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From the Unbelievable to the Passé

September 30th, 2010 - 1:41 pm

From time to time I stop and wonder how the unbelievable can become the accepted. Let me list four arbitrary, but still representative, examples of what I mean.

1) Embracing unworkable statism.

Everywhere one looks statism is a failure. Contrast resource-rich Venezuela with Chile. Juxtapose Cuba to Colombia. Of course, compare Dark Age North Korea with the 21st-century South. Look at the UK in 1954 and 1990.

They are rioting in Europe not to embrace socialism, but in petulant fashion to find someone somehow to pay for it — as if “they” and “them” are partying in some remote Aegean island, with vaults of stashed euros.

Whether hard communism or soft socialism, statism does not work. We all know why — it goes against human nature, rewarding mediocrity and punishing merit, professing egalitarianism for the masses, while the operators of the system, whether the old Soviet apparatchiks or the new crony EU Brussels bureaucrats, satisfy their appetites like capitalists. Ultimately, it is simply like coasting on a bike uphill. The last hard peddles are simply not enough to push the bike and rider over the hill: finally the brilliant small manufacturer, the lean contractor, the enterprising farmer, the late-into-the-night engineer — they cannot carry any longer the clerk, the auditor, the regulator, the tax man, and the bureaucrat who wish not merely to piggy-back onto the biker, but to try to stop his peddling even as they demand to get over the crest.

Yet we are finishing a second year of absorbing banks, insurance companies, auto manufacturers, and the health care system, borrowing trillions to redistribute in new entitlements, with more lust for equality of ends notions like cap and trade and immigration amnesty. Any House member who went along with all this and lives outside a blue-gerrymandered district or San Francisco or Chicago cannot run on the Obama agenda.

The entire statist protocol polls well below 50%. Past leftist candidates like Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, George McGovern, or Walter Mondale could not get elected on their visions; those who did (Carter and Clinton) either imploded after a single term or triangulated and so found a way to a two-term presidency despite never getting 50% of the popular vote.

Statism versus free markets is about as easy to understand as the difference between Singapore and Greece, and yet here we go again. This weird suicidal statist impulse seems for Obama to trump almost every other consideration: he may well destroy the Democratic Party for a decade just when it was recovering; he has so terrified private enterprise that trillions of dollars in capital are simply sitting out his first two years, waiting for the end of his congressional majorities, and hence his agenda to implode.

All this goes on as Obama sees the EU running away from precisely what he wishes to implement, while at home a high-tax, high-entitlement, redistributive economy like California has managed to destroy the most richly endowed human and natural landscape — agriculture, tourism, high-tech, oil and gas, Hollywood, Napa Valley, Silicon Valley — in the nation. And yet here we continue down into the abyss.

2) Higher education.

Most of what we are told about universities is untrue. America’s reputation for higher learning excellence (in business, sciences, medicine, engineering, and finance) is despite not because of the humanities and social sciences. Current research in the liberal arts (the portfolio the English or sociology prof is tenured on) increasingly has almost no relevance to the general public or applicability to teaching or even scholarly merit.

Diversity is Orwellian: the university is the most politically intolerant and monolithic institution in the country, even as it demands the continuance of tenure to protect supposedly unpopular expression. Even its emphases on racial diversity is entirely constructed and absurd: Latin Americans add an accent and a trill and they become victimized Chicanos; one-half African-Americans claim they are more people of color than much darker Punjabis; the children of Asian optometrists seek minority and victim status.

Meanwhile on the labor front, liberal faculties prove far more illiberal than K-Mart. Part-time faculties now account for 40% of the units offered at many universities, earning 30-40% of the wages per unit of full professors, and mostly without benefits. There is no outrage from those who customarily damn CEOs from the lounge. Tuition rises faster than both inflation and the cost of health care, and yet the twin promises of a BA degree are no longer kept: today’s graduates are not so likely to get a choice job, and are not certified as literate in English or competent in math.

At some point, all this cannot go on, and we will have the academic version of September 15, 2008 — as parents no longer choose to take on $200,000 in debt to send their children to 4-year liberal arts schools, in which they will be likely indoctrinated that they should oppose the very American institutions that created the wealth and freedom that fuel their colleges and pay their faculties.

We have in a way already reverted to the sociology of the 19th century of an elite and a non-lettered mass, but without its benefits. One-hundred years ago, very few went to college. Only a well-schooled elite did, as the rest learned through the school of hard knocks. (My grandfather never went to college, but used to chant to me when I came home from college his high-school Latin “amo-amas-amat” as he irrigated the vineyard at 82.) Today we try to graduate almost everyone, in the process ensuring that for 4-6 years they are not apprenticing at anything other than Starbucks, “The Poetics of the Low-rider,” and university psycho-dramas over dating and oogling. I wonder whether today’s entering freshman is any better educated than someone in 1890 who was farming at the same age. I note that 50% of incoming freshmen at the CSU system must take remedial math and English. I suppose the new Obama student loan take-over in part is designed to protect the status quo, ossified university that staffs his administration and provides the fire for so many of his agendas.

3) Technology.

