunni tribes in Iraq, and it a crucial point we can use in the ideological battle against Islamism. Thi[...]

The Anti-Industrial Coup

Thu, 26 Mar 2009 05:15:09 -0600

This is also an assault on the entire structure of representative government. Controls on emissions of carbon dioxide will reach into every nook and cranny of the economy, creating a fine network of restrictions on economic activity that will make the recent regime of bailouts, salary caps, and business seizures look like laissez-faire by comparison. But it will all be done--in effect, it has just been done--by the decree of executive agency bureaucrats, without an opportunity for public debate or a legislative vote. Sure, Congress will be invited to "participate" in drafting carbon dioxide controls, but it will do so under the threat that the EPA can simply create those controls on its own, without needing to consult the people's representatives. Ayn Rand warned that the environmentalist movement constitutes an "Anti-Industrial Revolution," but the term "revolution" implies a broad base of popular support. Instead, this is an anti-industrial coup, a seizure of power by a small elite who seek to bypass the institutions and procedures of legitimate government. How did this happen? Through a usurpation of legislative power by the other two branches of government: the courts and the regulatory agencies of the executive branch. The contribution from the courts is the 2007 Supreme Court ruling requiring the EPA to regard carbon dioxide as a potential "airborne pollutant" under the 1990 Clean Air Act--a law passed by Congress almost two decades ago with no intention of regulating carbon dioxide. The executive branch's response was a document released last year that stopped short of declaring carbon dioxide a pollutant. But it did establish the legal foundation for the next administration to plan out and implement a comprehensive scheme for regulating carbon dioxide emissions, coordinating the actions of dozens of regulatory agencies. The title of that regulatory proposal was revealing: it was called the Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for Regulating Greenhouse Gas Emissions under the Clean Air Act. The important word here is "rulemaking." In a proper system of representative government, the word for "rulemaking" is "legislation," and only Congress can do it. But Congress long ago ceded a large part of its legislative power to the executive branch by passing laws like the Clean Air Act, which set vague goals such as "fighting air pollution" and then gave executive-branch regulatory agencies the power to make "rules" for the implementation of those goals. In effect, this was an unconstitutional grant of legislative power to the executive branch. Having surrendered that power, Congress may never get it back. Last year, one of Barack Obama's advisors described the candidate's plans for pursuing carbon dioxide regulation when he took office. [Jason] Grumet...said if Congress hasn't acted in 18 months, about the time it would take to draft [EPA] rules, the president should.... "The EPA is obligated to move forward in the absence of Congressional action," Grumet said. This is what is now happening. Under what system of government does the chief executive say to the legislature, in effect, "write the legislation I want, or else I will simply enact it by decree"? The answer: not under a system of representative government and the separation of powers. Barack Obama is proposing to govern, not in the manner of an American president, but in the manner traditionally sought by leftist strongmen like Hugo Chavez. When global warming regulations are imposed--and given the legal framework of Monday's "finding," they are now inevitable--their ultimate cause will be decades of dishonest cultural propaganda condemning industrial civilization as a scourge to be eliminated. But the immediate cause for this massive new extension of government power is the structure of existing executive-branch power: the all-encompassing reach of the regulatory agencies, and the vast power already surrendered to them by Congress. This is the shape of the current danger to liberty: our economic freedom is being taken a[...]

The "Can-Do" Economy-Killer

Wed, 25 Feb 2009 12:45:20 -0600

For example, he would boast of "bold and persistent experimentation" in a way that would make the general public think of him as a vigorous, enterprising man with a "can-do" spirit. But what that would actually mean is an administration that lurched in panic from one statist scheme to another, creating so much fear and uncertainty in the markets that capital went on strike and withdrew its productive power from the economy. That is precisely the kind of pattern we saw in Obama's address to Congress last night. There was a lot of soaring, all-we-have-to-fear-is-fear-itself kind of rhetoric about American greatness and resiliency and never quitting. But the actual content of the speech was one body blow after another to the private economy. Here is an example of the rhetoric: [T]hough we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before. The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation. The answers to our problems don't lie beyond our reach. They exist in our laboratories and our universities, in our fields and our factories, in the imaginations of our entrepreneurs and the pride of the hardest-working people on Earth. Those qualities that have made America the greatest force of progress and prosperity in human history we still possess in ample measure. What is required now is for this country to pull together, confront boldly the challenges we face, and take responsibility for our future once more. But underneath the airy-fairy inspiration of Obama's words, here is the cold, factual reality of his policies. • Taxes and regulations will increase. In the previous era, Obama tells us, "A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future. Regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market." So taxes will go back up on the most productive people in the economy, and they will find new government restrictions placed on their activity. • The government will take over lending directly. "We are creating a new lending fund that represents the largest effort ever to help provide auto loans, college loans, and small-business loans to the consumers and entrepreneurs who keep this economy running." This implies lending provided directly under the control of government, financed with government money. • The government will take over lending indirectly. "Our goal is to quicken the day when we restart lending to the American people and American business and end this crisis once and for all. And I intend to hold these banks fully accountable for the assistance they receive, and this time they will have to clearly demonstrate how taxpayer dollars result in more lending for the American taxpayer." This means that federal regulators will be looking over the shoulders of the banks and dictating how much they should lend and to whom. • The government will vilify and punish bankers. "This time, CEOs won't be able to use taxpayer money to pad their paychecks, or buy fancy drapes, or disappear on a private jet. Those days are over." Having foisted government money onto hundreds of banks across the country, the Treasury will now use that funding as an excuse to impose government controls on the banks--including populist caps on executive pay, which will only serve to drive talented and ambitious individuals to seek more profitable work elsewhere. • No one can know when all of this intervention is going to end or how much bigger it's going to get. "This plan will require significant resources from the federal government and, yes, probably more than we've already set aside." What that means is that we should expect to see another TARP-style bailout plan, another pork-barrel "stimulus bill," another mortgage bailout. (Already there are plans for another $410 billion in spending increases.) There will be no way for the[...]

