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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - William F. Buckley

RealClearPolitics - Articles - William F. Buckley

Last Build Date: Thu, 31 Jan 2008 00:20:00 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2008

State of the Union: Not So Good

Thu, 31 Jan 2008 00:20:00 -0600

As to practicalities, an enterprising researcher many years ago tried phoning six different IRS offices to ask how to handle a particular line on the income-tax return. He received six different answers. If professionals cannot come to the same conclusion as to what the code says, it is not surprising that calls for tax reforms have attracted adherents, reaching back to 1972 and the days of George McGovern, who made reforms a staple of his program; and carried forward ingeniously on the conservative side of the aisle by such as Phil Gramm, Dick Armey and Steve Forbes, with various proposals for a flat income tax or a consumption tax.

The top marginal tax rate aside, there is the sheer complexity of it for those millions who must file federal income-tax returns. Many of them choose, prayerfully, tearfully, to fill out the short form. Others take the choice of hunting for all available exemptions, deductions and depreciations, and then suffering the torment of wondering whether they took full advantage of every possibility. The exhausted, and the semi-exhausted, are asking the question: Why should it be so complicated?

The reason why tax reform is so complicated is that reformers seek out jungle leaves writhing for the sunlight, toward such rays of justice and equity as are discernible at any given moment in American politics -- the moment when the action freezes, as for a photographer, for just long enough to permit one set of claimants to overshadow another. Thus a tax reform is born, and for that brief moment we have a new law that is taken as expressive of social policy. It is an assertion of justice understood as a blend of considerations: the necessities of the state, the toleration of the body politic, the relationships of power among the affected interests.

Some critics fault President Bush for not pushing harder to raise corporate taxes. At present, corporate taxes account for between 7 percent and 11 percent of all the revenues taken in by the federal government. This is down drastically from the 1950s, when corporate taxes brought in 30 percent of federal revenues. It is, however, not the tax one wants immediately to contemplate raising when we are running the largest trade deficits in history.

Bush attacked directly the so-called earmarks, and he did so persuasively. But earmarks, while the least defensible federal spending, do not account for a large proportion of the federal budget.

George W. Bush tried -- flirted with -- doing something about Social Security. Ronald Reagan tried --flirted with -- doing something about Social Security. But real reform ran up against political walls, and so the underlying problem remains, getting worse every year. President Bush is framed by these realities -- with 1 1/2 wars going on. Some of us dare to say that his sheer decency shines through even the tangle he has to account for, and for which he bears a substantial share of responsibility.

Edwards Hate-Talk

Sat, 26 Jan 2008 00:30:00 -0600

He is a prosperous-looking man, and this makes the picture all the more piquant, because prosperous-looking men are expected to be drawn to their likes -- you know, other folk who went to Hotchkiss and Yale. The underlying purpose here is to surprise the listener by expressing yourself as 100 percent on the other side. Which side? The side of poor people, of disadvantaged people, of people who want and deserve -- more.

In decades gone by I have from time to time wondered at the self-flagellatory submission of the American capitalist class. If you want to attract favorable attention from plutocrats at home and abroad, it hurts you not one bit to be contemptuous of American capitalist practices. Here is the Edwards formulation:

"President Bush honors and respects only wealth." What? When did that happen? Bush has never turned his eyes or his concerns away from what Mr. Edwards would call ordinary Americans. "He wants to be certain that those who have it keep it." But shouldn't economic security be the goal of all Americans? Edwards says this kind of thing in tones that suggest that if you favor security for the rich you are undermining the prospects of the poor. He is 100 percent wrong.

"(Bush) comes from a world where wealth is largely inherited, not earned. That is not the world I come from. ... The difference between George Bush and John Edwards is, while he honors and respects only wealth, I honor and respect hard work. I honor and respect responsibility. I believe in opportunity. He's about building barriers and closing doors; I'm about exactly the opposite. I want to knock barriers down. I want to open doors."

I mean, can you stand it? That is political rhetoric of the kind we got a generation ago from the fire-breathing populists, as also from conniving communists and dogmatic socialists. There are 2 million Americans who, on the income scale, are members of the upper class. It has been estimated that about 80 percent of these made their way to affluence by hard work, good luck, and a willingness to participate in a competitive economy. You'll find just as many descendants of Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller struggling to stay afloat as descendants of Samuel Gompers and Walter Reuther. Eighty percent of American millionaires are first-generation wealthy.

John Edwards, who has about 20 percent of the Democratic delegates within his reach, certainly seems to believe that politicians who want to succeed should clothe themselves in populist formulations. But young politicians seeking success might wonder at the dangers of being too obvious about changing one's positions on public policies.

