Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Trying to Bend Steele

The Washington Post has quite a hit job on Michael Steele on the front page this morning, with an above-the-fold story alleging he violated a number of campaign-finance rules. Despite the purple language and frothy allegations of the story, my in-house (literally) campaign finance law expert says it is far from clear that Steele actually violated any of the increasingly arcane and impossible-to-explain federal campaign finance laws, but of course as we all know it’s the appearance of impropriety that counts for Republicans.

Not until you reach well down on the jump page do you learn this interesting little detail: "The U.S. attorney’s office inadvertently sent the confidential document, a defense sentencing memorandum filed under seal, to The Washington Post after the newspaper requested the prosecution’s sentencing memorandum." Inadvertently sent what was supposed to be a sealed document to the Post? Yeah, sure, and the Post will sell you the Brooklyn Bridge real cheap, too.

Is anyone in the U.S. Attorney’s office going to lose their job over this? Will the Obama DOJ launch an investigation to make sure this wasn’t politically motivated? What would the Post and others have said if this had happened to, say, Howard Dean, during the Bush administration?

Cutural Populism vs. Intellectual Elitism

Here’s Yuval reflecting on the true meaning of the Palin phenomenon. Sarah really wasn’t mainly a cultural populist until both the intellectual elite (with its paranoid feeling of moral vulnerability) and the real cultural populists (needing their Joan of Arc) made her into one. So Sarah felt both more love and more hate than any candidate in recent years. We learned that cultural populism--or the idea that the country should be governed by the sound moral opinions of real people with real lives (vs. virtual people with bourgeois bohemian lives)--is a potent force, but it has to be given real content by articulate candidates to be politically effective. The best form of government, to distort Jefferson just a bit, is an aristocracy of talent and virtue that governs according the genuine wisdom of the people.

Predictable Consequences

In the past generation or two, social scientists have often spoken of unintended consequences, notably the unintended consequences of well intentioned regulation. The trouble is that those with a familiarity with human nature and human history often were able to predict such consequences. Recent efforts to cap CEO pay fit into that formula.
Here’s an interesting reflection from today’s Wall Street Journal about what the effoft to cap CEO pay will probably do:

For starters, the limits seem to apply only to "senior executives" -- the chief executive, chief financial officer and the like -- and not to many of the people who can earn the really big bucks on Wall Street, like traders, hedge-fund managers and the mad scientists who cooked up all those derivatives that almost destroyed the world financial system. Leaving the compensation of these hot shots intact, while reducing the pay of the people who are supposed to boss them around, isn’t going to make the investing world any safer.

Outsourcing is another way to get around a pay cap. In 2003 and 2004, managers at Harvard University’s giant endowment came under withering fire from the ivory tower for earning upward of $35 million apiece. They soon left to start their own firms, which were promptly hired by the endowment and got paid a percentage of assets under management rather than a cash salary and bonus. That new form of payment stopped the criticism cold -- even though it isn’t likely the managers earned any less. . . .

Finally, the new rules from the Treasury Department permit Wall Street’s "senior executives" to get incentive pay in the form of preferred stock that can’t be cashed in until the taxpayers get their money back. But there s no rule yet against cashing all of it in at that point -- what compensation experts call cliff-vesting.

Thus, managers may be tempted to take greater risks in hopes of speeding up their preferred-stock payoff. If the risks go bad, Uncle Sam will eat the losses. "It’s the classic trader’s option," says George Wilbanks, a managing director at executive recruiter Russell Reynolds Associates: "Heads I win, tails you lose." He adds, "That’s my biggest fear: that people are going to swing for the fences to get to the cliff-vest faster."

Some of the history behind the study of unintended consequences in our day has to do with modern social scientists slowly learning that not all human problems have solutions. That conclusion cuts against many of the reigning myths of the field.

Remembering Rodman

My review of the late Peter Rodman’s fine book, Presidential Command, is up at The Weekly Standard. (May require a subscription to access.)