I remember as a little boy going to the Big Fresno Fair to see the “picto-phone,” huge monstrosities that we were told one day would allow us to phone and simultaneously see the other person on the other end of the line. Then quietly in the 1970s all that disappeared and the idea became Edsel-like.

But wait — suddenly without as much as a whimper one can Skype across the globe for free. Is not that a revolution in the human experience that has transpired without notice?

The current technological revolution is stealthy like that. The advancing pace of change is geometric but not the human reaction to it, which devolves to quiet indifference. So we look at terrorists in Waziristan from Las Vegas and decide in judge/jury/executioner fashion whether the big face on the screen lives or dies that nano-second. And sigh? I fly to an airport, have a minute, and access over 60 million words of the corpus of ancient Greek literature in between flights. Big deal?

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President 40/60

September 27th, 2010 - 8:14 am

I think Barack Obama will soon dip below a 40% approval rating. He’s nearing there now.

Why? A mixture of both the personal and political. Here are five good reasons:

1) A bad agenda. Nearly every issue the president embraces polls against him, often at a 3-1 margin. Cap and trade, amnesty, state-run health care, more bailouts, takeovers, deficits, taxes, and the national debt. His vision is the same as that of the EU circa 1990 — one that even Europe now rejects as a failure.

The answer to every challenge is to found a new program, borrow billions to run it, hire millions more loyal to the progressive gospel of public employment, and demagogue any who oppose it. The public is starting to see that the president’s ideology is really a mixture of the Ivy League, the left-wing of the Democratic Party, the tired canards of the black caucus, extremist residuals from Rev. Wright and Bill Ayers, and twenty years of university multicultural, utopian pacifist, and moral equivalent indoctrination. His Democratic Party is not one with half the House Democrats and does not appeal to liberal independents. He’s the sort of progressive professor whom the proverbial new student comes home at Thanksgiving to quote to a shocked parent..

Obama can no more adopt a centrist identity that Rev Wright could become a Billy Graham, or Jimmy Carter could pivot like Bill Clinton. Most House Democrats grasp that unwelcome truth and so mightily fear his presence in their districts.

2) Anything, anytime. The president does not conduct himself in a sober and judicious manner and neither do those around him. On any given day he can slur Arizonans as wanting to round up innocents on the way to ice cream. He can slander police as stupidly acting stereotypers. The attorney general can call us cowards and swear without reading a bill that it profiles the innocent. Legitimate worry over a Ground Zero mosque translates into anti-constitutional efforts to stifle freedom of worship. Those with money — defined by an arbitrary annual income level of $250,000 — owe the rest of us their ill-gotten gains. Surgeons transmogrify into tonsil-loppers, insurers are greedy, investors are put back at the end of the creditor line; all are worthy of a boot on their necks and a kick in the ass.

The first lady can likewise say anything at anytime that would earn about a 10% approval rating. “Deign to run,” “raise the bar,” “never been proud before,” “downright mean country,” and all that have gone somnolent only because of a fleeting January 2009 70% approval rating. When polls hits 40% , expect the 2008 tropes to return. The result won’t be pretty. Bush was stoic and philosophical at 38% after six years; the aggrieved Obamas will not be after two.

3) There is no eloquence, period. Part is the fault of the worst speech-writing team in modern presidential memory. They make the most elemental of errors, whether turning Cordoba into a beacon of Islamic tolerance during the Inquisition or claiming “Mexicans” were here in North America before Americans, well before the idea of the nation of Mexico existed.

The president himself suffers from three rhetorical liabilities. He simply cannot leave the teleprompter — even for a second. To do so means that “like a dog” petulance immediate spews forth. Second, the divergence from his sort of nerdy Harvard Law Review wonk-talk and his Rev. Wright black-church preaching is simply too wide to suggest that he is just modulating Hillary-like for audiences. Instead, the Dr. Jekyl/Mr. Hyde deliveries infer not just patronizing, but something far more disturbing: Mr. Obama does not seem to know himself quite who he is. Third, he cannot leave the campaign mode. So all his lectures are rehashes of hope-and-change, Bush did it, I, I, I, me, me, me, my, my, my — spiced with the now tedious “Let Me Be Perfectly Clear” and “Make No Mistake About It,” as if we are inattentive school children and he the headmaster at the front of the room clamoring for our attention. The result? He is overexposed to the point that eyes roll and backs turn when he drops his g’s and starts in on “they” and “them.”

4) His team is imploding. We heard all this fluff last year about “Team of Rivals” as if our new Lincoln was going to collect brilliant and ambitious contrarians, and by sheer force of brilliance brew administrative excellence. He never read anything other than Ms. Doris Kearns Goodwin apparently. Lincoln finally had to fire the duplicitous Chase and Cameron. Stanton was a loose cannon who slurred the Union hero Sherman. Half the Lincoln cabinet was trying to do him in during the dark days of August 1864, as Lincoln himself dumped his VP Hamlin and in desperation tried to find a military icon before settling on the so-so Johnson. Lincoln succeeded despite his errors in selecting such a witch’s brew, not because of it. Take away Sherman inside Atlanta in early September 1864, and have him end up instead bogged down in Georgia like Grant in Virginia — a wrecked army and no capture of a key enemy city — and Lincoln would have lost to McClellan.

