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Monthly Archives: August 2011

Strangers in a Familiar Land

August 29th, 2011 - 9:00 am

High-Speed Rail?

California sits in a time warp. Despite tax hikes that make our roughly 10% income tax and 10% sales tax among the highest in the nation, there is little to show for it during the last forty years. I drive often the 20-mile sector of the 99 between Selma and northern Fresno. The freeway — one of the 99’s best sections — is unchanged since I drove it 41 years ago as a high-school junior in 1970, except that it is now crowded, with massive semi-trucks permanently hogging the center lanes, whereas in 1970 it was a near-empty futuristic investment that allowed cars to zoom along unchecked at 70mph. (Again, our sector of the 99 is a model three-lane stretch, not nearly as bad as the nightmarish two-lane, cross-traffic sections to both the north and south.)

A contemporary culture that cannot finish a forty-year-old planned three-lane freeway from Sacramento to Bakersfield has no business borrowing tens of billions to attempt a new high-speed rail corridor. It is characteristic of our present generation to dream and talk wildly of the non-essential as penance for neglecting the very doable and necessary. An alien who landed at a UC campus in 1971 and studied the students and faculty might not be surprised on his return to California in 2011 that things are what they are, given that cohort has finally came of age and taken over the reins of governance. An entire generation that had once defined itself in opposition to “them” has problems when “them” are mostly buried.

Fossil Hunting

My weekend drives up the road 168 to the Sierra National Forest are similar: I gaze out at the road, the dams, the lakes, and powerhouses, and notice they remain almost identical to what I remember four decades ago, as if we are now some sort of Dark Age Greeks wondering in amazement at the deserted Lion Gate at Mycenae, fabricating myths that the “gods” or “Cyclopes” built such strange wonders, whose mechanisms and operations only a priestly sect still fathoms. I worry not just that we lack the politicians to replicate the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project, but perhaps even the same caliber of engineers and construction workers themselves. I am sure that we know the number of spots on every endangered newt in the San Joaquin River canyon, but would not have much ability to match the genius of those one century ago who drew for us power, irrigation water, and recreation from that powerful river. One anomaly: there are sections of beautiful 1960s/1970s built roads — the four lane stretch on 168, or the four miles of well-engineered road to the Kaiser summit above Huntington Lake. But then abruptly they stop and are continued on by the much poorer roads that they were long ago designed to update, as if to say, “Nah, this was a bad idea, so we better stop.” Or: “Ok, you guys win, we’ll quit.”

The “Flagship” Universities

The UC and CSU systems in outward appearance haven’t changed that much in half a century, but no college president in either current system would bet his life that today’s random graduates of his campus could match exit test scores in math or English of their 1960s random counterparts (so much for all those cutting-edge new classes and brilliantly conceived “centers”). The effort to open the new problematic UC campus in Merced did not quite follow the long ago exemplar of Irvine or Santa Cruz: our forefathers simply built massive new campuses next to resort cities; we in contrast sue and file impact statements over starting on empty isolated ground. Half of incoming freshmen at CSU today require remediation; about half graduate in six years. Pick up an old catalog from the library and compare the course listings — and the reason why jumps off the pages.

Then and Now

When I leave my farm, I pass by the Southern Pacific Railroad, the 99 freeway, and the small towns that dot that north-south corridor. Again, nothing much has changed in forty years — except thousands of new tract houses and the closure of farm machinery businesses, truck-trailer plants, and hydraulic equipment factories. Again, a time traveler might think in 1970 people lived frugally but made lots of things in lots of factories, connected by hyper-efficient transportation; in 2011 they live much better, but why and how would not be perceptible to the naked eye, given their closed plants, congested potholed roads, and lack of new productive investment.

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The Middle East Mess

August 24th, 2011 - 11:07 am

Libya, Iraq, Syria, Iran, and the All the Same Old, Same Old Mess

Each country in the Middle East poses unique challenges. That said, gender apartheid, religious intolerance, tribalism, dictatorship, statism, and lack of transparency and free expression are widely shared in the region, and mean that any particular policy will almost immediately collide with some two millennia of habit and custom antithetical and often hostile to the values of the West. That the West is presently broke, multicultural, full of guilt and incapable of defending its values and history only confuses the issue even more.

