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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - Thomas Sowell

RealClearPolitics - Articles - Thomas Sowell





Last Build Date: Sun, 12 Apr 2009 00:10:00 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2009
 



Mind-Changing Books

Sun, 12 Apr 2009 00:10:00 -0600

The writings of Karl Marx-- especially The Communist Manifesto-- had the longest lasting effect on me as a young man and led me to become and remain a Marxist throughout my twenties. I wouldn't recommend The Communist Manifesto today either, except as an example of a masterpiece of propaganda.

There was no book that changed my mind about being on the political left. Life experience did that-- especially the experience of seeing government at work from the inside.

The book that permanently made me a sadder-- and, hopefully, wiser-- man was Edward Gibbons' The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. To follow one of the greatest civilizations of all time as it degenerated and fractured, even before being torn apart by its enemies, was especially painful in view of the parallels to what is happening in America in our own times.

The fall of the Roman Empire was not just a matter of changing rulers or political systems. It was the collapse of a whole civilization-- the destruction of an economy, the breakdown of law and order, the disappearance of many educational institutions.

It has been estimated that a thousand years passed before the standard of living in Western Europe rose again to the level it had once had back in Roman times. How long would it take to recover from the collapse of Western civilization today-- if we ever recovered?

The kinds of books most readers seem to have in mind when they ask for my recommendations are books that go to the heart of a particular subject, books that open the eyes of the reader in a mind-changing way.

James Q. Wilson's books on crime are like that, shattering the illusions of the intelligentsia about "root causes," "prevention" programs, "rehabilitation," and other trendy nonsense. Professor Wilson's books are a strong dose of hard facts that counter mushy rhetoric.

Peter Bauer's books on economic development demolish many myths about the causes of poverty in the Third World-- and about "foreign aid" as a way of relieving that poverty. The last of these books was the best, Equality, the Third World and Economic Delusion.

If you are interested specifically in why Latin American economies have lagged behind for so long, try reading Underdevelopment is a State of Mind by Lawrence Harrison.

Among my own books, those that the most readers have said changed their minds have been A Conflict of Visions, Basic Economics, and Black Rednecks and White Liberals.

A Conflict of Visions is my own favorite among my books. It traces the underlying assumptions behind opposing ideologies that have dominated the Western world over the past two centuries and are still going strong today. The Vision of the Anointed is another book of mine that deals with the same subject, but concentrating on the conflicts of our time, and it is written in a more readable style, not as academic as A Conflict of Visions.

The most readable of this list of my books is Basic Economics, which may also be the most needed, as suggested by its being translated into six foreign languages.

Black Rednecks and White Liberals challenges much that has been said and accepted, not only about blacks but about Jews, Germans, white Southerners and others.

Experience has probably changed more minds than books have. But some books can pull your experiences together and show how they require a very different vision of the world.




Random Thoughts

Tue, 07 Apr 2009 00:30:26 -0600

Barack Obama seems determined to repeat every disastrous mistake of the 1930s, at home and abroad. He has already repeated Herbert Hoover's policy of raising taxes on high income earners, FDR's policy of trying to micro-manage the economy and Neville Chamberlain's policy of seeking dialogues with hostile nations while downplaying the dangers they represent.

We seem to be moving steadily in the direction of a society where no one is responsible for what he himself did but we are all responsible for what somebody else did, either in the present or in the past.

The famous editorial cartoonist Herblock could write as well as draw. In one of his books, he said something like: "You too can have the soothing feeling of nature's own baby-soft wool being pulled gently over your resting eyes." I think of that every time I see Barack Obama talking.

It has long been said that uncertainty is the hardest thing for a market to adjust to. No one can generate uncertainty as much as the government, which can change the rules in midstream or come out with some new bright idea at any time, as the current administration has already demonstrated.

We have now reached the truly dangerous point where we cannot even be warned about the lethal, fanatical and suicidal hatred of our society by Islamic extremists, because to do so would be politically incorrect and, in some European countries, would be a violation of the law against inciting hostility to groups.

Perhaps the scariest aspect of our times is how many people think in talking points, rather than in terms of real world consequences.

Barack Obama's favorable reception during his tour in Europe may be the most enthusiastic international acclaim for a democratic government leader since Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich in 1938, proclaiming "peace in our time."

How a man who holds the entire population of a country as his prisoners, and punishes the families of those who escape, can be admired by people who call themselves liberals is one of the many wonders of the human mind's ability to rationalize. Yet such is the case with Fidel Castro.

What does "economic justice" mean, except that you want something that someone else produced, without having to produce anything yourself in return?

Perhaps the way President Obama will reduce the deficit is by making more presidential appointments of people who will pay the back taxes they owe, in order to get confirmed by the Senate.

Liberals seem to think that they are doing lagging groups a favor by making excuses for counterproductive and self-destructive behavior. The poor do not need press agents. They need the truth. No one ever said, "Press agents will make you free."

If I were Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, I would not sign any long-term lease on a home in Washington.

