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Monthly Archives: July 2009

Italy…

I have been traveling as a lecturer on a Hillsdale College Byzantium Cruise (from Venice to Athens, with several stops in the Adriatic, Mediterranean, and Aegean) for the last few days, and here are some eccentric reflections on civilizations of the past.

 

Venice

I spent yesterday in Venice—hot, humid, and crowded, as I had never quite seen it before. So much for the global recession that has supposedly curtailed world tourism.

Venice was not a classical city, and one can see why. It was malarial, without natural harbors or any readily identifiable deep ports or surrounding cliffs. It is instead a conglomeration of over 100 islands in the swamps of an Adriatic lagoon. Yet between 1200 and 1600, Venice was in many ways the preeminent city of the world. People—not oil, coal, timber, or farmland—matter most.

You can see the Lion of St. Mark cut into almost any fortification wall anywhere in the eastern Mediterranean—Crete, Rhodes, Cyprus, or Nauplion. For over three centuries the galleys of the republic kept the central and Western Mediterranean safe from Islam, while making a fortune as the go-between for Indian and Chinese imports from ports on the Eastern Mediterranean to Western Europe. By 1400 some  3,000 Venetian galleys and commercial ships brought into  St. Mark’s Square loot from around the world. The elegant villas and palazzos show it. Venice was the best proof of the power of republican government when married to capitalism, as a rather small city without any natural resources soon created a renaissance from nothing other than political stability and market entrepreneurship.

What brought down Venice—by 1700 it had receded into a provincial city—was not periodic plague, or even the rise of Islam (checked in 1571 at Lepanto). But rather the ascendance of the Atlantic port maritime states of Western Europe—England, France, Holland, Portugal, and Spain—that soon bypassed the Asian land routes and shipped in Chinese and Indian goods without going thought the Mediterranean or dealing with the Ottomans. And with the discovery of the New World, and the rise of the great sailing ships, Venice was doomed as a key international city. (That said, how such a small out-of-the-way polis ever remained preeminent is the real story, rather than its logical decline).

Venice missed out entirely on the fabulous wealth and commerce from the Americas. But more importantly, its republicanism eroded, and with it so too went the entrepreneurship which otherwise might have encouraged a more westward view.

Irony, But Lessons too

A great deal of irony here: while Venice became legendarily wealthy from eastern trade, mastered the galley, and held at bay the rise of the Ottomans from Western Europe, it was insidiously becoming irrelevant. (Lepanto was the last large galley battle in history). Sometimes great states become obsessed with the immediate enemy, and forget the more creeping dangers on the horizon. Had Venice applied a fraction of its genius to trans-Atlantic shipbuilding and looked westward beyond Gibraltar rather than eastward to Istanbul, it might well have rivaled Portugal and Spain well into the eighteenth century.

In our own case, we are bickering over how to spend some $3.5 trillion ($2 trillion in borrow money)—millions for the Palestinians, billions to conduct two wars, trillions to redistribute in new social programs. But meanwhile other states are saving, investing, and improving their educational systems. The notion that the average American youth—20 hrs a week before the video game or TV console, a product of a therapeutic education that seeks to ensure that he is sensitive rather than educated—will inherit the lifestyle of his fathers seems to me dubious.

 

Our Tenth Hour

Our great wealth in the 20th century was in part predicated on natural bounty—farmland, oil, coal, iron ores, timber, etc.—under the aegis of a wonderfully stable constitution. The 21st will adjudicate whether our prior success was also predicated on superior intellect, law, and culture, inasmuch as our resources are now not so singular on the world stage. America to remain exceptional more than ever is going to have to have unusual citizens that are as lawful as they are creative.

Unless we return to a meritocracy, emphasize science, math, liberal arts, and engineering—rather than the plague of ‘studies’ courses (as in environmental-, leisure-, gender-, Latino-, black-, Asia-, Chicano-, community-, feminist-studies, etc.)—we simply will not match the Chinese and Indians in this century.