No Idea What He's Doing

Fri, 23 Jan 2009 12:45:58 -0600

I had expected Obama to crib from Lincoln or Roosevelt. Instead he cribbed from Dorothy Fields: "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America." Or take this deathless line: "Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter." Is there any phrase more painfully overused in Washington than "our children's children"? There is a great irony in the respective reputations of Bush and Obama when it comes to giving speeches. Bush is viewed as an inarticulate dolt, but he hired excellent writers who frequently produced good, thoughtful, substantive speeches, which he then marred with a flat and uncomfortable delivery. By contrast, Obama has a great reputation for eloquence--because he is adept at giving a smooth, charismatic delivery to the oratorical equivalent of Hallmark greeting cards. For all of the emptiness of Obama's speech, however, he did express one central idea: he is against ideas. "On this day," he declared, "we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics." He went on to expand by what he means about rejecting "worn out dogmas." What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them--that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works--whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.... Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control--and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. It is basic choices between opposing principles that Obama is telling us are "stale" and "no longer apply." And if you think that ideas and principles still matter, you're a cynic! Thus, Obama begins his administration by declaring that he will run the government while rejecting any overarching ideas and principles regarding the proper role and scope of government action. He starts by telling us, in effect, that he has no idea what he is doing. This is why the rest of the speech sticks to conventional bromides and tries to split the difference on every big issue. Big government versus small government; free markets versus government controls; personal responsibility versus the welfare state; vigorous national defense versus diplomatic temporizing. Where does Obama stand on these issues? Nowhere. This is what a cipher sounds like. A number of commentators on the right--conditioned by years of conservative opposition to "ideology"--have been reassured by the anti-ideological theme of Obama's speech. But I am not reassured, because our leaders need to have an ideology. If they are to protect liberty, they need to have a clear idea of what liberty is, why it is indispensable, and what limits it places on goverment. And of course, Obama does have an ideology. Everyone does, because no matter how much they may struggle to avoid taking a stand, every action they take is an implicit answer to life's big questions. As for Obama, we know that he has spent his whole life in the company of ideological leftists. These were serious ideologues, ranging from Marxist college professors to preachers of "black liberation theology." Now he wants to convince us--and, who knows, maybe himself--that he has no firm ideological commitments. But what could be a clearer indication of his ideology than his desire to free government--at least in the realm of economics--from the limitations of ideas and principles? Decades ago, we had another president who came into power dur[...]

How a Creeping Government Takeover is Destroying the Banks

Tue, 20 Jan 2009 00:31:27 -0600

But the obvious question is: why are private investors scarce? Maybe it has something to do with the terms of the "stimulus" aimed at them. The Times story contains only one hint at this: Mr. Obama's economic team is planning a broad overhaul of the program to impose more accountability and more restrictions on executives at companies that receive government money. "More accountability" means more government management of the banks; more restrictions means more measures designed to reduce the profitability of the banking industry and drive out the best talent. For an example of what all of this "accountability" means, consider the Wall Street Journal's overview of the government's treatment of the healthiest of the big nationwide banks, Bank of America. Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis earned kudos last year for stepping into the breach when the mortgage market and Wall Street cratered. BofA's purchase of Countrywide Financial and its September agreement to buy Merrill Lynch offered a welcome dose of optimism and private capital amid the panic. In December, Mr. Lewis realized that he had been too optimistic.... After BofA shareholders approved the Merrill purchase on December 5, Mr. Lewis saw Merrill's assets plunge in value and began to explore a way out. At least he wanted a better price.... Mr. Lewis's effort to protect his common shareholders was vetoed by his most important shareholder, the feds. In October the US Treasury had insisted on investing $15 billion in his bank. Come December, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke told him that Merrill had to be saved, and that BofA had to be the savior.... In other words, the feds believe that the way to calm financial markets is to force the nation's largest, and a heretofore healthy, bank to swallow toxic assets it didn't want. But here's the really awful part: the Treasury's forced investments in Bank of America are held in the form of preferred shares paying an 8% dividend. Yet the bailout agreement forced on the bank "limits quarterly common stock dividends to a penny a share." Oh yes, and Bank of America "will also have to accept new executive compensation limits. And the bank will need to submit for government approval a plan to modify troubled mortgages." The Journal's commentary concludes: "Mr. Lewis doesn't seem thrilled that the government has a larger piece of his business. When asked yesterday when the bank might escape federal ownership, he replied, 'I wish I knew,' and then added, 'clearly as soon as possible.'" Similarly, Bloomberg's David Pauly describes the incoming administration's attempt to suppress the stock dividends paid by banks, a measure which effectively eliminates the "last reason to own bank shares." Banks have traditionally paid hefty dividends. In the years before the onset of the subprime mortgage crisis, payouts by Bank of America Corp., for instance, yielded about 3 percent to 4 percent of the company's stock price and grew steadily. Now President-elect Barack Obama plans to take away even that attraction, Lawrence Summers, who will head the new administration's National Economic Council, informed Congress this week. Obama...will order the Treasury Department to limit dividends paid by commercial banks and investment banks that receive "exceptional assistance" from the government to "de minimis amounts." While investors have known that current yields were ballooned by falling share prices and that massive bank losses made some payouts unsustainable, many may have bet that relatively stronger banks would still maintain nice returns.... Now, what dividends, if any, banks can pay may depend on how extraordinary "exceptional" may be interpreted and how trifling "de minimis" may turn out to be.... It seems likely that dividends of all the major bank recipients of Washington rescue money will be restricted. Again, while private investors may be out of luck, the government will still get its div[...]