Socialists believe in government ownership of the means of production. Fascists believed in government control of privately owned businesses, which is much more the style of this government. That way, politicians can intervene whenever they feel like it and then, when their interventions turn out badly, summon executives from the private sector before Congress and denounce them on nationwide television.




A Rookie President

Tue, 31 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

Barack Obama is a rookie in a sense that few other Presidents in American history have ever been. It is not just that he has never been President before. He has never had any position of major executive responsibility in any kind of organization where he was personally responsible for the outcome.

Other first-term Presidents have been governors, generals, cabinet members or others in positions of personal responsibility. A few have been senators, like Barack Obama, but usually for longer than Obama, and had not spent half their few years in the senate running for President.

What is even worse than making mistakes is having sycophants telling you that you are doing fine when you are not. In addition to all the usual hangers-on and supplicants for government favors that every President has, Barack Obama has a media that will see no evil, hear no evil and certainly speak no evil.

They will cheer him on, no matter what he does, short of first-degree murder-- and they would make excuses for that. Even former Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan has gushed over President Obama and even crusty Bill O'Reilly has been impressed by Obama's demeanor.

There is no sign that President Obama has impressed the Russians, the Iranians or the North Koreans, except by his rookie mistakes-- and that is a dangerous way to impress dangerous people.

What did his televised overture to the Iranians accomplish, except to reassure them that he was not going to do a damn thing to stop them from getting a nuclear bomb? It is a mistake that can go ringing down the corridors of history.

Future generations who live in the shadow of that nuclear threat may wonder what we were thinking about, putting our lives-- and theirs-- in the hands of a rookie because we liked his style and symbolism?

In the name of "change," Barack Obama is following policies so old that this generation has never heard of them-- certainly not in most of our educational institutions, where history has been replaced by "social studies" or other politically correct courses.

Seeking deals with our adversaries, behind the backs of our allies? France did that at Munich back in 1938. They threw Czechoslovakia to the wolves and, less than two years later, Hitler gobbled up France anyway.

This year, President Obama's attempt to make a backdoor deal with the Russians, behind the backs of the NATO countries, was not only rejected but made public by the Russians-- a sign of contempt and a warning to our allies not to put too much trust in the United States.

Barack Obama is following a long practice among those on the left of being hard on our allies and soft on our enemies. One of our few allies in the Middle East, the Shah of Iran, was a whipping boy for many in the American media, who vented their indignation at his regime-- which now, in retrospect, seems almost benign compared to the hate-filled fanatics and international terrorism sponsors who now rule that country.

However much Barack Obama has proclaimed his support for Israel, his first phone call as President of the United States was to Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority.

Our oldest and staunchest ally, Britain, has been downgraded by President Obama's visibly less impressive reception of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, compared to the way that previous Presidents over the past two generations have received British Prime Ministers. President Obama's sending the bust of Winston Churchill in the White House back to the British embassy at about the same time was either a rookie mistake or another snub.

We can lose some very big games with this rookie.




Cheap Political Theater

Tue, 24 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

Whatever the political or economic issues involved, this is not the way such issues should be resolved in America. We are not yet a banana republic, though that is the direction in which some of our politicians are taking us-- especially those politicians who make a lot of noise about "compassion" and "social justice."

What makes this all the more painfully ironic is that it is precisely those members of Congress who have had the most to do with creating the risks that led to the current economic crisis who are making the most noise against others, and summoning people before their committee to be browbeaten and humiliated on nationwide television.

No one pushed harder than Congressman Barney Frank to force banks and other financial institutions to reduce their mortgage lending standards, in order to meet government-set goals for more home ownership. Those lower mortgage lending standards are at the heart of the increased riskiness of the mortgage market and of the collapse of Wall Street securities based on those risky mortgages.

Senator Christopher Dodd has played the same role in the Senate as Barney Frank played in the House of Representatives. Now both are summoning government employees and the officials of financial institutions before their committees to be lambasted in front of the media.

Dodd and Frank know that the best defense is a good offense. Both know how hard it would be to defend their own roles in the housing debacle, so they go on the offensive against others who are in no position to reply in kind, given the vindictive powers of Congress.

This political theater is in one sense cheap beyond words. In another sense, it is costly beyond words.

It is cheap because the politicians who are creating this distraction from their own role also voted for the very legislation that enabled contracted bonuses to be paid by companies like AIG that received government bailout money. If members of Congress can't be bothered to read the laws they pass, then they have no basis for whipping up lynch mob outrage against people who did read the law and acted within the law.

Just as everyone seemed to be a military expert a couple of years ago, when it was chic to say that the "surge" in Iraq would not work, so today everyone seems to be an expert on executive pay.

Whether the particular executives who received bonuses were the ones responsible for AIG's problems, or were among those who warned against those problems, is something that those of us on the outside don't know. That includes those in politics and the media who are making the loudest noise.

The politicians claim to be protecting the taxpayers' money. But having politicians trying to micro-manage any business is far more likely to make those businesses lose more money, including the taxpayers' money.

