Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

"Obama Dozed, People Froze"

I love it: FEMA to the non-rescue, again. But no media outcry, of course.

Who runs Washington?

Not the forces of hope and change, by and large. A sample:

Nancy Pelosi, in Congress since 1987


Harry Reid, Senator since 1987, in Congress 1983-1986

Barney Frank, in Congress since 1981


Chris Dodd, Senator since 1981, in Congress 1975-1890

Henry Waxman, in Congress since 1975

Charles Rangel, in Congress since 1971

Robert Byrd, Senator since 1959

Charles Shumer, Senator since 1999, in Congress 1981-1998


To them, change is, for the first time since 1994, having a Democratic president to work with, rather than either being in the minority and/ or working against a Republican President. But what if part of the change the voters want has to do with the old guard in Congress and their ways of doing business? On the other hand, the reason why we have our system of checks and balances is to prevent rapid and radical change. It’s useful and good to have experienced hands around.

Brother Bill Redux?

Jimmy Carter had his brother Billy to embarrass him in the 1970s, culminating with the production of Billy Beer (I still have a six pack). Well, Obama’s half-brother George has just been arrested for marijuana possession in Kenya.

Can we look forward to "George’s Ganja" at some point as the update of Billy Beer?

Appropo of Nothing . . . and Everything

Great thanks to Intercollegiate Studies Institute for tipping us to an audio recording of the great Flannery O’Connor giving a breathless reading of her masterpiece, "A Good Man is Hard to Find". Discuss.

Health Care Is Being Nationalized

...while no one is watching. Someone might complain about the absence of a national debate, and that it’s not being done in a particularly sensible way. Some are commenting about the parallels with the early days of the Reagan revolution, but a difference is the command the Democrats have over Congress.

Timely, Targeted, and Temporary

That’s the kind of stimulus, David Brooks reminds us, that the the president’s leading economic expert--the brainy Larry Summers--said we should believe in. What the House passed is none of the above--an undisciplined mess of jarring elements that will be worse than useless. Somebody might say that, of course, the Democratic Congress isn’t going to include an exit strategy from bigger government. But it’s also true that such self-indulgent packages are just characteristic of Congress, although, of course, never before on this scale. In this case, arguably, the cure might have been the executive leadership of a smart and popular president--with the help of his excellent expert.

Early Grades on Obama

Like any decent American, I’ve wanted to give our new president his traditional honeymoon. But it seems to me his first ten days or so have not gone well, and have been the scene of a number of small mistakes, and maybe a couple of big ones. It was rather churlish of him to bark at GOP Rep. Eric Cantor that "I won," so the subject of tax cuts is closed. And why go off on Rush Limbaugh? Clinton did that, too, and it didn’t serve him well. If he was serious about being a bi-partisan/post-partisan president, he could have easily found a way to get some House GOP votes for a stimulus bill; instead he let Pelosi’s madcaps run away with the thing (especially its trade-protectionist feature--are we really that bent on repeating all of Hoover’s mistakes?? Add to this list, while we’re at it, our ethically-challenged Treasury Secretary deciding to pick a fight with China as his first move out of the block. It’s not so smart to annoy someone who is lending you a lot of money.) Maybe he thinks it will get fixed in the Senate, but with polls showing declining public support for this stimulus bill in its present form, this seems like the first shovel of a potentially large hole he is allowing the Hill to dig for him. And about his interview with the al-Arabia TV, the less said the better. (See Amir Taheri on this subject.)

Now, one obvious point should be made here: the easy House passage of the stimulus bill shows that Obama doesn’t need a honeymoon. He has the votes. For now.

Were Stanley Fish (and I) Born at the Right Time?

Fish explains that the tenured humanities professor who generates no readily measurable outcomes is disappearing from our country. Professorial autonomy, as they say, is being trumped by productivity. Stanley’s facts are facts, but he doesn’t given an adequate account of why we might live to see "The Last Professor." Stanley, in fact, lived at exactly the right time, when an entrepreneurial humanities professor could command the big bucks without even claiming to teach anything useful or even true.

Obama’s Black Cadence

I hope you know that John McWhorter knows something about language, and knows languages as well. In this short piece he contemplates President Obama’s Inaugural Speech from the point of view of how he says things and concludes that Obama is popular partly because he is bidialectical. Black English is his second language. 

Stimulus I can support

If anyone has made this argument, I haven’t seen it.

To wit: if we take seriously the contention that what really ended the Great Depression was ramping up for World War II, then why aren’t those who are willing to throw everything but the kitchen sink at our economic malaise (a word appropriately borrowed from the Jimmy Carter era) also willing to throw the kitchen sink, in this case, an expansion of our armed forces?

What better way to create government-funded jobs than to do this? People have guaranteed employment, they learn skills and develop habits of discipline that, later on, will serve them well in the civilian world, and they serve the national interest articulated so intransigently by President Obama in his Inaugural Address. What’s more, those likeliest to enlist are those who are most economically at risk.

And while we’re at it, let’s expand the array of opportunities for folks to get an education by expanding the ROTC program.

Nordlinger in Davos

Jay Nordlinger reports from Switzerland. He is a fine writer, and I don’t mind him quoting himself. Many insightful and amusing lines. This is true: "Since I started coming to Switzerland and Austria, many years ago, I have noticed something: The public restrooms are cleaner, pleasanter, and more inviting than most people’s living rooms, worldwide. This is even true of the outhouses on the shores of Lake Davos! Of course, they are to regular outhouses what Rolls-Royces are to scooters." Someone once wrote, "The Swiss are not a people so much as a neat clean, quite solvent business." Also, there are hygiene inspectors, of course.

A 21st Century Thomas

Today, on the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, I recommend these thoughts from a 21st century Thomas. James V. Schall, the principal speaker in this conversation, regards Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Address as one of the greatest speeches of all time. Schall makes his argument in this compelling book.

CIA station chief in Algeria accused of rapes

It�s been snowing all day, at least 10-12 inches. Lovely but dangerous. My Acura got stuck in the deep snow. Wish I had a Hummer. The whole city seems closed down, including the university. Read books on Lincoln in between the two dig-outs I organized. Of course, had plenty of coffee and more than a few CAO Cameroons during the reads. Not a Southern California day, but not bad. Then I saw this headline from

ABC News. Darn it.

Funny parody

For those who remember--not fondly, of course--Douglas Kmiec’s "apostasy" from Mitt Romney to Barack Obama, this parody might provide a chuckle or two.

For those who care about the substance of President Obama’s position on abortion and family planning, this is moderately--very moderately--good news. The money will come back, and may even remain in the stimulus bill, but not with the, er, blessing of the President. Of course, he won’t refuse to sign the bill if the money is there, so don’t go overboard in your gratitude for President Obama’s gesture.

The Stimulus Doesn’t Do Much Stimulating

Here’s the evidence from THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. It’s mostly about change Democrats believe in, "social engineering" and fairly dramatic repriortizing they couldn’t sell any other way. It’s true enough, as Speaker Pelosi says, that they won the election, and they get to write the bill. We don’t have much evidence at all so far that our new president is "smart enough" to curb significantly the excesses of his party in Congress. We would have gotten a more stimulating and sensible stimulus from "divided government," although nobody made much of that argument during the election.

Read the Stimulus Online

Here. So far, it doesn’t seem important enough to appear on that masterpiece of unprecedented transparency, the White House website (which I’m too lazy to link).

A Parlor Game

Several commentators have noted that the NY Times has dropped William Kristol from its op-ed page. Many have started to ask who ought to repace him as a conservative commentator, if the Times has plans to replace him at all. My first thought is Charles Murray. Murray is a distinguished and influential social scientist who consistently writes very smart, provocative, and well researched books and essays. Strictly speaking, he is a libertarian not a conservative, but it might be good to have such a voice in a prominent place. Given the Times’s racial sensitivities, perhaps Murray’s not a viable candidate, due to the Bell Curve. What other thoughts do people have?

Stimulating Reading

I agree with Rich Lowry that this NRO Corner post from Jim Manzi on the stimulus bill is perhaps the best short takedown I’ve seen yet. I know from my own conversations with him that Jim, an MIT-trained mathematician, is one seriously smart guy.

From Merry Old England

Naughty place names.

Stimulation

The Republicans can’t get all postpartisan over the stimulus package. The problem with it so far is it doesn’t do much immediate stimulating. It’s become an excuse to enact and expand various social programs over the long term, less about immediate relief and more about setting spending precedents that’ll be difficult to reverse or curb later. I’m not even against all these programs (for example, I’m for more federal spending on special education), but we can’t let ’em get away with the idea that every dollar government spends (whenever it gets spent) is equally stimulating. If we’re serious about stimulating, we got to get as much done this year as possible. That doesn’t mean I’m necessarily endorsing all tax cuts or credits or whatever. It’s no so clear, for example, a modest cut or rebate for ordinary Americans really would make much difference. (Witness last year’s unstimulating effort.) If anyone has a real plan to get investors off the sidelines and back into the risky business of buying and selling stocks, then we probably ought to go with that, among, of course, other things. Most of all, we can’t count on Obama to be smart enough to curb the Democratic Congress by focusing the effort on real stimulation, which, of course, may or may not work.

