Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns


He Stoops to Conquer

Recall that during the 2008 election, Obama's experience and readiness to take high office was contrasted in the media to that of Sarah Palin, rather than John McCain. Last night, I read that Obama has yet to relinquish his petty war against Fox News. Obama deflected questions of his effectiveness by blaming media outlets which he branded as harmful to America. (Because competing viewpoints which could lead to dissent are definitively un-American.)

A staple strategy of the Obama administration has been to identify hand-picked adversaries against which the president may continuously campaign. When challenged on policy, Obama pivots and attacks Fox News, the Tea Party, John Boehner, etc. 

It perhaps seems belittling that the president should descend from the podium in order to relentlessly attack and vilify ideological opponents over which he presides. But it is a method that has served him well.

Categories > Presidency

Pop Culture


The gang over at First Thoughts gives us a list of the top twenty (presumably American) animated television series.  The ban against animated series based on characters from other media strikes me as arbitrary and inconsistently applied besides (Wikipedia says the Smurfs were adapted from a Belgian comic strip.) 

Justice League/Justice League Unlimited belongs in the top five.  That show's adaption of (and major improvement on) Alan Moore's "For The Man Who Has Everything" is a 22 minute masterpiece about responsibility, the lure of fantasy, and how lived experience can shape and (in a heartbreaking little moment) stunt the ability to imagine (never mind live) an ordinary life.

 Yeah, I know I'm taking it too seriously. 

 The Real Ghostbusters also belongs somewhere on the list. 

Categories > Pop Culture

Ashbrook Center

New Audio from the Ashbrook Center

We just put out two new audio files for your enjoyment. First of all, the audio from Jonah Goldberg's speech at the Ashbrook Center on Wednesday is now available.

Also, yesterday I recorded a podcast with Andy Busch on the 2010 races for the U.S. Senate. Thanks to Andy for helping me to better understand the current political landscape. Needless to say, perhaps, Andy sees a lot of gains for the GOP in the Senate, though perhaps not enough to bring about a majority. Andy and I will be talking again soon and will bring you a podcast outlining the House elections as well.

Categories > Ashbrook Center


Save the Earth. Or Else.

Until today I'd never heard of the 10:10 campaign, in which we are all called upon to reduce our carbon emissions by 10 percent.  In Britain they've launched this classy public service spot.  You may not want to watch it if you have a weak stomach. 

Categories > Environment


German Reparations?

Newspapers are reporting that Germany has just paid the last installment of its reparations for World War I, as laid down in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles and modified (that is, reduced substantially) in 1924 and again in 1929. This is not true; in fact, Germany stopped paying reparations in 1932, after having paid no more than an eighth of what was demanded, and payments never resumed. What Germany is actually paying back is the debt that it incurred from foreign bondholders in the 1920s, some (though by no means all) of which went toward reparations payments.

Why is this distinction important?  Because now we're hearing repeated the old German propaganda about the grave wrong done to Germany after World War I. The Cato Institute's blog puts it this way:

As Keynes rightly predicted, the unreasonably high French demands for financial reparations led to German economic weakness. The end result was hyperinflation, which was one of the principal causes of Hitler's rise to power and the start of the Second World War. In spite of losing two world wars, Germany did eventually become the most powerful nation in Europe -- through trade, capitalism and German ingenuity.

In fact Keynes--and my friends at Cato--have this almost completely wrong.  As a number of recent historians, most recently Niall Ferguson have pointed out, Germany was fully capable of making reparations payments, particularly after they were scaled back in the 1924 Dawes Plan.  What was lacking was the political will of the Weimar Republic to do so.  Germany was a magnet for foreign investment in the 1920s, taking in 27.1 billion marks from bond sales in the United States alone, while paying out no more than 19.1 billion marks in reparations. The rest went into lavish construction projects and--illegally under the Treaty of Versailles--the military.

The hyperinflation of 1922-23 was not the result of reparations, but rather Germany's attempt to thwart French efforts to collect them during the Ruhr Crisis.  Nor did hyperinflation have anything to do with Hitler's rise to power; true, the Nazi share of the vote increased sharply in 1923, but afterward plummeted to virtually nothing, where it remained for most of the rest of the 1920s.  Indeed, by 1928 Germany, far from having been crippled by the allegedly unjust Versailles settlement, had reestablished itself as one of the world's greatest industrial powers.  What brought an end to the Weimar Republic was when the influx of foreign capital came to a sudden end in 1928--which produced not inflation, but its exact opposite.

