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Monthly Archives: April 2012

Philistinism and Failure

April 30th, 2012 - 8:47 pm

Tens of millions of young Chinese now study classical music, including an estimated 36 million pianists. Nothing builds attention span and analytic fortitude like classical music, and a nation that combines a vast amateur music culture with academic ambition will overwhelm the world with qualified and ambitious young minds.

China may fail; it might even descend into political chaos, to be sure — but then again, it might not. China’s massive and enthusiastic adoption of Western classical culture just might give it a world-dominating edge. There’s a difference between an engineer and an engineer who plays Bach. Higher mathematics as we know was incubated in music theory to begin with, as I explain in an essay in the April issue of First Things, “The Divine Music of Mathematics” (subscription required).

Asian dominance of classical music is nearly matched by the Asian presence in America’s top art schools. India does not give us classical musicians, but seems to aspire to dominate English fiction. What Americans deprecate as “highbrow culture” has become a mass presence in the lives of aspiring Asians on a scale that would have baffled the European elites who had an audience of thousands rather than millions. Our Philistinism could turn out to be our demise. America thrived in part because other countries failed and sent us their best minds along with their tired and poor. That’s not the sort of thing we should count on happening in the future.

That is why Fred Siegel’s diatribe in the April issue of Commentary, “How Highbrows Killed Culture,” makes such depressing reading.  He begins:

It is one of the foundational myths of contemporary liberalism: the idea that American culture in the 1950s was not only stifling in its banality but a subtle form of fascism that constituted a danger to the Republic. Whatever the excesses of the 1960s might have been, so the argument goes, that decade represented the necessary struggle to free America’s mind-damaged automatons from their captivity at the hands of the Lords of Conformity and Kitsch. And yet, from a remove of more than a half century, we can see that the 1950s were in fact a high point for American culture — a period when many in the vast middle class aspired to elevate their tastes and were given the means and opportunity to do so.

“Given the means and opportunity to do so,” indeed. The notion that evil highbrows undermined an inherently robust American culture is, well, spieβbürlicher Scheiβdreck. It’s true that NBC maintained its own symphony orchestra and paid Arturo Toscanini a superstar salary to conduct it for radio broadcasts, while today’s American orchestras can barely give their broadcasts away. But immigrants and their children dominated the classical music audience, including Jews and Italians on the coasts and Germans in the Midwest. The war produced a flowering of American culture in fields from art to rocketry because so many of Europe’s best thinkers sought refuge in the United States.

America has produced genius that tower above all other countries in only one field, namely politics: one can argue that the Federalist Papers are the greatest work of political theory ever penned, or that Abraham Lincoln is the supreme visionary among Western political leaders. But that is where it ends. Allan Bloom observed in The Closing of the American Mind (1988) that American intellectuals were singing from a cheat sheet, with bad English translations of German originals. Keynes said that the practical man of business is usually the mental slave of some defunct economist, and our practical politicians today are the mental slaves of defunct theorists.

It’s true, as Siegel complains, that leftists of all varieties derided American democracy and egalitarianism:

The Frankfurt School, led by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, theorized that the rough beast of popular fascism would come round at last in bourgeois America. Relying on an unholy blend of Freud and early Marx, the Frankfurt School writers averred that private life had ceased to be private since it had been colonized by the forces of industrialized leisure — movies, radio, TV, and comic books. These amusements were, they argued, the modern equivalent of the “bread and circuses” used to contain Rome’s plebeians as the empire descended into decadence. With their formidable dialectical skills, they had the intellectual dexterity to argue past the lack of evidence and insist that the jackboots were coming. Because the underlying reality of American life, dominated by hectoring fathers à la Freud, was intrinsically fascist, they argued, there was no need for an overt movement of the sort represented by the Nazis. Nazism was inevitable in America.

