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Surreal Gaza

December 31st, 2008 - 11:07 pm

The World Reacts

I spent today reading accounts of Gaza—NY Times, AP, Reuters, etc. There are no terrorists, just militants. Not much about past rocket attacks on Israel–most everything on the crowded conditions of Gaza. Iranian aid is rarely elaborated on; stories about quiet Arab support for defanging Hamas are likewise rare; common is the buzz about protests in Europe. In reaction, I jotted down the following random thoughts.

Gaza as Monte Carlo, perhaps Hong Kong, or is it to be Switzerland of the Mediterranean?

Gaza is a sort of lab experiment in the Middle East. Recall for a minute: the Israelis withdrew en masse, a so-called “retreat” that reverberated all over the Middle East. The West supported free and open elections that gave Hamas their legitimacy, such as it was. Gaza is strategically placed on the Mediterranean with a prime shoreline. It borders Egypt the traditional center of the Arab world. Hundreds of millions of dollars of Middle-East oil money, and Western relief donations have poured into the tiny state. Israeli clearly wants no more of it, and would love to let Gaza alone to be Dubai.

The result?

Hamas with its serial rocket attacks on Israel interprets all of the above not as an opportunity for prosperity, but as a stage one for the great accomplishment of its generation—the absolute destruction of the Jewish state. Its agenda is clear and unambiguous, and apparently shared by millions of elites in the West itself, without whose support Hamas could not exist. The common theme of Western press coverage is the misery of Gaza, never the misery of Gaza as a product of the garrison-state mentality of Hamas’s radical Islamic vows to wage perennial war against Israel.

The Enablers

Hamas counts on the fact that its own losses will be characterized as a “holocaust” and appear comparable in the Western media to something like Darfur or the slaughtering in Zimbabwe, or the usual carnage that we wake up to on the news. Take away Western press attention from Gaza, and Hamas is just another violent, illiberal regime that impoverishes its own people while seeking victim status in the West.

Is that too harsh? I don’t think so. Again, if it were to call a one-year truce with Israel, seek normal relations with Egypt, and swear off Iranian-Hezbollah terrorist aid while it sought to rebuild infrastructure, ensure security, and recruit foreign capital, then there would be no more world attention, and its cadres of hooded youth would lack the pizzazz of “militants.”

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Life At New Animal Farm Won’t Be All That Bad

December 27th, 2008 - 3:31 pm

By July, we will come to feel that 2009 will be one of the most upbeat years in our history, as what used to be the news media∗ begins to get behind America and report on all the mysteriously wonderful things that are suddenly taking place.

All the campaign talk of the Great Depression, a Vietnam-like war, and our shredded Constitution will now thankfully subside as the Obama administration assumes office and solves problems with conciliation, dialogue, and multilateral wisdom, rather than shrillness, unilateralism, preemption, and my-way-or-the-highway dogmatism. We will hear that, by historical levels, unemployment is still not that bad, that GDP growth is not historically all that low, and that deficits, inflation, interest rates, and housing starts are all within manageable parameters. “Depression” will transmogrify into “recession” which in turn by July will be a “downturn” and by year next an “upswing” on its way to boom times.

Indeed, almost supernaturally crises will be solved with the departure of the hated Bush: no more flooding streets from cracked water mains that were a result of a President’s neglect of infrastructure, and no more spontaneous crashes of Mississippi River bridges due to diversions of critical federal aid from cash-strapped states to Iraq. And when the temperatures rise or drop, the wind howls, the clouds burst forth or go away, the snow melts or piles up, it will be, well, nature that caused the havoc, not the current occupant of the White House who failed to sign Kyoto.