The New York Times, in its seigneurial manner, judges Edwards to have gone a little too far. In its Jan. 25 editorial, the Times appreciates his "fiery oratory," but goes on to regret that "we cannot support his candidacy. The former senator from North Carolina has repudiated so many of his earlier positions, so many of his Senate votes, that we're not sure where he stands."

Where he stands is in the long line of critics of America who believe they can prosper politically by edging the American ethos over to left-welfarism. It's reassuring that Mr. Edwards, for all his pitch and fire against American success, should himself be prepared to join the ranks of the failed political class.

Barack vs. Hillary

Wed, 23 Jan 2008 00:15:00 -0600

Well, that's the direction in which Clinton and Obama are headed. The New York Times writes that the "totality of the attacks" lays bare "the ill will and competitive ferocity that has been simmering between them for weeks."

When two antagonists are required by a scheduled event to speak to their opponent, and when it is clear that they would much rather tear out the eyes of their opponent, they tend to seize on a casus belli which you and I would not think all that mortal, if directed at you or me. Mrs. Clinton railed against Obama because, she said, he never acknowledged responsibility for legislative measures that he had voted for.

He fought back by charging that the Clintons spend all night every night combing through the 4,000 votes cast by Obama in the Illinois state legislature, looking for something to criticize. By contrast, he said, he had himself attempted to maintain "a certain credibility" in the race.

Well, that brought on a charge by Hillary that Barack was tied in with a slumlord in Chicago. In fact, early in his career he had worked for a law firm that did legal work for Antoin Rezko, but that was the sum total of that connection. During this season he has already returned $40,000 in political contributions that were linked to the alleged slumlord.

Obama came back by pointing out that Mrs. Clinton had served as a (paid) director of Wal-Mart from 1986 to 1992, while he was "working on the streets of Chicago" as a community organizer. Mrs. Clinton did not have much to say about that.

The animal spirits got so hot that before long, Barack was taking on not only Mrs. Clinton but Mr. Clinton. "I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes," he said, charging that Bill Clinton had done as much as his wife to distort Obama's views and record. At several points, Obama used the phrase "Senator Clinton and President Clinton."

Well, one of the two stands a very good chance of becoming president. And it can only be said with confidence about their current contentions that not a correction will be made, in 2009, when their differences will be taken as simple campaign oratory. That is how, after the 1940 election, Wendell Willkie characterized his observations about FDR, whom, during the campaign, he had said should be handcuffed, sent to Sing Sing, and deprived of bread and water.

All told, it seems a pretty conventional modern contest for power between candidates who wish to exceed each other in promises made to the voters. "Health care should be universal," said Hillary. Obama might have answered, "Success in the stock market should be universal." But there isn't anything a president can do to secure that, so if Obama wins, he'll have to settle for providing health care for Dow Jones.

It's Really Quite Simple

Sat, 19 Jan 2008 00:00:00 -0600

In Michigan, on the other hand, the economy dominated the campaign, but the candidates concentrated on Michigan's distinctive problems, posed by the declining American auto industry. Such long-term problems were not what was exercising the president and congressional leaders in Washington. They were concerned with how they could jolt the economy out of the slide caused by the mortgage crisis.

The prescriptive remedy for overspending is reduced spending. Although it isn't being said in as many words, the trouble we are in is an aspect of overspending. But, paradoxically, the solution is not only to spend more, but to spend it quickly.

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's, proffers recent findings about how this might be done. An increase in unemployment benefits, he says, produces about $1.73 in additional consumer demand for every dollar spent. If Congress acted on that assumption, then $100 billion going directly to unemployment pools would increase consumer spending by $173 billion.

If Congress elected instead to energize the money being spent by reducing (or forgiving) taxes, it would do well, but not nearly so well: $100 billion in tax rebates would mean $119 billion infused into the economy. But hear this, $100 billion returned to taxpayers through reduced tax rates would mean only a $59 billion increase in spending. It should not surprise us that the propensity to consume is highest among the unemployed. But it is discouraging to be told that reduced income taxes do not result, pro tanto, in increased consumer spending.

The debate, therefore, rolls on. Almost certainly the package enacted by Congress will include a bit of every nostrum: lower tax rates, tax rebates, unemployment subsidies. What isn't likely to come out of it is generic reforms of a kind that might have spared us the collapse. And why is this so? Because economic practices are governed by political considerations. It is tempting to blame the leaking roof on the rainfall.