Securities based on risky mortgages are what toppled financial institutions but it was the government that made the mortgages risky in the first place, by making home-ownership statistics the holy grail, for which everything else was to be sacrificed, including commonsense standards for making home loans.

Politicians and bureaucrats micro-managing the mortgage sector of the economy is precisely how today's economic disaster began. Why anyone would think that their micro-managing the automobile industry, or executive pay across a wide sweep of other industries, is likely to make things better in the economy is a mystery.

The real point is to pander to envy and resentment against people who make a lot of money. Envy is always referred to by its political alias, "social justice." But to put the lives of the wives and children of executives at risk for the sake of Beltway grandstanding shows how low our political saviors have sunk.




The Republican Civil War

Tue, 17 Mar 2009 00:30:00 -0600

New Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele's cheap shot at Rush's program as "ugly" set off the latest round of in-fighting. That is the kind of thing that is usually said by liberals who have never listened to the program. Regular listeners to the Rush Limbaugh program or subscribers to the Limbaugh newsletter know that both contain far more factual information and in-depth analysis than in the programs or writings of pundits with more of a ponderous tone or intellectual airs. Why Michael Steele found it necessary to say such a thing-- except as a sop to the liberal intelligentsia-- is one of the many mysteries of the Republican Party. Steele has since apologized to Rush but you cannot unring the bell. More important, the mindset it betrays is at the heart of many of the problems of the Republican Party, going back for years, long before Michael Steele appeared on the scene. There has long been an element of the Republican Party that has felt a need to distance themselves from people who stand up for conservative principles, whether those with principles have been Ronald Reagan, Rush Limbaugh or whomever. The latest example is John McCain's daughter, who has said how embarrassed she is by having to explain Ann Coulter to her friends. If it wasn't for articulate conservatives like Ann Coulter, both the Republican Party and the country would be in even worse shape than they are now, for there are extremely few articulate Republican politicians who can make the case for any principle. Certainly Ms. McCain's father is not one of them. The only time John McCain led Barack Obama in the polls last year was after Governor Sarah Palin joined the ticket. The economic collapse doomed their candidacies but McCain would have had no chance at all with another inconsistent and inarticulate Republican like himself on the ticket. Yet many in the Republican Party seem to have felt as embarrassed by Governor Palin as they have been by others who articulated principles, instead of trying to be in step with the fashions of the time-- fashions set by liberals. Maybe those Republicans who put a high value on being accepted in elite circles should be embarrassed by the narrowness of their elite friends, who disdain or demonize people whose principles they disagree with, instead of answering their arguments. There has even been an undercurrent among some Republicans of a sense that it is time to move away from the image of Ronald Reagan, to update the party and court newer and less embarrassing segments of the voters than their current base. There is certainly a lot to be said for inviting wider segments of the population to join you, by explaining how your principles benefit the country in general, and those segments in particular. But that is fundamentally different from abandoning your principles in hopes of attracting new votes with opportunism. No segment of the population has lost more by the agendas of the liberal constituencies of the Democratic Party than the black population. The teachers' unions, environmental fanatics and the ACLU are just some of the groups to whose interests blacks have been sacrificed wholesale. Lousy education and high crime rates in the ghettos, and unaffordable housing elsewhere with building restrictions, are devastating prices to pay for liberalism. Yet the Republicans have never articulated that argument, and their opportunism in trying to get black votes by becoming imitation Democrats has failed miserably for decades on end. There seemed, for an all too brief moment, that Michael Steele might have been the one to provide such much overdue articulation-- and possibly he still might, but only if he stays out of the Republican trap of trying to appease opponents by throwing supporters to the w[...]



False Solutions and Real Problems

Tue, 17 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

What was the problem that didn't exist? It was a national problem of unaffordable housing. The political crusade for affordable housing got into high gear in the 1990s and led to all kinds of changes in mortgage lending practices, which in turn led to a housing boom and bust that has left us in the mess we are now trying to dig out of. Usually housing affordability is measured in terms of how much of the average person's income it takes to cover either apartment rent or a monthly mortgage payment. There were certainly places here and there where it took half a family's income just to put a roof over their heads. Many such places were in coastal California but there were a few others, here and there, on the east coast and elsewhere. But, vast areas of the country in between-- "flyover country" to the east coast and west coast elites-- had housing prices that took no larger share of the average American's income than in the decade before the affordable housing crusade got under way. Why then a national crusade by Washington politicians over local problems? Probably as good an answer as any is that "It seemed like a good idea at the time." How are we to be kept aware of how compassionate and how important our elected officials are unless they are busy solving some problem for us? The problem of skyrocketing housing prices was all too real in those places where this problem existed. When you have to live on half your income because the other half goes for housing, that's a real downer. Almost invariably, these severe local problems had local causes-- usually severe local restrictions on building homes. These restrictions had a variety of politically attractive names, ranging from "open space" laws and "smart growth" policies to "environmental protection" and "farmland preservation." Like most wonderful-sounding political slogans, none of these lofty goals was discussed in terms of that one four-letter word that people do not use in polite political society-- "cost." No one asked how many hundreds of thousands of dollars would be added to the cost of an average home by "open space" laws, for example. Yet empirical studies have shown that land-use restrictions added at least a hundred thousand dollars to the average home price in dozens of places around the country. In some places, such as coastal California, these restrictions added several hundred thousand dollars to the price of the average home. In other words, where the problem was real, local politicians were the cause. National politicians then tried to depict this as a national problem that they would solve. How would they solve it? By pressuring banks and other lenders to lower their requirements for making mortgage loans, so that more people could buy houses. The Department of Housing and Urban Development gave the government-sponsored enterprise Fannie Mae quotas for how many mortgages it should buy that were made out for people for low to moderate incomes. Like most political "solutions," the solution to the affordable housing "problem" took little or no account of the wider repercussions this would entail. Various economists and others warned repeatedly that lowered lending standards meant more risky mortgages. Given the complex relationships among banks and other financial institutions, including many big Wall Street firms, if mortgages started defaulting, all the financial dominoes could start falling. These warnings were brushed aside. Politicians were too busy solving a national problem that didn't exist. In the process, they created very real problems. Now they are now offering even more solutions that will undoubtedly lead to even bigger problems.[...]