Orszag, Summers, and Romer are going or have gone. Geithner will leave too. Emanuel will be out — and leak to the world that his pragmatic “genius” was rejected. The so-called centrists like Gates and Jones will leave soon, before the reckoning of a Carter 1979 year comes due. I doubt Hillary will stay unless there is a rebound back over 50%. The more Bill bites his lip in praise of Obama, the more we know what’s coming. All presidential teams implode at some point; few at so early a juncture and fewer with an entire economic team leaving in the midst of the chaos they helped to further.

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Obama Made Us Do It!

September 23rd, 2010 - 11:54 am

Running away from the record

Even the bogeyman George Bush has a finite shelf life. It is as if he is now somehow last fall’s Halloween goblin that we are still supposed to worry about months later during the Fourth of July. Yes, Bush’s utility for blame is now like that of the demonized Rush Limbaugh, the Tea Party, Fox News, Glenn Beck, Wall Street, the insurers, the surgeons, the Republicans, and John Boehner, and so has pretty much expired. Even MoveOn.org cannot believe that all the above kept the country at nearly 10% unemployment.

Instead, the new mantra for Democratic candidates is a sort of “Obama made us do it!” And I cannot recall ever quite seeing that in American politics. Even the slaughtered House Republicans of 2006 did not plead in their campaigns that they were coerced or duped by George Bush.

Consider the liberal dilemma:

After passing ObamaCare, providing more bailouts and stimuli, castigating greedy CEOs and their corporations for selfishness, and embracing Keynesian $1.5 trillion deficits, suddenly no one wishes to support that record.

I understand the president prefers to say that the full effects of his deficit policies, coupled with a natural rebound that follows every recession, will bring us prosperity. Perhaps so, but only in the European sense of plodding on with perennially high unemployment. Instead, very few of those in the Congress who just 20 months rushed to pass the Obama agenda now wish to run on it. How odd.

Take Bill Clinton. His most recent admission that he was wrong about the eventual positive public reaction to ObamaCare was embarrassing not just for his faulty logic — that the bill was unpopular in part because it was unfairly demonized by the right-wing media — but for the vehemence with which in finger-shaking fashion he once asserted that false analysis, and the casual way in which he now acknowledges that he was wrong.

Heading Home…

The triad of the president’s economic advisors — Larry Summers, director of Obama’s National Economic Council; White House Budget Director Peter Orzag; and Christina Romer, chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers — have all quit or will quit, without finishing their second full year, in the middle of economic chaos. If the Congress won’t defend their own borrow and spend policies of gargantuan government, and the administrative team that crafted the fiscal agenda is vanishing, who is left to assure us that all that was the right course? Timothy Geithner? The columnist Paul Krugman, who, after hammering for the mega-deficits that we got, now turns on Obama for not doubling them?

Proud and loud?

In other words, why cannot liberal defenders of Obama simply say, “Government, much more wisely than a selfish private sector, can ensure a vibrant economy. When people are assured of comprehensive government entitlements they use that security as a base for renewed work and investment. Deficits create consumer demands, spread money around to those who need it most, and spur economic prosperity. And when business provides society with over half its profits in income, payroll, and assorted state and local taxes, the resulting redistributive change and spread-the-wealth equality ensure aggregate economic growth”?

But no one seems to wish to run on the very philosophy that just two years ago was gospel. Instead we get “Obama made us do it.”

So few wish to embrace Obama’s other policies and politics. Take cap and trade, now stalled in the Congress. Cannot those who voted for it in the House make the renewed case for catastrophic man-made global warming, refuting the attacks on Al Gore or the Climategate scandal?

Or perhaps try immigration. Will not liberals at least say something like the following: “We must give amnesty to most of the 12 million illegal aliens here, and here is why…”?

Or gay marriage and “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Cannot liberals run on the theme that sexual difference has nothing to do with the sanctity of marriage or the efficacy of military service, so we proudly see both issues as those of human rights?

Instead of that honesty, what do we get? Court action to nullify passed ballot propositions in California; efforts to hijack a Defense Appropriation bill unless it ends “don’t ask, don’t tell” and gives amnesty in exchange for military service and good grades in college. Again, we see here a weird recognition that most people apparently don’t know what is best for them, so they must in some fashion be deluded into accepting what will make them better.

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Decline Is in the Mind

September 18th, 2010 - 4:18 pm

With a whimper not a bang

Juxtapose pictures of Frankfurt and Liverpool in 1945, and then again in 2010 (or for that matter Hiroshima and Detroit). Something seems awry. Perhaps one can see, even in these superficial images, that something other than military defeat more often erodes societies.

Of course, losing a war can end a civilization (ask the Carthaginians in the Third Punic War or the Aztecs in 1521). But then again, the chicken-and-egg question reappears: why are some civilizations more vulnerable to foreign occupation or more incapable of reacting to sudden catastrophe — such as the pyramidal Mycenaeans rather than the decentralized Greek city-states?