Libya and Iraq

We are all glad that the Gadhafi regime is purportedly on its last legs. When I visited Libya in 2006, tragedy was what I saw—and a friendly population under the yoke of a psychopath. But I don’t think we have had much idea of what we were doing in Libya—a sort of diplomatic pastime secondary to presidential jet-setting and golfing. Moreover, I don’t see any hypocrisy in critiquing our confusion over Libya, as a supporter of the removal of Saddam Hussein. Wanting to use American power and influence to its fullest extent when going to war is preferable to not wanting to use all our power and influence when going to war. The hypocrisy is rather on the Left, which once damned the principle of intervention against an Arab Middle East oil-exporting nation that had not recently attacked us, only to support intervention against an Arab Middle East oil exporting nation that had not recently attacked us. In the Left’s defense, one could argue their consistency is that it’s OK if you have a UN vote, but irrelevant whether you have consent of the U.S. Congress.

Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was the object of 23 different Congressional authorizations (one should go back and read that October 2002 long list of “whereas”es), had been in hot and cold wars with us since 1991, attacked four neighbors, and in the heart of the ancient caliphate was hosting all sorts of terrorists. In a post-911 climate it made sense to reckon with him. Indeed, I think one of the great untold stories of Iraq was the carnage of Islamic terrorists who by volition promised that Iraq would be the central theater in jihad, flocked there, were killed and wounded in droves, and lost—and vastly weakened their cause. But in contrast, the West was apparently in the middle of a weird charm offensive with Gadhafi (one advanced by bought-and-paid-for American academics, European oil companies, and multicultural elites), and the result by 2010 was that Libya was considered no longer the 1986 Libya that Reagan had bombed.

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Atlas Is Sorta Shrugging

August 18th, 2011 - 1:37 pm

“They Did It!”

The president just concluded a frenzied “jobs” bus tour to explain why unemployment is at 9.1% — after borrowing nearly $5 trillion in stimulus the last three years. You know the usual suspects responsible for our, not his, malaise: George Bush did it; the Republican obstructionists in the Congress who were wary of approving another $2 trillion in debt did it; the Tea Party did it; Standard and Poor’s did it; the Japanese earthquake did it; the Japanese tsunami and nuclear accidents did it; the Middle East unrest did it; the European debt crisis did it; new technology like ATM machines did it. Obama has cited these culprits and many more — though never either himself or his advisors who took a weak recovery and turned it into a near recession.

Where Are They Now?

Unofficial and sometimes presidential economic advisor Paul Krugman is increasingly petulant, blaming too little borrowing for the dismal 9.1% unemployment rate, some two years after the recession that began in December 2007 “officially” ended in June 2009. (Note the Zeno-like paradox of too much never being quite enough.) Remember the presidential advisors  – Austan Goolsbee, Peter Orszag, Christina Romer, Larry Summers – who, in the euphoria of the hope and change election sweep of November 2008, advocated a World War II-like new level of federal indebtedness. They are now quietly back on Wall Street, back to their tenured academic perches, or considering departure. They remain either mum or in op-eds visibly confused about why a strong recovery did not follow a strong recession in the manner of all other post-war ups and downs.

So there seems to be genuine confusion — and fear — on the part of leftist economic advisors that the capitalist engine that fuels their redistributive government for some unknown reason is not running on all cylinders and thus cannot quite continue to make the money that even capitalism’s critics count on for support. It reminds me of the please, please letters alumni receive when annual giving to their almae matres is down, and the left-wing president’s mega-salary and the center for gender studies are possibly imperiled.

Start Hiring, Stupid!

Both the president and his supporters fault supposedly self-interested corporations and “the rich” who sit on “trillions of dollars” in capital and won’t hire new workers or make massive purchases of equipment. They are the real cause of record budget deficits, unsustainable aggregate debt, credit downgrading, high unemployment, a nose-diving stock market, sluggish growth, near-zero interest rates, explosive trade deficits, sky-high energy and food prices, a still ruined housing market, and a general fear of new hyperinflation.