Subsidizing Bad Decisions

Tue, 10 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

Why should taxpayers who live in apartments, perhaps because they did not feel that they could afford to buy a house, be forced to subsidize other people who could not afford to buy a house, but who went ahead and bought one anyway?

We hear a lot of talk in some quarters about how any one of us could be in the same financial trouble that many homeowners are in if we lost our job or had some other misfortune. The pat phrase is that we are all just a few paydays away from being in the same predicament.

Another way of saying the same thing is that some people live high enough on the hog that any of the common misfortunes of life can ruin them.

Who hasn't been out of work at some time or other, or had an illness or accident that created unexpected expenses? The old and trite notion of "saving for a rainy day" is old and trite precisely because this has been a common experience for a very long time.

What is new is the current notion of indulging people who refused to save for a rainy day or to live within their means. In politics, it is called "compassion"-- which comes in both the standard liberal version and "compassionate conservatism."

The one person toward whom there is no compassion is the taxpayer.

The current political stampede to stop mortgage foreclosures proceeds as if foreclosures are just something that strikes people like a bolt of lightning from the blue-- and as if the people facing foreclosures are the only people that matter.

What if the foreclosures are not stopped?

Will millions of homes just sit empty? Or will new people move into those homes, now selling for lower prices-- prices perhaps more within the means of the new occupants?

The same politicians who have been talking about a need for "affordable housing" for years are now suddenly alarmed that home prices are falling. How can housing become more affordable unless prices fall?

The political meaning of "affordable housing" is housing that is made more affordable by politicians intervening to create government subsidies, rent control or other gimmicks for which politicians can take credit.

Affordable housing produced by market forces provides no benefit to politicians and has no attraction for them.

Study after study, not only here but in other countries, show that the most affordable housing is where there has been the least government interference with the market-- contrary to rhetoric.

When new occupants of foreclosed housing find it more affordable, will the previous occupants all become homeless? Or are they more likely to move into homes or apartments that they can afford? They will of course be sadder-- but perhaps wiser as well.

The old and trite phrase "sadder but wiser" is old and trite for the same reason that "saving for a rainy day" is old and trite. It reflects an all too common human experience.

Even in an era of much-ballyhooed "change," the government cannot eliminate sadness. What it can do is transfer that sadness from those who made risky and unwise decisions to the taxpayers who had nothing to do with their decisions.

Worse, the subsidizing of bad decisions destroys one of the most effective sources of better decisions-- namely, paying the consequences of bad decisions.

In the wake of the housing debacle in California, more people are buying less expensive homes, making bigger down payments, and staying away from "creative" and risky financing. It is amazing how fast people learn when they are not insulated from the consequences of their decisions.




Is Talk Cheap?

