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Why Does the Good Life End?

September 25th, 2011 - 12:00 pm

A look Back

People just don’t disappear. Look at Germany in 1946 or Athenians in 339 B.C. They continue, but their governments and cultures end. Aside from the dramatic military implosions of authoritarian or tribal societies — the destruction of Tenochtitlan, the end of Nazism, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the annexation of tribal Gaul — what brings consensual states to an end, or at least an end to the good life?

The city-states could not stop 30,000 Macedonians in a way — when far poorer and 150 year earlier — they had stopped 300,000 Persians descending on many of the same routes. The French Republic of 1939 had more tanks and troops on the Rhine than the Third Reich that was busy overrunning Poland. A poorer Britain fought differently at el-Alamein than it does now over Libya. A British battleship was once a sign of national pride; today a destroyer represents a billion pounds stolen from social services.

Give me

Redistribution of wealth rather than emphasis on its creation is surely a symptom of aging societies. Whether at Byzantium during the Nika Riots or in bread and circuses Rome, when the public expects government to provide security rather than the individual to become autonomous through a growing economy, then there grows a collective lethargy. I think that is the message of Juvenal’s savage satires about both mobs and the idle rich. Fourth-century Athenian literature is characterized by forensic law suits, as citizens sought to sue each other, or to sue the state for sustenance, or to fight over inheritances.

The subtext of Petronius’s Satyricon is an affluent, childless, often underemployed citizenry seeking inheritances and lampooning the productive classes that produce enough excess for the wily to get by just fine without working. Somewhere around 1985 in California I noticed that my students were hoping for a state job first, a federal job second, a municipal job third — and a private one last. Around 1990, suddenly two sorts of commercials were aired everywhere: how to join a law suit by calling a law firm’s 1-800 number or how to get a free power chair, scooter, or some other device by calling the 1-800 number of
a health care company that would do the paper work for Social Security on your behalf.

Regulate, not create

Why is it more moral for a federal bureaucrat in a state-supplied SUV to shut down an offshore oil rig on grounds that it is too dangerous for the environment than for a private individual to risk his own capital to find some sort of new fuel to power his government’s SUV fleet? All affluent societies believe that they are just too rich not to be able to afford another regulation, just one more moralizing indulgence, yet again an added entitlement. But as we see now in postmodern America, idle 250,000 acres of farmland for a tiny fish, shut down an entire oilfield, put off a new natural gas find in worry over possible environmental alteration, add a cent to the sales tax, mandate yet another prescription drug entitlement not funded, or offer yet another in-state tuition discount to an illegal alien — and the costs finally equate to an implosion as we see in Greece or California. And as we know from past collapses, a new entitlement in a matter of minutes becomes an institutionalized right whose withdrawal causes far more anguish than its prior nonexistence. Justinian learned that when he sought to cut the civil service and almost lost his throne.


Not that the elite are exempt. Western moral literature, from Horace to Thackeray, focuses on the vanity of the rich who think that a greedy heir won’t really inherit their hard-won or suspect riches, or that their always aging hips and knees will always so briskly power them up the monumental stairs of their colossal homes, or that a fifth sailboat or another 1000 acres will at last end the boredom. But the rub is not whether they are rich but whether they are idle, whether they send a message that affluence can make life better, rather than affluence is inevitably corrupting. In Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars, the theme is not just imperial decadence and cruelty, but also the blind passions of the mob that the elite so cynically manipulate for their own useless privilege and nonsensical indulgence.

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The Great Obama Catharsis

September 19th, 2011 - 6:40 am

Barack Obama has done the United States a great, though unforeseen, favor. He has brought to light, as no one else could, many of the pernicious assumptions of our culture from the last half-century. He turned theory and “what ifs” into fact for all America to see, experience, and, yes, suffer through.

The Years of Wandering…

Jimmy Carter tried to enact the therapeutic agenda, but he was inept. Liberals for the last thirty years blamed his failure on incompetence rather than his statist message. Until the Obama meltdown, progressives had faulted Bill Clinton as a wily sell-out who had won an improbable second term only by cynically reforming welfare and balancing budgets. Dick Morris engineered his comeback and now he works for Fox News: enough said. So the complaint was that the messenger was slick, but the noble message was diluted.