There is some truth to Obama’s screed, though not quite in the way he thinks. So let me be perfectly clear and make no mistake about it and let’s be honest: The employers of America have taken a time out, despite the fact that now might be a good time to gear up for the inevitable recovery. They haven’t let the resting world fall entirely from their broad shoulders, but they have bent over for a bit and the globe is tottering on their upper arms.

Consider why after nearly three years our tired Atlas is starting to slouch.

The Slurring and Smearing

Every president lets slip a smear now and then. The key is that there should be little consistency or frequency in his targeting. But with Obama there is both monotony and predictability. He clearly does not like private businesses — except the super wealthy who are liberal and share his refined tastes and politics and have enough millions in “unneeded income” that they figure they will either die before or weather through our transition to European democratic socialism.

Of course, one Huey Long–like “fat cat,” an occasional adolescent “millionaires and billionaires,” a once-in-a-while juvenile “corporate jet owners,” a few 1960s-like “spread the wealth” or “redistributive change” slips, a single petulant “unneeded income,” or a sole pop-philosophizing “at some point you’ve made enough money,” or even on occasion the old socialist boilerplate “those who make over $250,000 should pay their fair share” in isolation are tolerable. But string them together and even the tire store owner and pharmaceutical rep are aroused from their 70-hour weeks, and start to conclude, “Hmmm, this guy doesn’t like me or what I do, and I better make the necessary adjustments.” And, believe me, they are making the necessary adjustments.

Play Money

Business people were confused by the Bush bailout. Some gave Obama a pass for Stimulus II (especially those on the receiving end). When we hit $3 trillion in proposed new borrowing, concern rose. Now with nearly $5 trillion recently borrowed and another $10 trillion scheduled over the next eight years, the private sector has concluded that this guy loves trillion-dollar debt because either (1) it fuels big government and more regulations and more dependent constituents; or (2) it will inevitably cause more redistributive taxes on the productive sector; or (3) it will spur inflation and erode the value of accumulated wealth; or (4) all that and more still.

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Liberal Psychoses

August 14th, 2011 - 4:34 pm

How are we to make sense of flash mobbing, the London rioting, more hatred expressed for the Tea Party, more calls for ever more debt and spending, and Barack Obama’s dive below 40% approval in the polls? Let me backtrack a bit.

Paleolithic Liberalism

I grew up with die-hard Roosevelt Democrats. Packers, shippers, and distributors made all the profits; farmers, we were told, did the work. Co-ops like Sun-Maid were noble; in contrast, grasping private packers paid on “consignment”: give us your produce in an oversupplied market and we will get what we can, when we can, for it. Often plums and peaches were dumped, and we paid the packing and storage fees for the privilege of losing the crop. Unfairness, not the capricious nature of market capitalism, is what we wished to hear.

In my youth, my mother helped out in the “Dollars For Democrats” campaign. I remember the 1960s’ talking points still, as she drove us through the poorer sections of the San Joaquin Valley raising money for JFK (Nixon would win the state by 36,000 votes). We had high hopes for Pat Brown and Sen. Claire Engle. Charles “Gus” Garrigus was our local assemblyman. At eight I met a young Alan Cranston at a run-down café on the old 99 Highway in Selma, a sort of awkward gangly guy still at that stage talking about hard-core, bread-and-butter populism.

After all, what was so unfair about wanting a 40-hour week, overtime pay, disability and unemployment insurance, public works and infrastructure (e.g., the California water projects, LAX, the state freeway system), fair housing, money for the new JC/CSU/UC tripartite “master plan” of higher California education? It was not uncommon in those days to see unpaved streets and a few outhouses — something I was told the distant wealthy could avoid but the state should not.

Most of my parents’ and grandparents’ friends, however, were Grange/Farm Bureau/Chamber of Commerce Republicans. I emphasize “friends” since in the early sixties, pre-Vietnam-protest age, politics still never impeded friendships. Most of my mom’s rural friends were amused rather than angered by her genuine liberalism, since it was directed at trying to improve the lot of the working poor, who were ubiquitous and often next door.