The Economy is Getting Better!

That’s why the stock market is surging a bit, Kudlow says. And no inflation, low energy prices, and no tax increases are great news if you have a job, which more than 90% of Americans still do.

Today’s Market Rally

Caused by Wall Street’s own logic, by the progress of things in Washington, or by signs that Mark to Market accounting rules will be suspended soon? (If done, the latter will instantly improve bank balance sheets, at least in the near term, and thus improve their credit ratings, and perhaps, as a result, open up capital markets. Megan McArdle had an interesting reflection on Mark-to-Market rules. In normal times, the rules might make a great deal of sense, but in a financial squeeze, they can create a domino effect the freezes up financial markets).

What caused this mess

Here’s Peter Wallison’s argument that the government was a key contributor because it pushed banks to weaken their standards for home loans. Wallison has been worried about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac since the 1980s. This is not a new concern for him.

A sample

: The effort to reduce mortgage lending standards was led by the Department of Housing and Urban Development through the 1994 National Homeownership Strategy, published at the request of President Clinton. Among other things, it called for “financing strategies, fueled by the creativity and resources of the private and public sectors, to help homeowners that lack cash to buy a home or to make the payments.” Once the standards were relaxed for low-income borrowers, it would seem impossible to deny these benefits to the prime market. Indeed, bank regulators, who were in charge of enforcing CRA standards, could hardly disapprove of similar loans made to better-qualified borrowers.

Sure enough, according to data published by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, from 2001 through 2006, the share of all mortgage originations that were made up of conventional mortgages (that is, the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage that had always been the mainstay of the U.S. mortgage market) fell from 57.1 percent in 2001 to 33.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2006. Correspondingly, sub-prime loans (those made to borrowers with blemished credit) rose from 7.2 percent to 18.8 percent, and Alt-A loans (those made to speculative buyers or without the usual underwriting standards) rose from 2.5 percent to 13.9 percent. Although it is difficult to prove cause and effect, it is highly likely that the lower lending standards required by the CRA influenced what banks and other lenders were willing to offer to borrowers in prime markets. Needless to say, most borrowers would prefer a mortgage with a low down payment requirement, allowing them to buy a larger home for the same initial investment.

The problem is summed up succinctly by Stan Liebowitz of the University of Texas at Dallas:

From the current handwringing, you’d think that the banks came up with the idea of looser underwriting standards on their own, with regulators just asleep on the job. In fact, it was the regulators who relaxed these standards--at the behest of community groups and "progressive" political forces.… For years, rising house prices hid the default problems since quick refinances were possible. But now that house prices have stopped rising, we can clearly see the damage done by relaxed loan standards.

The point here is not that low-income borrowers received mortgage loans that they could not afford. That is probably true to some extent but cannot account for the large number of sub-prime and Alt-A loans that currently pollute the banking system. It was the spreading of these looser standards to the prime loan market that vastly increased the availability of credit for mortgages, the speculation in housing, and ultimately the bubble in housing prices. . . .

Fannie and Freddie used their affordable housing mission to avoid additional regulation by Congress, especially restrictions on the accumulation of mortgage portfolios (today totaling approximately $1.6 trillion) that accounted for most of their profits. The GSEs argued that if Congress constrained the size of their mortgage portfolios, they could not afford to adequately subsidize affordable housing. By 1997, Fannie was offering a 97 percent loan-to-value mortgage. By 2001, it was offering mortgages with no down payment at all. By 2007, Fannie and Freddie were required to show that 55 percent of their mortgage purchases were LMI loans and, within that goal, 38 percent of all purchases were to come from underserved areas (usually inner cities) and 25 percent were to be loans to low-income and very-low-income borrowers. Meeting these goals almost certainly required Fannie and Freddie to purchase loans with low down payments and other deficiencies that would mark them as sub-prime or Alt-A.


Why Bother?