The whole vocabulary of the counterculture, as Allan Bloom explained two decades ago, is watered-down Nietzsche. Siegel is quite right to excoriate the Frankfurt School and other left-wing “highbrows.” The trouble is that conservative culture is dominated by European highbrows. What one might call the conservative mainstream consensus rests on two pillars: Natural Law theory as revived by Catholic neo-Thomism, and self-styled classical political rationalism as espoused by Leo Strauss, among others. What great homegrown Catholic philosopher stands beside de Lubac, Urs von Balthasar, not to mention Ratzinger? What American Straussian can claim the mantle of the elusive sage whose dissertation was supervised by Ernst Cassirer? What American Protestant can be compared to Karl Barth? Most of the main currents of American Judaism derive from individuals who studied at the University of Berlin in the 1920s or early 1930s: Joseph Soloveitchik, A.J. Heschel, Leo Baeck, not to mention Menachem Schneerson. To make sense of Strauss, moreover, one has to understand why he considered Heidegger the decisive mind of the 20th century (how may programs in “political philosophy” include instruction in Heidegger, which in turn requires study of Aristotle, Kant, Kierkegaard, and the Phenomenologists?). I don’t like Strauss at all, and rely instead on another German Jew, the theologian Franz Rosenzweig.

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UPDATE: See “The Horror and the Pita,” today’s “Spengler” essay in Asia Times Online, for updates and additional color on Egypt’s descent into chaos.

On April 28, Saudi Arabia closed its embassy and most consulates in Egypt following demonstrations and “attempts to storm and threaten the security and safety of Saudi and Egyptian employees, raising hostile slogans and violating the inviolability and sovereignty,” as the Saudis explained in recalling their ambassador from Cairo. This turn of events should come as no surprise. The Muslim Brotherhood hopes to use Egypt as a power base to replace the corrupt monarchies of the Persian Gulf with a modernized, quasi-Leninist breed of Islamic radicalism, and the Saudis have made public their alarm about the Muslim Brotherhood for months. As I wrote April 10 in this space, the Egyptian Islamists want economic chaos in order to consolidate their power at the street level and replace the doddering and feckless military government.

The proximate cause of the anti-Saudi demonstrations is the case of Ahmed el-Gezawi, an Egyptian lawyer, whom Saudi judges last week sentenced to a year in prison and 20 lashes for “insulting” Saudi King Abdullah. The Saudis claim that he was smuggling Xanax into the kingdom. Just who started the demonstrations against Saudi embassies and consulates is unclear, but the Muslim Brotherhood is holding a net to catch the fallout. As Reuters reported today,

In a statement, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party said the protests at the Saudi embassy showed “the desire of Egyptians to preserve the dignity of their citizens in Arab states”.

Analysts point to the rise of the Brotherhood as a cause of Saudi concern about the direction of the post-Mubarak Egypt.

“It’s no secret that Saudi Arabia is very concerned about losing one of its closest Arab allies and the rise of the Brotherhood,” said Shadi Hamid, a political analyst at the Doha Brookings Center.

Attacking the Saudis drastically reduces Egypt’s chances of avoiding economic catastrophe, as we’ll explore after the page break.

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Dog-Eating and Obama’s Identity

April 19th, 2012 - 4:44 am

What a careful reader will take away from Barack Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father is not only that the president used to eat dog meat, but more importantly, that he identifies with dog-eaters. He wants us to understand that he is one of them. Obama’s most severe critics on the right think of Obama as a socialist, for example, Dinesh D’Souza, or Stanley Kurtz in his exhaustively-researched book Radical-in-Chief. Obama used to attend the annual “Socialist Scholars Conference” in New York, which was a hard-core affair; I went to a couple of them, and they weren’t for the curious. But there is something far more visceral, more existential to the president’s dislike of the United States, and that arises from his early residence in the Third World, and his identification with the people of the Third World whose lives are disrupted by the creative destruction that America has unleashed.