The American people are waiting for a leader bold enough to balance budgets, restore meritocracy, end the therapeutic mushy sentimentality in our educational system, and insist on the rule of law, free markets, and limit government.

Otherwise we know the ultimate end of the present road: a vast bureaucracy of non-taxpaying incompetents, damning the estranged few for not producing ever more to be taxed, convinced that they are geniuses—and only due to some sort of unfairness have been surpassed by others.

The Chinese are rough, competent people and have no such delusions. In about 10 years their enormous financial power will begin to translate into military sophistication, and I don’t think their foreign policy will either have much to do with human rights or care much about what we have to say about them.

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Lose, Lose When You Talk About Race

July 26th, 2009 - 11:45 am

Why the Gates Affair Bored Us

President Obama and the subject of race remind me of the proverbial camel’s back and straws: the American people shrugged off “typical white person”, then forgave  the clingers speech. They bristled a bit about “No more disown Rev. Wright than…” and started to become concerned about “downright mean country” and Michelle’s never before being proud of the good old U.S. Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” and self-referencing “as a Latina” ad nauseam did not help. Nor did Attorney General Holder’s slur that we were “cowards.” And now the Gates affair. Minor of course. But it is the proverbial straw that finally seems on this issue to really  be breaking the back of the American people, who are not only tired of racial evocation, but tired of Barack Obama and those elites around him using race for self-serving sermonizing—especially given their former confidence in Obama to lead us to racial transcendence. So read on…

Psychodramas

African-American professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested in his own home by a white policeman for disorderly conduct (I think mostly for insulting a cop) and then subsequently released. Such misunderstandings happen all the time. Many in the  Civil Rights community, however,  were outraged at the arrest. And they cited Gates’ treatment as proof that racism was still very much alive in the age of President Barack Obama.

America Snoozes

But as details emerged about the incident, the outrage of the African-American self-appointed leadership oddly failed to ignite even liberal America. And why it did not tells us much about a changing United States. So let us list the ways in which we did not much care whether or not Professor Gates had to go down to the station for screaming epithets at an investigating police officer.

Race is Not So Simple

1) America is no longer a white/black country. Due to liberal  policies, tens of millions of Asians and Hispanics have recently immigrated to the United States. And far from seeing themselves, along with blacks, as a unified “people of color”, they split along various class and racial lines on almost every issue.

Intermarriage has created millions of Americans who don’t consider themselves part of any race. Gates may be a professor of white/black racial bias, but millions of nonwhite Americans have evolved beyond his easy dichotomies. Tens of thousands of Koreans, Filipinos, Mexicans, Hondurans, and Punjabis living in America are no doubt mystified by Gates’ furor. Most in their own lives perhaps instantly profile those on the streets of their neighborhoods not by race, but in rough accordance with their perceptions of prevailing crime statistics. From my travels in Hispanic, Arab, Asian, and European countries, I would speculate that those of African ancestry are treated most equitably (by far) in the United States.

No More Monolithic Poor

2) There is now not only a black middle class, but an elite one as well. Professor Gates is one of the highest paid professors in the United States. As soon as he was arrested, the African-American mayor of Cambridge, the African-American governor of Massachusetts, and the African-American president of the United States all weighed in on his behalf.

When he sneered at the arresting officer “You don’t know whom you are messing with”, Gates was quite right—and so was released almost immediately once the calls came pouring in. In contemporary America, the wealthy and influential Gates, and his close political friends, are part of the establishment—and Sgt. Crowley who arrested him a member of hoi polloi without capital or chums in high places.

America shrugs that when an elite like Gates, a zillionaire like white-faced Michael Jackson, or an Bruno-Magli shoed  O.J. gets caught in their own self-induced legal jams, they will too often immediately revert to racial victimization and try to convince America that they are living in Mississippi circa 1930. Good luck with that in the multiracial 21st century.