The Future Focus of US Military Force Structure

I have a piece in today’s Wall Street Journal about the ongoing debate concerning the future makeup of US military forces. The main players are, on the one hand the "Long War" advocates who claim we should be builiding forces to fight insurgencies and other small wars, and on the other, the "traditionalists" who contend that we need to prepare for conventional wars, because they are the ones that matter the most.

I argue that we can’t afford to go down a single path. We did that in the 1950s and our adversaries found "work-arounds." I also maintain that this can’t be simply an issues left to the services. The Army created a force structure after Vietnam that hamstrung the executive power. Unfortunately, for reasons having to do with space, a very important paragraph was dropped from the final version.

"Constraints on executive power may very well be a good and necessary thing, but it is not a decision for the Army-or any other uniformed military service-to make on its own. Statements by some of the traditionalists indicate that they see their enterprise as a similar way of limiting the use of US military power by deemphasizing the capabilities necessary for intervening in small wars."

Speaking of Bureaucracy and Responsibility

Here’s Philip Howard in the Wall Street Journal:

Americans don’t feel free to reach inside themselves and make a difference. The growth of litigation and regulation has injected a paralyzing uncertainty into everyday choices. All around us are warnings and legal risks. The modern credo is not "Yes We Can" but "No You Can’t." Our sense of powerlessness is pervasive. Those who deal with the public are the most discouraged. Most doctors say they wouldn’t advise their children to go into medicine. Government service is seen as a bureaucratic morass, not a noble calling. Make a difference? You can’t even show basic human kindness for fear of legal action. Teachers across America are instructed never to put an arm around a crying child.

The idea of freedom as personal power got pushed aside in recent decades by a new idea of freedom -- where the focus is on the rights of whoever might disagree. Daily life in America has been transformed. Ordinary choices -- by teachers, doctors, officials, managers, even volunteers -- are paralyzed by legal self-consciousness. Did you check the rules? Who will be responsible if there’s an accident? A pediatrician in North Carolina noted that "I don’t deal with patients the same way any more. You wouldn’t want to say something off the cuff that might be used against you."

Read the whole thing. 

Update: By way of connecting Howard’s point to the question of the size and scope of government, Megan McArdle explains where the rules come from:

Private web development is far--far, far, far, FAR--from perfect, of course. But government IT is worse than, IMHO, it has to be. It’s not, as some conservatives would have it, that government professionals are inherently incompetent.

It’s that government systems treat them as if they are incompetent. That a) selects for the actually incompetent and b) insures that change or creativity are near-impossible.


This is because we treat every issue not as problems for agencies to work on, but something that must be covered by A RULE. You cannot trust the Social Security Administration to care whether disabled people have access, so you have to mandate it. And if that clumsily drawn mandate cuts off ten other features that would help people access social security information, well . . . DIDN’T YOU SEE THERE’S A RULE????!!!



P.S. I don’t actually know any conservatives who think the way McArdle suggests. It might be true, however, that certain people seem to say that because one does not always have time to provide the full explanation.

Obama, the Democrats, and family planning

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi apparently thinks that providing family planning funding belongs in an economic stimulus package. I suppose she means that it relieves states of some burdens, but it almost sounds like she’s saying that preventing new births is a way of relieving burdens. Kids are so doggone expensive.

There are certainly people who believe that. They’re the ones who applauded the President’s revealingly quick move to lift the so-called global gag rule, just in time for Sanctity of Life Sunday.

President Obama’s vaunted common ground amounts to this: you can have fewer abortions if you support those who (like him) often regard pregnancy as a punishment.

Junius Brutus Booth’s threat against Andrew Jackson

This is a fascinating news story: "Dismissed for 175 years as a fake, a letter threatening the assassination of President Andrew Jackson has been found to be authentic. And, says the director of the Andrew Jackson Papers Project at the University of Tennessee, the writer was none other than Junius Brutus Booth, father of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth." Read the whole of it.

The President and the Modern State

Politico notes the rise of the czars under President Obama: People who report directly to the President who will direct various areas of policy. In part, this is an old story. We have had such czars for a while, and the new President is simply adding more.

Ever since civil service laws were created, Presidents have struggled to find a way to get employees that they cannot fire to do their jobs in general, and to do them as the President would like in particular. But the trend was increased in the Progressive era when belief in checks and balances was thrust aside an the rule of experts was embraced.

Many Progressives were fond of the idea that the best governent was that of a benevolent dictator. Beyond that, in the early 20th century the social science PhD was young, and Progressives had faith that modern social scientists would find the right answer to tough questions by dilligent investigation and study. Hence the American constitutional system of checks and balances was seen as an anachronism, a legacy from the 18th century that needed to be jettisoned. Combie the two, and you have a real problem.

Michael Uhlmann did a good job describing the problem in a recent essay in the Claremtont Review of Books. In particular, he quotes Gary Lawson:

This reluctance to vest the president with control has sometimes expressed itself in the form of independent agencies (independent, that is, of the president), which mock the idea of separated powers by vesting legislative, executive, and judicial functions in the same institution. Consider Boston University law professor Gary Lawson’s provocatively compelling description of the Federal Trade Commission, which typifies the workings of the system as a whole:

"The Commission promulgates substantive rules of conduct. The Commission then considers whether to authorize investigations into whether the Commission’s rules have been violated. If the Commission authorizes an investigation, the investigation is conducted by the Commission, which reports its findings to the Commission. If the Commission thinks that the Commission’s findings warrant an enforcement action, the Commission issues a complaint. The Commission’s complaint that a Commission rule has been violated is then prosecuted by the Commission and adjudicated by the Commission. This Commission adjudication can either take place before the full Commission or before a semi-autonomous Commission administrative law judge. If the Commission chooses to adjudicate before an administrative law judge rather than before the Commission and the decision is adverse to the Commission, the Commission can appeal to the Commission. If the Commission ultimately finds a violation, then, and only then, the affected private party can appeal to an Article III court. But the agency decision, even before the bona fide Article III tribunal, possesses a very strong presumption of correctness on matters both of fact and of law."

This pattern has become an accepted feature of the modern administrative state, so much so that, as Lawson notes, it scarcely raises eyebrows. Presidents and Congress long ago accommodated themselves to its political exigencies, as has the Supreme Court, which since the 1930s has never come close to questioning independent agencies’ constitutional propriety.

The rise of the czars is at once a reaction to this problem and something that, in the past, has only made the problem worse in the long term. The bitterness of modern American political argument is, I suspect, partly a result of the number of political issues that the modern administrative state has removed from the political system. The Courts have done the same thing. (In 1973, for example, they took from the people the right to legislate about abortion). The result is ironic: there is more shouting precisely because there is less actually to legislate about.

Nota Bene: How To Think About the Stimulus

Bruce Bartlett offers a highly useful primer on the range of opinions about government stimulus-by-spending.

Obama’s Post-Partisan Age

Appears to mean that we’re beyond partisanship because "he won." Post-partisan means getting on board with him. Again, he ends the argument by winning it. He may be very, very clever and very, very urbane and winning in his style. But make no mistake about it, this guy means to play hard ball.

A statistical question

Over the last five, ten, fifteen and twenty years, what’s the relative rate of return for the average 401k and for Social Security? I suspect that above ten years out, the rate of return for 401ks is significantly better, despite the recent market swoon. Naturally, many people are angry that they have lost a good bit of retirement money in the past two years, and any of them blame it on the whole 401k system. But in the long term they may very well still be better off.

P.S. If most people followed the old rule of thumb that the percentage of one’s portfolio in cash and bonds should be equal to one’s age (ie: at 30 years old, one should have 30% cash and bonds, and at 60 one should have 60% cash and bonds), those nearing retirement ought not to have lost quite so much of late. Of course, it is probably unreasonable not to expect people to be, as a rule, greedy about such things, and therefore to take imprudent risks. But don’t we want to encourage responsibility? If so, why not let the prudent be rewarded and the greedy take a bigger hit?

Is it too soon?

I offer some speculation about the battle lines in the culture wars under our second "uniter-not-divider" President in a row.

Pat Buchanan on Obama’s Big Speech

Well, he agrees with the other Pat [Deneen] that it’s basically "neo-Reaganite." There’s something to the observation that "mythologizing" Khe Sanh is a sign that the president doesn’t regard Vietnam as a "racist" war, but as a noble effort for which we should be proud--in some ways, at least, a better part of our history. But Pat’s conclusion that Obama shares his view that we’re overextended and need to retreat some from empire isn’t really so Reaganite.

First Impressions

"Missiles fired from a suspected U.S. spy plane killed seven people Friday on the Pakistan side of the Afghan border, a lawless region where al-Qaida militants are known to hide out, officials said.

The strike was the first on Pakistani territory since the inauguration of President Barrack Obama."

The Idiossey of Obamacles

This from Iowahawk is one of the funniest things I have ever read. Follow the adventures of the hero Obamacles as he battles Jeremiad, the fire-breathing Monster of the Pulpit and the other Chicagomons, vanquishes Hildusa, the most fearsome of all the gorgons, and finally overpowers the grizzled warrior Crustius.