In three wars, Republican Rome managed to end sea faring Carthage — in part through the building ex nihilo of a bigger and better navy — and in a dynamic fashion not repeated 600 years later when 1 million-square-mile, 70 million-person imperial Rome — now top-heavy, pyramidal, highly taxed — could not keep out barbarians from across the Danube and Rhine.

At the end of the Second World War, the industrial centers of western and eastern Europe were flattened. Russia was wrecked. China and India were pre-capitalist. Germany and Japan themselves were in cinders.

The factories of the United Kingdom (despite the 1940 blitz and the later V-1 and V-2 attacks) were largely untouched, and the United States pristine. Both countries had incurred massive debt. Yet Britain in the late 1940s and 1950s socialized, increased vastly the public sector, and become the impoverished nation of the 1960s and 1970s. In contrast, America began to return to its entrepreneurial freedoms, and geared up to supply a wrecked world with industrial and commercial goods, paying down its massive debt through an expanding economy. We thrived; yet socialist Britain did not become a West Germany, Japan, or Singapore.

One can see that natural resources, while important, are not all determining. Oil-rich Venezuela and Mexico are a mess; resource-poor Japan and Switzerland are not. There are few economic refugees now fleeing Shanghai to Hong Kong as in the past; nor is East Germany any more unlike West Germany as North Korea still is in comparison to South Korea.

Planned vs. Free

Cultural tradition plays a role, of course. But more important still is the nature of politics and the economy. As a general rule, the more freedom of the individual and flexibility of markets — with lower taxes, less bureaucracy, constitutional government, more transparency, and the rule of law — the more likely a society is to create wealth and rebound from either war or natural disasters.

These truths transcend space and time, and they trump race and nationality, weather and climate, resources and geography. The notion that we are doomed and the Chinese fated to prosper is not written in stone. It is simply a matter of free will, theirs and ours. They must deal with a new era of coming suburban blues, worker discontent, unions, environmental discretion and regulation, an aging and shrinking population and greater personal appetites, social protest, and nonconformity — in the manner that industrializing Western nations did as well in the early twentieth century.

In our hands

We in turn can easily outdistance any country should we remain the most free, law-abiding, and economically open society as in our past. A race-gender-ethnic-blind meritocracy, equal application of the law, low taxes, small government, and a transparent political and legal system are at the heart of that renewal. America could within a decade become a creditor nation again, with a trade balance and budget surplus, drawing in the world’s talent and capital in a way not possible in the more inflexible or less meritocratic China, Japan, or Germany. Again that is our choice, not a superimposed destiny from someone else.

Unfortunately, we are mired — as in the case of many complex societies that become ever more top-heavy and bureaucratic, when salvation alone is found in becoming less so — in a new peasant notion of the limited good. Anything produced is seen to come at the expense of others. Absolute wealth is imaginary, relative wealth is not. We would rather be equal and unexceptional than collectively better off with a few more better off still.

Yet I, like most Americans I hope, don’t care whether Bill Gates lives in a mansion or Warren Buffet flies in a huge private plane or even that George Soros has billions to give away to progressive causes or that John Kerry has millions to spend on power boats and sailing ships. The system that created these excesses, if we even call them that, also ensured that my hot water — and the hot water in nearby rather poor Selma — is no cooler than theirs. My Honda and hundreds in town run as well as their imported limousines. Last time I went to the local Wal-Mart I counted 100 cell phones, and I doubt Al Gore’s gets any better reception. The better off may or may not “at a certain point … made enough money,” to quote the president, but I have no idea where that certain point is (or whether it includes vacations to Costa del Sol), only that once our technocracy starts determining it, there is a greater chance that my town will not have as hot water as the rich and Hondas that run as well as their luxury cars.

When the end comes

Study the collapse of complex societies, and rarely is the culprit the environment or the enemy across the border. To the extent that walls are torn down or rivers silted up or volcanic eruptions become societal-ending, all that hinges on the preexisting nature of a society — whether it is flexible and wealth-creating or inward, acrimonious, and wealth-redistributing. Chile will recover from a far stronger earthquake than the one that hit Haiti. (I fear Haiti will not recover easily, if at all.)

In 1521, a brutal Hernan Cortés could no more have taken Britain with his 1500 conquistadors than he rather quickly figured out how to destroy an empire of 4 million with that same number. The trick for the command economy of the Soviet Union was not just to repel a 3-million-man Nazi-led invasion, but to do so in a fashion that did not lose 20 million of its own, while creating a postwar sustainable prosperous order inside the USSR and at its periphery.

“Spread the wealth” and “redistributive change” only occur when the enterprising, gifted, lucky, or audacious among us feel that they have a good chance to gain something for themselves (and keep most of it), or to extend to others that something they earned — or more often both motives, self-interested and collective. Deny all that, shoot their bigger cow so to speak, or burn down their towering grain, and we will end up as peasants and serfs fighting over a shrinking pie.

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When Socialism Creeps In . . .

September 14th, 2010 - 1:38 pm

America against the world (in ways we never imagined?)

Survey the world’s statist systems of every stripe, from soft to hard. One sees either failure and misery or stasis and lethargy. At the most extreme, a North Korea is turning into a Neanderthal society where subjects eat grass. Castro’s Cuba is imploding, and the Great Leader in his dotage is now renouncing his communist catastrophe. Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela proves that an even an oil-rich exporter can destroy itself with self-imposed socialism.