If there is a single image to crystallize the American dream, it would be house ownership. And the moment one makes widespread home ownership a priority, one is required to come up with a structure of credit devices.

Principal among these, of course, is the mortgage. There is nothing inherently corrupt about mortgage lending. The problem comes in when the mortgage is set at a figure that does not correspond with economic reality.

Why should such a thing happen? It could be that, when the petitioner comes in with his hard-luck story, the man on the other side of the desk is Jimmy Stewart, who ends up granting a much more generous mortgage than if he were a tough hombre making the rules.

But there would be a limit to how many such mortgages even a Jimmy Stewart could write if it hadn't been for the folks who came up with a way to sell the mortgages to third parties. These might be other banks. Or insurance companies. If you persuade an obliging behemoth to take on just, say, one-millionth of the risk you undertook, well, that is prudent at every level. But the problem comes when the banks that were willing to take just a little bit of risk find themselves staring at the million people on whom they depended for ballast-IOUs in hand.

When that happens you have only the government to lean on. And fortunately for the improvident lender, there are so very many people now involved, the general mood is cooperative. Whether Congress goes with tax-rate cuts or with rebates or with subsidies, the public is not likely to grind the government on the wheels of economic orthodoxy.

Primary Confusions

Thu, 17 Jan 2008 00:05:00 -0600

We have the additional problem of the advantage given to candidates who are effective in the early contests. To show up well in Iowa means much more than to win Iowa delegates. It propels the victor to a strategic eminence that can hugely affect subsequent votes. There are candidates who kill themselves to raise $5 million or $10 million to advertise their attractions to the next set of primary voters a week hence. That itself is a distracting interference in the attempt to divine the popular will.

Efforts have been made to limit the sums that can be spent in election contests. These efforts have failed, and probably should fail, inasmuch as the regulation of money spent on an election is not automatically a means of reducing extraneous factors in political appeal. The election process is a market exercise. The voter is given the choice of Clinton, Obama or Edwards, and it is left exclusively to him what weight he wishes to attach to Clinton's experience, Obama's exotic racial background or Edwards' good looks. That can't be changed, the effect of individual tastes, even if they are eccentric.

But the critics are on firm ground if they ask simply, as Mallaby does, that a primary winner should not be judged pre-eminent if he (read he/she) was competing in a race in which there were more than two candidates. Which raises concrete questions about the current scene.

Would Clinton have prevailed in New Hampshire if Obama had been her only opponent? Do not go off self-satisfied with the assumption that the problem would be solved by contriving a means of eliminating the factor of Edwards et al. That could be done by reforms mandating a runoff between the two top vote-getters, as they do in France. But that would leave unanswered the question: Are the voters in a local primary being deprived of representation consistent with their potential strength in a national contest?

One approach would grant points to primary candidates, to be added up at the end of the line. So that such as Mr. Edwards don't just get eliminated; they store up points which they can invoke at the final clearinghouse of the national convention.

Well, most of these projected reforms, whatever their theoretical appeal, simply aren't going to happen unless a demonstrable distortion should wrench from favor existing procedures. But of course our system has means of coping with, if not eliminating, crippling paradoxes. It was not so long ago, in American history, that the next candidate of the party in power was simply the person ordained by the incumbent. It was in part a recognition of the awful likelihood that Henry Wallace would be the Democratic candidate succeeding FDR that brought on the switch to Harry Truman as vice president in 1944.

We do not face such contingencies in 2008. What we do face is several more months of the kind of confusion that can frustrate the modern American voter.

Inside Obama

Sun, 13 Jan 2008 00:17:00 -0600

One needs to disqualify a few of the candidate's postures, and this applies also to other candidates, of both parties. However demanding the formal requirement, as for the preacher to recall the deceased's name at the funeral, one must attempt to set aside, or to catnap while they go on, the common rhetorical denominators. Nobody, at this stage, is going to favor aggressive military action. The politicians therefore make it clear that such appropriations as they support for the military are for beefing up our self-defense. Kindly do not muddy this proposition by interjecting that sometimes, self-defense is best done by pre-emptive military initiatives.

So Obama will struggle for peace and a resilient military. On this point, he will disagree only retroactively in the matter of Iraq. So, in understanding Obama, one reaches for concrete policy differences, and here is one that attracts attention: "I simply believe that those of us who have benefited most from this new economy can best afford to shoulder the obligations of ensuring that every American child has a chance for that same success."

Such words bring cheers, because what we are doing is applauding the singular successes of the speaker. But the cavil here is that they must be understood as singular. There is every reason in the world to declare that one wishes for the entire next generation that they come in speaking with the lucidity of Abraham Lincoln and showing the enterprise of Bill Gates. What is wrong is to stimulate the illusion that such things are possible.