As we watch the innocent die from natural mayhem, it will be due to the breakdown of local responders who now suddenly kill people, not federal inaction—except perhaps for an occasional few Bush federal holdovers that have not yet been rooted out. Human nature, of course, now will be seen more culpable, more selfish, as in needlessly resisting wise and caring federal interventions, rather than being inherently noble but shunned by an uncaring Washington. Yes, when dikes collapse and planes collide on crowed runways, it will be due to a cruel and unpredictable nature, or intrinsic design flaws, or improper local use and maintenance, or the past President’s nefarious legacy, not current government policies. (But if you still must bash the government, it will be wise to do it in 1950s style of inattentive state and local officials, prone to regional and tribal prejudices, blocking the infinite wisdom of a caring federal government.)

Some military action abroad could be necessary—and necessarily reported on as measured and reluctant, rather than cowboyish and gratuitous. European whining will be a result of miscommunications or the Euros’ unfair caricatures of Americans, not Bush’s alienation of allies. If radical Islam strikes, it will be, well, radical again and sometimes even dangerous, not a figment of neocon pipe dreams. If an administration official quits, goes on 60 Minutes, and writes a nasty tell-all book about Obama’s insensitivity and his government’s directionless ennui, he will be a heretic, a whiner, a turncoat, not a truth teller or brave maverick who blew the whistle in need of a bestseller hyped from NPR to the New York Times. We will come again to hate the filibuster, obstructionist Congressional policies, and the occasional loud-mouthed Senator who voices slurs against our nation in unpatriotic fashion.

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Desperately Seeking Caroline

December 21st, 2008 - 10:45 pm

Caroline Kennedy’s Moment—A Sad Reflection of Our Times

The probable appointment of Caroline Kennedy, the 51-year-old daughter of former President John Kennedy, to fill Secretary-of-State nominee Hillary Clinton’s New York Senate seat is both laughable and yet a parable for our bankrupt times.

Consider aristocratic entitlement. Ms. Kennedy apparently spends a great deal of her time divided between her Park Avenue Upper-East-Side Manhattan townhouse and her hereditary estate on Martha’s Vineyard. She has had no real experience with the ordinary lives of New Yorkers, either a few dozen blocks away in Harlem (despite a sudden ad hoc lunch last week with the Rev. Sharpton at a soul food diner) or the state’s rural towns to the north.

Ms. Kennedy is about as undiverse as one could imagine. She was educated at exclusively private schools among those of her like race and class. Her financial security is due to either inheritance or marriage; there is no evidence of a self-employed stellar legal or business career. But there is plenty of evidence that Ms. Kennedy reflects the current Democratic Party’s obsession with celebrity and Hollywood-like imagery—as we see from the recent politicking of everyone from Oprah to Sean Penn, the Senate run of comedian Al Franken, and the messianic cult that surrounds Barack Obama, from his vero possumus Latin seal to his mass rallies with Greek temple backdrops.

Press reports suggest that the current political junkie Ms. Kennedy was an erratic voter in the past. In any case, her positions on both state and national issues are perhaps doctrinaire liberal in the Kenndyesque sense. But we can only assume, rather than know, that, since she has not in the past voiced any strong views about anything in any detail. Unlike dozens of veteran, hard-working and savvy New York state and federal office-holders in the Democratic Party, who would be both qualified and happy to serve out Sen. Clinton’s term, Ms. Kennedy has never run for, or held, public office. Her only prerequisites for Senator are her pedigree from her father and her purported celebrity mystique passed on from her mother Jackie. She certainly has shown none of Hillary Clinton’s grittiness, traipsing over the rural haunts of America in a bright blue pantsuit, quaffing boilermakers at biker bars and reinventing herself as a sort of Annie Oakley everywoman, clinging to guns and religion.

In 2007 Ms. Kennedy was, in fact, a strong Hillary Clinton donor and supporter, but jumped ship and joined Obama once he surged in the polls at the beginning of the year, when the national media and the fossilized icons of the Democratic Party underwent some sort of ecstatic catharsis and mass hysteria akin to what Euripides’s Bacchants experienced on Mt. Kithairon.