The Federal Department of Economic Recovery

Sat, 10 Jan 2009 00:30:49 -0600

The danger of Barack Obama's presidency is not that he will act openly on the old dogmas of the left. Indeed, during his transition he has largely attempted to meld into the Washington woodwork by hiring only the most conventional Beltway insiders. Instead, the danger is that he has been so steeped in leftist dogma for his entire life that he will accept the left's attitudes implicitly and automatically, without even realizing it. Consider just the first paragraph of Thursday's speech. Throughout America's history, there have been some years that simply rolled into the next without much notice or fanfare. Then there are the years that come along once in a generation--the kind that mark a clean break from a troubled past, and set a new course for our nation. This is one of those years. We start 2009 in the midst of a crisis unlike any we have seen in our lifetime. Put aside the way in which Obama always turns every issue into an opportunity to talk about his favorite topic: his own great historical importance. What really ought to make you choke over this paragraph is what is missing from Obama's world view. Ask yourself: is there any other year in recent memory that presented us with a shocking event that marked a "clean break" from the past and presented us with a historic crisis? How about 2001, the year of the September 11 terrorist attacks? The beginning of this speech puts us on notice that September 11 does not register as an important date in Obama's calendar or in his world view. The man who will soon be commander in chief is indifferent to the bloodiest foreign attack on America's soil since the War of 1812. How is that possible? It is possible from within the world view of the ideological left. There is an old socialist slogan, usually attributed to Lenin, that captures this world view: "a bayonet is a weapon with a worker on both ends." The idea is that wars, with their appeals to patriotism, are merely attempts to distract the international proletariat from banding together to overthrow their real enemies, the capitalists. (It should be noted that this aversion to war lasts only until the socialists take over, at which point they discover that war can be used to distract the people from the poverty and oppression of life under socialism.) Having absorbed such socialist bromides at his mother's knee (literally), Obama clearly views September 11 as an event of little significance--compared to the opportunity to overthrow the remaining elements of American capitalism and vastly expand the role of government. That brings us to the main content of Obama's speech, which is an attempt to sell us a half-trillion-dollar program of government spending. This is, of course, money that the federal government does not have, so Obama has admitted that the budget deficit will explode to more than $1 trillion. The money will be thrown around to all of the conventional pork-barrel recipients, from roads and bridges to "alternative energy," which is perpetually in need of government subsidies. But that is less important than the overall effect this spending will have. Given the current contraction in private credit--which will be further withdrawn by the government's vastly increased borrowing--an enormous amount of the money flowing through the economy will now be government money. An increasing amount of economic activity will be directed, not by the private marketplace, but by the government. Not to worry, Obama tells us. His administration will "launch an unprecedented effort to eliminate unwise and unnecessary spending." They "won't just throw money at our problems--we'll invest in what works." And if you believe that, brother, then I'd like to sell you a can't-lose investment in one of Bernie Madoff's funds. In fact, this spending has to be wasted, because it is being directed by a thinly disguised form of government central planning. Obama tells us that "instead of politici[...]