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported on some new research. Sociologists doing time studies have concluded that parents are spending more time with their kids now than in the past. Other researchers have concluded (by looking at twins and adopted children) that nature is more important, a lot more important, than nurture in determining what kind of people we become. Finally, other research shows that kids are happier when their parents don’t spend as much time with them. Seems that parents don’t really like spending a lot of time with their kids and doing so makes them unhappy. The kids are unhappy because their parents are unhappy. The same issue of the Chronicle carried another article reporting that significant numbers of Ph. D. students at prestigious schools do not plan on teaching at major research universities, so that they can spend more time with their kids.

Happy Birthday Ronald Reagan!

You can find a whole selection of his speeches here. And I will be presumptuous and post a link to this remembrance of him that I wrote when he passed in 2004.


Over at The Corner, I offer my observations on Obama, the Passive-Aggressive President

Meanwhile, don’t miss this video on the stimulus. Fun times!

A Rough Week for Team Obama

President Obama now vows to turn up the heat and has attacked Republicans in the House and Senate who are not yet wagging their tails in approval of Democratic plans for a stimulus. Never mind that, by implication, he’s also attacking some 54% of the American people who also have serious objections to the plan. Or . . . is that precisely the point of his attack?

Rich Lowry has written a fine article in which he suggests that Obama’s argument that, "I won" really amounts to an non-argument. It shows, as Lowry put it, "he’s out of better arguments." Not that he’s ever offered any real argument in favor of this kind of "scattershot" and massive government spending. He certainly did not campaign on such a plan. So "I won" isn’t going to cut it, Lowry argues.

That’s a fair point, it seems to me. But I wonder if it’s fair to suggest that Obama doesn’t know it. Obama certainly knows that he can and will pass this bill or some equally porky version of it and all, more or less, without Republican support. Other commentators in talk radio and elsewhere have observed that the President is making all this fuss because he wants cover for when the stimulus does not stimulate. That seems to be a fair observation--as far as it goes. But I wonder if it goes far enough.

It seems to me that this week has been hard on Obama less because of the opposition coming from Republicans than because of the stubborn trough-diving of his fellow Democrats and the startling revelation that--on this point anyway--the American people are not marching in lockstep with him. It’s tough stuff to go from celebrated American hero to the guy who’s stuck with the job of shining up a pig all in the span of two weeks. This is dirty work and I think there’s a tell in his reaction to it. This guy doesn’t seem to enjoy rolling in the mud. So the smart thing to do, if you’re a Republican, is to keep him there as long as possible. He’s never had to make a serious argument on behalf of this kind of reckless spending. Make him try.

You be the judge

A sign of the times or part of the natural order of things?

My 13 year old son has decided in the last couple of days that he wants to make our coffee in the morning. I’ve been doing this for our household since the day we set it up, and for myself for more than a decade before that. I bought my first coffee grinder in grad school (back in the Carter Administration).

So, naturally, I feel a little like an old buck being challenged by a young buck. I was happy to hand over lawnmowing responsibilities, but this is coffee, which is oh-so-close to the heart of things.

Is this the new order in our Obama-nation (my son almost believed me when I told him after the election that Alabama was going to be called Al-Obama from here on in)? Or is it just what happens to us middle-aged guys as our children naturally marginalize us? (Perhaps I can talk him into doing our taxes this weekend.)

Learning from another Stimulus

Remember the bubble that burst in Japan in the 1980’s? "Japan’s rural areas have been paved over and filled in with roads, dams and other big infrastructure projects, the legacy of trillions of dollars spent to lift the economy from a severe downturn caused by the bursting of a real estate bubble in the late 1980s. During those nearly two decades, Japan accumulated the largest public debt in the developed world — totaling 180 percent of its $5.5 trillion economy — while failing to generate a convincing recovery." And. "In the end, say economists, it was not public works but an expensive cleanup of the debt-ridden banking system, combined with growing exports to China and the United States, that brought a close to Japan’s Lost Decade. This has led many to conclude that spending did little more than sink Japan deeply into debt, leaving an enormous tax burden for future generations."

