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.


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.