Tue, 03 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

German immigrants who settled around the world have been among the more tolerant peoples-- not angels, a standard that only intellectuals could use, but comparing favorably with most others. Do not for one moment think that we are either intellectually or morally superior to those Germans who put Hitler in power. We have been saved by our institutions and our traditions-- the very institutions and traditions that so many are so busy eroding or dismantling, whether in classrooms or court rooms or in the halls of Congress and the White House. Talk matters for good reasons as well as bad. Anyone familiar with the desperate predicament of Britain in 1940, when it stood alone against the Nazi juggernaut that had smashed whole nations in weeks or even days, knows how crucial Winston Churchill's command of the English language was to sustaining the national will, which was the margin between survival and annihilation. Unfortunately, people on the make seem to have a keener appreciation of the power of words, as the magic road to other power, than do people defending values that seem to them too obvious to require words. The expression, "It goes without saying. . ." is a fatal trap. Few things go without saying. Some of the most valuable things in life may go away without saying-- whether loved ones in one's personal life or the freedom or survival of a nation. Barack Obama is today's most prominent example of the power of words. Conversely, the understated patrician style of country club Republicans is no small part of their many problems. It is no accident that by far the most successful Republican politician of our lifetime-- Ronald Reagan-- was a man who did not come from that country club background but someone who was born among the people and who knew how to communicate with the people. Words can shield the most blatant reality. Legislation to take away workers' rights to a secret ballot, when deciding whether or not they want to be represented by a labor union, is called the "Employees' Freedom of Choice Act." The merits or demerits of this legislation have seldom been debated. Who could be against "freedom of choice"? The Obama administration's new budget, with deficits that make previous irresponsible deficits look like child's play, has a cover that says "A New Era of Responsibility." You want responsibility? He'll give you the word "responsibility." Why not? It costs nothing. Some observers are contrasting last week's highly successful speech by President Obama to Congress with the lackluster Republican response afterwards by Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana. People familiar with Governor Jindal have a high regard for him and many think he would make a good president. But Republicans have always had more people who would make good presidents than people who would make good presidential candidates. So long as we have a democracy, that distinction is crucial. Governor Jindal made a typical Republican mistake when he began with a "me too" celebration of Obama's "historic" election. With a very limited time to address some complex issues, he needed to get right to the point and sober up such members of the audience as were capable of being sobered up. He was, in a sense, defensive, as if he had to establish that he was a good guy. General Douglas MacArthur gave a one-word definition of defensive warfare: defeat. There can be too many words, as well as too few. Governor Sarah Palin is doing herself no good by discussing her disastrous interview with Katie Couric. That does not look presidential, or even senatorial. A quarterback has to forget the interception he threw last time, and just make a better throw next time. [...]



"Not One of Us"

Tue, 24 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600

Anyone familiar with history knows that Hitler and Stalin were pragmatic. After years of denouncing each other, they signed the Nazi-Soviet pact under which they became allies for a couple of years before going to war against one another.

Pragmatism tells you nothing about extremism. But the conservative intellectuals who seize upon President Obama's pragmatism to give him the benefit of the doubt are obviously bending over backward for some reason.

With Governor Palin, it is just the opposite. The conservative intelligentsia who react against her have remarkably little to say that will stand up to scrutiny. People who actually dealt with her, before she became a national figure, have expressed how much they were impressed by her intelligence.

Governor Palin's "inexperience" is a talking point that might have some plausibility if it were not for the fact that Barack Obama has far less experience in actually making policies than Sarah Palin has. Joe Biden has had decades of experience in being both consistently wrong and consistently a source of asinine statements.

Governor Palin's candidacy for the vice presidency was what galvanized grass roots Republicans in a way that John McCain never did. But there was something about her that turned even some conservative intellectuals against her and provoked visceral anger and hatred from liberal intellectuals.

Perhaps the best way to try to understand these reactions is to recall what Eleanor Roosevelt said when she first saw Whittaker Chambers, who had accused Alger Hiss of being a spy for the Soviet Union. Upon seeing the slouching, overweight and disheveled Chambers, she said, "He's not one of us."

The trim, erect and impeccably dressed Alger Hiss, with his Ivy League and New Deal pedigree, clearly was "one of us." As it turned out, he was also a liar and a spy for the Soviet Union. Not only did a jury decide that at the time, the opening of the secret files of the Soviet Union in its last days added more evidence of his guilt.

The Hiss-Chambers confrontation of more than half a century ago produced the same kind of visceral polarization that Governor Sarah Palin provokes today.

Before the first trial of Alger Hiss began, reporters who gathered at the courthouse informally sounded each other out as to which of them they believed, before any evidence had been presented. Most believed that Hiss was telling the truth and that it was Chambers who was lying.

More important, those reporters who believed that Chambers was telling the truth were immediately ostracized. None of this could have been based on the evidence for either side, for that evidence had not yet been presented in court.

For decades after Hiss was convicted and sent to federal prison, much of the media and the intelligentsia defended him. To this day, there is an Alger Hiss chair at Bard College.

Why did it matter so much to so many people which of two previously little-known men was telling the truth? Because what was on trial was not one man but a whole vision of the world and a way of life.

Governor Sarah Palin is both a challenge and an affront to that vision and that way of life-- an overdue challenge, much as Chambers' challenge was overdue.

Whether Governor Palin runs for national office again is something that only time will tell. But the Republicans need some candidate who is neither one of the country club Republicans nor-- worse yet-- the sort of person who appeals to the intelligentsia.