Living is stereotyping of some sort

3) Gates’ accusations of stereotyped racism, the President’s assertion that blacks are unfairly profiled by police, and Governor Patrick’s claim that the arrest was the nightmare of every black man—all failed to register with the American people.

Why? Because such allegations, even if they were true and some may well be, are only part of the complex 21-century story of race and the police. Attorney General Holder may call the American people cowards for not engaging in a national conversation on race. But the Gates incident, and the reaction of the Massachusetts governor and the president of the United States, reminded them why they don’t welcome these melodramatic  “conversations.” Such therapy sessions never involve questions of personal responsibility—specifically why African-American males commit crimes at rates both higher than the general population’s, and at levels higher than other minority groups that likewise struggle with poverty and unfairness.

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Obama’s Path Not Taken

July 22nd, 2009 - 10:04 pm

What Might Have Happened

Remember Obama’s initial signature speech (e.g., “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America”), and all the subsequent conciliatory talk of no blue state, no red state America? Obama won, of course, because he captivated the tiny, but influential left, registered vast numbers of new minority voters, raised a billion dollars, and reconstituted the liberal base. But the key margin that got him from 45 to 53% were the independents and old Reagan Democrats. And what put them on board was not just their weariness with George Bush, but rather their flawed hunch that Obama was another Clinton rather than Carter, a realist and centrist rather than an ossified ideologue, who could talk well,  bring factions together,  and govern from the center.

Had Obama just continued his charade of the campaign in which he reassured centrists on taxes, defense, energy, and spending, he would now be in a far stronger position with Congress, and not falling in the polls.

Imagine not that in his first six months Obama had acted like a conservative (he could not since he won on a liberal agenda), but simply as a more moderate Clinton-like Democrat, albeit with more humility and skepticism:

1)   Financial. Barack Obama rallies the nation in January to hang tough and await the natural upswing after the bust that followed an unusual boom period of a near decade. There is no wasted stimulus. There is no $2 trillion deficit. Instead, he promises to hold spending to an annual rise of 2%, and reassures the country that balanced budgets are on the way. Markets steady on news that we won’t be adding another $11 trillion to the debt, and Obama gets credit for the natural cyclical upsurge.

2) Taxes. Obama says he ran on the Clinton-era tax rates—and so must keep his word. Top rates go to 39.5%, but there is no further talk of  a healthcare surcharge, much less a lifting of the FICA caps on income over $106,000. In other words, Obama is a classically liberal tax-raiser, who salivates over a 50% state and federal combined rate— but not one approaching 70% in some states. The public accepts that he is a Democrat of the tax and spend sort, but is assured he is no socialist.

3)   Reconciliation. After the obligatory two to three weeks of throat-clearing and liberal trashing of his predecessor, Obama by March goes quiet on Bush. To the extent he mentions him, he praises the prior President for keeping us safe for seven years, but promises to do far better on the budget. He taps into independents’ and moderates’ dissatisfaction with the previous deficits, but wins points for magnanimity by not serially evoking “he did it”. In other words, he is not a “they raised the bar on me” / “he did it, not me” / “his mess, not mine” whiner.

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Debt Matters

Over the last two decades it became an article of popular faith that budget deficits did not matter that much. Conservatives began to talk of annual red-ink in vague terms of percentages of the gross domestic product rather than in real billions of dollars — as in “Don’t worry about the 2004 shortfall of $605 billion; it’s still only 5.3 percent of GDP.”

Ronald Reagan ran large deficits; so for a while did Bill Clinton. Both Bushes did every year. And Barack Obama, who admittedly came to office amid a liquidity crisis that called for fiscal stimulus, trumped them all with the largest proposed budgetary shortfall in the nation’s history that may hit $2 trillion dollars.

Economists differ on the precise percentages of gross domestic product at which annual deficits began to drag down the economy. They argue over the degree to which mounting national debt is sustainable. And we are not even certain about the exact nature of American borrowing and the resultant pressure on world financial markets and global interest rates. Of course, some borrowing may be needed in times of recession.