When advised by the oracle that his opponent in his quest to lead the Demos back to the White Tmeple, "Obamacles laughed in disbelief; for though brave Crustius had once proved great valor in the tragic war of Namos, He had grown old and addled sailing the Sea of Maverikus. In years a full score he sailed, seeking the fabled Microphone of Media, Only to crash on its shoals, lured to doom by the flattery of the Sirens."

Read it all. Very funny!

Obama Effect?

The New York Times reports: "Educators and policy makers, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, have said in recent days that they hope President Obama’s example as a model student could inspire millions of American students, especially blacks, to higher academic performance.

Now researchers have documented what they call an Obama effect, showing that a performance gap between African-Americans and whites on a 20-question test administered before Mr. Obama’s nomination all but disappeared when the exam was administered after his acceptance speech and again after the presidential election."

Dependent on the Kindness of Strangers

These experts observe that, increasingly, that’s what we are. That’s one reason among many 2009 is unlikely to bring change we can believe in.

In the Long Run, is Keynes Dead?

In today’s Wall Street Journal Robert Barrow argues that the return on investment of government dollars is much less than today’s Keynsians suggest. He makes a fair point. No doubt there is a bit of wishful thinking in many of the promises being made about government spending in particular, and government action in general nowadays.

But isn’t the discussion too general. Are all government dollars created equal? Similarly, is it really unreasonable to have the government build major infrastructure projects that almost certainly won’t get built by the private sector? Whether it makes sense to hire private contractors to do much of the work, on the other hand, is another matter. Private contractors are easier to investigate and to fire when they do poor work, are corrupt, or mishandle public funds. Government employees and bureaucrats are much harder to invistigate and fire. Both will inevitably be incompetent and/ or corrupt sometimes. The question is what to do about that reality.

Whether using government money to fund science is a somewhat different question. Once again perhaps it depends upon the kinds of things being funded.

Barrow also argues for tax cuts. But are rates already low enough on capital? Is there really a bonus if we drop the capital gains rate below its current 15% (a rate established under Clinton and the Republican Congress, if memory serves). Might a tax simplification, after the model of the 1986 legislation be wiser. The fewer deductions, the more time businessmen spend figuring out what the market wants, and not how to game the tax code.

In short, as a rule these discussions of government v. business ought to be much more specific than they tend to be. Remember, President Reagan said in his first inaugural address "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." Not all crises are the same. Of course, to answer the question of government’s role, one must have an idea of what government is for in general. One cannot ask "what works" until one asks what end one wishes to serve with the work.

The Gipper Is Still #1

In the inaugural viewer Nielsen ratings, that is, if not in all other respects.

Story here.

Caroline Out, Geithner In?

So Caroline is out as NY’s next senator, ostensibly because of some tax and housekeeper irregularities, but we’re going to get Tim Geithner at Treasury despite his obvious tax evasion because, well just because. If it was any other job, or in a normal economic climate, he would probably go down. But the present emergency dictates speed over ethical punctilio.

Back to Caroline. It has long been on the back of my frivolous To-Do list to write an imaginary confirmation hearing dialogue for the appointment of Joe Kennedy to be head of the SEC, only today and not in 1934. Can you imagine how much fun that would be? Now I may have to do it. Suggestions welcome.

Regarding Gitmo: A Modest Proposal

It appears already that the Obama Administration is going to have its hands full figuring out how to close down Guantanamo. Since no Congressperson wants a detainee sent to their district, and many countries of origin of these fine world citizens won’t take them back, why don’t we just cut a hole in the fence and set them loose in Fidel’s island paradise? It would be a nice first step in lifting our obsolete embargo.

The "O" Stands for "Opaque"

I’m not the only one who thinks Obama is going to be the next "Man That Nobody Knows." See today’s Politico on "What We Don’t Know about Obama."

The Errors of Big Government

Barney Frank crony capitalist.


The Treasury had said it would give money only to healthy banks, to jump-start lending. But OneUnited had seen most of its capital evaporate. Moreover, it was under attack from its regulators for allegations of poor lending practices and executive-pay abuses, including owning a Porsche for its executives’ use.

Nonetheless, in December OneUnited got a $12 million injection from the Treasury’s Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP. One apparent factor: the intercession of Rep. Barney Frank, the powerful head of the House Financial Services Committee.

Mr. Frank, by his own account, wrote into the TARP bill a provision specifically aimed at helping this particular home-state bank. And later, he acknowledges, he spoke to regulators urging that OneUnited be considered for a cash injection.

The more government does, the more this will happen, unless we can change human nature, and the nature of political power. It also suggests that one of the challenges facing President Obama will be getting Congress to behave.

Responsibility in Action?

What to do when bad things happen.

Obamawatch, The NLT Series

I think we should take a betting pool on how many entries will appear on NLT over the next four years about Obama, with a key subcategory of "Have We Figured This Guy Out Yet?" My guess is that there will be about 3,000 Obama entries on NLT by the end of 2012, and that 75 percent of them will fit in the subcategory. (Who wants to do the counting?--Ed. Make Peter do it as retribution.)

I say this after listening to Jeffery Sikkenga’s podcast mentioned below, in which I second Peter that you should listen to more than once. Above all I come away with the conclusion that Obama may be the most interesting and complicated man we have elected to the presidency in modern times.

But I do recall that Churchill once said something to the effect that there are two principal errors in politics: the word without the deed, and the deed without the word. Obama may have these very large ambitions and a high degree of cleverness about how to move us toward his goals through his oratory--an ability not to be misunderestimated. But he is also a wartime president, and this fact may constrain him, just as World War I disrupted Woodrow Wilson (to whom Obama should be compared intellectually) and the Progressive movement. And if his deeds in foreign policy--good, bad, or mixed--are not matched with clarity of words, he will stumble as Wilson did.

Dionne on Obama: Conservative Values for Progressive Ends

E.J. agrees with some of our fine threaders that the real message of Obama’s address is that he will overturn the infantile individualism of the Reagan era. But it’s hard not to agree that the old and true virtues have been a quiet force for progress in our country’s history, and even that our time has been marked by a lot of infinite indivualism or creeping and sometimes creepy libertarianism. The practice of virtue, according to Pat Deneen, has been undermined by capitalism, consumerism, and so forth. According to others, it’s been undermined by big government. Now according to Tocqueville, there’s some truth to both those views. This leaves open the question of whether Obama’s "communitarianism" is statist or based more on restoring the personal responsibility--exercised mostly in small communities (such as churches and families)--that’s indispensable for the proper working of markets. The latter form of communitarism, after all, had a prominent place in Reagan’s rhetoric, at least, and the Gipper was far from blnd to the dangers of infantile indvidualism. I tend to think that Dionne (and our Pete) are right that Obama is brilliantly manipulating the conservative rhetoric of traditional virtues and religion to set the stage for a bigger and more intrusive state. But there’s also room to hope that his idea of change is at least more nuanced that that of the Progressives, New Dealers, and Great Society guys of our past.

Lincoln and Technology

David Tucker’s post below reminded me to bring Jason Emerson’s book, "Lincoln the Inventor" to your attention. Emerson’s essay is only about 50 pages, and then he reprints Lincoln’s patent for floating grounded riverboats (the only president to have a patent), and then his Two Lectures on Discoveries and Inventions (which are hardly ever referenced). The First Lecture (April 6, 1858) begins: "All creation is a mine, and every man, a miner." I always liked that. And then a few lines later, "Man is not the only animal who labors; but he is the only one who improves his workmanship."

It is in the Second Lecture (Feb 11, 1859) in which he famously talks about language and writing and printing (the "greatest invention of the world" that allowed men to "rise to the level of equality"). There is a lot more here, as Julie knows, for I have talked with her about this over the years (and she has done good work on it, which I have been using, stealing really, for a good while). It is probable, by the way, that the two lectures are really one, but because of the way they were discovered, were made into two, so that’s the way refer to them now. Lincoln gave the lecture six time between April 1858 and April 1860. It is also true that generally speaking, everyone thought it was a failure. Anyway, Emerson’s is a nice little book.

Tradition and Technology

According to the Economist (January 17, 2009), in Tanzania, albinos are being killed so that their body parts can be sold to witch doctors who use the parts in their potions. The police have responded by giving albinos cell phones that have a direct line to the police. If an albino thinks he or she is being tracked by the body part harvesters, they can use the phones to text their location to the police.

President Obama’s Inaugural

I talked with (as a podcast) the good professor, Jeffrey Sikkenga, about Obama’s first big speech as president. This was a fine conversation that I wish you would listen to; Jeff thinks it was a very serious speech, and he seems to be developing a view about Obama’s purposes and capacities: that there is something entirely new in his thought. Worth 27 minutes of your time. Thanks, Jeff.

But Joe Knippenberg thinks there was not much new in it.

What is Racism?

Juan Williams writes an excellent piece in the WSJ arguing that a default disposition to hesitate about criticizing President Obama for fear of being seen as stoking racist passions or for fear of being called racist is, itself, the most pernicious kind of racism. It is patronizing. Patronization is racism because it amounts to an affirmation of the belief that there is something delicate, something precious, and yes, something inferior about a black man and a black president. It suggests an inferiority that calls upon us to cut him some slack and not judge him by the same standards we’d judge any other president because . . . well, what did you expect? He’s black. I hope Juan Williams’ is a voice that is heard and heeded in the coming months and years because racism--even as it masks itself as enthusiasm--ought not to be tolerated. But so far I’d have to say that the hoped for recognition of the end of naked racism begins to look more to me like the transformation of racism into a more esoteric, more clever, and more damaging form of itself.