A Fatal Trajectory

Tue, 24 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600

First of all, the day-to-day life of most Americans in these times is nowhere near as dire as that of the band of cold, ragged and hungry men who gathered around George Washington in the winter at Valley Forge, to which they had been driven by defeat after defeat. Only the most reckless gambler would have bet on them to win. Only an optimist would have expected them to survive. Against the background of those and other desperate times that this country has been through, we cannot whine today because the stocks in our pension plans have gone down or the inflated value that our houses had just a few years ago has now evaporated. In another sense, however, looming ahead of us-- and our children and their children-- are dangers that can utterly destroy American society. Worse yet, there are moral corrosions within ourselves that weaken our ability to face the challenges ahead. One of the many symptoms of this decay from within is that we are preoccupied with the pay of corporate executives while the leading terrorist-sponsoring nation on earth is moving steadily toward creating nuclear bombs. Does anyone imagine that we will care what anyone's paycheck is when we see an American city in radioactive ruins? Yet the only serious obstacle to that happening is that the Israelis may disregard the lofty blather coming out of the White House and destroy Iran's nuclear facilities before the Iranian fanatics can destroy Israel. If by some miracle we manage to avoid the fatal dangers of a nuclear Iran, there will no doubt be others, including a nuclear North Korea. Although, in some sense, the United States of America is still the militarily strongest nation on earth, that means absolutely nothing if our enemies are willing to die and we are not. It took only two nuclear bombs to get Japan to surrender-- and the Japanese of that era were far tougher than most Americans today. Just one bomb-- dropped on New York, Chicago or Los Angeles-- might be enough to get us to surrender. If we are still made of sterner stuff than it looks like, then it might take two or maybe even three or four nuclear bombs, but we will surrender. It doesn't matter if we retaliate and kill millions of innocent Iranian civilians-- at least it will not matter to the fanatics in charge of Iran or the fanatics in charge of the international terrorist organizations that Iran supplies. Ultimately, it all comes down to who is willing to die and who is not. How did we get to this point? It was no single thing. The dumbing down of our education, the undermining of moral values with the fad of "non-judgmental" affectations, the denigration of our nation through poisonous propaganda from the movies to the universities. The list goes on and on. The trajectory of our course leads to a fate that would fully justify despair. The only saving grace is that even the trajectory of a bullet can be changed by the wind. We have been saved by miraculous good fortune before in our history. The overwhelming military and naval expedition that Britain sent to New York to annihilate George Washington's army was totally immobilized by a vast impenetrable fog that allowed the Americans to escape. That is how they ended up in Valley Forge. In the World War II naval battle of Midway, if things had not happened just the way they did, at just the time they did, the American naval force would not only have lost, but could have been wiped out by the far larger Japanese fleet. Over the years, we have had our share of miraculous deliverances. But that our fate today depends on yet another miracle is what can turn pes[...]



The Rush to Wait

Wed, 18 Feb 2009 00:30:00 -0600

Not even the most Alice-in-Wonderland actions will arouse the suspicions of those who have what William James once called "the will to believe."

Nowhere was that will to believe greater than in the election of Barack Obama to be President of the United States, not on the basis of any actual accomplishment, but as the repository of hopes and symbolism. His supporters among the voters and in the media are not going to stop believing now.

It will take a lot more than blatant inconsistency for the faithful to lose faith. It may take catastrophe-- and there may well be catastrophe.

For some, even catastrophe under Obama can be blamed on George Bush. After all, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to an unprecedented third term in 1940, after two terms in which the unemployment rate never fell below 10 percent and was above 20 percent for 21 consecutive months.

FDR also inspired the will to believe-- and he also had Herbert Hoover on whom to blame all the country's troubles.

It may seem strange, to those who never lived through those times, that someone could be President of the United States for eight straight years and nevertheless escape responsibility for mass unemployment by blaming his long-departed predecessor. But we may yet see a re-run of that scenario in our own time.

Nothing in the amateurish way the current administration has begun suggests that they have mastered even the mechanics of governing, much less the complexities of the huge national problems looming ahead, at home and abroad.

The multiple Cabinet nominees withdrawing before their nomination can come to a vote in the Senate are just one example of this amateurism.

Another example was the Secretary of the Treasury holding a much heralded unveiling of his recovery plan, only to publicly embarrass himself and the administration when his speech made painfully clear that there is no plan, but only pious hopes. The plunge in the stock market after his speech suggests how much confidence he inspired.

There is far more to fear from this administration than its amateurism in governing. The urgency with which it has rushed through a monumental spending bill, whose actual spending will not be completed even after 2010, ought to set off alarm bells among those who are not in thrall to the euphoria of Obama's presidency.

The urgency was real, even if the reason given was phony. President Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, let slip a valuable clue when he said that a crisis should not go to waste, that a crisis is an opportunity to do things that you could not do otherwise.

Think about the utter cynicism of that. During a crisis, a panicked public will let you get away with things you couldn't get away with otherwise.

A corollary of that is that you had better act quickly while the crisis is at hand, without Congressional hearings or public debates about what you are doing. Above all, you must act before the economy begins to recover on its own.

The party line is that the market has failed so disastrously that only the government can save us. It is proclaimed in Washington and echoed in the media.

The last thing the administration can risk is delay that could allow the market to begin recovering on its own. That would undermine, if not destroy, a golden opportunity to restructure the American economy in ways that would allow politicians to micro-manage other sectors of the economy the way they have micro-managed the housing market into disaster.