But Obama was supposed to be Clintonian in his political charisma and Carteresque in his devotion to liberal causes. When he boasted that he was “The One” we had been waiting for, he was more accurate than he thought in assessing liberal sentiment. You see, as a young, post-racial, first African-American president — glib, hip, cool, charismatic, with unapologetic Chicago hard-core leftist roots and Ivy League certification — Barack Obama was right out of liberal central casting. He would do what no other liberal had done in fifty years: prove to America that it really, really was left-of-center by ramming down its throat both a liberal agenda and thousands of left-wing facilitators. Greek columns, the Victory Monument, talk of a cooling planet, and worry whether the country would survive from December 2008 to January 2009 heralded His coming. We forget now that Obama arrived with a super-majority in the Senate, and a large majority in the House: anything was now possible and almost everything was thus tried.

Home at Last

At last we sheep got the messianic prophet to deliver the divine message. When he was declared a “god,” with supernatural powers that sent tingles up journalists’ legs, we were at last to climb the mount into the Promised Land. Electing him was the trick; simply enacting his redistributive agenda would be easy. “Wealthy” people would keep on working as before (they are by nature greedy and love working to buy superfluous things), but now the people’s money could be at last directed to saving the planet, helping mankind, and bringing heaven to earth.

Leading from Behind

I don’t think another president will ask the Arab League and the UN — but not the U.S. Congress — whether he can lead from behind France and Britain in bombing an Arab oil exporter on behalf of “rebels” who promise Sharia Law. “Putting light” between America and Israel earned us this week’s charade at the UN, and a new Middle East war on the horizon in the manner of 1967 or 1973, but this time with new enemies on the periphery like Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan in addition to a hostile Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. “Reset” won’t be used any more, and the idea that friends like Britain, Israel, Eastern Europe, etc. were to be shunned while rivals and enemies like the Palestinians, Russia, and the Latin American communists were to be courted is over also. Friends are friends for a reason, and enemies the same — regardless of what Obama learned at Chicago and Harvard.


After $5 trillion in borrowing and 9.1% unemployment, Keynesian economics has been slain by Obama. Oh, Obama may crisscross the country demanding just one more chance to borrow another half-trillion to “grow jobs,” but no one is listening any more. “Shovel ready,” “stimulus,” “investments,” and “infrastructure” simply have been redefined by Obama as euphemisms for wasteful borrowing. I doubt they will regain currency for a decade or so. And thanks to Obama, a billion is now a passé noun, and trillion has been reduced to the status of monopoly money. Poor Warren Buffett, calling for higher taxes on himself, as his companies and foundations seek to avoid existing taxes, learned too late the wages of signing up with the Obama redistribution plan, which is essentially an alliance of the super- and exempt rich and subsidized classes on the upper-middle-class private sector.

The old welfare state after Obama will soon be addressed as never before. With almost 50 million on food stamps, and record numbers on new extended unemployment insurance, with Medicare and Social Security nearly insolvent, the Obama boilerplate remedies of making “millionaires and billionaires,” “corporate jet owners,” and “fat cat bankers” pay their fair share won’t nearly be enough. Obama demagogued the “fair share” issue to the death, and it cannot be demagogued much longer since the money is about gone.

Now Obama wants new taxes on those who make over $200,000. But unlike the Gingrich/Clinton budget deal of the 1990s, a return to those higher rates will not solve the debt crisis. Obama got us well beyond that. It is merely the opening salvo in taking far more, in a path that leads to the scene in Doctor Zhivago where the old enemy-of-the-people house is subdivided for more deserving families. Obama’s one idea of redistribution does not work, as we see the world over, from the fall of the Soviet system to the collapse of the EU to the implosion of blue-state America. The more Obama says it does in teleprompted eloquence, the more the proverbial people grow terrified of it.