The Fraud of Government Intervention

Wed, 31 Dec 2008 00:40:25 -0600

Can anyone really be saying this in the 21st century? If so, it is because they have failed 20th-Century History 101. For those in need of a quick refresher, the satirical website The People's Cube has posted a helpful overview of the product line once offered by the East Bloc's centrally planned auto industry. My favorite line is an old joke about the Yugo: "Every car came with a rear defroster to keep your hands warm as you pushed it." But central planning has not just been discredited by a mass of empirical evidence. It has been thoroughly refuted in theory, too. Legions of pro-free-market economists, particularly the Austrian school's Ludwig von Mises, have thoroughly demonstrated that the government's so-called planning is actually an attack on planning. Planning is what is already done in a free economy by millions of private individuals. Every economic decision they make is a plan about how to allocate the only money and effort they have a right to dispose of: their own. And these plans are made with full access to the only kind of information that is really relevant: the context of their own lives and values. Government planning, by contrast, consists of smashing all of these private plans and replacing them with inferior plans made by inferior men. Planning for its future solvency, for example, Bank of America decided not to lend money to a defunct window and door manufacturer--but then along comes Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, right before his arrest, to demand that the bank extend such a loan anyway. Other banks decided, reasonably enough, that the best way to survive an economic downturn is to make only conservative investments--but along comes their uninvited new business partner, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, who declares that he expects them to open a floodgate of new lending. And how about you? You may have decided, for example, that you will get better value for your money by spending it on a Toyota rather than a Pontiac--but then along come George Bush and Barack Obama to decree that your money really ought to go to General Motors after all. This is the world of central planning, which consists of forcibly substituting the plans of government officials for the far more sensible plans that private individuals make about their own lives and money. And we haven't seen the worst of it, at least not yet. Much bigger and deadlier lessons will spring to mind for those who were paying attention in 20th-Century History 101. Remember Trofim Lysenko? He's the crackpot scientist who got Stalin's ear and set himself up as the central planner of Soviet agriculture, single-handedly wiping out Soviet wheat production. Or what about the hucksters who convinced Mao that it was possible for peasants to manufacturer steel in small backyard furnaces, helping to turn the Great Leap Forward into a great leap backward? If you think that these central planning catastrophes are limited to the most doctrinaire Marxist dictatorships, consider that Bernie Madoff's $50 billion Ponzi scheme is minuscule compared to the multi-trillion-dollar Ponzi scheme that is Social Security. And if the economic downturn exposed the fact that Madoff's scheme wasn't backed by any real assets--what do you think a sudden decrease in payroll tax revenues is going to do to Social Security? Certainly the plans of private individuals can go awry. Just ask the former homeowners who over-extended themselves by taking out adjustable rate mortgages, or the investment banks who over-extended themselves by financing those mortgages. But private mistakes are corrected by the workings of the market. People who can't afford their houses will have to sell them to those who can; failing banks get bought out by healthy banks; unprofitable automakers go bankrupt and their bones are picked clean by manufacturers who can make a profit. But notice that the whole point of the government's plan[...]

The Return of the Old Left

Thu, 11 Dec 2008 08:30:09 -0600

By the end of the 20th century, the failure of all of these policies had caused the Old Left to splinter into two groups. The New Left hippies rejected industrial socialism in favor of anti-industrial socialism, adopting environmentalism and holding up a neo-primitive lifestyle as the ideal, while the New Democrat centrists sought a "Third Way" compromise between capitalism and socialism. But now the discredited Old Left seems to be making a roaring comeback. We can see the signs all around us. Consider Barack Obama's plan for up to $700 billion in New-Deal-style "public works" boondoggles. It is a good old-fashioned Keynesian "stimulus" based on the premise that you can revive the economy by spreading paper money around at random. Yet it is now widely acknowledged that the original New Deal did not actually revive the Depression-era economy. Even under Keynes's failed theory, the amount of FDR's spending was not enough to stimulate the economy--and neither is the amount proposed by Obama. But that hasn't fazed the revived Old Left. Alan Brinkley, a professor of history at Columbia University, says of the New Deal that "they didn't spend nearly enough" and laments that "They were constrained by all kinds of traditional ideas about balanced budgets." With Obama set to run a trillion-dollar deficit in his first year in office, it looks like those old-fashioned hang-ups have been overcome. There is, however, one concession to the New Left in Obama's New New Deal. Obama tries to sell the New Left environmentalist crusade as if it were an Old Left, heavy-industry, make-work program. When FDR poured enormous sums of government money into projects like rural electrification, he "created jobs" at the expense of the far greater prosperity that would have been achieved if the same money had been left in private hands, to be employed more productively. But at least the Tennessee Valley Authority actually produced electricity on an industrial scale, so the money poured into it was not entirely wasted. The new "green energy" make-work program, by contrast, will pour billions of dollars into speculative technology that is extremely unlikely to produce power on the industrial scale required to support the American economy. It is a plan for a TVA that fails to generate electricity. But at least it will still fit the essential Old Left criterion. One expert names the main selling point of this proposal: it is "quite labor-intensive"--whether that labor is actually employed productively or not. And that brings us to an attempt to revive the central institution of the Old Left: the labor union. Recent news has brought us live footage on our flat-screen plasma TVs of a phenomenon many of us have read about in history books but did not expect ever to see again in our lifetimes: an old-fashioned factory sit-in, with union members occupying a factory and seizing its equipment to protest the closing of a door and window manufacturer. The Washington Post describes this as "a throwback to tactics hardly seen since the 1930s that labor experts and union leaders say may become more common if the economy continues its downturn." Speaking of tactics not used since the 1930s, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich immediately seized on this case in an attempt to bolster his sagging reputation by engaging in a populist, Bonnie-and-Clyde-style raid on the Bank of America, threatening the bank with the loss of millions in state government business if it did not immediately grant a new loan to keep the unprofitable factory open. Blagojevich's blackmail is a blatant abuse of government power, an illegal shakedown for which the governor ought to go to prison. Too bad he's already going to go to prison for something else. This bank shakedown captures the basic irrationality of the attempt to return to a command-and-control economy. In the middle of a financial c[...]