Remember, this was pre-Great Society stuff, well before globalized cheap material goods, the age of food stamps, two years of unemployment insurance, aid to dependent families, and the entire government umbilical cord. Most readers will shake their heads and now mutter: “Victor, Victor, did you not see even at seven that the obvious, the logical result of that idealized government help would be something like the annual $1.6 trillion debt and entitlement culture of the present? Did not Plato warn us that the egalitarian mandate has no logical end?”

Perhaps, but in those days it was not hard to think that the ‘”Okies” and “poor folks” and “Mexican-Americans” in the San Joaquin Valley needed some sort of foundational equality of opportunity — given the scarcity of capital and endemic prejudice. My most distinct memory of first grade was hygiene and dentistry problems: half the kids had rotten teeth and clothes that were unclean. (I remember Jimmy Hopson pulling out his front [permanent] tooth in second grade and showing it off.) Stern teachers from the southwest, with Texas and Oklahoma accents, lectured us on how to shampoo and comb our hair, change socks and underwear, brush our teeth, and use soap under our arms and on the backside of our arms. We were to “make something of ourselves” and be “presentable,” the sort of people “we ourselves would want to sit next to.” “Relief” carried the same stigma associated with “hypos” and “switchblades” or “bums” and “hobos.”

Word and Deed

I detour here, because late 1950s liberalism was in some sense conservative, given the rural poverty, the lack of high-tech appurtenances, the coming end of the U.S. postwar monopoly in manufactured goods, and the worry over “commies.” Of course, JFK, like FDR, personified noblesse oblige, but mostly the heroic Democrats were guys like Truman and Humphrey. For my dad, FDR had built the B-29s, Truman stopped the North Koreans, and JFK had stood down Castro — some mythic history in that, but not much.

You might think their square-deal politics were naïve, but they were salt-of-the-earth types, whose lifestyles reflected the politics that they advocated, and whose personal tastes were simple. To the best I can recall, there was no manifest contradiction in my grandfather’s voting for JFK in 1960, and his stern warnings about “lazy” “no-goods” who came out to prune for a week, abruptly to quit when they earned enough money for “booze” and “were up to no good.” The new pocket transistor radios, he swore, only encouraged sloth and poor work habits — and he wanted no one on the farm listening to one, us included.

In those days, liberalism, if we can even call it that, was clearly an equality of opportunity idea — whatever the intrinsic contradictions of the prior New Deal that logically led to the Great Society and the other failed “societies” to come. It was still not socialism of the European type, but singularly American and predicated on a “fair shake” as the majority of its adherents’ lives were not too distant from the objects of their worry.

I’ll skip the next half-century, since the tragedy is too well known, and focus instead on the vastly different, contemporary liberal mindset. To be blunt, what strikes us about its recent and most vocal emissaries — politicians such as a Barbara Boxer, John Edwards, Al Gore, John Kerry, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi; or the Hollywood celebrities; or the great fortuned like a Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, or George Soros; or the credentialed technocrats who run the foundations and government agencies, or the high-paid media types in the NY-DC corridor — is how vast apart are the circumstances of their own lives from the objects of their concern. In addition, present-day liberalism finds its most numerous adherents among the upper-middle class suburbanites and those who work for government and enjoy de facto tenure (e.g., the public employee unions, teachers, the public professoriate, etc.).

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The Politics of Liberals Bashing Obama

August 10th, 2011 - 7:11 pm

Progressive Angst

This week the president’s positive ratings are hovering around 40-42%; in some polls there is a 10% gap or more between negative and positive appraisals. I expect that they will go back up, and then even lower as the year wears on. But the latest nosedive has prompted many on the left to attack Mr. Obama, from a psychological portrait offered by one Drew Westen to unusual carping from Maureen Dowd, Richard Cohen and E. J Dionne. Cornel West is back again, in rather vicious fashion reminding us that he supposedly helped to introduce Obama to us and now regrets that he did, given the president’s purported ingratitude. Often the critics invoke everything from Jimmy Carter parallels to the unease of European statesmen to emphasize their own disappointment (I think that is a fair and tame term, since I doubt their present disenchantment will result in not voting to reelect Obama).

How Could He?