One reason for the spectacular success of Barack Obama is the accumulation of burdens he faced and overcame. His father was black, the family destitute; early life was a struggle in Hawaii and Indonesia.

What does it take to transform that into acceptance by Columbia University? Okay, it seems that affirmative action leaned a heavy shoulder on the admissions-office door. But wait! Obama was then accepted by Harvard Law School and -- finally -- he was elected president of the Harvard Law Review. There is no reason to suppose that the admissions people, or his colleagues on the Review, said, Whoa! Here's a guy homely enough personally, and cosmopolitan enough in background, he might become a presidential candidate!

The successes thundered in, a show-stopping oration to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, and then election to the U.S. Senate and steady movement (excepting in New Hampshire) toward his eminence today, which is difficult to match.

But to suggest to his listeners that any active intervention by the government would increase the "chance for that same success" for "every American child" is mischievous. To imply that such careers are open to most people, let alone every American child, is to foster frustration, and to stimulate disillusion. In 1948, when Senator Robert Taft announced that he was seeking the GOP presidential nomination, a reporter asked his wife, "Mrs. Taft, do you consider your husband a common man?"

She turned on him and said: "My husband was first in his class at Yale College. Then he went to Harvard Law School, where he graduated first in his class."

Robert Taft was not to be likened to the common man, and neither is Barack Obama, who can do a great deal urging the younger generation to emulate what he, Obama, did in working to be educated, and mastering the law, and of course expressing gratitude to free American institutions that recognize and encourage advancement. But it is not unimportant to remind the voters of that generation that there is nothing, nothing that the state can do to replicate Obama's success for a million others.

Produced By Iowa

Sat, 05 Jan 2008 00:25:00 -0600

And it didn't require neglect by the press to effect alienation from the voters. Rudy Giuliani showed up with a burning city on his back, a single fire hose in his hand. He did better than Richardson, gaining 3.5 percent of Republican votes, as opposed to Richardson's 2.1 percent of Democratic votes. But, as someone remarked, he shouldn't be lonely; he has all those wives to return to.

Above the ranks of sheer rejection came the players, among them Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee. Their principal attraction to the voters of Iowa in 2008 is their insubstantiality. Huckabee is the candidate whose name you practice pronouncing because you thought up until now that he was a character in one of Mark Twain's novels. Some voters may have suspected that that is exactly what he in fact is, and wished to help in his road to incarnation.

But there was real poignancy in the middle group. John McCain made it to 13 percent, but that is losers' territory, and he might have preferred to come in with his senatorial colleague Mr. Dodd. If there was sadness in Iowa when the votes were counted, much of it must have been over the rebuke to McCain. And there can have been only a single reason for it, namely his defense of the Iraq war.

Many of the candidates spoke of the Iraq enterprise as a historic pitfall in American history. If it was indeed that, then our legislatures and statehouses are simply teeming with men and women of abject vision, because nearly five years ago, the march against Baghdad was endorsed, openly or silently, by the majority of our public citizens. History would have been grateful for a poll on Thursday registering names of public men and women who endorsed the war. Perhaps they stayed away, or voted for Dodd.

It was a day of defiance. When aberrancy is sought, Americans are good at coming up with it. There are of course galleries of the stuff, carefully tended and regularly exhibited, on Broadway, in the movie houses and at Disneyland. But when the visitors pass through the portals again, going out, their souvenirs tend to be wholesome, as if they had just come back from voting for the surge.

The big winner was an affront to the common wisdom that looks matter most in the age of television. The dissenters were bound to support a homely man, and they found him on the Democratic side, giving Barack Obama 37.6 percent of the vote. Mr. Obama could think of himself as in the category of Abraham Lincoln. But he does Abe Lincoln one better by having a name that sounds as if he was on the playbill as the man who will bind the beautiful lady to the rails on which the great express will ride. Compare John Edwards. He is movie-star handsome, distinguishable only by his superfine haircut and Southern accent. He took 29.7 percent of the vote, nosing out Mrs. Clinton, who had 29.5 percent, and who had gone to Iowa hoping for great things.

Well, Iowa accomplished quite a lot, in politics and in theater.

Regulation Time?

Thu, 03 Jan 2008 00:10:00 -0600

As opposed to what?

Well, as opposed to taxing John from his earnings sufficiently to compensate Jim for his failure. The market seeks simply to individuate the winner and the loser. Interventionists are moved by a desire to temper the judgments of the marketplace, and the way to do this is: by regulation.