India progressed only when it adopted free markets. People do not outsource 1-800 numbers to socialist paradises. No need to review the Soviet collapse or the change in China from a peasant to a wealth-building capitalist society. Europe for a while longer works despite (rather than because of) democratic socialism. From Germany to Greece, Europe is moving away from the encroaching public sector that has nearly destroyed the European Union.

So the trend of the world — even after the meltdown of September 2008 — is away from statism, except in the United States. I don’t say that lightly or as a slur, but empirically. The Obama administration has absorbed large sectors of the auto industry and some segments of banking and insurance. The student loan program is federalized.

I never understood cash for clunkers; it seemed flawed in every facet. If this administration has its way, it will hike income taxes and take off the caps on income subject to Social Security payroll taxes (potentially the largest tax increase in history) — part of an effort to redistribute income from the top to bottom brackets (40% of these income filers pay no income tax now at all). Inheritance, health care, and capital gains taxes are all slated to rise.

The failed British medical system is now our model. Yet even the pretense that it will save money is now abandoned. To get reelected, many of its Democratic adherents now run from their earlier votes. For some reason the chaos of the emergency room, the mess of the social services office, or the bureaucracy of the county building permit agency is our ideal for the brave, new doctor’s office.

The percentage of GDP that is government-run will markedly increase; the trillion-plus annual deficits, in gorge the beast fashion, will force higher taxation to pay for redistributive payouts and entitlements — or inflate the currency to erode saved capital. The UN is worshiped and reported to. Allies are now neutrals, and enemies are courted. We seek to prove that we are not “exceptional,” but simply one among many — a sort of socialist approach to foreign policy where all nations are the same.

Symbolically the president, before and during his tenure, has called for “redistributive change,” “to spread the wealth,” and openly suggested that, at some arbitrary point (known to him alone, but apparently sufficiently high enough to allow Costa del Sol and Martha Vineyard vacations) one need not make (as in, keep one’s earnings) additional income. I could go on, but you get the picture: Obama would like to take us down a path that leads inevitably to a Greece, even as the world is racing away from it.

So what’s wrong with socialism? Here are five dangers.

1) Policing the police. There is no check on an omnipotent government. We see that already with the hundreds of tax cheats in Congress and the White House, and the embarrassments of a Tim Geithner or Tom Daschle. Who oversees industry when industry is run by government?

Another agency? Do you sue in federal court to stop state industry pollution, when the payout will hamper the ability to pay the federal court staff itself? When I take brush to the dump, I am careful to tarp the pickup bed (I know the dangers of, and fine for, flying debris). When I am behind a municipal garbage truck, I both expect to be splattered by flying garbage and know there is no punishment for the driver; he is tenured and his agency part of the same system as the sheriff’s.

When I see a Greyhound bus driver drive erratically, I expect he can be sued or cited by government. When a municipal bus driver recently almost hit me at a crosswalk — its driver smoking and text messaging all at once — I knew there was little redress. What is the transportation agency worried about — losing market share when it is a monopoly? Government is necessary, but the least is better than the most.

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An Apologetic 9/11?

September 11th, 2010 - 11:00 pm

Words not spoken

I listened carefully to the president’s commemorative speech and many of the other public statements from our elected officials. This year’s anniversary marked a somewhat new tone, tentative, near apologetic — as if the Ground Zero and Pentagon attacks were wholly tragic rather than solely due to the premeditated murdering of radical Islamic zealots.

We’ve come a way from the resolute pact with the departed that resonated from Ground Zero, when George Bush, in his finest moment, put his arm around retired firefighter Bob Beckwith, and announced to the world, “ I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” As the national hysteria of 2008 wears off, I think some Americans will miss that, and come to see that the reductionist “fighting them over there rather than here,” “playing offense rather than defense” had something to it.

In contrast, even today December 7 brings up more Day of Infamy resoluteness than a sense of equivocation, as something inevitable or a lesson about America’s tolerance. Even Howard Zinn did not succeed in convincing America that we needed to pause and renew our allegiance to tolerance to avoid another 12/7.

No doubt this year’s hesitancy and gloom were brought on by the controversy over the so-called Ground Zero mosque, and the combined lunatic statements from the book-burning Pastor Jones, and the now veiled warnings about Islamic payback for our supposed illiberality from the omnipresent Imam Rauf (as he finagles to get his $100 million Islamic headquarters built at the only place he can continue to bask in the limelight of controversy).

Nine years after the mass murders, where do we stand?

On the plus side, the protocols put in place — Guantanamo, tribunals, renditions, Predators, wiretapping, intercepts, the Patriot Act, the offensive operations in Afghanistan and (yes) in Iraq — have decimated al-Qaeda and prevented another 9/11 at home … so far. Iraqis worry about us leaving rather than staying. So do most Afghans.

I know all that because the left is suddenly quiet about the previously supposed Constitution shredding — a trope to destroy George Bush, rather than worry about forgetting the Founders. Obama has adopted or expanded all these measures. Iraq is now dubbed by the vice president as one of the administration’s “greatest achievements” and by the president himself as “a remarkable chapter” in our history. The surge is as appreciated and taken for granted as its reference is taboo. The MoveOn.org discounted New York Times ad — “General Betray Us” — never existed.