As I can fathom this August of discontent, it runs something like this: at best Barack Obama is too aloof, professorial and unable temperamentally or unwilling politically to mix it up with Republicans. Therefore he has compromised far too much on various budget deals, which in part explains his sagging ratings and the general laments in the American and European press that Obama lacks leadership qualities. The nearly $5 trillion in new debt since 2009 is a needed, if too timid, “stimulus”; and if it is seen by some as too excessive, it can be easily remedied by new taxes on the wealthy — something Obama talks about a lot but does little to enact, this buskin Theramenes who bends with the wind.

At worst, there is a sort of victimization that might be described as, “Obama mesmerized us and therefore we did not quite appreciate how inexperienced and unaccomplished he was until now when we sobered up — and when it is too late.” Or as Drew Westen put it more bluntly and less kindly in the New York Times:

Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography: that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted “present” (instead of “yea” or “nay”) 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues.

A somewhat less charitable explanation is that we are a nation that is being held hostage not just by an extremist Republican Party but also by a president who either does not know what he believes or is willing to take whatever position he thinks will lead to his re-election. Perhaps those of us who were so enthralled with the magnificent story he told in “Dreams From My Father” appended a chapter at the end that wasn’t there—the chapter in which he resolves his identity and comes to know who he is and what he believes in.

A number of us throughout 2008 and later were criticized for raising just these issues, both about Obama’s lack of experience and his Hamlet-like propensity of hesitation and his academic disengagement. But why this sudden about-face from former disciples?

With Friends Like These…

Politics, of course. The combination of sinking polls to the near 40% range, the stock market nosedive, the Standard and Poor’s downgrade, the tragedy in Afghanistan, the confusion over Libya, the embarrassing golf outings and First Family insensitive preferences for the aristocratic Martha’s Vineyard, Vail, and Costa del Sol have contributed to a general unease on the Left about Obama’s judgment, perhaps to the extent that he might well take the Left down in 2012, both in the House and Senate, whether he wins reelection or not.

But the argument remains incoherent: Obama is being blamed for not being liberal enough — after federalizing much of the health care delivery system, expanding government faster than at any time since 1933, borrowing more money in two and a half years than any president in history, absorbing companies, jawboning the wealthy, going after Boeing, reversing the order of the Chrysler creditors, adding vast new financial and environmental regulations, appointing progressives like a Van Jones or Cass Sunstein, and institutionalizing liberal protocols across the cabinet and bureaucracy, from the EPA to the Attorney General’s Office.

In other words, there is now an elite liberal effort to disentangle Obama from liberalism itself, and to suggest that his sagging polls are not a reflection of Obama’s breakneck efforts to take the country leftward — but either his inability or unwillingness to do so!

Partly, the disappointment is understandably emotional. Just three years ago Obama was acclaimed as a once-in-a-lifetime prophet of liberalism, whose own personal history, charisma, teleprompted eloquence and iconic identity might move a clearly center-right country hard leftward where it otherwise rarely wished to go.

Partly, the anger is quite savvy: if one suddenly blames Obama the man, rather than Obama the ideologue, then his unpopularity is his own, not liberalism’s. There is a clever effort to raise the dichotomy of the inept Carter and the politically savvy Clinton, but in the most improbable fashion: Clinton supposedly was a success not because he was personable, sometimes compromising, and often centrist, and Carter was a failure not because he was sanctimoniously and stubbornly ideological, but just the opposite: Clinton is now reinvented as the true liberal who succeeded because of his principled leftwing politics; Carter like Obama was a bumbling compromiser and waffler.

Revisionist Nonsense?

I think few will believe that implausible narrative, given that Clinton salvaged his presidency after the debacle of Hillarycare and the 1994 midterm bloodbath, only due to Dick Morris’s brilliant and cynical triangulation and his deal-making with Newt Gingrich. In contrast, Carter pretty much stuck to his guns about trumped up fears of communism, the excesses of the wealthy, and the need for more statist control of the economy — and went down in flames for stagflation and an inept foreign policy.

But what are the practical political ramifications of an incipient liberal revolt?