Upside Down Economics

Wed, 18 Feb 2009 00:20:00 -0600

That was what the market was like before the government intervened. Like many government interventions, it began small and later grew.

The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 directed federal regulatory agencies to "encourage" banks and other lending institutions "to help meet the credit needs of the local communities in which they are chartered consistent with the safe and sound operation of such institutions."

That sounds pretty innocent and, in fact, it had little effect for more than a decade. However, its premise was that bureaucrats and politicians know where loans should go, better than people who are in the business of making loans.

The real potential of that premise became apparent in the 1990s, when the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) imposed a requirement that mortgage lenders demonstrate with hard data that they were meeting their responsibilities under the Community Reinvestment Act.

What HUD wanted were numbers showing that mortgage loans were being made to low-income and moderate-income people on a scale that HUD expected, even if this required "innovative or flexible" mortgage eligibility standards.

In other words, quotas were imposed-- and if some people didn't meet the standards, then the standards need to be changed.

Both HUD and the Department of Justice began bringing lawsuits against mortgage bakers when a higher percentage of minority applicants than white applicants were turned down for mortgage loans.

A substantial majority of both black and white mortgage loan applicants had their loans approved but a statistical difference was enough to get a bank sued.

It should also be noted that the same statistical sources from which data on blacks and whites were obtained usually contained data on Asian Americans as well. But those data on Asian Americans were almost never mentioned.

Whites were turned down for mortgage loans more often than Asian Americans. But saying that would undermine the reasoning on which the whole moral melodrama and political crusades were based.

Lawsuits were only part of the pressures put on lenders by government officials. Banks and other lenders are overseen by regulatory agencies and must go to those agencies for approval of many business decisions that other businesses make without needing anyone else's approval.

Government regulators refused to approve such decisions when a lender was under investigation for not producing satisfactory statistics on loans to low-income people or minorities.

Under growing pressures from both the Clinton administration and later the George W. Bush administration, banks began to lower their lending standards.

Mortgage loans with no down payment, no income verification and other "creative" financial arrangements abounded. Although this was done under pressures begun in the name of the poor and minorities, people who were neither could also get these mortgage loans.

With mortgage loans widely available to people with questionable prospects of being able to keep up the payments, it was an open invitation to financial disaster.

Those who warned of the dangers had their warnings dismissed. Now, apparently, we need more politicians intervening in more industries, if you believe the politicians and the media.




Random Thoughts

Tue, 10 Feb 2009 00:40:00 -0600

I hate to hear about "partnerships" between government and business, or between government and other organizations. When there is a partnership between an ant and an elephant, who do you suppose makes the decisions? There are too many people, especially among the intelligentsia, who will never appreciate the things that have made this country great until after those things have been destroyed-- with their help. Then, of course, it will be too late. How can a President of the United States be re-elected in a landslide after four years when unemployment never fell below 15 percent for even one month during his first term? Franklin D. Roosevelt did it by blaming it all on the previous administration. Barack Obama may be able to achieve the same result the same way. Do you want to have to jump through bureaucratic hoops when you are sick? If not, why would you be in favor of government-run medical care? The "Wall Street Journal Report" is one of the few things on television worth watching. It is worth it just to see the sardonic smile of Kimberly Strassel whenever she discusses politics. Democrats could sell refrigerators to Eskimos before Republicans could sell them blankets. Anyone who wants to understand the housing crisis without getting a headache from reading economic jargon should read the new book "Financial Shock" by Mark Zandi. Human beings are going to make mistakes, whether in the market or in the government. The difference is that survival in the market requires recognizing mistakes and changing course before you go bankrupt. But survival in politics requires denying mistakes and sticking with the policies you advocated, while blaming others for the bad results. I know that there are still voices of sanity around because I have counted them-- on one hand. More frightening to me than any policy or politician is the ease with which the public is played for fools with words. The latest example is the "Employee Freedom of Choice Act," a bill that will do away with secret ballot elections among workers voting on whether to be represented by a union. It is an open invitation to intimidation-- which is to say, loss of freedom of choice. Our economic problems worry me much less than our political solutions, which have a far worse track record. One of the wonders of our times is how much more attention is paid to the living conditions of a bunch of cut-throats locked up in Guantanamo than to the leading international sponsor of terrorism getting nuclear weapons. The great sense of urgency of the Obama administration to get legislation to authorize slow-moving spending projects may seem inconsistent. But the urgency is real, even if the reasons given are not. The worse case scenario for the administration would be to have the economy begin to recover on its own before this massive spending bill is passed, reducing their chances of creating the kind of politically directed economy they want. I realized how far behind the times I am when I saw a TV commercial for some weight-loss product, showing Marie Osmond "before" and "after." I thought she looked great "before." War should of course be "a last resort"-- but last in terms of preference, not last in the sense of hoping against hope while dangers grow, and wishful thinking or illusory agreements substitute for serious military preparedness-- or, if necessary, military action. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "If you wait until you see the whites of their eyes, you will never know what hit you."[...]