The American National Health Service

For much of the 1950s and 1960s, we were told that we lacked a British-style National Health Service, thanks to all sorts of devilish AMA conspiracies. JFK, LBJ, and Carter could not get passed what we all secretly were supposed to have craved. Hillarycare failed. But Obama alone brought us federalized health care, a trillion-dollar borrowing plan that will supposedly streamline care, save us trillions in the long term, and cost less in the here and now, as state GS-20 doctors attend to us, in DMV lines, far better than their greedy counterparts. Despite all the noble lies, no one believes that. After 2012, ObamaCare will be repealed in short order, and there will be no more fantasies about economical cradle-to-grave health care denied us by conspiratorial doctors and greedy insurers.

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The Great Warpath

This summer it has been a softer, modern version of living in a cabin on the Great Warpath circa 1740 near Albany or Montreal (in this regard, take a look at Eliot Cohen’s new book Conquered into Liberty on the origins of the American way of war), readying oneself for the next break-in — so our inland “California Corridor” has become from Bakersfield to Sacramento.

More specifically, I have been on the lookout around my farm for a predatory, nearly new, grey/silver Toyota truck that drives in and then speeds out — always a day or so before the nocturnal theft. He’s clever, this caser — and audacious too, like a wily Sherman tank prowling through the hedgerows. (Why, if poor, is he not home growing a tomato garden or scouring the roadside for the ubiquitous tossed aluminum cans and plastic bottles?)

On three separate occasions from June to August, I have had copper wire stripped out of pumps, the barn ransacked, and the two locks pried off the shop and various things stolen. (Why did they steal buckets of 1900 antique bolts and square nails and leave alone a drill press and grinder? Ease of recycling? Ignorance?)

When Metal Grows Legs

One of the stranger things in the California Corridor is to periodically walk around a barnyard and notice: “Hmm, that set of rusted furrowers is gone? Hmmm, what happened to those sections of 2-inch pipe? Hmmm, didn’t I have an old compressor next to the shed? Have I got dementia, or wasn’t there once upon a time three metal ladders leaning against the shop?” It is as if they became animate, grew legs, and quietly walked off in the sunset.

Hippo Regius

Twice I ran into the barnyard to see the truck, with its two gangbanger youths, peel off in clouds of dust. (And, yes, as a CSU ex-professor, I know the party line: the dominant culture neglects/exploits/oppresses/fill in the blanks the “other” to such a degree that he sometimes must lash out, or, on occasion, to find validation, might just do something illegal like steal buckets of antique nails, or illogical, like in poverty buying a new truck, and thus so disturbs/finally wins the attention of those with privilege and their self-constructed norms. Been there and heard that for thirty years).

The Toyota is always around when theft occurs, and always speeding off when anyone spots it. Rural California is also like North Africa circa 420 AD: the few family farms left are mostly fenced or walled, the dogs large, the owners armed — trying to survive against organized Vandal attacks. All we need are mosaics in the courtyard portraying happier times as a testament to future archeologists. Maybe a “Cave Canem!” on the doorstep.

I know of no neighboring farm that has not been broken into or fought/scared off such intruders. (The urban counterpart in our town are a few municipal workers stealing their own city manhole covers; two ex-policemen, like rogue legionaries, now up on felony charges; or Gothic-like gangs, prying off all the bronze dedicatory plaques from the hallowed buildings. Perhaps they are similar to the bullet-hungry occupying Ottomans in 16th-century Greece, destroying classical temples and shrines to find and melt down the lead seals over metal block clamps — on the theory that someone 2,000 years earlier knew a lot more about making lead than did they, or maybe impoverished Greeks around 1850 finishing up the destruction of antiquity by fracting and melting down the scattered marble blocks for lime whitewash.)

Then and Now

So it is that in 1935 poor people scraped and saved to cast a bronze plaque for their Depression-era new city hall, and in 2011 rather more affluent people ripped it off to melt it down for a layaway payment on some chrome rims or another round of meth.

Civilization ends when the pampered beneficiaries of the hard work of the now dead have the luxury of ignoring how hard it was — and is — to build shelter from the elements, to erect public buildings from scrub, to grow food and sprout farms from sage. Our contemporary criminals are protected from the elemental struggle and so have the indulgence to gnaw away at civilization’s veneer — and we, in our conspiratorial silence about them, likewise forgot that to keep still about the destruction of the work of others is to be complicit in it.