Auto Bailouts Will Give Us Detroitsky

Tue, 18 Nov 2008 10:35:51 -0600

Obama is backing a plan to pump $50 billion into the big American automakers, while also establishing "a czar or board to oversee the companies"--call it Gosplan--which will supervise "a restructuring of the auto industry." That's exactly what Detroit needs to recover: the benefit of government central planning. In essence, this is a plan for nationalization of the American auto industry under a new government-appointed board of directors who will supposedly tell the Big Three how to make a profit again. But of course Detroit will never recover under this plan, because its whole purpose is to avoid the one step actually necessary to make the automakers profitable: breaking the hold of the bloated unions. Let's be clear on that. The purpose of the bailout is not to avoid the destruction of automobile production in the US. Plenty of automobiles are being produced in America by Honda and Toyota and other automakers--at non-unionized shops. And if the Big Three were to go bankrupt, they would likely be bought out, or at least their most valuable pieces would be scooped up by new owners. But if GM goes into bankruptcy, its contracts with the unions would likely be thrown out--you can't have a contract with a defunct firm--and the new owners would be able to negotiate new contracts from a position of strength. Accept our terms, they would be able to say, or you will all be out of work permanently. That is what a bailout is really meant to avoid: anything that would break the power of the unions. This is not a bailout for GM. It is a bailout for the UAW. Here is the key phrase that sums up the outlook behind the bailout: Susan Helper, a professor of "regional economic development" at Case Western Reserve University tells the New York Times "From a social point of view, even if GM is not providing a return on investment, it is still providing a lot of good jobs." If this bailout goes through, GM will get a lot of opportunities to do things that don't provide a return on investment but are considered desirable "from a social point of view" in Washington, DC. In fact, while the immediate motive for the bailout is to seize the Big Three in the name of the proletariat--the auto workers--there are also plans to seize the companies in the name of the planet. A recent LA Times op-ed complained that: the US automotive industry has been on the wrong side of almost every environmental, social, and safety issue since the 1960s.... If the US government--on behalf of the people--is going to spend considerable sums of public money and incur public debt to keep these institutions alive, let's insist on returns that benefit society as a whole, not merely Big Three shareholders, management, and employees. What might these public benefits be? Well, for one, isn't it time for Detroit to turn out a car that gets at least 100 miles per gallon--and to do it in three years? If the Old Left's goal is to save the unions, the New Left's goal is a kind of economic coup d'etat in which the environmentalists take over their hated enemy, the auto industry, and convert it into a new conduit for "green economy" subsidies." This is going to be cloaked in claims about 100-mile-per-gallon cars and how they are going to be good for the economy. If the Soviet central planners had Trofim Lysenko, we have Jennifer Granholm. In a recent op-ed, the governor of Michigan claimed that "The US auto industry is the sector that will lead the way to energy independence. How? The car you drive will soon be the storage unit for all your energy needs. Your home, your car, your appliances can all be powered through the advanced battery that will sit inside your plug-in electric vehicle." Never mind that Detroit has been working for decades on this alleged super-battery breakthrough--without success. More fundamentally, someone needs to remind [...]

Kill the Bailout

Thu, 02 Oct 2008 11:30:09 -0600

The Senate is supposed to serve, in James Madison's analogy, as the "cooling saucer" for the hot tea served up by the House--but in this case, it is the House that has remained cool and refused to panic. That's because the hysterical demand for a bailout didn't come up from the people; it came down from the elites in Washington and Manhattan. The House is reflecting the sensible skepticism coming up from the folks on Main Street who don't want to pay the bills for bailing out Hank Paulson's former colleagues on Wall Street. Some cold, realistic scrutiny of the bailout is desperately needed because this plan is not just an attack on the free market. It is an attack on reality. The financial crisis was caused by more than a decade of using government power to rewrite the facts of reality and override the judgment of the market, and the bailout just offers more of the same fantasy economics. Congress wanted everyone to be able to get a mortgage to buy a home, regardless of income, credit history, or ability to save for a down payment. The name for this contradiction was "affordable housing," an initiative aimed at providing the benefits of home ownership to those who could not, in fact, afford it. So when the market concluded that low-income borrowers could not meet the credit requirements for mortgages, the Clinton administration invoked trumped-up charges of racism to expand enforcement of the Community Reinvestment Act, bullying banks into dropping as "arbitrary" such old-fashioned credit standards as proof of income. And when the market balked at the increased credit risk created by these loans, Congress backed the expansion of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, government-sponsored enterprises that used federally guaranteed money to buy up the increasingly risky mortgages. At every point, when the market sent the message that reality would not support the higher level of risk being taken on by mortgage lenders, the government used its power to override this message. The vigorous government-created market for riskier "sub-prime" loans masked the real dangers, creating the illusion that increased profits could be obtained without increased risk--an illusion that encouraged some private lenders to follow Fannie and Freddie's lead. To be sure, some of this private risk-taking was part of the normal process of failure in a capitalist economy. A large part of the current financial upheaval originated with high-risk investment banks and hedge funds that held large amounts of mortgage-backed securities. These securities were carefully balanced against one another according to mathematical formulas that were calculated to cancel out their risks. But the mathematical formulas were new and hadn't been tested in a bear market. When the downturn came, they failed. This is a normal part of the rough and tumble of capitalism. All of the current talk about the "failure" of the free market ignores the fact that the process of failure is a crucial benefit of the free market. In a capitalist system, high-risk firms are always trying out new and untested ideas, and failure is the messenger that tells the market which strategies work and which strategies don't. It is also an indispensable corrective mechanism that moves capital from enterprises with failing strategies to those with successful strategies. But the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve have repeatedly short-circuited this mechanism by trying to outlaw failure. When the market sent the message that too many bad loans had been made and that this needed to be corrected by a contraction in the amount of available credit, the government wanted to avoid the unpleasant consequences of such a contraction. So the Federal Reserve papered over the facts--with a flurry of paper money--by artificially reducing interest rates and loosening up [...]