Continuity We Can Believe in?

Pat Deneen complains that Obama’s speech was predictably modern or Machiavellian. It was mostly ambition, greatness, hard work, freedom, and economic growth, with only a glance in the direction of sacrifice and self-restraint. There’s no deep difference, the point is, between Obama and Reagan. What troubles Pat--that Obama is just another modern boss--might reassure some readers of NLT.

"It’s just when Obama says it, I don’t think he really means it."

Leave it to The Daily Show to point out the continuity between Obama and Bush. These guys will be fun to watch over the coming months, and may offer better analysis of what’s going on (satirists often do) that the MSM.

Hat tip: Jonah.

Nothing Golden to Say . . . but let’s pray for his success

I admit it. As I flipped on the TV and awaited the appearance of the First Family at the Capitol, some little part of my expectancy was tuned to finding out just what our attractive new first lady would be wearing.

I was not expecting this shimmery, greenish gold, a note of spring on the frigid first day of the new administration. More opulent yet more understated than what I expected, and frighteningly light. For a woman who knows the arctic blast of Chicago’s windy winter, was she trying to show that Washington offered nothing she couldn’t handle?

Maybe she was pointing to the bittersweet truth of the moment. To quote Robert Frost:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
so dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

As they strolled to the White House past crowds chanting the new President’s name, already the pundits were talking about further price drops on Wall Street, a Treasury Secretary nominee with confirmation problems, an unexpected delay in getting the new Secretary of State confirmed. I was thinking how much the new President must have wanted a smoke.

Ponzi and Morel may be correct in giving Obama’s inaugural day rhetoric a C+. It hardly mattered; the many symbolic resonances of the event had already filled our hearts.

But now: so much “work to be done,” in reviewing the tasks the government has taken on in the past eight years and the new tasks proposed for it, in judging not only whether—as Obama put it—but in what ways, it best “works.” (Thank God he’s young and patient and, apparently, tireless.) And while we claim the post-Civil Rights achievement that this day shows, we start to realize that from now on, ironically, we must claim a little less innocence. With a person of color holding the morally complex burden of our highest office, it may get a bit harder to depend on the prophetic voice of our minorities, whom we’ve counted on so often in the past to remind us of our higher commitments.

Of all the wonders of the day, our new First Lady’s evocation of Frost—juxtaposed with the image of a wind-blown Yo-Yo Ma pulling back his bow in attentive wonder as Anthony McGill sang out “A Gift to be Simple” on his clarinet—had for me the most resonance.

Good, not Great

Judis rightly agrees with our NLT experts that the president’s speech was a hodgepodge of abstract assertions and very short on real arguments. It was also fairly lame as poetry. But I have to add it praised American inventiveness and imagination, hard work, and the old and true virtues, including loyalty, patriotism, and responsiblity. It was Lincolnian in its claim that we have erred by straying from the genuine idealism of our Founding. And there’s nothing wrong in repeating that our nation is devoted to equality, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and greatness that’s earned. These principles and these virtues have been at the foundation of the common, multi- or transcultural purposes that have animated the better part of our history. The speech was also largely free of the vices associated with progressivism and paternalism. When it referred to progress, it wasn’t about bigger and bigger government, but about the flourishing of free men and women--and so about the overcoming of slavery, segregration, and so forth. It was a good, not great, speech, but a worthy enough performance for our first black president.

Mental Illness on the Left Will Persist . . . even without Bush

In case you missed it, you must take a look at this evidence proving that the mental health industry will be recession-proof. A whole collection of Hollywood stars turned feudal serfs now "pledge" to "serve" Obama--and mankind, of course. One chap (sorry, I don’t follow celebrities enough to know who he is) did note that he would now call himself plainly and proudly an American rather than the qualified "African-American." That’s a good thing, of course. But it’s unclear to me why it took Obama to give him this sudden epiphany. Anyway, I’m glad he’s had it, whatever it took to give it to him. At least he didn’t say anything as stupid as, "I pledge to be a good mom" like one air-headed actress was inspired to say. It must have sucked to be her kid under Bush . . .

An Audacious, if not Auspicious Start

The full text of the speech can found here. There were rising tides (despite his famed powers at stemming them), still waters of peace, gathering clouds, and raging storms all within the first two sentences of the first full paragraph. I’m inclined to say that this is a bit much for an opener . . . rather like a spoof of an inaugural than an actual inaugural. But I suppose such "cynicism" makes me unpopular today. Whatever. That much of it was sappy and it deserves to be called out as such; so--if no one else is--I’m happy to oblige.

Sappiness aside, Obama did have a serious purpose in view and, following those sad and sappy lines, he set to work at fulfilling it. He was there to sell his view of America--understanding, as all successful Presidents do, that the campaign to get elected must not end but, rather, transform itself into a campaign for his ideas. The work and the purpose of this speech can be found in this excerpt:

Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. [Emphasis added]
And this one:
We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness. [Emphasis added again].
This is key:
What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply.

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works, whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. [Emphasis mine again].

And so is this:
And those of us who manage the public’s knowledge will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched.

But this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control. The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.

And this:
As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.
The build up to this address touted Obama’s abilities to transcend partisanship. And, in a certain sense he does. He does it, however, not by holding hands and singing Kumbaya with John McCain at a dinner last night. Rather, he transcends it by reducing the argument of his opposition to irrelevancy. Partisanship as it has been understood in the last several years is a childish thing, he asserts, not because of the vitriol leveled at Bush and the Republicans (and in some cases, too eagerly returned) but because it was foolish, to Obama’s way of thinking, for his side to bother engaging with such substandard thought. History has passed Bush and his supporters by (the ground moved under their feet, remember) so to remain there fighting with them is pointless. America is for the doers . . . so he will do. He will be the embodiment of "move on." He will stop the argument by winning it--as Charles Kesler so ably demonstrated in his analysis of Obama just before the election.

In understanding what Obama intends, we should not neglect to take note of his claim that we will "restore science to her rightful place" because Science, it seems, is understood by Obama to be the final arbiter in determining what is "childish" and what is yet still debatable and worthy in an argument. He appeals to us to be faithful to our forbears and our founding documents and especially to "the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness." But the use of "promise" is curious in this context. Jefferson called it a self-evident truth that we were so created--our equality is a fact, our duty is to recognize it. Lincoln famously called it a "proposition," i.e., it was something we had not quite lived up to recognizing at that point. In 1861, our laws claimed to support liberty because of our equality but, in fact, denied liberty to millions and, thereby, denied equality. But to now call equality not a fact demanding more than mere recognition from the law but a promise given to us by God and demanding action is something new, I think. Does he understand himself as having been chosen to fulfill God’s promise? And did God ever really make such a promise to be delivered on this earth? This seems to be a different kind of equality and it seems to demand something more than legal acknowledgment . . . it demands action and transformation and, indeed, transfiguration. "For everywhere we look, there is work to be done."

Obama began his inaugural address by noting that he is "humbled" by the work in front of him and the nation. But it will not be humility that characterizes his approach to government and governing . . . how could it be? He wrote a book about "Audacity" and he means to stick to that text, anyway.

First Inaugural Impressions

Extraordinary man, ordinary speech, but with a few strong statements, which I will get to in a minute.

Best oration of the inauguration ceremony was the closing prayer by a founder of the SCLC and dean of the Civil Rights Movement, the Rev. Joseph Lowery. His benediction began with the closing chorus from "Lift Every Voice and Sing," a beautiful ode written in 1900 by James Weldon Johnson for a Lincoln Day Celebration and that some refer to as the Negro National Anthem. His rendering of the e pluribus unum motto was both fresh and old-school, a nice feat by a man now aged four score and seven years.

Rick Warren’s opening invocation deftly closed by reciting the Lord’s Prayer, thus avoiding the quadrennial conundrum over whether or not to end "in Jesus’ name" by ending with Jesus’ very words.

Aretha Franklin was resplendent in silver gray garb and hat, superseded only by her soaring "My Country Tis of Thee," which contains the line made famous by Martin Luther King, Jr., "Let freedom ring." Nice tie-in to yesterday’s celebration.

As for Elizabeth Alexander’s poem, "Praise Song for the Day," only one memorable line about "ancestors on our tongue," which I found arresting and suggestive but one she did not capitalize on sufficiently. Suffice it to say, the rest was fairly pedestrian.

Now for "the speech." Best part was probably the foreign policy section, which expressed strong support for the friends of "peace and the dignity of all" throughout the globe and fierce defiance to the cultivators of terrorism, who will face an American people whose spirit is stronger and, in the words of President Obama, "we will defeat you!"