De-Programming Students

Tue, 10 Feb 2009 00:20:00 -0600

Various authors have written a lot of good books that demolish what is currently believed-- and taught to students-- on a wide range of issues. Some of those books are listed as suggested readings on my website (www.tsowell.com).

Yet trying to undo the propaganda that passes for education at too many schools and colleges, one issue at a time, may not always be the best strategy. There are too many issues on which the politically correct party line is considered to be the only way to look at things.

Given the wide range of issues on which students are indoctrinated, instead of being educated, trying to undo all of that would require a whole shelf full of books-- and somehow getting the students to read them all.

Another approach might be to respond to the dogmatic certainty of some young person, perhaps your own offspring, by asking: "Have you ever read a single book on the other side of that issue?"

Chances are, after years of being "educated," even at some of the highest-priced schools and colleges, they have not.

When the inevitable answer to your question is "No," you can simply point out how illogical it is to be so certain about anything when you have heard only one side of the story-- no matter how often you have heard that one side repeated.

Would it make sense for a jury to reach a verdict after having heard only the prosecution's case, or only the defense attorney's case, but not both?

There is no need to argue the specifics of the particular issue that has come up. You can tell your overconfident young student that you will be happy to discuss that particular issue after he or she has taken the elementary step of reading something by somebody on the other side.

Elementary as it may seem that we should hear both sides of an issue before making up our minds, that is seldom what happens on politically correct issues today in our schools and colleges. The biggest argument of the left is that there is no argument-- whether the issue is global warming, "open space" laws or whatever.

Some students may even imagine that they have already heard the other side because their teachers may have given them their version of other people's arguments or motives.

But a jury would never be impressed by having the prosecution tell them what the defendant's defense is. They would want to hear the defense attorney present that case.

Yet most students who have read and heard repeatedly about the catastrophes awaiting us unless we try to stop "global warming" have never read a book, an article or even a single word by any of the hundreds of climate scientists, in countries around the world, who have expressed opposition to that view.

These students may have been shown Al Gore's movie "An Inconvenient Truth" in school, but are very unlikely to have been shown the British Channel 4 television special, "The Great Global Warming Swindle."

Even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that students are being indoctrinated with the correct conclusions on current issues, that would still be irrelevant educationally. Hearing only one side does nothing to equip students with the experience to know how to sort out opposing sides of other issues they will have to confront in the future, after they have left school and need to reach their own conclusions on the issues arising later.

Yet they are the jury that will ultimately decide the fate of this nation.




Republicans as Democrats: Part II

Tue, 03 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600

For those of us who are still so old-fashioned as to be concerned about someone's ability to do the job, the question about Michael Steele is whether he can pick up the shattered pieces of the Republicans and put them together again to form a winning party. That is going to a whale of a job, for anybody of any complexion, "gender" or whatever. As a political candidate, the question about Michael Steele would be the usual ones about his ideology, his track record in office and the like. As chairman of a political party, however, the question is whether Michael Steele can represent that party to the public. This is especially important when the party is out of power and has neither a President in the White House nor a leader commanding a majority in either House of Congress. One of the huge and perennial handicaps of the Republicans is that they seldom have anybody who can articulate their case to the public. It is hard to win the White House with candidates like Bob Dole and John McCain. That was why Governor Sarah Palin was such a sensation in arousing the grassroots Republicans. She could talk! Try to name five articulate Republicans. Ronald Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln come to mind. After that, you have to rack your brain. Newt Gingrich has been good at the low-key, understated kind of discussion that a professor-- which he once was-- conducts around a seminar table. But the rough and tumble of politics is not a seminar. Bill Clinton completely out-talked Gingrich and the whole Republican leadership during the government shutdown crisis of 1995. It was painful watching the Republicans trying to explain the simple truth half as well as Clinton promoted a lie. Republicans got blamed for shutting down the government, even though they had appropriated plenty of money to keep the government running. Michael Steele can talk. That is even rarer among Republicans than being black. Too many Republicans don't even seem to understand the need to talk. They seem to think it is something you have to go through the motions of doing but, really, they would rather be somewhere else, doing something else. When the first President Bush looked at his watch during a nationally televised Presidential debate, he epitomized what has been wrong with Republicans for years. A member of the audience had just asked a stupid question. Ronald Reagan would have been all over him, like a linebacker blitzing a quarterback. But Bush 41 just looked at his watch, as if he couldn't wait for this to be over. Michael Steele not only knows how to talk, he seems to understand the need to talk. In his appearances on television over the years, he has been assertive rather than apologetic. When attacked, he has counter-attacked, not whined defensively, like too many other Republicans. When criticizing the current administration, Steele won't have to pull his punches when going after Barack Obama, for fear of being called a racist. Beyond that, one can only hope that Michael Steele understands what has been so disastrously wrong with the inept way Republicans have gone after the black vote for the past 30 years, by trying to be imitation Democrats. There are numerous issues on which Democrats have pushed policies that are very harmful to blacks, especially supporting the teachers' unions instead of parental choice. But, however good the case, somebody has to make it. Somebody has to talk.[...]