Regulation in some form or other is almost everywhere licensed and, generally, applauded. If competitors run taxi companies, regulation denies to any one of them an exclusive franchise: Do not seek to eliminate the competition. And there is regulation built into progressive taxation: The winner climbs into a higher tax bracket, and is thus burdened to the advantage (in the short term) of the competitor.

The mortgage crisis came on because our free society did not think to intervene at a juncture where it could have limited the effects of cosmic thoughtlessness and insouciant greed. So that the question now arises: How does society single out the gross violators, meting out punishment to those who deserve it without harming others? Is it possible to identify the guilty parties?

This family desires a house, but cannot not afford a mortgage based on conventional factors. A friendly mortgage broker emerges. He will arrange for them to get a mortgage at an easygoing rate. The lender will agree to this because, immediately on writing the mortgage, he will sell his interest in this family and their house to yet another party, who bundles it with similar mortgages and sells slices of the package to various investors. And so a great pool of mortgages accumulates, banked away in every corner of the financial house, a bit of everybody's portfolio who has an interest in the financial order.

What the market would do, facing that situation, is to impose punishment on the disorderly mortgage brokers and lenders. But where are they? They are almost universally out of sight. They didn't linger over the worthless mortgages; they passed them on to buyers who have been waking up during the past six months bereft of assets they thought they had.

If we could start from scratch, we might have managed a federal regulation that forbade giving mortgages to people without an adequate credit history. But we cannot do that in retrospect, so we are in mid-quandary, with foreclosures lowering the values of all houses, not just the ones with risky mortgages. Is there a market for, say, 30 million American homes?

The politics of the matter are at least this clear. The federal government being the only agent that can possibly intervene, it needs to do so, by forbidding the liquidation of mortgages until the disparity between true value and hypothetical value is pounded away by time and inflation -- and a revitalization of the functions of the marketplace.

Pakistan's Blood-stained Democracy

Sun, 30 Dec 2007 00:10:00 -0600

"No, I don't. I stuck out my neck for Pakistan. I didn't stick out my neck for anyone else. It happened to be in the interest of the world and the U.S. ... The problem with the West and your media is your obsession with democracy, civil liberties, human rights. You think your definition of all these things is (correct). ... Who has built democratic institutions in Pakistan? I have done it in the last eight years. We empowered the people and the women of Pakistan. We allowed freedom of expression."

Musharraf cited as an example of the bias against which he works, the coverage by the Western media of the violence at the Islamabad mosque last summer: "We took action. What did the media do about it? They showed those who took action as villains and brought those madwomen who were there on television and made heroes of them."

Weymouth then asked the sacred question: "Do you feel you could work with Benazir Bhutto?"

Musharraf: "When you talk of working with her, you imply she is going to be the prime minister. Why do you imply that? I keep telling everyone we haven't had the elections."

"Mrs. Bhutto charges that there are going to be ghost polling stations -- that the voting is going to be rigged."

This brought real asperity: "... let her not treat everyone like herself. ... I am not like her. I don't believe in these things. Where's her sense of democracy when 57 percent of the Parliament vote for me, and she says she is not prepared to work with me ...?"

Why, the interviewer asked Ms. Bhutto, are the terrorists so strong in Pakistan? Is it because there is support for them from the government?

Ms. Bhutto: "Yes. I am shocked to see how embedded it (terrorism) is. I knew it was bad from afar. People are scared to talk. They say I am polarizing when I say militancy is a problem."

Two weeks later the lead story in The New York Times spoke of our policy as "left in ruins." Nothing remained of "the delicate diplomatic effort the Bush administration had pursued in the past year to reconcile Pakistan's deeply divided political factions." Another Times reporter spoke of "the new challenge" the assassination posed to the Bush administration in its effort "to stabilize a front-line state" in the "fight against terrorism."

There are reasons to object to the repository of blame in the Bhutto situation. To the charge that there was insufficient security in Rawalpindi, nothing more needs to be said than that -- yes, manifestly there was insufficient security, as there was at Ford's Theatre in 1865, Dealey Plaza in 1963, and the hundred other places in America where mayhem has been plotted. We cannot know with any confidence just what it is that the Pakistanis have to come up with to make safe the niceties of democracy about which Musharraf speaks with understandable scorn.

The scantest knowledge of Pakistani and Muslim history challenges the fatuity that this is a corner of the political world where public life can proceed with no more concern for militant interruption than would be expected in the House of Lords.