That savvy metamorphosis into an Obamiac explains Ms. Kennedy’s sudden me-too piggy-backing into national politics. Indeed, her current newfound political zeal seems predicated on the larger Obamania craze, a sort of brand name groupthink in which romantic liberals imagine a return of JFK’s lost Camelot.

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Lala Land

December 15th, 2008 - 5:47 pm

Blink and you may miss another government bail-out, loan guarantee, federal plan to alleviate a bad or unwise mortgage, a suggestion for more government funds for a more aggrieved constituency, or credit-card relief proposal, etc.

All this is said to be smart and necessary, given that we are told that the problem right now is an absence of liquidity. As I understand it, we wish to borrow or print trillions more in money to prime the system and get people active and at work again. That is altogether good and noble, inasmuch as our problems are driven by panic and now psychosocial as much as material (after all, we have not experienced a massive earthquake, plague or foreign attack that destroyed people and things.) But a few cautionary worries:

Unemployment is still below 7%. Inflation is low. So are interest rates. GDP did not go negative by much in the last quarter. The point is that we are not yet in an era of 1929-39 by any means.

There are enormous natural stimuli underway: in 2009 over a trillion dollars in national fuel savings will occur if energy prices stay below $50 a barrel. Indeed, they may drop even further, given slack world demand and enormous efforts at new discoveries the last five years. The price of housing is approaching, or indeed in some places below, the actual cost of replacement; so we may see millions of first-time buyers find their initial homes affordable in a way that had not been true in a quarter-century.

Have we made failure obsolete? Almost every bank, company, or financial house blames their troubles on “them”. Defaulters blame “them.” Politicians blame “them.” Who exactly is this “them”?

No one took out an unwise mortgage, paid too much for a house, had too little capital to be buying a home, or invested his company’s assets in unwise portfolios? To suggest there is no culpability is to suggest likewise there is no prudence, no wisdom—that there were no Americans who chose to rent until they could pay a suitable sum as a down payment, or bought homes smaller than they wished and more in attuned with their budgets, or corporations who simply thought bundled subprime mortgages were a bad idea.

I have little capital, but still wonder if having any is becoming problematic. If one can’t get much interest on savings, if real estate goes south, if stocks are iffy, if bonds hardly pay—while debt is forgiven—then it seems wiser to incur debt than savings? And what is the moral lesson of that? (Keep moving and ensure an active income and never retire?). This all reminds me of the agenda of a typical Catilinarian of first-century B.C Rome (“redistribution of property” and “cancellation of debts”).

Don’t Tread on Me?

Much was written about the folk hero status accorded the Iraqi journalist who threw two shoes at President Bush. The Arab Street and the American Left point to the incident as proof of the real feelings of the Middle East toward Bush the colonialist; his supporters countering that only in a free Iraq would he dare do such a thing—impossible presently in any other Arab country. My only take is that it shows very little courage. Real courage would have been to throw shoes at Saddam; or even to return to Cairo and throw something at a Mubarak during a public event. That would take singular courage and establish the integrity of the journalist as a consistent critic of authoritarianism—and might additionally earn you a noose rather than accolades on Arab websites.

Ethics Czar

I was amused as the next person about the Big Three flying in corporate jets for their mini-trips to Washington. That said, I was equally amused that Speaker Pelosi flies in an amply-sized jet herself, and many of the nation’s governors as well fly in state-owned private craft. Of course, we all think that Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, AIG, and the rest were terribly managed. That said, the inquisitors in the Senate and House were themselves a sorry bunch. The Congress has in aggregate run up thirteen trillion dollars in debt. Barney Frank and Chris Dodd as overseers of Freddie/Fannie proved to be instead enablers under the cloak of political-correctness and generous campaign donations.