Obama is the son of a Kenyan Muslim father, the stepson of an Indonesian Muslim, and the child, most of all, of an American anthropologist who devoted her career to protecting Indonesian traditional life against the depredations of the global marketplace. Her doctoral dissertation, “Peasant blacksmithing in Indonesia: surviving against all odds,” celebrated traditional cultures hanging on desperately in the face of the global economic marketplace.

Ms. Dunham was not only a Communist fellow-traveler, but the sort of 1960s woman who (as we used to say) “put her body on the line,” first by marrying two Third World men, and then by spending her career in the Third World. It is no surprise that Obama considers the Third World morally superior to the United States. Consider this description of the Jakarta of his childhood from Obama’s autobiography, Dreams from My Father: “And yet for all that poverty [in the Indonesian marketplace], there remained in their lives a discernible order, a tapestry of trading routes and middlemen, bribes to pay and customs to observe, the habits of a generation played out every day beneath the bargaining and the noise and the swirling dust. It was the absence of such coherence that made a place like [the Chicago housing projects] so desperate.” Obama had chances to compare the orderliness and regularity of traditional life with the rough-and-tumble of American capitalism, and chose to identify with the former.

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Sympathy for the Leftist Devil

April 18th, 2012 - 6:41 am

Israel’s minor annoyance over an influx of pro-Palestinian activists in the so-called Flytilla rates a great deal more attention than it deserves from the liberal media, for example, this tongue-clicking, finger-wagging item from the New York Times’ “The Lede” blog. It used to be that the body of a dead Palestinian kid (almost certain shot by Palestinians in crossfire) was the poster for Palestinian activism. All the flotilla folks have is a video of an Israeli officer bonking a blond boy in the face with his rifle; the boy falls, gets up, and walks away with a hurt look. “Israeli soldiers brutally attack Palestinian activists,” reads the super-imposed title on the video.

It can’t be good to be a pro-Palestinian activist these days. No one has time to worry about the Palestinians. Bashar al-Assad continues to slaughter his own people — nearly 10,000 over the past year — and the Muslim Brotherhood leaders of the Syrian opposition undoubtedly would slaughter Assad’s Alawite coreligionists were they to take power. There are at least 2,000 dead and 22,000 injured in little Yemen during the past two years. All of this pales next to what is likely to come in Egypt, as the military and the Islamists fight for power.

I have argued in this space and elsewhere for the past year that Egypt’s economy is headed for breakdown, and that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is incapable of ruling Egypt because it is a hopelessly feckless gang of kleptocrats. This analysis is now becoming conventional wisdom. Today, for example, Jacques Neriah writes for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs that “the current situation has been created by the inability of SCAF to rule Egypt since the end of the Mubarak regime.”

The Muslim Brotherhood is in the position of the Bolsheviks in October 1917, taking power at street level by creating popular committees to “combat speculators,” that is, ration food and fuel. No one should underestimate the Muslim Brotherhood. It withstood sixty years of persecution by successive military regimes. And it understands Egypt’s predicament far better than the Western conservatives who saw the Arab Spring as the harbinger of democracy in the region. The Brotherhood, on the contrary, knows that Islam is fragile, that the Muslim world is fighting a desperate rearguard battle for its existence against the encroachment of Western culture and economic globalization, and that time is running out.

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The Muslim Brotherhood Wants Chaos in Egypt

April 10th, 2012 - 7:06 am

From the Muslim Brotherhood’s actions of the past week–especially its decision to scuttle a desperately-needed $3 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund–it seems clear that Egypt’s dominant political organization is acting like a Leninist or Nazi vanguard revolutionary party, in what it evidently sees as a pre-revolutionary situation. The Brotherhood knows and says that Egypt’s economy is headed over a cliff, but wants to blame the crisis on the military the better to seize power.

American policy, which focuses on protecting a $75 billion investment in Egypt’s military over four decades, is hopelessly obsolete. The reverberations reach up to the Persian Gulf, where security officials now warn that the Muslim Brotherhood is a danger to Gulf security as big as Iran.