Master Charge Nation

But lost in such economic talkfests are the psychological implications of large deficits upon the voters. It may be true that the American people care more about unemployment and inflation than deficits. Or maybe they are not all that concerned about the interconnections between the former and the latter. But in recent years, as budget shortfalls soared, that old wisdom seems less and less compelling.

Consider the political effects of Bill Clinton’s two budget surplus years — and ignore the ongoing argument to what effect they were the result of creative accounting, not sustainable, or any of the other conservatives rationalizations use to deprecate the achievement. The truth is that they were, and are, now acccepted as unusual achievements.

Clinton’s Reprieve

So just assume that by hook and crook Clinton balanced the budget and examine the ensuing political fallout (We are talking politics now, not economics).

By the end of his term, the United States was headed into a recession. The president was mired in sexual scandal and had been impeached, and yet his ratings remained overwhelmingly positive. Clearly part of the Clintonian resilience was because Americans not only were relieved that they were not piling up debt on their children, but through modest surpluses were making some progress in paying down the national debt. And they gave Clinton credit (not just the Republican Congress that forced him to stop excessive spending), which trumped his otherwise deplorable behavior.

Privately we all calculate that our own mortgage debts can help on tax obligations given deductions for interest; and perhaps sometimes it is unwise to pay off old low-interest debts in times of inflation. But such rational thinking does not change the fact that Americans hate the debts they run up and feel imprisoned by the reality of owing lots of money. If it is in our evolving national DNA to borrow and spend what we don’t have; we are also equally repelled by what we’ve become.

Spendthrift Republicans Too

George W. Bush pleaded that deficits — and unprecedented large ones at that — were necessary in light of the downturn after 9/11, Katrina, the expense of two wars, and the new programs such as Homeland Security, No Child Left Behind, and the Medicare Prescription Drug benefit entitlement.

Yet what is forgotten is that Bush paid a terrible price for his deficit spending. His unpopularity was not entirely due to Iraq, but finally in large part to the notion that our national debt after eight years of unprecedented borrowing has soared to $11 trillion. He desperately tried to convince Americans that his tax cuts had stimulated the economy (quite true), and had led to greater aggregate revenue than ever before (quite amazingly so).

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The War Against the Producers

July 11th, 2009 - 10:27 am

Stimulus, stimulus and not a drop…

A “stimulus” of nearly a trillion dollars was proposed, without which we were told, unemployment would skyrocket and credit would tighten further. Six months later — unemployment having risen even higher than the administration’s forecast of what would have been the case had their stimulus package not been implemented — now the same proponents of massive borrowing demand a second stimulus to accomplish what the first ‘successful’ borrowing apparently did not. If you fail, then try the same thing to fail even bigger the second time — while calling for more success to follow the earlier success?

The Larger Agenda

Note here I mean something quite different from the accustomed notion of “accomplish.” You see, I think the point was never much to build more bike paths on borrowed money or just bail out GM, but rather more to reengineer the tax code, as part of a grander vision of creating a new equality of result in America.

Soon we will all end up after each April 15 about making the same, driving the same sort of cars and using the same sort of mass transit, living in about the same sorts of houses, and having about the same sorts of “‘they’ will take care of it for me” philosophies — all overseen by brilliant, but highly ranked and exempt Platonic Guardians who suffer on our behalf as they jet and limo at breakneck speed ensuring our welfare.

Gorging “the Beast”


We are beginning to sense the debate is not about “stimulus” (politicians did not even read the various bills that they rammed through and care little about the fiscal impact from them). Rather, we are witnessing an inversion of Reagan’s sort of playing chicken, once called “starve the beast” (which I thought was a wrong notion), a philosophy of cutting taxes to cut revenue to starve the federal government’s excessive spending in the face of spiraling deficits.