The Bush administration should announce to the waiting world that the United States cannot be charged with responsibility for maintaining order in Pakistan, and does not accept responsibility for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

What They Can't Ask

Thu, 27 Dec 2007 00:28:00 -0600

It is a very unusual luxury to be able to put the same question to the whole battery of contestants, but the question I most wanted to shoot out at the company was not liked at all by Robert Strauss. "You can't get up there in front of 10 million people," he warned, "and give out a reason why your fellow contestant should not be nominated."

I disagreed, and the show went on, one part of it featuring this question: Sir, the gentleman seated on your left, Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, wants to be the standard-bearer for your party. What is it, given his background, given his record, given his weaknesses, that your party would have to fear if he were the candidate?

Sometimes the Achilles' heel is obvious. "Mr. Clinton would have a problem accounting for all the time he spent with Monica Lewinsky and then lying about it." "General Napoleon would have a problem, given the difficulties in hand and the ferocity of the opposition, defending his decision to invade Russia."

But Strauss was right. The half-dozen candidates were all disposed to talk about their own accomplishments (and their dreams of great ventures only they could launch), but something fed by gentility, brotherhood or fear kept the candidates from enumerating the weaknesses of the others. They just wouldn't do it.

As we face the critical early caucus in Iowa this time around, we suffer from this same self-indulgence.

It is pretty well established that former senator John Edwards is simply a rich station-seeker. "Senator, you've been running for president for over four years. How do you account for your failure to formulate a coherent platform for your candidacy?"

That's a question the moderator could ask, but would run the risk of being thought prosecutorial -- the equivalent of asking Clinton why he had carried on with Monica, or Napoleon why he had persisted in his effort to conquer Moscow.

Worse, an instinct for self-protection would almost certainly awaken in the other candidates a sense of caution, and therefore of sympathy for the candidate who didn't answer the question -- gradually chastening the moderator, who would get back to the kinds of general questions that leave the voting public with no opportunity to reflect on the weaknesses of the various candidates, let alone with any sense of who, on Jan. 3, is going to prevail in Iowa.

The election contest we are let in for has a great deal to do with how much money the candidates have succeeded in attracting from donors, fleeting impressions of how skillful they are in circumlocution, plus a certain fuzz of likability, or lack of it. This is not unimportant. If we are going to see the face of this man, or woman, 18 times a day for the next four years, why not choose someone with an agreeable countenance? And we are rewarded in having a glimpse of his capacity to deal with other politicians.

But Robert Strauss was right. You will never force a politician to recite the weaknesses of another. And this even though we know from history -- as witness, most recently, Arthur Schlesinger's posthumously published journals -- that this is often what is most needed to be said.

Whose Rights?

Thu, 20 Dec 2007 00:27:00 -0600

The strike against the television and movie producers by the writers' union follows hard on the heels of the strike against the Broadway producers by the stagehands' union, and raises some of the same questions. The people against whom the Broadway strike was directly aimed, the producers, suffered financially from three weeks of darkened theaters, and the producers will suffer in the Hollywood strike if viewers decline to accept the substitute entertainment being offered.

But the strikes also affect many other people, directly and indirectly: the actors, singers and television hosts; behind-the-scenes staff; advertisers in the case of Hollywood, restaurant owners and cab drivers in the case of Broadway; and, let us not forget, the audiences.

The idea in collective bargaining is that both sides should stand to lose something substantial in a strike -- giving the band of brothers on each side a strong incentive to come to an agreement without a strike, and thus sparing all those who would be collaterally deprived. But this is harder to quantify when the point of contention is not merely so many dollars a week, but other issues -- in the case of the stagehands, work rules; in the case of the writers, the handling of payment for Internet downloads of movies and TV shows. Whichever side comes out the winner, the public loses.

What tends to happen in those cases is that the public reaches out for some kind of force majeure. Years ago in New York the Taylor Law was passed, which forbids public employees from striking. But it is enforced only in the most obvious cases of public safety -- threatened strikes by police and firemen.

Even the First Amendment, so vocally cherished by the ladies and gentlemen of the press, is not enough to trump the claims of collective bargaining. Back in 1972, when the technicians at CBS went out on strike, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) ordered its members to honor the picket lines, and they did so, even though many of them agreed with the ringing statement made by Eric Sevareid: "Union loyalty is made to supersede a journalist's loyalty to his employers, his profession, and his concept of his duties to the public." A few years earlier, New York was deprived of newspapers for nearly four months because the courts failed to place the freedom of the press over the National Labor Relations Act.