From today’s “Spengler” essay at Asia Times Online:

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood signaled its intent on Sunday to push the country into economic chaos. With liquid foreign exchange reserves barely equal to two months’ imports and panic spreading through the Egyptian economy, the Brotherhood’s presidential candidate Khairat al-Shater warned that it would block a US$3 billion emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) unless the military government ceded power.

“We told them [the government], you have two choices. Either postpone this issue of borrowing and come up with any other way of dealing with it without our approval, or speed up the formation of a government,” Khairat al-Shater said in a Reuters interview. [1]

The news service added that al-Shater “said he realized the country’s finances were precarious and a severe crunch could come by early to mid-May as the end of the fiscal year approached, but that this was the government’s problem to resolve”.

Last week, Egypt’s central bank reported that total reserves had fallen to $15 billion, but – more importantly – liquid foreign exchange reserves had fallen to only $9 billion, equivalent to just two months’ imports. Foreign exchange futures markets expect the Egyptian pound to lose half its value during the next year, and Egyptians have responded by hoarding diesel fuel, propane gas and other necessities.

With half of Egypt’s population living on $2 a day or less, the expected devaluation would push a significant part of the population below minimum nutrition levels, and balloon the government’s deficit as the cost of subsidizing imported necessities rose. Egypt imports half its caloric consumption.

The IMF loan was a stop gap to delay devaluation, but the Muslim Brotherhood’s al-Shater made clear that Egypt’s dominant political party would spike it. “It is not logical that I approve a loan that the transitional government would take for two or three months, then demand that I, as a permanent government, repay,” Shater told Reuters.” I have to agree to a loan, somebody else gets to spend it, then I have to pay it back? That is unjust.”

As Egypt headed towards chaotic breakdown, Western observers asked how its economy might be stabilized. This appears to have been the wrong question to begin with, for the Muslim Brotherhood will not allow the West to stabilize Egypt’s financial position. The right question is: who will benefit from the chaos?

The whole essay can be found here. But there’s more.

A Brotherhood coup in Cairo would have implications through the whole Arab world. As Issandr el-Armani wrote April 2 at The Arabist:

The US is still putting all of its eggs in the military’s basket, as the recent waiver for aid to Egypt and the backroom deal over the NGO affair showed. Gulf states like the UAE [United Arab Emirates] are in full-blown anti-Muslim Brotherhood hysteria, reflecting a wider unease in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and even Qatar about a Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt.[5]That is an important wrinkle, virtually ignored by the US foreign policy establishment. To the extent American analysts have examined the links between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Saudi royal family, they have concluded that “the Saudis gained newfound influence with the Muslim Brotherhood and its even more hard-line Salafis”, as John R Bradley argued last October in Foreign Affairs. [6]

The Gulf monarchies have a reason to fear the Muslim Brotherhood: as opposed to the tribal monarchies of the Gulf, the Brotherhood rebottles Islamic radicalism in the form of a modern totalitarian revolutionary party. If Egypt starves, the cry will go up from Cairo: “Our brothers lack bread and the corrupt House of Saud spends in wealth on whisky and whores.”

Gulf State officials have made no secret of their alarm. Egypt Independent columnist Sultan al-Qassemi [7] reported on February 2, “In a widely circulated video recording of a recent speech in Bahrain, Dubai’s police chief, who enjoys close relations with the country’s prime minister, warned against the Muslim Brotherhood, stating that their ‘threat to the region was just as serious as that of Iran’s.”

A potential conflict between the Gulf States and Egypt will further add to centrifugal tendencies in the region. They are allies against Iran, but prospective competitors, and deadly ones. The Muslim Brotherhood’s efforts to wrest control of Syria from the Iranian-allied Assad family may push the the conflict into an entirely new dimension.