1) Hillary. One can continue to appreciate how brilliant was Obama’s selection of Hillary Clinton as secretary of State. It was not just that he diminished her status by outsourcing much of her job to regional and theater czars, or boxed her in with the “reset” diplomacy of the Susan Rice and Samantha Power sort, or even that her appointment suspended Bill Clinton’s lucrative speechmaking abroad, giving up millions in honoraria at the courts of foreign autocrats and strongmen. More clever yet, Obama seems to have anticipated his present bad stretch in polls and wanted no Teddy Kennedy-like distraction. A Senator Clinton right now would be under some pressure to weigh a divisive run for the nomination. But should Obama implode and see his ratings after three years drop to where George Bush’s were after six years — the 32-36% range — she would be under enormous pressure to declare her candidacy. And unlike Kennedy — who was both an inept candidate and had far too many character flaws and past sins—Hillary Clinton remains a skilled politician, with a brilliant political contortionist as her husband and, of course, has been thoroughly vetted and dissected.

2) Is Race Behind the Leftist Criticism? I think the race card will be put away for just a while — even as it was starting to be replayed. When a Cornel West or a New York Times guest op-ed writer offers Rush Limbaugh-type putdowns and nonetheless remains immune from charges of racialism, then most mainstream critics will probably be as well. Quite simply, from now on to suggest that Obama was not thoroughly vetted, was inexperienced and unqualified, or that he is without leadership qualities and conviction cannot be credibly seen as racially motivated — unless prominent liberals are said themselves to be motivated by such impulses. (And they won’t be so said.)

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An Anatomy of European Nonsense

August 7th, 2011 - 9:32 pm

The Silliest Column I Have Ever Read

I rarely comment on the op-eds of others. And I try not to use ad hominem attacks in lieu of argument. Usually I reply forcefully on the principle of retaliation rather than preemption. So I hesitate to devote space to a single essay. But in the case of an article by one Jakob Augstein in the recent issue of Der Spiegel I’ll make an exception, since his asinine views are emblematic of the poverty of thought that now is so evident among the European Left. In what follows I quote the article, “Once Upon a Time in the West,” in italics, with a bracketed commentary following each paragraph.


Once Upon a Time in the West
A Commentary by Jakob Augstein

The word “West” used to have a meaning. It described common goals and values, the dignity of democracy and justice over tyranny and despotism. Now it seems to be a thing of the past. There is no longer a West, and those who would like to use the word — along with Europe and the United States in the same sentence — should just hold their breath. By any definition, America is no longer a Western nation.

[By referencing American democracy as a “thing of the past,” I expect the author now to demonstrate how the United States either does not hold elections or is not governed by its republican Constitution. Somehow, I expect in what follows to learn neither — and anticipate that Mr. Augstein objects not to the lack of democracy, but to the particular election results resulting from a quite vibrant democracy.]

The US is a country where the system of government has fallen firmly into the hands of the elite. An unruly and aggressive militarism set in motion two costly wars in the past 10 years. Society is not only divided socially and politically — in its ideological blindness the nation is moving even farther away from the core of democracy. It is losing its ability to compromise.

[By “elite”, does the author mean that those with certificates from particular Ivy-League universities, or with incomes far above the national average, or with children in prep schools, or with expansive mansions, or with tastes that are characterized by vacations in a Vail or Costa del Sol are inordinately represented in our legislative and executive branches? I would tend to agree. But somehow, I do not think that Mr. Augstein is too worried about the elite circumstances of a John Edwards, Al Gore, a late Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, or Barack Obama, who have occupied or run for our highest offices. Does an “unruly militarism” refer to responses to decades of unanswered terrorism, the 9/11 mass murdering, and violations of UN accords by Saddam Hussein, in which the U.S. took on two wars, both sanctioned by the U.S. Congress, against two mass-murdering regimes? Does the author believe that a Saddam Hussein was preferable to the current elected government in Iraq, or the Taliban to the Kabul government? And did an “unruly militarism” not once remove despots such as Slobodan Milosevic and Manuel Noriega, or force the collapse of the Soviet gulag? And how exactly is the U.S. moving away from its “core of democracy”? Do EU citizens have more say about the conduct of their continental-wide government? In fact, there have never been more active popular movements that have channeled grass roots enthusiasm into political representation. Web sites, talk radio, and cable news have given the public an unprecedented variety of viewpoints that transcend the traditional filters of the old corporate networks and big-city newspapers.]