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December 11th, 2008 - 12:00 am

Like some of you, I had the following reactions reading the transcripts of Illinois’s Governor Blagojevich

1) Here in the 21st-century are we back to the 1860s of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall, or the cesspool Chicago of Mayor Big Bill Thompson in the 1920s? All our moral claims about cleaning up government, all our postmodern sophisticated ethics, our vaunted notions of ‘transparency’ are reduced to a two-bit thug in the governorship of a large state like Illinois? For all our high-tech gadgetry, or our angst about situational morality, or self-help pop therapy, we revert to a foul-mouthed, profanity-spouting wretch, trying to sell a U.S. Senate seat the way a corrupt 4th-century AD emperor auctioned off proconsulships in the twilight of the Empire?

2) There are two types of felonious actors caught on tape: the first is the ambivalent Hamlet-type crook who frets about the honesty of it all, and confesses out loud that to take a bribe or offer one would be wrong, but in extremis one is forced to… Or couches his corruption in coded terms, or is remotely aware he has sold his immortal soul for money or power.

And then there is the Mafioso braggadocio of pure, unadulterated crudity: four-letter words, pomposity, no inhibition about admitting lust for money, gratuitous slurs about everything and everybody, constant threats, an entire family to dine at the table of greed. Blagojevich is something out of Dante’s Eighth Circle of Hell, a modern-day Malacoda in the 5th bolgia. One must resort either to Al Capone’s Chicago or the villains of classical literature to match these transcripts.

3) I was puzzled by Obama’s almost immediate denials that he had been in any way in contact with the Governor’s office. Why? Because for the last month it was simply understood, both by his own admission and by David Axelrod’s interviews, that his own preference for his Senate replacement was probably made known to the Governor. And fittingly so. Of course, there would be nothing wrong about Obama simply saying, “I am surprised as the next person, since I have discussed my replacement as would be natural with a governor of my own party responsible for the appointment, and I never detected anything out of the ordinary on his part.” Why instead the unbelievable denial of any communications that in turn earns the more unbelievable “misspoke” on the part of Axelrod? All that brings us back to the now familiar territory of “only a neighborhood acquaintance” and “not the (fill in the blanks) I once knew” and “I was only (fill in the appropriate adolescent age) when I was supposed to have (fill in the blanks)”. The problem with Obama is that any one “pal” (to use that now taboo word) from the past in and of itself is no problem. But each one thrown under the bus—a Rev. Wright, a Tony Rezko, a Bill Ayers, a Father Pfleger, a Governor Blagojevich, a Rashid Khalidi, et al—serve to expand the possibilities that any one of them might come clean (or come dirty) and give us a very different picture at just the time Obama needs unity to govern the country. E.g. A Rev. Wright memoir will come out with perhaps different memories of Obama’s attendance; a Tony Rezko plea bargain might reinterpret the Obama land deal; a creepy and conniving Blagojevich might have evidence of conversations that supposedly never occurred; and so on. The problem is twofold: Obama’s Chicago past was considered embedded within race and off-limits and thus never thoroughly investigated by a fawning media who did us all a disservice; and, two, the American public is not fully aware just how corrupt Illinois politics are, and thus how Obama is probably unusual by not being much more thoroughly tainted. (cf. The Blagojevich’s apparent anger that Team Obama is quite lawfully dictating a choice without ponying up any cash). I wish Obama well in governing us in times of peril, but I also wish he would just stop the stuttering in ex tempore settings, and come clean the first time.

4) On Monday the air waves were full of the Dan Rathers and Chris Matthewses lamenting the Constitution’s unfortunate rules of succession—why could not President-elect Obama save us even earlier by assuming office right now in December? Or why could not Bush resign now and allow our salvation to commence a month earlier?