How do you confront an enemy that deliberately sows chaos? No-one should underestimate the intelligence and dedication of the Muslim Brotherhood. Over a year ago, the Brotherhood’s English-language website reposted my essay “Tunisia’s Lost Generation,” which summarized my “Spenglerian” thesis about Muslim demographics. The Muslim Brothers, that is, have been more attentive to their own weaknesses than, say, the American conservative mainstream, which until recently suppurated in bathos about the wonderful prospects for democracy in the Arab Spring. The Islamist leadership in Egypt is in general tougher-minded and more realistic than most of the American conservative leadership. They are much more like Communists and Nazis than the cartoonish Jihadists we sometimes imagine our enemies to be. (I do not mean to suggest they are any less Islamist; as Andrew Bostom points out, one can argue credibly Hitler was inspired by the jihadists, rather than the other way around. But these are jihadists with the organizational ruthlessness of the Nazis in 1933).

And they are about to make mincemeat out of American policy. Again, from Asia Times:

American policy seems entirely unprepared to deal with this scenario. America has paid out $75 billion in aid to the Egyptian military since the peace treaty with Israel in 1979, and continues to see the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces as the fulcrum of stability in Egyptian politics.

This is a bi-partisan stance. Senators John McCain (Republican-Arizona) and Lindsey Graham (Republican San Francisco) met with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Cairo in March, evidently in the hope of persuading the Brotherhood not to challenge the armed forces’ control of the government.

McCain made clear that he wanted to maintain reduce “tensions” between the Islamists and the armed forces regime, as he said in a March 30 radio interview in Cairo:

The current tension between the military council and the Muslim Brotherhood may aggravate the situation in the country in the upcoming period during which the constitution will be drafted … I’m deeply concerned about the possibility of an escalation of tensions and the occurrence of more confrontations and demonstrations [in Egypt]. However, the more important question is whether the Muslim Brotherhood will adopt a moderate approach, or if some of its extremist members will be directing the constitution-drafting process and the [presidential] elections. [2]That is the default American position, but it appears to have become obsolete in the week since McCain and Graham went to Cairo. The Muslim Brotherhood, contrary to earlier promises, was not content to take over parliament, but also fielded its own presidential candidate, Khairat al-Shater, and al-Shater showed his hand on April 8.

The Republican position to date really isn’t that much different from that of the Obama administration. It amounts to clinging to the wreckage of military rule. Here’s my recommendation:

As traditional American policy tools fail, the alternative to promoting stability is to manage instability. That is a task for which Americans lack the required cultural skills and iron stomach. But they will have to learn fast.

If the Muslim Brotherhood proposes to gain from an economic crisis that transfers power from the old civil institutions to revolutionary organizations on the street, the obvious riposte is to intensify the crisis, so that the revolutionary organizations cannot manage it: to fight fire with fire, and discredit the Muslim Brotherhood.

An Open Letter to Gunter Grass

April 8th, 2012 - 9:11 pm

Herr Günter Grass:

By now you must be tired of hearing how shameful it is for a former SS man to denounce Israel as a threat to world peace at a time when the government of Iran (among others) publicly threatens to annihilate the Jewish state. It is obscene to suggest, as you did in your diatribe “What Must Be Said,” that Israel might “annihilate the Iranian people.” Now that we have that out of the way, I would to set you straight about your own country’s tragedy. It’s all your fault. Well, perhaps not exactly your fault, but the fault of your way of thinking and of people who thought like you. I am not talking about your enthusiastic service to the Nazis.  I am going to surprise you.

People tend to forget that you hate Germany and the Germans almost as much as you hate Israel and the Jews. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the disgusting German Democratic Republic collapsed, you will recall, you pleaded with your government to give this monster another lease on life — not to reunify Germany, but to keep the GDR intact. As I used to tell my German friends before Wiedervereinigung, if you Germans had been as smart as us Jews, you would have gotten your own national homeland right after the war, like we did. But you hate the Germans so much that you did not want them together in a single state. That doesn’t make us Jews feel any better, but your consistency is duly noted.