Under Obama’s “gorge the beast” version, America will simply write so many bounced checks, run up such an enormous $10 trillion debt, that taxes will have to rise on “them”– and wasn’t this really the point of it all anyway: to “spread the wealth around” and “never let a crisis go to waste”?  Since new programs never shrink, but, like Johnson grass, grow with impunity, and since Democrats, even more so than wasteful Republicans, don’t worry about deficits, taxes must escalate to avoid catastrophe.

The Bad Guys

Ponder a simple fact: The Obama administration is dispersing income lavishly to those who do not pay taxes and it will have to be paid for by those who do. For all the talk of that awful percentile who make over $200,000, this administration has not distinguished the hyper-rich 1% that make untold money (e.g., the Buffets, Soroses, Turners, Gateses, Kerrys, Gores, etc), from the much more demonized, larger 5% of the population whose income does not come from investments and insider influence and deal-making, but rather from providing more tangible goods and services — the family doctor, the plumbing contractor, the small lumber company owner, the car dealer, the local family-held insurance company, the airline pilot, the car-leasing firm, the patent attorney, etc.

“Their Fair Share”

Last fall we heard that this percentile was unpatriotic, did not wish to spread the wealth around, and had made off like bandits under Bush. But the fact is, to quote Mayor Gavin Newsome’s “like it or not,” they are precisely those who decide most dynamically whether to hire, fire, expand, contract, buy/sell goods, etc.

And the results of the Obama war against them are threefold: 1) in major key states, the productive minority’s state income taxes will near or exceed 10%; their federal rates will go to 40%; the abolition of caps on FICA will ensure 15% plus of most of their income will go for new Medicare and Social Security bites; and they may well be eligible for a newly proposed punitive health-care surcharge tax of 4-6%.

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They Say/We Say

The debate over Palin is sort of ossified.

The Left continues to ridicule her accent, family, and middling roots. The Right enjoys such authenticity-but enjoys even more the hysteria it incurs in liberals.

Will it Be Politics or Money?

But lost in all of this is whether she is up to national politics, or simply wishes to capitalize (an Oprah-like talk show?) on her sizable financial potential. On the one hand, Palin is obviously bright. Few could raise a family without capital in Wasilla, and within a decade end up as Governor of a large state-whose protocols hinged on an old-boy network where politicians accommodated oil and mineral interests.

On the other hand, a mother of five, knee-deep in local politics, without money and leisure, is not going to be reading Gibbon for perspective, or spending the afternoon perusing Foreign Affairs. Nor is she going to remember a quip that her Prof at the Kennedy school once offered years ago. Nor is she going to recall clever repartee at a Georgetown dinner party from one grandee to another.

She has natural gifts-stamina, earthy grit, sensitivity to what most Americans go through raising a family on a limited budget, practicality from working with her hands in a natural world. All that is no small beer. Look at Truman’s various experiences in Missouri.

No Way 2012-Maybe 2016, 2020?

But if, a big if, she decides to become a national political figure, Palin should use these next few years (in addition to making some money to support her family) to travel and read widely in the manner that a Reagan did in his wilderness period. She has natural intelligence and is curious. I think most would like to see her do another Couric interview five years from now after she had time to size up DC insiders, meet more politicians, lecture in front of hostile audiences-and just read and reflect. At fifty-five she could become a formidable candidate, given her natural charisma and authentic middle-class persona.

They All Resign-One Way or Another

As far as her resignation, it will be forgotten in two years. Politicians like William Weld, Bob Dole, Fred Thompson, and Bill Bradley have done it (to no real advantage).  John McCain and Barack Obama essentially resigned from the Senate by campaigning nonstop for two years (but while getting paid). In Obama’s case, it is hard to believe whether he was ever really working as a Senator, but instead almost began prepping for the Presidency (after swearing that he would not) as soon as he was elected.

So Why the Hatred?

A Huffington Post satirist offers jokes about her son Trig’s disability, and mental impairment in general.

David Letterman laughs at the notion of her 14-year-old daughter having sex in a dugout with a baseball player.

Andrew Sullivan offered up conspiracy theories about how her daughter, not Palin herself, “really” delivered Trig.