Some will come to remember that the U.S. went into the heart of the ancient caliphate and did not destroy Iraq, but liberated it, and in the end was helped by the Sunni Arabs of Anbar province. The al-Qaeda videos, the beheadings,  the Abu Ghraib propaganda, the war is “lost” defeatism at home, and the snuff Bush novels and films did not prevail over the U.S. military.

Yes, we forget, and yet were not reminded this year, how far we have come. Bin Laden is an outcast, his polls low, his followers in caves. Thousands of murderous jihadists have been killed in both Afghanistan and Iraq. There is no more WMD in Libya. Dr. Khan is in retirement. Syria is out of Lebanon; we are out of Saudi Arabia.

I could go on, but none of this was sure after 9/11. I am surprised that our leaders do not, at least briefly, evoke it — at least to balance the constant refrain that we are tolerant, not at war with Islam, and all the understandable outreach that we heard this week. How odd that the most liberal people in the world are worried that they are not liberal enough to the most intolerant on the planet.

A people at war needs to hear at times Churchill’s or Clemenceau’s defiance as much as tolerance. Both are necessary, but if we are continually reminded that Pastor Jones and his supposedly extremist al-Qaeda doppelgangers cannot turn us from the path of our accustomed liberality, we equally need to hear that the United States has brought defeat to its enemies and will continue to do so at home and abroad.

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I would be miffed too if I were Obama

Obama in just twenty months has developed a reputation for being petulant, unusually sensitive to the normal run-of-the-mill criticism. His latest pushback was his strangest so far: “And they’re not always happy with me. They talk about me like a dog. That’s not in my prepared remarks, it’s just — but it’s true.”

Given that Obama has previously called out talk radio critics by name — Beck, Hannity, Limbaugh — attacked everything from limb-lopping surgeons to vacationing at Las Vegas, and in condescending fashion tsk-tsked those who attend Glenn Beck rallies, rural Pennsylvanians, and his own “typical white person” grandmother who raised him, his thin-skin touchiness seems inexplicable.

Surely the most powerful man in the world knows that when you elevate talk radio critics to near-equal adversaries, then one cannot complain that they press their now high-profile serial attacks even further.

Add that his team has indulged in invective like few recent administrations — whether Obama’s own slur against the stereotyping and stupidly acting police, Eric Holder’s collective denunciation of Americans as “cowards,” Van Jones’ various hysterics (e.g., polluting and mass-murdering whites, Bush in on 9/11, etc.), Anita Dunn’s attacks against Fox News, or the generic “Bush did it” chorus.

The wonder is not that Obama is angry at criticism, but why he is so surprised in a weird “how dare they?” fashion.

Various explanations come to mind. Like the early presidential years of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, Obama has experienced a radical drop in approval ratings. His preconceived notions about the world abroad have proven shockingly therapeutic. He must be disappointed that an Ahmadinejad or Putin is not swayed by his charisma and does what he pleases, which is mostly to oppose America and its interests whenever he can. Messianic disappointment with an unappreciative lesser world can explain a lot.

Keynesian economics did not pan out. Pundits without the responsibility of governance, who advised him to borrow trillions, now abandon him for not borrowing more trillions. He must be confused why he is both being attacked by friends and yet unable to borrow his way to recovery.

Yet Obama’s petulance, I think, more likely derives from a certain surprise — leading to anger — that originates from novel and sudden demands for accountability. Quite simply, no one has dared question Obama before — much less press him for deeds to match his mellifluous words.

Did he really think he could talk his way through four years of the American presidency?

Apparently, he did, and apparently he was almost right — given that rhetoric and sophistry earned him the presidency in the first place. In what follows, I hold some empathy for Obama’s pique; you see in some sense those around him suddenly changed the rules, and what in the past had been habit and custom no longer quite applied.

An Old Story

This is an old story with a long heritage. We know Obama got into Columbia; we have no idea what he accomplished there — or whether his undergraduate transcript merited admission to Harvard Law School. Obama may have charmed his way into Harvard Law Review, but in brilliant fashion he seems to have guessed rightly that once there he would be singularly exempt from the usual requirements of quantifiable achievement.

A part-time visiting law professorship at the University of Chicago Law school rarely leads to a permanent tenure-track position, much less a tenured billet– and never without a body of published articles and books. In Obama’s case those protocols simply did not apply. He was not only offered whatever he wanted, but as Justice Kagan reminded us, Obama was courted by Harvard Law School as well.

Most candidates for state office do not sue to remove their opponents from the ballot. Obama petitioned (successfully) that most of them be disqualified in 1995. It is likewise rare for the sealed divorce records of a front-running primary rival to be mysteriously leaked, prompting a veritable uncontested nomination. But after Democratic rival Blair Hull imploded from such revelations, so did Obama’s general election Republican opponent Jack Ryan, who dropped out of the race after his divorce proceedings were eerily likewise exposed. Lightning does strike twice in the same place for the blessed Obama.