America has changed. It has drifted away from the West.

[Even this simple assertion is wrong. America is drifting as never before toward Europe—the ostensible model for an Obama administration that has borrowed nearly $5 trillion in three years, federalized health care, assumed control of private companies, blocked new plant openings, is eager to increase taxation, and seeks to subordinate U.S. foreign policy to the United Nations, as we see in the case of Libya, where the Obama administration went to the Arab League, the United Nations, and its European allies, but not to the U.S. Congress for authorization.]

The country’s social disintegration is breathtaking. Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz recently described the phenomenon. The richest 1 percent of Americans claim one-quarter of the country’s total income for themselves — 25 years ago that figure was 12 percent. It also possesses 40 percent of total wealth, up from 33 percent 25 years ago. Stiglitz claims that in many countries in the so-called Third World, the income gap between the poor and rich has been reduced. In the United States, it has grown.

[Most of the extraordinary wealth of America’s richest — a Bill Gates, Jr. or Warren Buffett — is based on the advent of American-style globalization that opened up new markets for products and financial services, or brought in billions in foreign investment. In response, never has the top 1% paid a greater percentage of the aggregate income tax (the top 1% pays almost 40% of all income tax revenues collected; the top 5% pays almost 60%; the bottom 50% of households pays essentially nothing in income tax). But the barometer of national health should be not be found necessarily in income disparity, but rather in the per capita income of Americans. As American companies and financial institutions made unprecedented profits from global commerce and investment, so too did the standard of living of all Americans rise between 1980s and 2008. Per capita GDP reveals that the United States is the wealthiest large nation in the world, whether one uses average pre capita GDP or per capita national income, exceeded mostly by tiny oil rich or tax-exempt nations such as Norway, the United Arab Emirates, or Luxembourg. By measures of access of the poor and middle class to electronic goods, cars, or square footage of living space, the U.S. far exceeds the European mean. Such opportunity explains why some 10-15 million Mexican nationals, without legality, education or English, have flocked to the United States.]

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The Inexplicables

August 4th, 2011 - 9:59 am

There are a number of things I don’t fathom about contemporary American popular culture and politics. Here is a small sample.

1) Is there a theoretical limit to our national borrowing?

The so-called tough debt ceiling deal still ups the borrowing to $16 trillion, or over 100% of annual GDP. So why are we rejoicing about curbing, rather than stopping, the borrowing? We are not discussing paying back the massive sums that we owe. And we talk not of cutting the baseline expenditures, but only about the rate of increase in entitlements — reminding us that revolutions start not with the impoverished, but with threatened cuts of subsidies to the middle class. Its appetites increase faster than the state can satisfy them, as most judge their well-being not in having at last more than the poor but in always having less than the affluent.

Our staggering debt also raises an existential question — at what point would Obama stop borrowing on his own? Should aggregate local, state, income, and payroll taxes climb from 50-55% on one’s income to 60%, 70% or perhaps 80%? Should the top 5% pay not 60% of aggregate income taxes, but, say, 70% or even 80%? Should the 50% who pay no income taxes be expanded to 60% or 70% of the electorate? Should food stamp usage climb from one-sixth of the population (e.g., 50 million) to a third or about 100 million? At what point would the advocates of borrowing be content?

Would the Obamites lead us to borrow and spend until we hit a Greek-like implosion, until the laws of physics stopped them? And then what? Given that government is presently so large, the debt so staggering, combined taxes so great, it is difficult to envision how one could expand on all that. How does one pay back $16 trillion — the Roman way of coating silver coins with bronze veneers, the Confederate way of printing paper money, the Castroite way of simply confiscating private property? The stimulus model during World War II is evoked, but neither the home front frugality of the war nor the aftermath of 1945 is cited — when America provided the goods, capital, and services to rebuild an industrial world in shambles and pay down its debt, given the destruction of Germany, Japan, Russia, and much of Western Europe, the premodern status of India and China, and the self-destructive path to socialism in Great Britain. I don’t see such a scenario of recovery this time around. The current borrowing bingers have no conception of ever paying back the debt (Bush surely offered little plan of payback, and Obama none).