Maureen Dowd declares that “Caribou Barbie is one nutty puppy,” and laughs at the names of her children, some geese-honking in the background during her interview, even the Piper Cub tiny plane near the Palin house.

A Vanity Fair author swears that on his trip to Alaska, people came up to him and, quite independently of one another, proclaimed that Palin was a narcissist. According to Todd Purdum,  mirabile dictu, many have consulted the ol’ handy Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (which we all carry in our backpockets) and, presto, discovered that Palin has a ” pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy’ – and thought it fit her perfectly.”

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Our Chrysalis Stage

July 4th, 2009 - 1:33 pm


Only Room for One Obama?

I got a lot of flak the last year for writing two or three columns suggesting the Europeans and other Leftists abroad might be careful about what they wish for in Obama: he might well leap-frog over them, leaving them all with the world they used to fantasize about, while in reality they profited from the world they demonized. (As I wrote, a keen Frenchman whispered to me at a reception “There is room for only one to play Obama-and we are already Obama.”)

Comrade Hugo

Consider: the U.S. reacted quickly and meddled unambiguously in condemning the Honduran arrest of President Zelaya. It mattered little that for the first time in memory we Americans now were on the side of autocrats like Castro, Chavez, Morales, and Ortega in showing revolutionary solidarity with Zelaya ( and of course the UN as well).

We cared little that both the Honduran Supreme Court and Parliament had acted lawfully in ordering their President’s removal on grounds that he had acted unconstitutionally, in bold, unlawful efforts to obtain a third presidential term through a likely rigged plebiscite.

(It would be analogous to an Obama or Bush demanding a third term, illegally acquiring ballots to force a plebiscite, ignoring a Congressional conviction of impeachment, and a Supreme Court edict of unconstitutionality, only to be arrested by the Joint Chiefs and escorted out of the country).

The Real Project for the New American Century

What is our logic? Given the history of imperialism and colonialism, anytime in Latin America anyone in uniform arrests an elected president in a tie, it is a coup and must be condemned, no matter the legality or the ideology involved.

But let us not miss the forest for the trees. The larger fact is that suddenly the United States has become a sort of revolutionary force itself. At the next G-8 summit there will be no more hectoring of Europeans to stop selling sniper rifles to Iran or sophisticated machines tools used to enhance nuclear centrifuge operations.

Instead, the Europeans–”shocked” over the mayhem in the streets of Tehran, and still hurting over the kidnapping of British sailors, the jailing of Western journalists, and the arrest of Western embassy personnel–will be hectoring the Obama administration to please tighten up the old Bush sanctions. (In the new, no-more-anti-ballistic-missile age, Frankfurt and Paris will soon be in range of the planned Iranian nukes.)

And Americans, I think, will resist increased sanctions or embargoes. As a transracial, transnational Gandhi-like figure, Obama believes that he alone understands and empathizes with the previously demonized Third-World revolutionary leaders.

Yes, on our behalf it is his destiny to talk with them, and tame them in a manner of speaking, perhaps to stop their terrorizing, drug-running, arming, and bullying, or more likely the overt manifestation of all that. In other words, he’s our Che, a universal pop star, part Bono, part Mandela, part Michael Jackson, and part Al Gore that deflects criticism that we are all Texas oil men with twangs who talk about Gawd, Eye-Rack, and Jasus.

This metamorphosis is to be accomplished by Obama’s singular charisma and ‘empathy’: as a person of color, on his paternal side from a  Muslim family, and of African heritage, Obama “knows” that he too has been on the butt-end of Western hegemony (forget the subsidized ride to prep school, Occidental, Columbia, Harvard, the mansion, etc.; we are talking of perceptions, not reality), and thus can assure an Ahmadinejad he ‘feels’ what it is like to be an Iranian leader with all sorts of globalized and Western-inspired pressures.  Just as the elite Sotomayor knows what it is to be a Latina in a repressive America, so Obama knows what it is to be a leader of color in a Western-dominated global order.

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