Jaws on Wheels

Seven days ago, I left to teach here at Hillsdale for my month vacation. My son, back home on the farm — he often rushes out armed when trucks come into the driveway at night — called. He mentioned in passing that the Toyota was back, Jaws-like circling around the farm in short bursts of speed to see if anyone was there. (The modus operandi in the rural California hinterlands is to drive into a farm, check if anyone comes out, if so, either peel out or even stay put to “inquire” about a “rental” or “work.” If no one comes out, then break a window, grab a TV or computer and speed off. Also: Please do not suggest, “call the sheriff”; I have and even “filled out a report” over the phone, no less. Enough said. And yes, I probably should sell the 140-year-old farm and move away, but also probably won’t. Why leave and give in to barbarism? There are still far more good than lawless people in the valley.)

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The Never-ending Day

Like millions of Americans, I did not sleep much on the night of September 11. I was horrified all day, but by the evening of September 11, 2001, increasingly angry. Horrified because 3,000 innocents had been murdered not just by 7th-century fanatical terrorists, but by cruel Dark-Age murderers who, in the best parasitical fashion, had managed to gnaw at their distracted host from the inside.

That duplicity was eerie and creepy — the premeditated design of Middle Easterners to live among and blend in for months with the very culture they despised and wished to destroy. Their hatred soon translated into sixteen acres of ash in Manhattan and a smoking Pentagon. Most of us could no longer watch the tape of those jumping off the World Trade Center, calibrating in extremis whether it was worse to implode on the concrete or be incinerated in their offices. Those images have never left us.

The entire day was ghoulish, and by evening, like some of you, I was worried that a number of post-modern Western ideologies of the last three decades were not only known to bin Laden’s gang, but comprehensively so to the point they would be used serially against the West in brilliantly sinister fashion. Was 9/11 the beginning of something even worse? No civilization could endure three or four successive attacks such as those on September 11.

Our Problem With “Appeasement”

The word “appeasement” has had a volatile history. In the 1930s it meant purported sobriety and circumspection in preferring reasonable concessions to an aggressor in lieu of risking destructive war. Appeasement grew in response to the horrors of World War I and the theory that relatively minor differences had eventually led to nightmares like the Somme and Verdun. But by the end of World War II, appeasement for the first time evolved into a term of scorn, a near-criminal naiveté that had gotten 50 million killed by failing to confront an ascendant Japan and Germany when they were comparatively still weak.

Although during the Cold War “appeasement” mostly remained a pejorative term, it also reflected poorly, in purportedly McCarthyite fashion, on any who leveled the charge — as if granting a few concessions was the smarter and more reasonable alternative to mindless preparedness and brinkmanship in the nuclear age.

So when the cloud rose over Manhattan, we were in a strange never-never land of having long appeased radical Islam while fearful of confessing just that, as if it were worse to admit to, than to have embraced, appeasement. Under the Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton administrations, the U.S. had not reacted strongly to the murder of Americans in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, East Africa, and Yemen, or after the first attempt to topple the World Trade Center. We failed to grasp that with each attack, Islamic terrorists were becoming both more sophisticated and bolder. Even though bin Laden lacked the comparative resources of a like-minded Attila the Hun or Hitler, it was going to be hard after 9/11 in any meaningful way to convince al-Qaeda — or for the matter millions in the United States — that such attacks on the United States should be synonymous with the jihadists’ own destruction.