Today’s Charles Krauthammer’s op-ed is relevant to this. The title of his essay is "The Fierce Urgency of Pork."


The Great College Hoax?

A question about the "education industrial complex."
Categories > Education

Random Quotes for Discussion

1. FROM Adam Gopnik, ANGELS AND AGES: A SHORT BOOK ABOUT DARWIN, LINCOLN, AND MODERN LIFE (2009: "...[T]he originality [of the Lyceum speech] lies its radicalism of its case for reason. Lincoln’s argument was simple but original: the curse of American life was violence; its cure was law. Although Lincoln was a Southerner, nothing could be more remote from the Southern cult of honor or idea of noble vengeance. Cold calculation, the dispassionate parsing of the people of the Northern land of steady habits, was the path to the future.

"Lincoln tempered but never really abandoned that conviction. His rhetorical genius lay in making cold calculation look like passionate idealism, in making the closely reasoned argument ring with the sound of religious necessity."

2. FROM (Dr.) Patrick J. Deneen, "Strange Bedfellows: Allan Bloom and John Dewey Against Liberal Education, Rightly Understood" (in THE GOOD SOCIEITY, 2008): "For all the differences in emphasis on texts and approaches, the basic aim is the same for the epigones of [John] Dewey and [Allan] Bloom: the liberation of students from the limitations of place and background, a suspicion of the ’ancestral,’ an endorsement of scientific or philosophic ’critical thinking’ bordering on skepticism, and the praise for a form of mobility that sets us loose from places and traditions."

3. FROM Ralph Hancock, "Back to Where We Started, or, The New Hobbism Comes Out" (in PERSPECTIVES ON POLITICAL SCIENCE, Winter, 2009): "Of course, Hobbes could have refuted the existence of neither of a good higher than comfortable survival nor of a God who reveals himself as a man. His brilliance, Lilla argues (in A STILLBORN GOD), lay not in attempting that impossible theoretical task, but rather in skirting it altogether by practically changing the subject. If violence-fraught questions of God and the good cannot be answered, everything must be done to destract us from them. To say, with Lilla, that Hobbes changed the subject is thus to say that modernity is a giant diversion, a sleight of hand in which everything depends on keeping the subject changed...."


The GOP, Electoral Math and the Art of Political Persuasion

John J. Pitney, Jr. takes a long, hard look at the prospects before the GOP and does not see much that is immediately apparent as a cause for cheer. The mountain before the GOP in coming elections is daunting and Pitney cautions that the RNC chairman, Michael Steele, will have to take a very deliberate and long-term approach to the problem.

In the seven states where no GOP contender for the Senate has been successful since 2000, Pitney suggests looking to the GOP gubernatorial candidates who were successful in the last eight years. The issues that drive voters to elect governors are often different from the ones driving them to choose senators, but the fact that GOP candidates for governor could win in these states suggests that the Republican brand is not, in itself, DOA. There may be lessons these guys can offer of both a strategic and rhetorical nature.

Pitney also suggests studying the efforts of the other side. Howard Dean's controversial "50 state strategy" to rebuild party organizations that had withered now looks more like genius than insanity. The good news for the GOP is that they do not have to aim for radical transformations of the electorate. A plodding, careful, deliberate and principled chipping away at Democratic strongholds will make a big difference in electoral outcomes.

In case he is misunderstood, Pitney is careful to note that he is not suggesting capitulation on the issues that move the GOP base:

Such a strategy does not mean that Republicans must renounce the Second Amendment, embrace abortion, or endorse amnesty for illegal aliens. Indeed, it would make no sense to abandon the principles that matter to the party's most loyal supporters.
Rather, Pitney suggests, persuasion is the thing we must engage in--not capitulation, Of course, persuasion has the disadvantage of being terribly hard work--and work that is made even more hard as a result of GOP electoral and political failures. But persuasion, at least, has the virtue of possibly working--if not immediately, perhaps over time. As Pitney said, chipping away at Democratic strongholds will do more than is apparent if one only looks at the massive scale of the Democratic sweep in this last election.