You did in fact offer an original solution to the postwar problem of being German in The Tin Drum,  and that is never to grow past the age of three. Your protagonist Oskar Matzerath is a freak whose “mental development is complete at birth,” and who decides to remain two-and-a-half feet tall for the rest of his life. In this absurd condition, Oskar encounters the horrors of the Second World War like an undersized Simplicissimus, leaving death and madness around him. I never finished your book; I think I stopped after Oskar’s mother killed herself by eating the most disgusting fish in the world.

Refusing to grow up is one possible response to the horrors of Nazism for which you enthused as a teenager. I grant that this became a popular solution in the postwar Federal Republic of Germany, where morbid self-obsession replaced a tarnished patriotism, and hedonism replaced family responsibilities. Nonetheless there are many grown-up things about today’s Germany, including its skill at building silent and deadly electro-diesel submarines, of which Israel has three, with three more on order. They can be equipped with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. The German “complicity” of which you complained consists of providing Israel with a second strike capability. Chancellor Angela Merkel is one of the real grown-ups among world leaders, and her concern for Israel’s security is a matter of record.

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Obama Is Obloviating About the Oil Price

April 6th, 2012 - 8:09 am

In an essay today for the new Gatestone Institute, I shred President Obama’s claim that strategic tensions in the Middle East are to blame for higher oil prices. In fact, his administration is to blame, for suppressing drilling and shale development in North America.

“Right now the key thing that is driving higher gas prices is actually the world’s oil markets and uncertainty about what’s going on in Iran and the Middle East, and that’s adding a $20 or $30 premium to oil prices,” President Obama said March 23. It’s complete and utter nonsense. Oil is trading in lockstep with expectations for economic growth, as reflected in stock prices. There’s not a shred of evidence that geopolitical uncertainty has added a penny to the oil price. Obama’s $20 to $30 per barrel risk premium is a number pulled out of a hat, without a shred of empirical support. In effect, the President is blaming Israel for high oil prices.

On April, 3, Vice-President Biden blamed higher oil prices on “talk about war with Iran”; fear that Iran might “take out the Saudi oil fields and Bahraini oil fields”; the Arab Spring movement; “war in Libya”; the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood; and a potential for unforeseen political unrest, such as “chaos in Russia.” It’s all complete and utter nonsense. Oil prices are going up because the world economy is consuming more oil and supply has not increased to meet the demand – in part because the Obama administration discourages North American energy development, most recently by stopping the proposed Keystone pipeline from Canada. It’s easier to blame foreign phantoms for high gas prices at the pump than the administration’s business-killing politics

One might argue that the market should price strategic risk into the oil price, but the fact is that markets are not especially good at assigning prices to possible events whose probability can’t be measured.

Chart 1: Oil Price vs. S&P 500, Past Three Years

 

 

Source: Bloomberg

During the past three years, oil prices have tracked equity prices almost perfectly, with a regression coefficient of nearly 90%. (For statisticians, the correlation of daily percentage changes in the two markets is 51%). Equity prices embody expectations of future economic growth, and higher growth means more demand for oil. If oil supply cannot keep up with demand—because the Obama administration has restricted development, among other factors—the oil price goes up.

 

Read it all here. One might add that if it were the case (and I think it eventually will be the case) that strategic tension drives up the oil price, it would also be Obama’s fault, because American strategic withdrawal exacerbates such tensions.

Barack Obama knows whereof he rants when he denounced “Social Darwinism” in the Republican budget proposal. One number puts the president’s strategy in perspective:

Transfer Payment Receipts as a Percentage of All Personal Income

Source: Commerce Department

One out of five dollars that flow into the pockets of Americans comes from a government check (not counting wages and salaries). When Ronald Reagan was in office, it was about one in ten. As the chart makes clear, the last big jump is the result of the economic crisis of 2008. It hasn’t gone down. In fact, the median duration of unemployment keeps rising, to levels we haven’t seen since statistics were compiled.