Which brings me to the fundamental weakness of this and many of his speeches: the rhetoric of assertion. When JFK said, Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country, he could do so successfully only because he had prepared his audience to receive and be inspired by explaining first why such sacrifice is worthy of them. Obama did not succeed at this task today. His references to what is good in our nation’s past, esp. the American founders’ ideals and institutions, seem now to take on the form of window-dressing that takes a back seat to his preference for trumpeting the virutes of the more nebulous American "spirit." Our 44th president is reticent to place too great a stock or render too high a praise for our foudners because of their inability to accomplish all that they believed was owed to a free people--the abolition of slavery being Exhibit A. And so Obama apparently believes that expounding upon the equality principle of the Declaration, for example, or even the great statements of Lincoln and King, would be a form of worshipping "dead saints" (in that most infelicitous phrase of Rep. Maxine Waters) that would be insufficient to inspire the "Yes WE Can" attitude he thinks this generation requires.

So no Lincoln, no Kennedy, no FDR, at least in any explicit form today; and alas no new memorable Obama riffs either. Instead we get cliches like "gathering clouds" and "raging storms" (wish I were making this up, folks). We get an allusion to "putting aside childish things," a reference to scripture (as he noted for those who wouldn’t make the connection) that bears little of the profundity of its original. We get, at bottom, the words of a gifted orator and potentially inspiring statesman, whose words in the past four years produced the millions in attendance today but whose rhetorical talents did not quite meet what he has called "this defining moment." While he declaimed about "the price and the promise of citizenship," perhaps the best phrase of the speech, the speech as a whole lacked the literary panache of the best of our nation’s orators and even the evident poetic skills of our Obama.

Rhetoric

Henry Allen, in today’s WaPo has a lengthy article on rhetoric--even with iambs, anapests, and chiasmus, (although we could do without the references to deconstruction) rarely seen in newspapers--that is worth reading. He glides over Aristotle and ethos, pathos, logos, all of which Edward Everett, who failed, would have understood, but perhaps not Lincoln, who succeeded. Lincoln had credibility (part of ethos) by the time of the Second Inaugural. He built it honestly through extreme hardships, and steel hard decisions. In that sense, the incoming president is at a disadvantage, his credibility is not yet built through the office, yet perfect rhetoric is expected of him from the start.

That aside, this public transfer of part of the government has to be one of the great public spectacles in the world today. I talked with an eighteen year old in the center of Europe yesterday, not a political creature, and this is all she wanted to talk about. She and her friends think this event is--this transfer of real power--and in this case to a black man--as she said in English, awesome. She then congratulated the Americans.

Kristol on Bush

Bill writes the most moving tribute to the president that I’ve read. And I completely agree that the record will show that Bush was, among politicians, uncharacteristically ready to do what he thought was right with a genuine willingness to suffer the consequences. Bill also reminds us that every president--including Obama--these days is stuck with being a war president, and that the president-elect probably knows that well enough.

Kurth on Huntington

Nobody can deny that Sam was "an inspiring model of intellectual courage" and devoted to conserving what he saw as most inspiring and sustainable about his country.

Shameless Self-Promotion

I will be speaking on human dignity at DeSales University (which was merely Allentown College when I went there) in Center Valley (near Allentown), PA tomrrow (Monday) at 7:30 in the evening. Here is the announcement of a full week of events.

The Bush Record

THE WASHINGTON POST offers what seems to me a pretty fair and, yes, balanced assessment.

And Free Frank offers the reasonable opinion that Beinart of the WaPo’s seemingly generous appreciation of the surge’s success is marred by a moralistic overreaction against the original invasion. The paper’s editorial seemes more on the mark in its opinions that the invasion seemed justified at the time, the surge will be to Bush’s great credit if its success remains stable, but the mismanagement of the war due to a disgraceful lack of planning in between is, in fact, a large and ineradicable stain on the president’s permanent record.

Booker T. Washington re-thought

Jonathan Yardley writes that Robert Norrell’s Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington forced him to change his mind about the greatness of Washington. Yardley, who "reflexively accepted the received opinion" about him in the 60’s (that he was an "Uncle Tom") now writes: "Norrell persuades me that I was wrong." I’ve read the book and Yardley is right, it is first rate. It is good on Washington, and on the extraordinary difficulties (Booker called it the "severe American crucible") of that era, terrifying for blacks, especially in the South. There is now no question that Washington, in his character and intellect and achievements, is one of the greatest Americans.

    

Inaugural Prayers: From Pluralistic to Protestant

In the WSJ Steven Waldman observes that presidential inaugural prayers used to be ecumenical (e.g., Truman used a Protestant minister, a Catholic priest, and a rabbi) but now all 12 prayers since 1989 will have been delivered by Protestants. This tendency, he argues, compromises the ceremony.

But Waldman, a leading historian of religion and politics, undermines his credibility by asserting that presidentially mandated sectarian prayers are a great infringement on the First Amendment. Yet the First Amendment restricts only Congress’s legislative powers—do read the text!--not the President’s authority. Thus George Washington proclaimed (with Congress) a day of Thanksgiving.

The founding generation was honoring the intent of a document that concludes itself “done in Year of our Lord” 1787 and of Independence the twelfth. Presidents have the duty, as Waldman implicitly recognizes, of prudently bringing together the abiding sacred with the changing secular realms. That is in fact what our Constitution and Declaration challenge Americans to do.

Perfect Storm in the Baltics?

This is worth noting: Baltic Riots have broken out, in Latvia and Lithuania (but not Estonia!). Anders Aslund, a moderate analyst, is quoted in the NYTimes story: "I think this is just the beginning. We should expect this to happen in many places." He expects "massive blowups" in Russia and Ukraine and Tajikistan. 

E Pluribus Unum?

Walter McDougall and James Ceasar (an interesting combination) write an op-ed decrying the weakening our national identity and call "upon our nation’s new leadership in the White House and in Congress to take actions that can strengthen our national unity and national purpose." A good idea. Our new president’s inaugural address might be a good place to start.

Poe at 200

John J. Miller on Edgard Allan Poe; he was born on Jan 19th. He mentions that a woman said this of Poe when he was in his twenties: "He was not well balanced; he had too much brain. . . . He said often that there was a mystery hanging over him he never could fathom." Probably true. No matter. While I don’t want to show enthusiasm for Poe, I will say that when I was in my teens and started playing with the language as American, I tasted his words and rolled them around my mouth, and liked the taste, and had an awkward time with the first Lenore I met.

Chesley Sullenberger and the Relationship between Love and Excellence

Just heard the wife of the heroic pilot of US Air flight 1549 reflecting on her husband’s achievement. She noted that Sullenberger always had "a deep love" and appreciation for the "art" of the aircraft. And as reports continue to pour in noting the details of his resume and accomplishments, there is much to testify to the veracity of his wife’s statement. In other words, this is a man who utterly loves and is a master of the thing that he does. There may have been some element of luck involved in that incident yesterday . . . but for my part, I think the luck was in the fact that he happened to be flying the plane.

A Poet Reflects on Inaugural Poems

I don’t know the poet David Yezzi, but I really liked his comments about the forthcoming inaugural poem in last Friday’s (1/9/09) Wall St. Journal. "Bards at the Inaugural Gates." A sample: "Could such a historic occasion give rise to historic poetry? It hasn’t yet. This may be because the public voice has never been the long suit of American poetry, despite its roots in Whitman, who had a way of addressing the whole nation, if not all of mankind... When poetry gets pressed into political service what gets lost most often is the poetry... Poems create this condition with the stories they tell, but more importantly in the way they tell them. Great poems find an expression for experiences and emotions that we would not have words for otherwise. In so doing, they give us those emotions and the experiences fully for the first time. The stumbling block for most political poetry is narrowness. As soon as poetry espouses an interest group, it ceases to speak to the widest audience and fails in its bid for universality.

Take a look, and if someone knows his poetry, give us an appraisal.

Eric Foner on Lincoln

The premier historian of the Reconstruction era, Eric Foner, has penned a splendid ode to "Our Lincoln" in the January issue of The Nation.    

Abortion and the states

David Forte reviews Paul Benjamin Linton’s book, Abortion Under State Constitutions: A State-by-State Analysis and finds it worthy of our attention. David writes that Linton "has provided the definitive answer to the oft-asked question, what happens if Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) are overruled? The breadth and depth of his effort is arresting."  

General Victor Krulak, RIP

Victor "Brute" Kulak was a legendary Marine. I got to know him when I edited Strategc Review from 1990 to 1997. He died on Decenber 29 at the age of 95. I have a tribute to him here.

For all of us who love and admire the New York Times, the Gray Lady lived up to her reputation for journalistic excellence when it ran an obituary for Gen. Krulak on January 5th. It was not half bad, except that the photo accompanying the obit was of...Charles Krulak, Brute’s son, who is still very much alive. Chuck was the 31st Commandant of the Marine Corps. You can see the crack editorial reasoning of the folks at the NYT. After all, how many Krulaks could there possibly be?

The New Deal and Unemployment

Almost as interesting as this graph from the Heritage Foundation showing that the New Deal did not work in solving the unemployment problems of the Depression, are the arguments now employed by leftist groups against it. They’re mad that Heritage didn’t include government "make work" jobs as employment--even though the government never included those numbers when they counted them back in the day. So, like Burger King, Heritage let them have it their way. The result was the same. But I still don’t think those guys will eat their hamburger.

If the BCS Computer System Had Decided World War II. . .

. . . then Germany would have won. Can we please either have a real playoff system, or go back to the old conference bowl game system? I rather liked the old Rose Bowl matchup of the Pac 10 versus the Big 10.