The GOP cannot abandon its principles and expect victory. But neither can it dig in its heels and cross its arms with a scowl directed at those who fail to embrace her. It is time for wooing and this will take patience. As Pitney put it, we cannot give in to what now passes for popular sentiment:

. . . [b]ut Republicans do have to frame [their] principles in terms that appeal to a wider array of voters. The party cannot think of growing if it depends on a base that is shrinking.
Categories > Elections

Crashing the party?

Apparently the community organizer side of President Obama thinks its a good idea to keep people engaged in the political process by using the extensive contact list it developed during the campaign to keep people informed and energized to support its initiatives. The latest effort in this direction is a series of meetings to discuss how to improve the economy. Since, as we all know, dissent is patriotic, I think conservatives ought to start showing up at these parties and join the fun. After all, lively argument is a basic element of any healthy political system.

The National Health Service

It’s like pulling teeth.

Shameless Self-Promotion: FPRI Monograph: Lincoln as War President

The Foreign Policy Research Insitute (FPRI) has just published my monograph on Lincoln as war president. Ben has posted a PDF file of the piece here.

As I say in the essay, Lincoln’s leadership in wartime has not been addressed to the extent one would expect. The history of this essay attests to this puzzling fact. I have posted aspects of this essay on the Ashbrook site before, so my argument will not be much of a surprise to those who have read what I have written before.

Those who want hard copies of the monograph can contact FPRI directly.

Next Monday, I will be speaking on this topic at the Union League of Philadelphia. If you’re in the area and would like to attend, let FPRI know. Here’s the announcement:

FPRI Event Advisory for Monday, February 9 Foreign Policy Research Institute

RSVP: [email protected]

Topic: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief

Speaker: Mackubin T. Owens, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute and Editor of Orbis

Time: 4:00 reception, 4:30 lecture

Place: Union League of Philadelphia, 140 S. Broad Street

Free for FPRI Members and for Educators and Students; $20 for everyone else (Business attire required)

The Party goes on

Especially in Congress. Here’s Jim Cooper (D, TN):

They know its a messy bill and they wanted a clean bill. Now, I got in terrible trouble with our leadership because they don’t care what’s in the bill, they just want it pass and they want it to be unanimous. They don’t mind the partisan fighting cause that’s what they are used to. In fact, they’re really good at it. And they’re a little bit worried about what a post-partisan future might look like. If members actually had to read the bills and figure out whether they are any good or not. We’re just told how to vote. We’re treated like mushrooms most of the time."

Lucas Morel on Mr. Lincoln

I had a nice talk (podacst) with Lucas Morel on Mr. Lincoln’s three short speeches on his way to the inauguration (the Feb 11 Farewell Speech; the Feb 21 Address to the New Jersey Senate; and the Feb 22 Speech at Independence Hall). Good conversation. Thanks, Lucas!   

The Sexual Revolution and the Welfare/Regulatory State

Peter Berkowtiz, in his long version of constitutional conservatism, explains why he thinks we constitutionalists need to come to term with both. I hope this long version generates a long response from Dr. Pat Deneen.

Another Look at Martha Washington

"computerized age-regression portrait,"
from the WaPo: "We always see Martha with a withered face in her old age. But she was quite a beautiful woman in her younger years, and Washington loved her deeply," said Edward Lengel, senior editor at the Papers of George Washington project at the University of Virginia. "What’s happening now is revisionist. But I think it’s a whole lot closer to the reality of what she was." And the article is not just about her looks or her Sarah Palin-style shoes (click on the photo box).