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We Are Ruled by Professors

September 6th, 2010 - 6:21 am

Since we seem now to be ruled during this administration by former professors, here is a rant about what I have learned of the university.

Looking back at forty years…

I have some experience in academia: I spent 3 years at UC Santa Cruz, graduating in classics, two more, graduate and undergraduate, in formal study in Athens, at the College Year in Athens and the American School of Classical Studies, four at Stanford University for a PhD in classics, and then a 21-year stint as a professor at California State University Fresno.

I farmed before, during, and after the university tenures. I can’t count my current life at the Hoover Institution or my month of teaching each year at Hillsdale College as quite the same experience. Both, after all, are aberrant academic institutions — in the sense that the faculties and mission of these institutions resemble pretty much those of America off campus. (I have never met more sane people than at both places.)

The farm and the life with it were great gifts from my ancestors. Almost every weekend as an undergraduate and graduate student, and then nightly as a classics professor, I returned to the farm. People in the environs there were not hostile to learning; they just assumed that being a professor or writer was, and should be, not any different from welding or tractor driving.

Living in rural Selma was a sort of vaccination against the academic virus of self-importance and collective timidity. One must be somewhat self-reliant when bare vines somehow in ten months must pay for diapers and formula, when so much — weather, pests, markets, neighbors, intruders — conspire to prevent that. Fairly or not, I always admired a guy who could feed his family from 60 acres of tree-fruit (I could not) — and especially a lot more than I did an English professor, at least the sort I met over the last forty years.

So what did I learn in the university? I’ll try to be a bit less specific than I was in Who Killed Homer? written over a decade ago.

Lies, lies, and more lies

First was the false knowledge — odd for an institution devoted to free inquiry. The university runs like a 13th-century church in which the heliocentric maverick is a mortal sinner. So too on campus the Rosenbergs never spied. Alger Hiss was a martyr. Mao killed only a few who needed killing (see Anita Dunn on that one).

Che was not a murderous thug, but a hair-in-the-wind carefree motorcyclist. Minorities supposedly died proportionally higher in Vietnam — as they supposedly do now in Iraq and Afghanistan. Women are underrepresented as both undergraduates and as humanities graduate students. Anyone with an accented name obviously had picked grapes or was denied voting rights. Adlai Stevenson was an American saint, even more so than George McGovern. Only the unhinged even discussed doubts about global warming. Don’t question any of the above; it was all gospel — as we see now in D.C., from Keynes to Gorism to Cordoba as the beacon of Islamic tolerance during the Inquisition. (Doubt any of that, and that laid-back elbow-patched joking prof who told the class “Call me Bill,” in a flash, Gollum like, turned into a snarling jackal, screaming, “I am Doctor Jones, with important publications on climate change and a doctorate from Berkeley! How dare you question me!”)

Wounded fawns all

Next were the mock heroics. The philosophy professor who mastered his weedeater wanted us to think he had just stormed Iwo Jima. The gadfly who in the Academic Senate pushed through a resolution on a 170-2 approval vote demanding state sanction of gay marriage thought he was Mandela fighting back the forces of Neanderthal apartheid. My colleague the French professor believed that she belonged to the United Mine Workers when she trudged off to teach an 8 AM early-bird class. We heard for two years the Homeric battle of how the sociology prof, Odysseus like (or perhaps more in the Achilles strain), once somehow jump-started his car in the parking lot. We heard a lot that everyone was “tired” and “exhausted,” as if we had been painting all day or digging trenches for an irrigation company.

The World of Arugula

So there was the cluelessness about the material world, and both a repulsion and fascination for it. I farmed “raisin plants.” And why didn’t I let one or two owls do my pest management on 100 acres rather than use the poison that was born at Auschwitz? Machines always had to work — or else. When it hit 110 and the air conditioning went out in our building, profs sighed and damned “them” who couldn’t even keep us cool. (None had been on a roof at 120 or wondered how a compressor ran at all — or how a guy could spend four hours up there in Sahara-like conditions with all sorts of sockets and wrenches before his skull melted. [Note well, the campus machines worked far better than did the idea of graduating literate BAs.]) In the world of the professor, offshore drilling rigs can be started and stopped, come and go, sort of like an evening seminar. No wonder Professor Chu announced that California agriculture would dry up and blow away (and given the present policies, he may be right).


Looking back at it all, envy seemed the university lifeblood. Most other professionals, you see, were, in comparison to us, overpaid —especially those whom we had the misfortune of sometimes coming in contact with, or, worse, even socializing among. Go to campus and the present demonization of Vegas, Wall Street, surgeons, and insurers makes perfect sense.

Money both repelled and yet attracted academics, those strange summer moths that hated the cash bulb and yet could not resist its radiance. MDs, MBAs, JDs — all these folks had studied far less than we had! And yet, most unfairly, they now made far more money! We, of course, to paraphrase Barack Obama, out of altruism had passed on all those easy avenues of getting rich (identifying a Latin gerundive or an underappreciated 19th suffragette being far more difficult than cracking open someone’s brain or building a shopping center). (By the way, did you ever really believe Barack or Michelle that they could have waltzed over to Wall Street and struck it rich — as if such merchandising and monetizing were no more demanding than community organizing? To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen: “I’ve known Wall Street hustlers, and you’re no Wall Street hustler, Barack”.)