Then suddenly on Tuesday morning, all such talk disappeared and instead the news was—“Of course, President-elect Obama did not… could not… would not…(fill in the blanks with the appropriate tense of the appropriate verb: know, communicate, hear, etc.) At least the Governor did us a favor by ending talk about amending the Constitution. (As a footnote: One wonders if Obama is less than successful, and, say, a Sarah Palin is elected in 2012, would a Chris Matthews ponder allowing her to assume office early in December? And, of course, it was never suggested of the once impeached, but not convicted yet ostracized Clinton in 2000 that he should step aside earlier than January 20. He did not, and should not have—and thereby on January 19 (or was it the very early morning of the 20th?) pardoned fugitive felon Marc Rich, who, via his ex-wife, had amply funded the Clinton library, furniture fund, Hillary’s exploratory campaign fund, the Democratic Party, etc. to the tune in aggregate of $1 million.

5) We don’t need this cloud over our next President. Everyone from financial speculators and Iranian mullahs to Big Three exec and Russian oligarchs are watching our POTUS for any crack in the up-to-now remarkable calm façade. I think Obama did nothing at all out of the ordinary, so he should frankly admit he talked with members of the Governor’s staff the last few years, and then say that one in politics regrettably gets exposed to such people—and quit the implausible denials and get on with the transition.

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What’s Ahead

December 7th, 2008 - 11:07 pm

Obama Hot Spots

1) Pakistan is a de facto belligerent, analogous to Syria without the billions in US aid. It is nuclear, and anti-Democratic (despite its national elections); its various semi-government entities and religious fanatics are against most that we are for. It offers Obama only bad and worse choices, and his campaign promises of hot pursuit into Pakistan look remote. Look to see gradual estrangement and an outsourcing of the problem to India.
2) Inflation or Collapse? I don’t think we are near a Great Depression by any metric—GDP performance, unemployment, or bank collapses. But at some time in the near future, the enormous bailouts, reprieves on debt, spiraling federal debt and borrowing from overseas, expansion of the money supply, envisioned near zero-interest loans, and trillion-dollar plus savings in gas and energy prices will, in the manner of a perfect storm, begin to create a great inflation. When capital invested in stock, cash, bonds, or real estate brings no interest or profit, then indebtedness has less of a down side, and inflation starts to roar.
3) Unbridled Left. So far the Left has held its tongue, still basking in a return to power of liberal government and perhaps the most ostensibly leftwing President in our entire history. That means the centrist appointments and flip-flops are permissible for a time and contingent on heart-and-soul, true-believer policies and appointments to come. But if that should not materialize, and war, recession, and inflation take off the veneer of Obamania, then watch the rumbling escalate into 1968-like furor.
4) Another 9/11? Wiretapping. Renditions. Predator attacks in Waziristan. The killing of insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq. Increased border security. All that has been as useful in preventing another attack as they have proven easy fodder for leftist critics. I think Obama realizes that (1) if he ends the above, and we get hit, the Left will take no responsibility for such laxity, but (2) suggest our vulnerability was due to tactical shortcomings of his administration (or perhaps justified retaliation from our enemies) rather than their zeal for the disastrous repeal of past safety measures.
5) Condescension. Americans are sincerely proud of our meritocratic system that puts no institutional hurdles in the way of anyone of any race or religion reaching the highest office. We forget American exceptionalism on that account, especially in the wake of global hysterical approval of the Obama victory. Yet those abroad who think his ascension marks a radical change in American foreign policy into something more resembling their own—leftist, statist, collectivist with financial and ethical claims on the United States—may become sorely suprised. In truth, the world is mostly a far more illiberal place, as we have already seen in some racially awkward remarks from the leaders of Russia, Italy, Venezuela, and Iran. So if Obama proves to be a staunch supporter of American values and interests (more a JFK abroad than a Jimmy Carter), expect intemperance from the Chinese, Russians, Arabs, and some South Americans (all with questionable records of tolerance for racial diversity in general and equal-handedness for blacks in particular).

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California Declares a Fiscal Crisis! You Think?

December 3rd, 2008 - 11:21 am

After various special sessions of the Legislature, assorted cries from the heart of our Governor, and the usual media sensationalism about an amorphous “they” who did this to us, California is once again broke.