Some Shrum from Frum

In response to this piece from Robert Shrum, David Frum here agrees that the coming wilderness years for Republicans cannot be a replay of the wilderness of 1993. Then, an eager and over-confident young Democrat was ascending to the nation’s highest office already tainted by scandal, with only 43% of the nation’s support, and working against an opposition poised to reunite (despite Perot) in response. Bill Clinton had genuine political savvy but he lacked self-control--and not just in in his private life. His lack of personal prudence was but a metaphor for his larger and ever-grasping public persona. True, he succeeded in holding on to office; but he also succeeding in uniting his opposition with his rash approach to the office in that first year, in losing majorities for his party in 1994, and in sacrificing the good of that party to his own political fortunes. Though Republicans could never quite turn the horse around, they did not come out too sore from the long eight-year ride.

Frum does not think the ride of 2009 is going to be anywhere near as smooth. Like Shrum, he thinks that Republicans seeking solace from the memories of the early 90s should be wary of such simple comparisons. Barack Obama is no Bill Clinton. And, though it is odd to think of the 1992-93 GOP as united and firm of purpose--for we’re talking of the aftermath of the H.W. Bush "read my lips" years and the immediate aftermath of the Perot revolt--Frum insists that compared to today, those were halcyon days in the GOP.

Still, it’s certain that Robert Shrum does not offer Republicans his advice in order to help them advance their future political prospects. His objective is to make Republicans believe that they court political disaster (and will deserve it) if they dare to oppose Barack Obama’s agenda. He is poised, once again, to admire the "Maverickiness" of a John McCain (or at least claim to) now that he believes McCain’s bucking will be in designed for the purpose of clearing the saddle of conservatives.

Frum’s response is to concede the point that the political winds have changed and that mindless opposition to Obama proceeding according to the notion that this is nothing but a replay of the 90s is suicide. Frum makes an observation that is uncomfortable both for the likes of Shrum and for the likes of certain hard-headed conservatives: this is not a parliamentary form of government. It’s not the case that Republicans elected to high national office are simply "out of power." They can, do and will have some real impact on the legislation that affects Americans and it is, therefore, their duty to do what they can to make that legislation the best it can be for America. There are political reasons for prudence, to be sure, but there are also constitutional ones. And these reasons, happily, assure that while Republicans cannot ignore Democrats--neither can the Dems ignore the GOP.

But Frum is even more explicit. He argues that Shrum’s advice to Republicans amounts to suggesting that Republicans "play dead" and he wonders whether Obama is likely be the guy to deliver Shrum and liberals like him into the vast and sunny promised land of their dreams. In the end, Frum rates Obama’s political prudence higher than Shrum does and concludes that this is unlikely. But, if Shrum is right and the Obama Administration is as recklessly ambitious as Shrum would have it, then Frum is concludes that Republicans had better "risk being rolled over rather than play[ing] dead."

EU-Art?

A work of art, sited prominently in the headquarters of the EU Council in Brussels, designed to demolish national stereotypes by mocking them, has caused diplomatic outrage. You can see the lovely thing here.

Why We Love Maggie, Reason 12,896

Claire Berlinski’s wonderful book, "There Is No Alternative": Why Margaret Thatcher Matters includes this little gem:

When PM Thatcher told the Marxist leader of the Congo that "I hate Communists," the translator rendered it thus: "Prime Minister Thatcher says that she has never been wholly supportive of the ideas of Karl Marx."

Back to the Future?

National Review’s Byron York offers some useful reflections on the intraparty debate going on the GOP right now in "Same Old Party: Tranquility in the Ranks" in the latest issue of World Affairs (unfortunately only the abstract is available online to non-subscribers).

On the surface, Byron notes that the fault line between neoconservatives and other varieties seems not to be opening up as many have predicted (and hoped for). By Byron wonders whether the seeming reluctance to think more openly and critically about the Iraq War is a good thing.

I detect another subtext in his article that he may not have intended. Byron notes that on the campaign trail last year, most rank-and-file Republicans (and some candidates, especially Huckabee) were distinctly uninterested in foreign affairs. Is this simply a function of war weariness over Iraq, or might it be a sign that a large part of the Republican base is reverting slowly back to its isolationism of the pre-Cold War era? It used to be in the late years of the Cold War that it was liberals and Democrats who were uninterested or unserious about foreign affairs. Is the shoe now on the other foot?

Back in 1985 John P. Roche wrote (in my mind) one of the most memorable features in NR’s history lamenting the decline of liberal internationalism. It would be a pity if someone a few years hence has to write the companion feature on the decline of conservative internationalism.

(Cross-posted at The Corner.)

An inter-cultural problem

A man in California, now in the Monterey jail, sold his daughter--his fourteen year-old daughter--for $16,000, 160 cases of beer, 100 cases of soda, 50 cases of Gatorade, two cases of wine, and six cases of meat. All those involved in the case are from the western Mexican state of Oaxaca, the police chief said. In the Oaxacan community, such an agreement is "normal and honorable," he said. "In California, it’s against the law." The police are trying to be culturally sensitive, in this Steinbeck-like story.

Neither Fearing Death Nor Refusing to Live

Brooks on Neuhaus on speaking frankly on and living well with death.

Elections

Senator Voinovich

Senator George Voinovich has decided not to run for re-election. Although I have disagreed with him from time to time, I have always thought him to be both smart and full of integrity. Folks are already lining up to replace him, including former Congressmen Rob Portman, who, it so happens is speaking at the Ashbrook Center today. If you are in the area, come by, if you have four-wheel drive!
Categories > Elections

Lecture v. Thinking

A front page NY Times article explains that at M.I.T. "The physics department has replaced the traditional large introductory lecture with smaller classes that emphasize hands-on, interactive, collaborative learning. Last fall, after years of experimentation and debate and resistance from students, who initially petitioned against it, the department made the change permanent. Already, attendance is up and the failure rate has dropped by more than 50 percent."

A prof said this: "Just as you can’t become a marathon runner by watching marathons on TV...likewise for science, you have to go through the thought processes of doing science and not just watch your instructor do it." Replace "doing science" with "thinking" and you have a good classroom, in any field.

The Return of the Old Guard

One little-noted aspect of the recent elections is that it restores American government to what most of our elites, particularly the political and intellectual class, considers to be the norm--rule by Democrats. Perhaps the best example of this idea is Peter Jennings’ remark after the 1994 elections that "The voters had a temper tantrum last week."

Most of the people who staff government agencies in Washington (and most government employees throughout the republic) are Democrats. Similarly, most of the people who work for national media organizations are Democrats. These people tend to have attended the same group of colleges and universities and read the same newspapers and books, and listen to the same radio. They are trained to think of themselves asour governing class. Now that the Democrats will be in charge of the House, Senate, and the Presidency, they should, in theory, think that the proper state of affairs has returned. The Republicans held Congress long enough, and have held the Presidency regularly enough for the past forty years, that some of that presumption has broken down.

The glaring exception might be Congress. This week’s news that the Democrats in Congress will repeal several of the reforms that Republicans made in Congress when they took over in 1994--notably term limits for committee chairmen--suggests that the situation President Obama faces will be complicated by the return of the old guard. Many of the major powers that be in the House particularly, but also in the Senate, first took office when those were Democratic fiefdoms. The Democrats controlled the House, virtually without interruption from 1933 to 1995. They controlled the Senate from 1933 to 1981. To them, the period of Republican control was an interregnum, not part of the normal state of affiars in a nation with a two-party system. Hence we should not be surprised if we see Congress trying to reassert power, and making life rather hard for President Obama. They will not be grateful for Obama’s victory, and hence defer to him, because all they now have is what, they think, is properly theirs.

Old School

Davy Crockett on the role of government.

Two Problems with the Revival of Pump-Priming

...are discussed by a notorious left-wing author in THE NATION. First, experts disagree on how much or even whether it worked before. Second, the problem of the early thirties was simple by comparison. People were broke and often jobless, but they usually weren’t in debt. Thanks to all the bankruptcies, lots of debt was just swept away, and the economy was a kind of tabula rasa. Today people, corporations, and governments are increasingly both broke and have mega-debt. Our author, with one historical piece of evidence, reminds us of the alternative of just allowig bankruptcy to run amok, eradicating all the debt, and starting over. He knows, of course, that the results today would be horrible, and that ain’t going to happen anyway. This article has the merit of reminding us that the bipartisan consensus--which includes lefty and many libertarian economists--on the huge stimulus package is a big-time Hail Mary pass.

Young Man Lawler on Neuhaus

Ivan the K dug out this article I wrote on Richard’s two most important books over twenty years ago. Some of it makes me cringe, but there are a few places where I learned something from myself.

The Error of Big Government

Mexico’s Social Security agency wins national award for the worst red tape in the nation.

Free Frank’s Exit Questions for the President

These questions are friendly, tough, and conern genuinely perplexing matters. If there’s a single question, it would be something like: "Mr. President, why did you repeatedly let it seem that you were more clueless than you really were." There was a time or two, though, when we have ask why he was so clueless, as well as some some real moral lapses that undermined the basic decency of his intentions.