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from today’s Spengler essay at Asia Times Online:

Rick Santorum is on a mission from God. He believes that, with all his heart. I do, too: I think that God has a plan for Rick Santorum, and that God wants him to save the United States of America. That plan, though, doesn’t include being president, not, at least in 2012.

In his most recent fund-raising pitch (which – full disclosure – I receive as a Santorum contributor), the Republican presidential candidate appears in a video, telling a story about his first campaign for congress, when he defeated a seemingly unsinkable incumbent.

Knocking on doors in Pittsburgh, Santorum encountered an invalid shut-in, and chose to sit down the old man and chat a while, rather than hustle off to the next house. The old man had a big family and mobilized them all for the young Santorum. An act of kindness, Santorum explained, gave him an electoral advantage by the grace of God. The old man was dying, and refused to go to hospital before Election Day, mindful of his promise to vote for Santorum. He did so and died a few days later.
I buy into every word of Santorum’s's story. A lot of things happen that don’t seem accidental. As the 18th century founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov said, when you go on a journey, you only think you’re going to do whatever you set out to do, whereas in fact, God has sent you on that journey, to do something that only you can do. You’ll find out what that is when you get there. I have no trouble believing that Santo rum’s's courtesy to a sick old man was part of God’s plan to put Rick Santorum right at the fulcrum of American politics.

It’s within Santo rum’s's power to be the savior of his country. All he needs to do is issue something like the following statement some time during the next two weeks:

Click here for the rest.

What do Republicans Want?

April 1st, 2012 - 7:40 am

Palos Verdes, California — Mitt Romney didn’t attend this year’s retreat of the Horowitz Freedom Center — he’s got other things on his agenda — but he was an interrupted presence in the minds of conservative politicians, journalists and business people who gathered here for the weekend in the advent of the most important presidential election since 1980. Remarks were off the record (mine better have been) but I can report one telling incident: a panel on the presidential election featuring four well-known political consultants and journalists turned into a Romney-bashing fest. The man was out of touch, he wasn’t a real conservative, he didn’t know how to campaign, he was facing inevitable defeat at the hands of Obama, and should be replaced at the convention by Christie or Daniels.

The session’s last question fell to me, and I undertook a defense of the former Massachusetts governor. Do you really want Romney to be Scott Walker? I asked, and answer came there none.

This election might be more important than 1980, but it wasn’t 1980, because the crisis was of a different order. The problem Republicans face is clear from Wisconson Gov. Scott Walker’s troubles. Walker is the most courageous Republican official in the country, the only one to assault the fortified positions occupied by government unions and take on entitlements. For his trouble he is facing a recall election that has the state’s undivided attention: a recent poll  shows that Wisconsinites care more about the Walker recall election than the presidential election by a margin of 51-37. Other polls show that Walker has a 50-50 chance of withstanding the recall vote.

Why are the voters of Wisconsin more focused on the state election than the national election? One explanation might be that not much has happened to federal taxes, while state and local taxes have been rising steadily, like the water temperature that boils the proverbial frog. The epicenter of the debt crisis is in the states, and it can’t be solved without government union givebacks of already-promised benefits. To my knowledge, large numbers of Americans never have been asked to take lower pensions or more restricted health benefits. That has provoked a degree of rage and upset unlike anything I have ever seen.  A close friend of twenty years with Wisconsin roots cut me off forever after hearing that I had made a small donation to Walker.

Scott Walker is my hero, because he’s the only Republican with the guts to start doing what has to be done. As I wrote last November, the gigantic burden of government spending accumulated by Democratic (as well as Republican) administrations is strangling the middle class.

I’ve published these numbers before, but they bear a reminder. Federal tax revenues remain about 10% below the pre-crisis peak, but state and local tax collections continue to rise. In part, that is because states and localities cannot run budget deficits, unlike the federal government, and must raise taxes to cover their expenses, even while they cut spending. State and local employment has fallen by more than half a million since August 1998, and the layoffs continue.

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