Palin's Pluck and Pragmatism

Mon, 22 Sep 2008 09:45:43 -0600

This fact does reveal a profoundly faith-driven outlook, because it illuminates Palin's implicit attitude toward reason and the intellect. The joy of having a child is watching it grow and develop on its way to becoming an independent adult capable of enjoying a full human life. This is why parents rejoice in every new discovery the child makes along the way--his first steps, his first words, the first time he figures out how to open up and rifle through your filing cabinets while you're trying to work (but I digress). The tragedy of giving birth to a mentally disabled child is that he will never complete this journey. He will never become an independent adult or develop a full use of the faculty that is man's essential characteristic: his reasoning mind. To knowingly choose to bring such a child into the world is evidence that the precepts of her faith take precedence over the value of the mind in Palin's view of the world. That said, a New York Times profile on Palin's religious views is surprisingly anodyne. She believes in prayer, she believes in the truth of the Bible, "and that the task of believers is to ponder and analyze the book for meaning--including scrutiny...for errors and mistranslations over the centuries that may have obscured the original intent." Which is to say that she is pretty much a standard-issue American Christian. In fact, the big news from the New York Times article is that "the Palins moved to the nondenominational Wasilla Bible Church in 2002, in part because its ministry is less 'extreme' than Pentecostal churches like the Assemblies of God." When she became governor of Alaska, she asked her childhood pastor for a verse from the Bible. Did she ask about the Bible's view on birth control, or homosexuality, or taxes, or any overtly political topic? No, he says, "She asked for a biblical example of people who were great leaders and what was the secret of their leadership." That's more Steven Covey than Jerry Falwell. Barack Obama's religious associations--think of Jeremiah Wright and his "black liberation theology"--are much more disturbing. Moreover, Governor Palin has soft-pedaled her religious views so far in the campaign. In the big speech that introduced her at the Republican convention, she didn't even mention abortion. In Charles Gibson's ABC interview, when he misquoted her as saying that the Iraq war was "a task that is from God," she replied that "I would never presume to know God's will or to speak God's words." And when asked what she thinks God's plan for the world is, her reply was very revealing: "I believe that there is a plan for this world and that plan...[is] for every country to be able to live and be protected with inalienable rights that I believe are God-given, Charlie, and I believe that those are the rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Which is to say that she agrees with John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. This is the typical American "religion of the pursuit of happiness"--the combination of religious faith with the Enlightenment view of happiness as the proper goal of human life and freedom as the essence of the proper political system. In short, if Palin has a radical religious agenda, it remains unstated. If she is not a religious zealot, is Governor Palin a pro-free-marketer? Evidence for this comes from the refutation of an early rumor that Palin campaigned for the arch-religious conservative Pat Buchanan in 1996; in fact, she campaigned for Steve Forbes, the most pro-free-market candidate in that year's Republican primary. But the only economic issue on which we know much about her views is energy. She is pro-oil-exploration and pro-drilling, and she has told one interviewer that she is skeptical that global warming is caused by human activity--positions that appeal [...]