Robertson v Princeton

Frederic J. Fransen neatly sums up this extraordinary case, the largest donor-intent lawsuit ever filed. The short of it is that Princeton misused a donor’s large gift. (Although Princeton doesn’t admit this)

The Robertson family went after them for over six years and, I think, they were going to win their case in the courts, so Princeton negotiated a settlement. Although there is some satisfaction here for the Robertson family--and those of us who are serious about these matters are forever in their debt for making this extraordinary and costly effort--I regret that Princeton still profited so, and that the slap on the wrist wasn’t a pop on the nose. Still, well done to the Robertson family!

George Weigel Remembers Richard John Neuhaus

... whose great influence on the moral, political, intellectual life of our country was all to the good.

Soylent Heat?

Here’s a new wrinkle on alternative energy from--where else?--Europe:

Dead People Will Provide Heat to Crematorium Facilities. (Didn’t the Germans already think of this 70 years ago?--Ed. Behave yourself.)

Responsible for what?

Earlier today, President-Elect Obama spoke of our need to return to the idea of responsibility. He criticized, "an era of profound irresponsibility that stretched from corporate boardrooms to the halls of power in Washington.”

The question we need to ask is whether it is possible, in the course of human events, to teach people to be responsible when we seek to minimize the consequences of failure or even of bad luck. Might it be that the more hand-outs we have the less reasonable it is to be responsible?

PERSPECTIVES ON POLITICAL SCIENCE

Here are three fine article/symposium ideas from Ivan the K. Each, in a way, was ripped from the pages of NLT:

1. The legacy of Samuel Huntington

2. Rat Choice Theory (Ratzinger/Benedict) and American Liberalism.

3. The 50th anniversary of the publication of WHAT IS POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY?

I’m looking for a few good men and women to volunteer along these lines.

There’s Nothing Like a Great Laugh

Some people say that they can tell all they need to know about a person by looking into his eyes. As shortcuts go, I think that’s not a terrible way to go. But the problem is, you still have to know what to look for in the eyes and, even then, it is easy--as Bush so ably demonstrated with Putin--to be misled. If our own eyes can play tricks on us, how much easier is it for the eyes of another--willfully or not--to trick us? That’s why, when shortcuts are all that are available to me, I depend more upon the laugh.

It’s very hard to lie in a laugh, just as it is difficult to suppress a laugh when it demands to be set free. We’ve all choked on tears and also (with much less success, I’ll wager) managed to smother chuckles. Whereas tears seem to come on with a thunder strike, they have a way of dissipating when put down--even if it is only until a more convenient time can be arranged for their release. A suppressed laugh, however, tends only to engorge the recesses of the soul--at least it has always been so for me. It, like a needy child or another of nature’s calls, demands attention. And if it cannot be set free, it will burn and tickle and play havoc with your comfort until you can release it.

Now, all laughs are not equally good--and some are simply not good at all. Some are wicked or just plain vicious and others are weak, limp and pathetic. Some laughs are vulgar or rude. Some are mechanical or forced. Others are melodic and sweet--but not particularly memorable. The best laughs, however, are a deep and expressive kind of soul kissing--particularly when they are shared with the people who mean the most to us and understand us the best. And, as the clip above richly shows, the disposition toward such soul-kissing laughter is a gift and it reveals itself early in life.

Whatever else they may be, laughs are telling both as to when they come and as to how they show themselves. The eyes of a laughing man do not lie as readily as those of a man who may appear to be grave or grief-stricken or circumspect and biting on his lower lip.

I’m no expert in the craft of acting, but I imagine that it must be easier to summon convincing tears on cue than it is to summon convincing laughter. I’d also guess that the laughter of most good actors is most often real (if not always in response to what is supposed to be funny in the production).

It’s Better to Underpromise and Overdeliver than the Reverse

This is what James Pethokoukis argues Obama seems to have learned from the political mistakes of the Bush administration. While I appreciate Peter Lawler’s hesitation about commenting overmuch on a man who is not yet President and who has not yet taken any formal presidential actions beyond appointments, it’s not exactly tea-leaf reading to take note of some of the signals he’s providing. Based on these signals, Pethokoukis thinks Obama’s political strategy will be to continue to wax pessimistic about the economy’s immediate prospects, run a continuous commentary on the enormity and the difficulty of the task before him and, subtly (or not) work to "Hooverize" Bush in the process. It’s not a bad plan if you are Obama, but Pethokoukis does not think it will be as easy for Obama and his supporters to Hooverize Bush as it was for Roosevelt and his compatriots to Hooverize Hoover. Of course, this is not owing to any special lingering feelings of affection for Bush but has to do, rather, with what Pethokoukis sees as a kind of impatience in the American electorate that he sees no reason to believe will subside in the next four years.

Pethokoukis thinks that if the prognosticators are right and an economic turnaround is still a distant hope, Obama will have to "own" this bad economy regardless of the blame may or may not cling to Bush. A better lens through which to view what is likely to happen in 2012, Pethokoukis argues, is the elections of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton on the heels of recession and the rejection of the incumbent presidents presiding over the downturn. It’s also pretty clear that Pethokoukis thinks many of Obama’s proposals to "fix" the economy will actually work to prolong recovery and, thus, seal his fate.

My own view is that Pethokoukis is seeing only one of two possibilities here . . . and maybe this gets back to Peter Lawler’s hesitation about speculative commentary. I think he’s right to note the impatience of the electorate with a bad economy and it’s likely (though not yet certain) that many of the steps Obama takes will work substantially to make recovery less immediate. Depending on how bad it gets and on how convincing of the Democrat’s share in the blame for this the Republican party can be in the midterm elections, Obama may have a serious electoral problem in 2012. But it is still a stretch, right now, to imagine that continued frustration with the economy or the substantive truth of an Obama Adminstration’s role in that continuation will, by itself, readily translate into a change in our current political reality. Even with that frustration and a substantive critique of Democrats, a change in GOP fortunes is going to require a much more concentrated and serious effort at persuasion than Republicans have been either capable of giving or inclined to put forward in recent years. As I argued below in response to Jonah Goldberg’s column about the coming Democrat branding, neither side has effectively persuaded the vast majority of the American electorate of anything. So, it’s true: the electorate may grow weary of Obama. Having said that, is there any indication (or is there merely a hope) that they’ll be any less weary of Republicans?

Random Observations

1. I continue not to have much to say, because I’m reluctant to criticize Obama before he actually does anything as president.

2. I’m also not outraged by the senatorial outcomes in IL and MN. If the state is controlled by the Democrats and the senate is too, I guess the Democrat is going to prevail in a race that’s obviously too close to call. And in IL, I don’t see the problem in seating the boring old guy as a placeholder, who was appointed according to the law of the state, as far as I can tell. Neither of these issues has legs or even toes. (And I’m only slightly less indifferent to Princess Caroline getting the NY seat. Obama’s victory was for the stylish and inexperienced young, and they deserve a voice to balance all those Clinton retreads.)

3. It’s above my paygrade to know what kind of government stimulation of the economy would be least likely to be counterproductive. I certainly agree with Dick Morris about the danger of getting a lot more Americans out of the habit of paying federal taxes. Although I’m not usually losing sleep over the injustice of thecapital gains tax, maybe giving it something like a holiday would lure more rich guys back to taking stock-market risks. But a tax cut for the rich won’t play well now. I think I agree with Sowell about the difficulty of knowing what the real ecomonic effects would be of stimulation through infrastructure. So maybe the best thing is to give every taxpayer 5K--like in the game Monopoly--and let him or her do what he or she pleases with it--making it crystal clear this is a one-time-only thing. There is no right to stimulate or be stimulated, even in our erotically challenged time. But government spending does need to go up--maybe in stimulating ways--in certain areas, such military/weapons modernization, "subsidiarity"-based programs for the permanently disabled and the frail elderly, and some genuine infrastructure concerns.

4. A REAL ISSUE: We need new ideas for articles and symposia for PERSPECTIVES ON POLITICAL SCIENCE. I’m disappointed that nothing has come in on the election or the Obama "regime change." And I’m very disappointed that bold and impetuous young (and old) authors of brilliant but strange essays on politics, literature, and philosophy haven’t been calling or writing in big numbers either. Let me hear from you (plawler@berry.edu). Reent authors include Mark Lilla, Delba Winthrop, Mary Nichols, Mary Keys, Ty Tessitore, Yuval Levin, Ivan the K, Eduardo Velasquez, Ralph Hancock, and Dr. Pat Deneen.

5. Pat is now dispensing his excellent and adventurous blogospheric wisdom at the "postmodern conservative" blog of Culture11. His first entry is a tough (too tough, I think) criticism of the constiutional conservatism of Peter Berkowitz praised, with some justice, below.

Is Obama Avoiding a Bush Mistake on Foreign Policy

Michael Feaver says so here on this new Foreign Policy blog, making the same argument David Tucker made on this site more than three years ago.

Well, That Didn’t Take Long

Senate Democrats, folding in less than 24 hours on seating Burris. I wonder how Lyndon Johnson would have handled this? (Actually you don’t wonder at all--Ed. Of course I don’t.)

Statistuc du Jour

Courtesy of Dick Morris

"Today, the bottom 50 percent of US taxpayers pays a total of $30.6 billion in federal income taxes on a combined income of about $1 trillion. So about 3 percent of all federal income-tax payments come from the poorest half of the country. (The top 1 percent pays 40 percent; the top 25 percent pay 85 percent of the federal income tax.)"