Rich, Affluent, Young, Educated, and Suburban

These upscale voters, according to the astute Michael Barone, should be the special targets of the Republicans. That means going on the attack in those areas in which Obama and his Democrats would restrict individual choice and downplaying those areas in which the Republicans would do the same.

I think Michael is either wrong or exaggerates by viewing the fundamental American division in terms of age and class, instead of faith and family.

But here’s how I do agree: The Republicans do have to look smarter and cooler. The sagacious Jim Ceaser recently remarked that the Republicans haven’t had a presidential candidate who could ably produce unscripted answers to informal questions since Nixon. And Nixon, of course, wasn’t cool. Obama, of course, is good--if somewhat overrated in a weak league--at seeming smart and cool. Comparatively speaking, Obama is cool in two senses: He’s "with it" and usually seems calm and collected.

Some claim that Sarah Palin was chosen as a young and cool antidote to McCain. But, let’s face it, she’s not good at producing smart and cool answers to a variety of questions. Her lack of coolness may be to her credit in certain ways, but not to the young and the affluent (who are. of course, much dumber than they think) with their iPods, iPhones, and other iThings.

Getting the young back is more a matter of style than Barone thinks. Who do the Republicans have, I wonder?

Christmas Season Movies (a Month Late)


How many Americans or NLT readers can say THAT? I haven’t seen REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, it’s true, because it hasn’t come to my town. But I accept in advance the criticism that the movie turns the novel’s smart satire (of haute bourgeois whining) into tragedy (in the stupid mode of AMERICAN BEAUTY).

All the films I saw are well made and feature excellent performances. But they are all shamelessly and, in my case, unsuccessfully manipulative--with the exception of DOUBT. DOUBT captured my attention as a realistic portrayal of the way people really are.

The distinguished Dan Mahoney told me yesterday that he doubted he would see DOUBT because it portrays for our contempt a rigidly authoritarian nun. But that’s exactly what it doesn’t do. Meryl Streep’s portrayal of the Mother Superior/principal of the early 1960s--a breed that has disappeared completely--is uncannily accurate. And there’s nothing rigid or authoritarian about her. She has her doubts, but she keeps them to herself, and she leads with authority--and brilliant cleverness--out of genuine love. We see what was so good about the old working-class parochial schools, as well as what wasn’t so good about a complacent church on the brink of semi-collapse. So DOUBT is all about feminism rightly understood. It’s also about the sometimes criminal (and aggressivley unremorseful) self-induglence that was liberated in the Sixties out of trendy doubt and lawless love. There’s more for traditionalist than progressive Catholics to like about this movie, although it should make both groups somewhat uncomfortable. This message movie is unfashionable enough to have all the principals nominated for Oscars but not the film as a whole. (It’s also an injustice that DARK KNIGHT wasn’t nominated, by the way.)

All the other films I saw were naive by comparison. Quick reviews: CURIOUS CASE, RACHEL and THE READER are creepy incredible in different ways. SLUMDOG’s manipulations are overtly shameless and mean to be in the service of huge and edifying sentimental entertainment. I just wasn’t that entertained by the really silly premise. BUT the Indian game show host is a large and interesting character, and India is displayed as an endlessly fascinating and very crowded country full of charming, if often criminally ruthless, entrepreneurs on the make. I’m glad India is our ally, although I’m not that interested in visiting there soon. MILK on one level is shameless propaganda, and it’s useless to criticize that fact. It also shows that we’re still not ready for an authentic gay men are people too movie. I’m ready to believe that Harvey Milk was a rather remarkable and effective political figure, but this movie goes the hagiography route. Sean Penn’s acting is more subtle than the words he’s given to say.

Another New Deal?

In this short editorial, published just before the inauguration, John Moser considers whether or not FDR’s New Deal was good or bad for the American economy. Also see this from George Will.

Bill Allen on George Washington

Bill Allen spoke at an Ashbrook Colloquium a week ago on George Washington. It was a great talk and a good conversation with Ashbrooks. You can get his book, George Washington: America’s First Progressive here