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‘Bush … Come Back, Bush, Come Back’

September 2nd, 2010 - 2:14 pm

Why We Suddenly Miss Bush

Various polls report that George W. Bush in some states is now better liked than President Obama. Even some liberal pundits call for Bush, the now long-missed moderate, to draw on his recognized tolerance and weigh in on the Ground Zero mosque or the Arizona anti-immigration legislation. Apparently the erstwhile divider is now the healer that the healer Obama is not.

As President Obama’s polls dip, as Congress is widely disdained, and as the economy slumps, suddenly George Bush is missed. Why so? Let me list ten likely reasons.

1) The Obama record. We naturally compare Bush to his chief critic and successor Barack Obama — and find the latter increasingly wanting as time goes by. Obama turned Bush’s misdemeanor deficits into felonious trillion-dollar annual shortfalls. He will pile up more debt than any other prior president.

Indeed, if reelected, Obama will borrow more than all previous administrations combined. Bush was tarred in 2004 for a “jobless recovery” when unemployment hovered near 6%. It is now almost 10% and Obama still harps about “jobs saved.” Scott McClellan may have been singularly inept; we are not so sure after Robert Gibbs. For every Brownie there is a worse Van Jones or Anita Dunn. For Katrina we have BP. Bush’s NASA did space; Obama’s seems to prefer Muslim outreach. Bush’s prescription drug benefit was an unfunded liability; ObamaCare is a trillion-dollar financial black-hole. I could go on, but Obama’s lackluster record is improving Bush’s legacy every day.

2) Obama as Bush. Senator and then candidate Obama demagogued Bush on a variety of issues, which, as president, he simply flipped and endorsed. Remember Bush’s gulag at Guantanamo? Or how about the terror-producing Predators? Or the need for an immediate pull-out from Iraq? Or those terrible renditions and tribunals?

In case after case of national security, Obama dropped the cheap rhetorical one-upmanship, and, when invested with the responsibility of governance, simply adopted, or even trumped, the Bush protocols. General Petraeus, whose testimony Hillary once suggested required “a suspension of disbelief” and whom Obama cut off and did not allow to speak during his infamous 2007 Senate hearing, suddenly is to be Obama’s savior general.

Candidate Obama claimed the surge failed and all combat troops should be out of Bush’s Iraq war by March 2008. President Obama now calls Iraq a “remarkable chapter” as his vice president claims it as one of the administration’s “greatest achievements.” In short, almost daily, Obama is following the Bush anti-terrorism policies — the irony made worse by petulance and ingratitude in not acknowledging his debt.

3) Bush Did It. It is a uniquely American trait to shun whining and petulance. Rugged individualism and can-do optimism used to be ingrained in our national character, and even in our 11th hour have not wholly disappeared. So the public is tiring of Obama’s Pavlovian blaming of Bush. After 20 months, it is time for the president to get a life and quit the “heads you lose/tails I win” attitude about presidential responsibility. If he now takes credit for calm in Iraq without crediting the surge, then Obama can surely take blame for the anemic recovery — brought on by his own bullying of business that has frightened free enterprise into stasis. Note that Bush, unlike Clinton, has not engaged in emeritus tit-for-tat recrimination, and has kept largely quiet in dignified repose. Obama serially goes after Hannity, Limbaugh, and Beck by name; Bush let the slander of a Michael Moore or Keith Olbermann go unanswered.

4) Who is the real yuppie? The media tried to paint Bush as the privileged yuppie, masquerading as the Texas rancher, idly chain-sawing on his spread. But at least Bush went to the Texas outback for vacation and got his hands dirty. Obama’s problem is that Axelrod and Emanuel could not stage a chain-sawing task for Obama if they tried — severe injury would surely follow. The bowling moment in the campaign was as disastrous as the later Obama girlish first pitch. From 2001-3,  presidential golf was proof of aristocratic disdain and laziness. Suddenly from 2009-2010 — given that Obama has hit the greens more in 20 months than Bush did in eight years — the Ministry of Truth redefined the game as necessary egalitarian relaxation. Given the choice, the public would probably prefer a little overdone Texas “smoke ‘em out” braggadocio to worries over the price of arugula.

5) Michelle is no Laura. Remember the narrative: conservative women are elitists who decorate, buy nice clothes, and play Barbie; liberal first ladies are doers who are independent feminists that can’t be bothered by inanities like fashion and play. But Michelle this summer enjoyed a movable feast from Marbella to Martha’s Vineyard, in designer clothes and shades. Laura Bush used to vacation at the national parks. Laura Bush often disagreed with her husband and sometimes offered a liberal “Oh, come on, George” to her husband’s occasional flight-suit strutting. Michelle, in contrast, is the second half of the partisan Obama tag-team, perennially whining that “they raised the bar.” After “downright mean country” and “never before been proud,” we miss Laura Bush’s common sense and nonpartisanship. Ga-ga media talk of Michelle’s biceps, not the earthy decency reminiscent of a Laura Bush.

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