The nation is similar to those with four or five maxed out credit cards, and no net worth, who plan on dying and leaving their debt to the banks and less than nothing to their children.

2) What are we to make of the self-referential wealthy who demand higher taxes?

About every month or so either a politician — a Barack Obama or John Kerry — or a billionaire — a Bill Gates Jr. & Sr. or Warren Buffett — or a celebrity — a Matt Damon — pontificates about the need for some sort of higher taxes, as if we are supposed to be in awe over such professed magnanimity. Usually the narrative goes one of two ways: “I wouldn’t mind paying more taxes” or “My secretary pays more taxes than do I.”

These apologies insult our intelligence, since the boaster either makes so much money that he would not notice whether he paid 35% or 39% on his income; or he is in government where the state picks up much of the tab for his health care and transportation, and subsidizes his housing and meals. The subtext is Gore-like aristocratic disdain, as in “Why don’t those accountants and dentists pass on their jet skis and Yukons and fork over more to the more noble needy?”

Of course, the very wealthy who rant about higher taxes simply could pay higher taxes. Such an iconic gesture would do far more than a YouTube rant: the media would love Matt Damon if he were paying 70% in taxes on his income. Indeed, he could start a movement to shame other Hollywood celebrities, who then could shame CEOs, who then in turn could shame the rich in general. Or alternatively, the very wealthy who feel under-taxed simply could donate directly to their own favorite government program — a Head Start, solar power subsidy, or food stamp program. Or, again, a Matt Damon could limit his take per picture to $1 million (e.g., curbing those millions he “didn’t need”), and start yet another campaign in Hollywood to reduce movie and DVD prices for the needy.

3) Is contemporary American aristocracy compatible with, antithetical to, or the logical complement to modern liberalism?

So another mystery is the leftism of those who live in a world of hierarchical privilege. If we examine the elite media (the MSNBC or New York Times megaphones), or Hollywood  (the lifestyle of a Sean Penn), or leftist politicians (a Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, or Al Gore), there is almost no tangible difference in the way they live their lives from those of the corporate or private sector elite they deprecate. Ensuring that a child goes to a segregated elite prep school, making a well-placed call to an elite university admission officer, guaranteeing a prestigious internship for a daughter, marrying another anchor person or DC insider politician, living in the right zip code, vacationing in Tuscany — all that is privilege to the core, and in theory at odds with radical egalitarianism.

That begs the question — is the elite left’s infatuation with the good life not so much a paradox, not a hypocrisy at all, but rather a sort of medieval exemption, or perhaps penance? The price for living well is to advocate government subsidies for the less well off that are rarely seen, and disdain for those who grub for money and as tea partiers lack the refinement that is the dividend of the very rich or the so well connected. Does buying a $40,000 ticket to the president’s 50th birthday party mean that one is exempt from the presidential invective against “millionaires and billionaires” and “corporate jet owners”? As a general rule, the more I hear of such carping, the more I assume the whiner covets what he so childishly is obsessed with ending.

4) Fairly or not, the entire illegal immigration debate is couched in terms of anger at the U.S.

That makes no sense. The recent Rose Bowl crowd’s booing at the U.S. soccer team, the ubiquitous Mexican flags at immigration rallies, the Aztlan-La Raza anguish, the massive May 5th parades, the romantic refashioning of Mexico, the stern lectures from Mexican consuls and government officials — all this emotion is misdirected: millions have left their mother country, convinced its government has mismanaged the economy and impoverished them, while life in the north offers an opportunity of a good life not found in Mexico. Would not then the illegal immigration movement be located in hyper-pro-Americanism?

I can understand the frustration of being an alien in an alien land, of the poverty and challenge that confronts one without English, legality, and a high school diploma, of the indifference often shown the other who, in a great part, does manual labor that heretofore American youth pass on. (Picking peaches or driving a tractor for 10-hour days has a sobering effect). But that said, if life were still felt to be preferable to what is found in Mexico, then would not the entire immigration movement be awash in pro-American chauvinism, of affection for the antithesis of a Mexico that drove them out: American flags waving at parades, a grass-roots movement to speak and master English, something like the National Council of Mexican-Americans rather than La Raza?

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