Morris adds, commenting on the proposal cut taxes on the bottom 50% further:

In 1980, the bottom 50 percent of the nation paid 7 percent of the national tax bill, after refund and credits. It now pays 3 percent; under Obama’s plan, it would pay less than nothing (that is, it would net a profit from the IRS). In 1980, the top 1 percent paid 19 percent of the income-tax burden; now it’s 40 percent. Taxes have become the province only of the rich.

Of course, the shift in tax burden also mirrors the incredible increase in incomes of the wealthy in the last 30 years - the top 1 percent earned only 8 percent of the total national income in 1980; now it earns 22 percent. And the poorest half has seen its share of national income fall from 17 percent in 1980 to only 12.5 percent today.

So it is both fair and sensible to give the poor a tax break and to draw the bulk of federal revenues from the rich. But to exempt the bottom half - a majority of the voters - from paying any taxes and to award them refund checks instead would dangerously alter the fundamental balance of national politics. For the economically well off, it could effectively become taxation without representation - which, as the founders of our nation warned, leads to tyranny.

Big Hollywood

On the premise that conservatives underestimate the importance of popular culture in the preservation of freedom, Andrew Breitbart today launches Big Hollywood. It promises to offer more than simple criticism of the current popular culture. There’s no shortage of that coming from conservatives, after all. What Breitbart aims to do is nothing less than to "change the entertainment industry" and to return Hollywood "back to its patriotic roots." I applaud this aim. The title of his announcement, "A Million Stories to Tell" says more, I think, than the announcement itself. America is teeming with fascinating and inspiring stories and characters that today lack the genius of a truly American storyteller. A truly great American artist is one who, like Twain, can admire, can scoff but--in the end--find what is finally lovable and worthy in his friends and fellow citizens. Here’s hoping for an American Renaissance of this sort.

Shades of 1929

German billionaire commits suicide over investment losses. We’ve already seen one such suicide connected to the Madoff mega-scam, and I suspect it won’t be the last.

Speaking of which, the Madoff scam is supposed to be the obvious predicate for "more regulation." But the existing regulators at the SEC looked several times and missed it every time. Question: Why is it that, whenever government regulation is shown to have failed, the default position is that we need more and better regulation? If our More and Better Regulators really got close to unraveling Madoff, wouldn’t he just get a couple of Senators to intervene, the way Charles Keating did with bank regulators in the 1980s? What do we pay these senators for, anyway?

It’s Branding Time for the Dems

Jonah Goldberg writes a lively column in today’s USA Today in which he suggests that the coming ascension of the Democrat Party to the summit of their power will be fraught with difficulties . . . for them. Essentially, their problem is similar to the one that confronted Republicans during the last eight years: they haven’t really persuaded the American people of anything. Republicans used the "conservative" brand, Jonah writes wittily, "like a cheap rented car." It was a good vehicle to get them where they wanted to go but, once they got there, they decided that really liked their limousines. Convincing people to admire their solid, but much less cushy, rental was too much work. Democrats will have a similar problem. Yes, they’ve got a mandate of sorts. But, beyond fixing the economy (and can any political party really do that?), what exactly is that mandate? Depends on who you ask.

Most Democrat talking-heads believe that this mandate is for one or another form of Liberalism--although even this is offered in varying degrees by various pundits. But I wonder: Do the majority of American voters really see it this way? My guess is that they do not and, if Democrats really want to stay in power, they’ve got a whole lot of persuading to do (which is a very different thing than what either party tends to do in elections--and certainly different from what they did in this last one). The American electorate remains fairly divided, I think, less out of actual polarization than out of simple confusion about the purposes and the possibilities and limits of free government.

Obama once seemed poised to move in and settle this debate--at least for all practical purposes--by winning it. And, though I believe that this remains his lofty ambition, I am less and less persuaded that he will be able to do it. As Jonah ably demonstrates in this article, there are just as many jackasses as there are elephants who thoroughly enjoy their limo rides.

Reid and Burris

So am I missing something here? I don’t normally agree with Harry Reid, but his claim that the Senate can refuse to seat Roland Burris, the man that disgraced Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich has appointed to fill the seat left vacant by Barack Obama’s election as president, seems to be on the mark.

As I recall, during the Civil War the Senate and House refused to seat the congressinal delegations from the newly reconstructed states of Louisiana and Arkansas because the radicals in both houses disagreed with Lincoln over Reconstruction policy. If they could refuse to seat members whose credentials they questioned, why can’t the Senate refuse to seat Burris? Perhaps the constitutional lawyers out there can explain why Reid is wrong.

A Joke With Its Own Punchline

United States Senator Al Franken.

If his lead holds up, I hope he speaks early and often in the Senate, and appears nightly on the cable food fight shows. He will likely be a great asset for Republicans.

News You Can Use

A helpful roster of writing mistakes.

Man Bites Dog Big Time

Or, to mix metaphors a bit, the ice really is breaking up when the Puffington Host. . ., I mean, Huffington Post, runs a stinging article questioning the orthodoxy of global warming and attacking Al Gore.

Knippenberg and Lawler (among others) in print

Happy New Year everyone!

I just received my brand spanking new issue of THE CITY, which has articles by Lawler and Knippenberg reflecting on "where we go from here" after November 4th. Too bad they’re not yet online, but subscriptions to the print journal are free.

There are some other first-rate pieces in the issue as well, among them a plea from Ryan T. Anderson for evangelicals to use the language and/or categories of natural law and Matthew Lee Anderson’s perspicacious analysis of the wayward non-partisanship of young evangelicals.

Two Cheers for Constitutional Conservatism

The ever-insightful Peter Berkowitz concludes his defense of constitutional conservatism:

If they honor the imperatives of a constitutional conservatism, both social conservatives and libertarian conservatives will have to bite their fair share of bullets as they translate these goals into concrete policy. They will, though, have a big advantage: Moderation is not only a conservative virtue, but the governing virtue of a constitutional conservatism.

I await the "expanded version" of this op-ed to appear in Policy Review but would propose that such a fusionist interpretation of the Constitution rests on its suffusion by the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution’s "[m]oderation is ... a conservative virtue" through the extremism of the Declaration of Independence. Conservatives who have denigrated the Declaration--and they span the gamit from Bork to Kirk--undermine the cause of constitutionalism, its prudence together with its economic, defense, and moral blessings.

NASA -- DOD Collaboration?

"President-elect Obama will probably tear down long-standing barriers between the U.S.’s civilian and military space programs to speed up a mission to the moon amid the prospect of a new space race with China."  

Statistic du Jour

Via George Will: "over the next two decades the average American household’s health-care spending, including the portion of its taxes that pays for Medicare and Medicaid, will go from 23 percent to 41 percent of average household income."

Bailout Nation

David Ignatius asks "what if the bailout policy "works," and prevents the deep global depression that many analysts had feared? In recent days, even super-bear Nouriel Roubini has seemed hopeful that the worst outcomes can be avoided. What would be the lessons of such a "near-miss" world? The first precept would be that bad behavior brings a rescue."

But haven’t we already gone rather far down that path. What are entitlements if not grants that help people from both their own mistakes and from the unavoidable tragedies of life? I am not saying that’s all bad, but I am saying that a government that grows accustomed to helping individual voters when life happens will tend to be the kind of government that will try to rescue corporations (classically regarded as artificial persons, created by law) when they are suffering. Can the welfare state be restricted to individuals and not include corporations? Do we have an example of it doing so for any length of time in any country? The character of the laws shapes the character of a people, both inside and outside of government. The more people who get hand-outs, it seems, the more likely it is that big corporations will get them too. Over time, history seems to suggest that’s the case.

We could make a similar point about the constitution and the bailout. Congress has grown accustomed to writing vague plenary grants to administrative agencies, as opposed to clear law. In that sense, the bailout is another continuation of a trend.

The bailout idea is hardly new. It is the central organizing principle of government in an age of entitlement.

The Great Tax Swap

Charles Krauthammer says the time is right to raise the gas tax and reduce the payroll tax to produce a revenue neutral result. Gas prices are low, and so the pain felt would be minimal. Obama could produce real change in the direction of reducing our demand for foreign oil and increased fuel efficiency without cumbersome and probably counterproductive new regulations.

Happy New Year. . .

. . . from the beach in California. Maybe I’ll post some photos on my Facebook page later, or you can take my word for it that it is sunny and warm here.

Meanwhile, the headline of the day comes from Nature magazine: "Experts Still Needed." Indeed, what would we do without them?

Best Things about the Holidays In CA

60 degrees F. and picking oranges and tangerines on Christmas . . . nature’s own Christmas ornaments--priceless. True . . . it was raining and the in-laws were complaining . . . yet it still beats the snow in Ohio. Celebrating a New York New Year’s Eve at 9 pm. with the Voegeli clan and getting home before 10:15 with kids in bed before 11--priceless. True . . . the champagne was gone and we had to endure the sight of Bill and Hillary "dancing" in Times Square. But the liquor store is still open . . . and Michelle and Barack--though equally liberal--are at least less puke inducing. Happy New Year all!