The Problem with the Media's Palin Coverage

Wed, 17 Sep 2008 00:30:41 -0600

So if Sarah Palin is potentially the future of the Republican Party, it is vitally important to ask: who is Sarah Palin? What does she stand for? In what direction will she take her party? This is the real reason why we should be concerned about Sarah Palin's lack of Washington experience. The importance of experience is not just about whether the candidate is prepared to exercise the duties of his office; it is about whether we are prepared to elect him to that office. A candidate with experience on the national stage has sponsored legislation, made decisions, talked extensively with the national press, and done all of the other things that make his character and ideas a "known quantity." (In Barack Obama's case, he has failed to do some of these things--which is equally revealing.) But Palin's personal character is well known only to Alaskans; her record had not been well-researched and her ideas had not been broadcast before a few weeks ago. We need to discover all of these things--and now is the worst time to try to discover them. This is a bad time because the truth is being shrouded by partisanship--on both sides. By this point in the race, a larger number of people have already made a commitment to one presidential candidate or the other, and they want their man to win. So they will interpret McCain's vice-presidential selection in a way that reinforces that pre-existing preference. Democrats will attack Sarah Palin, if for no other reason than that they want Barack Obama to win and they oppose anyone who endangers that goal. Republicans will defend her just as vigorously because they had already grudgingly decided to vote for McCain in order to stop Obama--and Palin finally made them feel good about that choice. The fact that politicians on both sides have their partisan "talking points" on this issue and stick unwaveringly to that established agenda is no surprise. What makes it so difficult to assess Palin is that the press has transformed itself into a wing of the Obama campaign. I usually don't encourage complaints about press bias. Of course the mainstream media is biased to the left; everyone knows that, except possibly the mainstream media itself. So the only alternative is to take that bias into account and find ways to push back against it and to go around the mainstream media to connect with the voters directly. In balance, I think this turns out to be an advantage for the Republicans and a disadvantage for Democrats, who frequently mistake the adulation of the press for the support of actual voters. That said, I have never seen anything like the wave of hostility and contempt aimed at Sarah Palin from the moment she was nominated. This press partisanship is a crucial part of the story, because it explains the difficulty of discovering who Sarah Palin is. And ironically, the pompous hostility of the press has served as a foil which Palin has used to increase her popular appeal. Here is just a sampling of the campaign of lies and half-truths launched against Palin. She is accused of banning books in the Wasilla public library when she was mayor--but the list of supposedly banned books that has been circulated on the Internet includes titles that hadn't even been published at the time. She is accused of being such an anti-evolution zealot that she supposedly referred to dinosaurs as "lizards of Satan"--a cheap parody of the views of the creationists (which are a cheap parody to begin with). She is accused of being opposed, not only to abortion, but to contraception, an even more extreme religious-right viewpoint--except that this claim is not true. Most of these smears were limited to the Internet--but some of them made their way into the mainstream media, and all of them have been widely accepted as tr[...]

Obama Offers a Beautifully Packaged Lie

Fri, 29 Aug 2008 14:30:25 -0600

Here's an example that is small but revealing. Obama led with the best sales pitch he has to offer: that he is not George Bush. But of course, Obama is running against John McCain, not Bush. So he attempted to justify the substitution by claiming that "John McCain has voted with George Bush ninety percent of the time." This statistic has been used throughout the Democratic convention, but it makes no sense. Bush is not a member of Congress and casts no votes there--so how can you compare his voting record to that of McCain? But don't examine this folly; ask only what it accomplishes. It allows Obama to run against an unpopular president who will not defend himself because he is not actually in the race. When it came to making the positive case for himself, Obama's first goal was to address the public's concerns about his background, particularly his patriotism and how much he identifies with American values. So he drew, not from his own biography, but from that of his family. [I]n the faces of those young veterans who come back from Iraq and Afghanistan, I see my grandfather, who signed up after Pearl Harbor, marched in Patton's Army, and was rewarded by a grateful nation with the chance to go to college on the GI Bill. In the face of that young student who sleeps just three hours before working the night shift, I think about my mom, who raised my sister and me on her own while she worked and earned her degree; who once turned to food stamps but was still able to send us to the best schools in the country with the help of student loans and scholarships.... And when I hear a woman talk about the difficulties of starting her own business, I think about my grandmother, who worked her way up from the secretarial pool to middle-management, despite years of being passed over for promotions because she was a woman. She's the one who taught me about hard work.... I don't know what kind of lives John McCain thinks that celebrities lead, but this has been mine. These are my heroes. Theirs are the stories that shaped me. In addition to identifying himself with the lower-income, blue-collar types who have so far refused to vote for him, Obama is also painting himself as someone with uncontroversial, traditional American values, someone who believes in fighting for your country and improving your life through hard work and perseverance. This is supposed to make us forget that Barack Obama launched his political career under the spiritual guidance of a pastor who delivered far-left tirades calling on God to damn America--and he launched his first campaign under the patronage of a former domestic terrorist. Theirs are the stories that also shaped Barack Obama--but he wants to write Jeremiah Wright and William Ayers out of his biography. Worse, he wants us to stop asking questions about this sort of thing. These are the policies I will pursue. And in the weeks ahead, I look forward to debating them with John McCain. But what I will not do is suggest that the Senator takes his positions for political purposes. Because one of the things that we have to change in our politics is the idea that people cannot disagree without challenging each other's character and patriotism. The times are too serious, the stakes are too high for this same partisan playbook. So let us agree that patriotism has no party. I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain. It's awfully generous of Obama to refrain from questioning the patriotism of a war hero. The real purpose of this statement, of course, is not to protect McCain but to protect Obama. Its purpose is to declare off-limits any further questions or discussion about his past association with Wright, Ayers, and all of the other shady characters from Obama'[...]