What's not about to happen in the present case is the crystallization of the kind of vision necessary to discover and then to assert the right of the public to figure in these internecine pursuits. Perhaps that will happen only when the quarrels become truly asphyxiative and we are driven to our own uninformed resources to attempt to sing like Pavarotti, fiddle like Perlman and amuse like David Letterman. But that isn't happening, and our consciences grow more leaden by the day.

Populist Hour

Mon, 17 Dec 2007 00:25:00 -0600

So this time it is John Edwards. It is perfectly fair to probe the populist's background in judging his standing to speak. John Edwards devotes much time to his familiarity with the life of the American working man, though not quite as convincingly as, say, Henry Fonda in "The Grapes of Wrath."

Whatever historians end up classifying the young Edwards as having been, they will come upon hard facts that fix him financially at this historical point. This populist candidate lives in a 28,000-square-foot house, and he has paid $400 for a haircut. Before he entered politics, he was a trial lawyer. An extremely successful trial lawyer, in the practice of which profession he taught himself those endearing skills that he now employs in seeking the whole nation as his client.

Consider health care, with which Edwards is so clearly identified. He deplores the fact that so many lower-income citizens are not insured. He has a simple remedy: Decree universal health insurance. But who will pay for universal health insurance? Well ... the big insurance companies can bear some of the burden. And for the rest? Why, let the government pay for it!

Lower-income citizens are victimized by predatory lenders. So, cap interest rates on credit cards and unsecured loans. Prohibit abuses in the mortgage market, including prepayment penalties, mandatory arbitration, balloon mortgages and excessive fees. Encourage states to make low- or no-interest emergency loans to low-income families. Well, why not?

Energy and the environment? No liquid-coal experiments. Require oil companies to install biofuel pumps at 25 percent of their gas stations. Cap utilities' profits on sales of electricity.

And so it goes, the whole latticework of a free economy brought under the control of the federal government.

Mr. Edwards is already declining in the polls. That is one up for the sophistication of the American voter. Indeed, throughout the 20th century we rejected populist assaults on reality. The most popular expression of populist thought was of course socialism. The idea immediately grabs you: Let the wise men judge what are the most rational and beneficial distributions of goods and services. This way, you do not run the risk of leaving anybody out.

A less draconian way of managing the redistribution of resources is through manipulations of the tax code. Increase tax rates, throw out deductions, repeal the tax reforms of the past few years.

The mind reels.

There are those who, while admitting that the populist approach does not work, nevertheless welcome its occasional appearances on the scene. Because, they will tell you, populism draws attention in a theatrical way to what the free market can ignore -- to dissatisfactions that legitimately attract the reformer. Norman Thomas, who ran six times for president on the Socialist ticket, liked to remind his audiences that he had advocated Social Security the first time he ran, seven years before the New Deal discovered it.

Sometimes it works that way. A populist epiphany, followed at some remove by a milder version of it, which could still reduce the size of Mr. Edwards' lawn.

Black Times

Thu, 13 Dec 2007 00:10:00 -0600

From the first day, Black had said that he didn't do it and, anyway, even if he did, it wasn't illegal. This is a form of "pleading in the alternative": John didn't kill the chicken, killing chickens isn't illegal, and in any event, here is a chicken alive and well.

I cautioned myself, in writing to the judge, not to get into that act. A judge who had sat through a four-month-long trial, listened to learned arguments by the prosecution and the defense as to form and fact, and heard a dozen witnesses testify as to what actually did happen, would be in no mood to be told by a journalist that the whole thing was crapola and maybe she should try out a different profession.

Well, I abided by that counsel, and I have to imagine that other friends of the defendant did the same thing.

But Conrad Black did not. He stand was absolutely consistent from Day One. The charges were foolish; they sought to vest in judicial infamy that which is in the nature of things blameless. Moreover, the people who were contending otherwise were obtuse and vindictive, and should be put away somewhere to prevent the toxification of the common law and the resources of reason on Earth.

One came upon friend after friend of the defendant, in the months before sentencing, who, while perhaps permitting themselves a smile of furtive satisfaction over the raw impiety of it all, would agree: Conrad is out of his mind to pursue that line of defense.

On the question we were asked by the defense lawyer to address, Is Black an honorable fellow, responsible for good deeds and benevolent thought? there was among his friends what I would guess was close to unanimity of opinion that Conrad Black has nobly enhanced the human cause.

At this point, heady passions broke into the theater. What about poor people? What about Canadians? What about the common man?

It is an adage of life itself that the man who gives away a penny incurs resentment in those who ask why he didn't give away two pennies. And what about the means by which he achieved his surplus in the first place?