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There Is No There There

Zero jobs last month — a net change of zero job growth? It was just announced that last month’s unemployment is still above 9% — despite the nearly five trillion dollars in Keynesian pump-priming, the near zero interest rates, the expanded unemployment and food stamp support, and the government takeovers and subsidies of businesses. There is a scary sort of deer-in-the-headlights look about Obama and Biden that is quite disturbing, as if they are thinking, “This was not supposed to happened to us. Geithner, Goolsbee, Orszag, Romer, Summers assured us that all this borrowing would turn things around — but they are all gone or leaving, so now we are alone? What to do? Hmmm. More them/us class warfare rhetoric? Embrace more of the California/Illinois/New York blue-state model? More European Union emulation? A national high-speed rail jobs program? Bring back Van Jones and “millions of green jobs”? Borrow another $5 trillion? Maybe negative interest rates? Seventy-five million on food stamps? Four years of unemployment insurance? A new Department of Jobs? Call in Jimmy Carter for advice about 1979? $100 billion more in green subsidies to progressive caring companies? Take over Ford? Another speech from Buffett? Unleash the Congressional Black Caucus?”

Two Sorts of Depression

Job growth is as often driven by psychological impulses on the part of employers as actual facts on the ground, given the requirement of a business that it must plan for the unknown future better than do its rivals. While business people don’t read every economic report or follow every political psychodrama, they do watch for trends, know hourly the pulse of their businesses, and talk to colleagues and rivals to form general opinions about business climate and government attitudes and future policies. I’ve been speaking a lot lately to civic groups, a few firms, investors, large and small farmers and farm suppliers, and individual employers. And the following would fairly sum up their current state of mind.

The Great Sit-Down Strike

In the last 30 months, the Obama administration has created a psychological landscape that finally just seemed, whether fairly or not, too hostile to most employers to risk new hiring and buying. Each act, in and of itself, was irrelevant. Together they are proving catastrophic and doing the near impossible of turning a brief recovery into another recession.

Here is the lament I heard: the near $5 trillion in borrowing in just three years, the radical growth in the size of the federal government and its regulatory zeal, ObamaCare, the Boeing plant closure threat, the green jobs sweet-heart deals and Van Jones-like “Millions of Green Jobs” nonsense, the vast expansion in food stamps and unemployment pay-outs, the reversal of the Chrysler creditors, politically driven interference in the car industry, the failed efforts to get card check and cap and trade, the moratoria on new drilling in the Gulf, the general antipathy to new fossil fuel exploitation coupled with new finds of vast new reserves, the new financial regulations, an aggressive EPA oblivious to the effects of its advocacy on jobs, the threatened close-down of energy plants, the support for idling thousands of acres of irrigated farmland due to environmental regulations, the constant talk of higher taxes, the needlessly provocative rhetoric of “fat cat”, “millionaires and billionaires,” “corporate jet owners,” etc. juxtaposed, in hypocritical fashion, to Martha’s Vineyard, Costa del Sol, and Vail First Family getaways — all of these isolated strains finally are becoming a harrowing opera to business people.

Despite enormous opportunity for many cash-rich firms to take advantage of the down cycles (low interest, plentiful potential employees, discounted prices, etc.), they are taking a pass, almost as if to collectively sigh, “This bunch doesn’t like me much and I’m going to hunker down, hoard my cash, and sit out the next year and a half until they are gone.” And the administration’s efforts to counteract these symbols and impressions by courting a high-profile, hyper-capitalist Warren Buffett, or a GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt have proven even more ironic: the former calls for higher taxes that his firms seek to avoid, or targets his post-mortem wealth to (more efficient?) private foundations that rob the Treasury of billions in lost inheritance taxes, or knows higher taxes won’t much matter to his tens of billions in net worth; the latter’s firm paid no 2010 U.S. income taxes on many of its profits and outsourced jobs overseas. And when Obama is told by his base to “get tough,” “get angry,” and “double-down” on the EU-like statist policies and Chicago-organizing, get-in-their-face rhetoric that got him into this jobs stagnation mess, should we laugh or cry? Get furious and demand — what? Snarl and scream about the right to go “big” from $1.6 trillion to $2 trillion in annual borrowing?

Highly publicized visits to bankrupt subsidized green plants, blaming George Bush, new racially-driven invective from some congresspeople against the Tea Party, sermons about the sensitivities of illegal aliens, politically-correct tutorials about Islam — all that might rally the base or in isolation be understandable, but again fairly or not, such liberal rhetoric simply adds to the problem from yet another dimension: confirming perceptions that employers are about the last people in the world that this administration is worried about.

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