What to Do About Pakistan

Sat, 23 Aug 2008 00:30:27 -0600

The more subtle goad has been observing the reaction of many Western commentators to Russia's invasion of Georgia. What has struck me is the ease and complacency with which many pundits, particularly those on the center-left, have declared that there is not much the US can do to stop Russia or support Georgia--and then just left it at that. What this reaction really indicates is that these pundits don't really regard the issue as important and can't be bothered to think too hard about the things that we actually can do for Georgia. If an issue really has important consequences, you don't just shrug your shoulders and say, as Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly said to the leaders of Georgia, "This is where we are." You try every idea and search for creative solutions to get from where you are to where you need to be. So you will notice that I have removed the question mark in the title of this article. What happens in Pakistan is significantly more important for American interests than what happens in Georgia, so it is time to come to a definite conclusion about what we can do about Pakistan. First, let's state the dilemma clearly. The government of Pakistan has largely given up attempting to fight al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and their supporters in the lawless tribal regions of Pakistan. Musharraf signed peace agreements with some of the Taliban groups, effectively ceding control of the tribal regions to them, and the new Pakistani parliament has so far not been much better, adopting its own policy of appeasement toward the Taliban. Meanwhile, the Pakistani intelligence service--which seems to operate on its own agenda, independent of both the parliament and the military--has returned to its old policy of covert support for the Taliban. As a result, the Taliban and al-Qaeda have formed a new safe haven in Pakistan's tribal frontier, which they are using to plan attacks on the West, train operatives, and send thousands of foot soldiers to attack NATO troops in Afghanistan. The slight resurgence of the Taliban in the past year is almost entirely attributable to the increased support coming in from Pakistan. Under the Bush Doctrine, this would give us a clear justification to send an ultimatum to the government of Pakistan and, if necessary, to invade and occupy the country. But aside from the fact that there is no longer enough public support for such an action--even President Bush has abandoned the Bush Doctrine--such an invasion is also an enormous undertaking which is probably outside our ability to launch without years of preparation. And it would be enormously difficult in any case; Pakistan is a nuclear-armed nation that is twice as large as Iraq with almost six times as many people. There are two other reasons why an invasion and occupation of Pakistan should be avoided, if possible. Part of our casus belli against Pakistan is that it is aiding a relatively small insurgency in the smaller nation of Afghanistan. So it does not necessarily make sense to solve that problem by enlarging it to include an occupation and counter-insurgency war in the whole nation of Pakistan, too. The other reason to hesitate in using force directly against the government of Pakistan is because it is no longer ruled by a dictator. The new government of Pakistan has been dithering and ineffectual in dealing with terrorism, partly because it is truly representative of the population, which is half-sympathetic to radical Islam and doesn't want to have to make a choice between Islam and the modern world. But one of the great virtues of representative government is that it is capable of correcting its mistakes, and when it does choose to act, it does so with greater moral legitimacy and hence more eff[...]

Obama Wraps Up the Bush Status Quo in Pompous Clichés

Sun, 20 Jul 2008 00:00:00 -0600

The speech has two purposes. One is to artfully evade Obama's massive misjudgment of the "surge," which he unequivocally opposed. Thus, while he half-acknowledges the enormous turnaround in Iraq, here is how he describes its cause: As I have said many times, our troops have performed brilliantly in lowering the level of violence. General Petraeus has used new tactics to protect the Iraqi population. We have talked directly to Sunni tribes that used to be hostile to America, and supported their fight against al Qaeda. Shiite militias have generally respected a cease-fire. Those are the facts, and all Americans welcome them. Here's a tip. When Obama begins a sentence with "As I have said many times," this means that he is about to announce a totally new position that contradicts everything he has said before. For a little reminder of what Obama has actually said about the surge "many times," check out this video clip helpfully posted to YouTube by the Republican National Committee. The rest of that passage shows a total, willful ignorance about what the surge actually consisted of and what it has done. He says that we "talked directly to Sunni tribes that used to be hostile to America." Well, we did a little more than talk. We backed up the Sunni "Awakening" movement with some serious military action--which is precisely what the extra "surge" troops were needed for. But the most ridiculous line is that "Shiite militias have generally respected a cease-fire." This Spring saw pitched fighting between Iraqi troops and the Iranian-backed Mahdi Army militia--fighting that ended because the Mahdi Army lost. Does Obama not even watch the news? But that is not what is most interesting about the speech. What is most interesting is its main purpose, which is to make it sound as if Obama is offering a whole new strategic direction for the War on Terrorism--while he declares that he would implement precisely the policies that are already being followed by the Bush administration. He says that "True success" in Iraq--note that he has even borrowed Bush's habit of saying "success" in place of "victory"--"will take place when we leave Iraq to a government that is taking responsibility for its future--a government that prevents sectarian conflict, and ensures that the al Qaeda threat which has been beaten back by our troops does not reemerge." But that is precisely what is already happening. Sectarian killings in Iraq, for example, have dropped to zero for about ten weeks running. And how does Obama propose to ensure that we keep on enjoying this "true success" in Iraq? "We can safely redeploy our combat brigades at a pace that would remove them in 16 months. That would be the summer of 2010--one year after Iraqi Security Forces will be prepared to stand up; two years from now, and more than seven years after the war began. After this redeployment, we'll keep a residual force to perform specific missions in Iraq: targeting any remnants of al Qaeda; protecting our service members and diplomats; and training and supporting Iraq's Security Forces." Note the part about the "residual" combat force, whose size Obama never specifies, which will target the remnants of al Qaeda and train and support Iraqi forces--which is precisely the end result envisioned by the Bush administration if the current progress in Iraq continues. But maybe the big difference is that Obama will stick to his 16-month timetable no matter what, while Bush and McCain want to make withdrawal dependent on conditions on the ground. Well no, Obama would "make tactical adjustments" after consulting with "commanders on the ground and the Iraqi government." That final flip-flop that the left ha[...]