As for his fellow Canadians, when Conrad Black announced that he was willing to surrender his Canadian citizenship in order to abide in London with the lords of the realm, impulses of resentment were kindled, and from the tumult one could make out the guttural sound of, "What's wrong with Toronto, my lord?"

This is the moment, perhaps, for a little reflective thought, to the effect that the tragedy is now complete in the matter of Conrad Black. Only he had the courage and the sweep to throw it all away. Leaving, for his friends, just terrible sadness that it should have come to this.

You Live With It

Sat, 01 Dec 2007 00:51:01 -0600

And just this week, The New York Times reported that cigarette makers are walking away from print ads for their products and concentrating their marketing efforts on venues (bars and nightclubs, specialized Web sites) where they are less likely to attract the attention of teenagers. The reporter's narrative recalled the days when ads advised smokers that "More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette," or that Chesterfield was "best for you," but settling down, finally, on the one sure ground the tobacco industry rests on: Newport cigarettes are "alive with pleasure."

The ads, of course, took no account of those who were dead, presumably without pleasure. But practically no one has led a lifetime removed from the debate. There is often the felt need to recount personal stories, which add spice, and perhaps a little useful feeling to the argument.

My own story is that I am the founder of a doughty magazine which, if space was solicited tomorrow by a tobacco company, would agree to sell the space. We would come up with serious arguments featuring personal independence and pain/pleasure correlations to justify selling the space, but I would need to weep just a little bit on the inside over the simple existence of tobacco.

Again, the personal story. My wife began smoking (furtively) when 15, which is about when I also began. When we were both 27, on the morning after a high-pitched night on the town for New Year's Eve, we resolved on mortification of the flesh to make up for our excesses: We both gave up smoking. The next morning, we decided to divorce -- nothing less than that would distract us from the pain we were suffering. We came to, and flipped a coin -- the winner could resume smoking. I lost, and for deluded years thought myself the real loser, deprived of cigarettes. Half a year ago my wife died, technically from an infection, but manifestly, at least in part, from a body weakened by 60 years of nonstop smoking. I stayed off the cigarettes but went to the idiocy of cigars inhaled, and suffer now from emphysema, which seems determined to outpace heart disease as a human killer.

Stick me in a confessional and ask the question: Sir, if you had the authority, would you forbid smoking in America? You'd get a solemn and contrite, Yes. Solemn because I would be violating my secular commitment to the free marketplace. Contrite, because my relative indifference to tobacco poison for so many years puts me in something of the position of the Zyklon B defendants after World War II. These folk manufactured the special gas used in the death camps to genocidal ends. They pleaded, of course, that as far as they were concerned, they were simply technicians, putting together chemicals needed in wartime for fumigation. Some got away with that defense; others, not.

Those who fail to protest the free passage of tobacco smoke in the air come close to the Zyklon defendants in pleading ignorance.

Lights! Action!

Fri, 23 Nov 2007 00:06:09 -0600

The question arises, What can anyone outside the conflict do about it? It is a sound principle for government to decline intercession in labor-management disputes unless the community is seriously threatened. The famous formulation was that of Calvin Coolidge, who said that there is no right to strike against the public interest. But he was talking about a strike by the police. It would be a challenge to devise persuasive means of arguing that having 27 theaters closed affects the public interest as greatly as being without police protection. Even bus drivers are not estopped from striking, although when that happens an entire city can be immobilized.

This is not to say that the community is not suffering from this strike. The people who traveled to New York for the purpose of seeing a play will go back home having not seen it. Unlike the movies, access to plays is limited. And others who would have come to New York for that purpose will change their plans. One estimate puts at 65 percent the proportion of Broadway audiences who do not live in New York City. The last time there was a strike against Broadway theaters, city businesses lost an estimated $7 million per day.

And there are other, non-economic considerations. It's obvious that missing a Broadway show will not be a life-threatening event. But the stage has a magic that can transform evenings, and sometimes even lives. Its ability to make us laugh or weep provides one of the buoyancies that give us joy.

What would serve the public interest, it would seem clear, is a formula of some kind that would leave the entities free to carry on their dispute while continuing to provide their services: the stagehands' union free to set its demands, the producers to state their own. But if the services forgone aren't critical enough to justify government intercession -- as Mayor Michael Bloomberg has rightly decided -- that should not stop the search for an architecture by which to guard against future deadlock.

It is left to the imagination of the mayor and other public figures to set forth proposals that would lead in the right direction. One hopes that there are dramatic resources available to hew out one more provision by which contending parties agree to govern themselves.