Very broke, it seems, this time around. The only mystery is whether the annual shortfall is to the tune of $20, $25, or $30 billion. (Remember, we cannot print money, though I suppose we could sell bonds to the Chinese in hopes of undercutting the Fed; or we could ask everyone of us 30 million-plus residents to donate $1,000 to Sacramento this year—and in fact every year.)

There are no longer many people here of character and civic-mindedness stepping forward to inform us that we have spent like crazy; and to suggest a modest return to per capita spending levels, adjusted for inflation, of about 5-6 years ago; and to create a more attractive climate for businesses to operate and relocate here. Instead, there will be a common narrative that ensues, one that I would call the five-step, since in my fifty-five years in the state it is becoming all too predictable.

1. The Reality. No one will discuss the mass exodus of a particular type of taxpayer. Thousands of highly-educated, highly-paid Californians the last decades have cashed out their ample housing equities, and left the state due to high income and sales taxes, poor schools, high crime, and an unworkable bureaucracy. We don’t seem to regret why they leave, and whether it says as much about us as them. Many move to nearby low or no income-tax Nevada, Utah, and Oregon where they can commute, work over the Internet, and take advantage of far cheaper costs, but still enjoy a Western-state informal lifestyle. Anyone who flies out of the state gets a good aerial view of these expatriate border cities, these post-California communities—strange phenomena that seem to be referenda on relative state government.

There is no longer the nucleus for any organized tax-payer revolt as in the 1970s; so when the mob-like chorus chants ‘Soak the rich!’ and the “they should pay” rhetoric heats up, the targeted now flee rather than fight.

The number of those with bachelor’s degrees who flee is made up by those without high school diplomas who arrive. The state is tailor-made to destroy the 200-acre farmer or independent small businessperson who deals with new myriads of state regulations, fees, income and sales taxes, mandates and environmental, as well as social, and cultural disdain.

And California is tailor-made to enhance his law-suit-minded employee who slips on his shop floor; the official in the state-owned car who shows up to fine him for the inorganic two-by-four spotted in the farm brush pile; and the drunk driver without registration, license or insurance who plows through his orchard, fleeing his wrecked car carcass and thousands in damages behind—without punishment but with a possible legal grievance for the farmer’s pipeline standpipe being in his way, some thirty yards in from the road. I kid you not.

I say all this sine ira et furore, because it is a done-deal, and I accept that I used to know dozens of such entrepreneurs and now know very few in agriculture. And in the place of the occasional mosquito abatement officer, I encounter a plethora of ubiquitous mobile clerks. A call to an EPA officer might get through much more quickly than in extremis to a constable. We need a pause and philosophical reexamination of what creates and what monitors and regulates wealth.

2. The Taboo. No one is to mention the presence of several million illegal aliens in the state that might make California’s meltdown a little bit more severe than say Montana’s or Utah’s. To do so is to be labeled racist, nativist, and indulging in illiberal scapegoating, even though it is a question of funds not culture, much less race. We dare not explore the reality that very hard-working young Oaxacans come illegally across the border at 18, work terribly hard for 20 years and contribute mightily to the economy, but by their late thirties and forties—still often without legality, without a high-school diploma, and without English—either become mired in low-income, perennial entry-level jobs, or are finally worn out by sending half their hourly wages back to Mexico, or have been cited, arrested, or jailed for various activities, or have become injured in jobs on ladders and on their knees that take a terrible yearly toll on one’s body, or due to smoking, dietary changes, psychological stresses, or alcohol have premature serious illnesses, or have several children in need of special bilingual prep or anti-poverty program attention. Any illegal alien is one tragedy, or chance mistake away from financial oblivion.

There are thousands of exceptions to that narrative (and they are now the hope of the state), but it is an accurate enough politically-incorrect generalization to explain at least some of the state’s structured deficits. Far better it would be to let in a finite number of Mexican nationals, do it legally, try to insist on high school diplomas, and ensure there are citizen sponsors on this side of the border.

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