The claim that Germany was mistreated in 1919 popped up repeatedly during the interwar period, fostered most commonly by the Germans themselves.  It played a major role in British appeasement, which did not begin with Neville Chamberlain but was in fact consistently followed throughout the 1920s.  Again and again London winked at Germany's violations of the peace treaty (which began soon after the ink was dry), while denouncing the French for attempting to uphold the settlement.  Far from World War II having been the result of Germany's alleged mistreatment, it stemmed rather from the failure to enforce what been laid down at Versailles.

Categories > History

Ashbrook Center

Jonah Goldberg

Was here yesterday.  Spoke to a lunch crowd of over 400, and then talked with the Ashbrooks for an hour, then a smoke with faculty at my place, then dinner with friends.  The poor fellow must have talked most of the day.  But that's good for he was always more interesting and thoughtful than anyone else in the room (I'll have his speech up by tomorrow), proving that he is one of the finest journalists working.  It is certainly the case that his mind is both nimble and deep.  I should also mention that there was a skirmish of wit between us, here and there, off and on, during the whole of the day.  And I also have to note that I lost each skirmish and battle; he really is the cause of wit in other men.  Great pleasure to be with such a man, such a mind.  A minute or two after a student dropped him off at the airport, he blogged on his visit.
Categories > Ashbrook Center


Intelligent Design

I thought commenter Eric made an interesting point that is worth quoting at length.  He said:

Means testing social security seems a good idea on the surface. But isn't it ultimately rewarding bad behavior? And haven't we learned that rewarding bad behavior is not a good long term policy?

There are certain harsh realities to life. Is it possible that "people have to take care of themselves" is one of these realities?. Wishing it wasn't this way will not change it if it is.

I think there is one sense in which Eric is right.  There is a way to design means-testing in a way that promote undesirable behavior.  If Social Security benefits were designed to be paid based on assets and cash at the time of retirement, such a means-testing system would clearly and strongly encourage people in their forties and fifties to minimize their income and consume rather than save and invest.  Higher earners would be able to have the purchasing power of the wealthy (since they would be turning more of their income into consumption) for most of their lives and a government-guaranteed retirement.  A means-testing program in which benefits were means-tested to lifetime earnings would actually encourage greater saving and investment from high earners.  A working life of upper middle-class lifestyle would only lead to a retirement of upper middle-class lifestyle if high earners save and invest.

Those who were lifetime low earners would get the "full" Social Security benefit but they would still have to work on the books to get the benefit.  It is possible that low earners might work a little less than otherwise (though the incentive would be no greater than now for the vast majority) and save less in the expectation of the Social Security benefit, but let's put it in perspective: their reward for a working life of less-than-upper-middle-class purchasing power would be a retirement of less-than-upper-middle-class purchasing power.  I'm not sweating the work incentives.

There are major work incentive impacts to not imposing some combination of means-testing and higher retirement ages to Social Security.  The alternative of funding the existing system through taxes would mean some combination of higher payroll taxes on low and middle-income earners and applying the payroll tax to earnings above the current cap in order to give upper income retirees money they wouldn't need under a better designed system.  Higher payroll taxes on low earners would tend to push low earners out of the formal economy and into off the books labor.  Applying payroll taxes to earning above the Social Security cap would, combined with the forthcoming rise in income taxes for high earners and state taxes, push the effective marginal income tax for high earners well over 50% - which would really discourage work and investment.  So you hurt low-income workers and hurt the overall economy in order to supplement the income of upper middle-class retirees.  Makes sense to me. 

Another way to go about it is to say no (or almost no) Social Security for anybody.  The problem is that we seem to have a broad consensus against dealing with the exigencies of (ever longer) old age through rugged individualism (or rugged individualism plus family if you have any, plus charity.)  That is why even more radical-sounding conservatives like Sharron Angle only argue for partially converting Social Security into a program of forced savings and investment rather than just leaving old people on their own.

The practical and political problems of means-testing are among the reasons I think that policy design and policy explanation is as important as the right general principles.  It isn't enough to be in favor of "means-testing" or "privatizing."  These kinds of reforms can be destructive if they are designed poorly.  Supporters of such policies will need specific and concise answers to the obvious objections that will come from opponents, as well as explanations for the disasters that await us if reforms are not implemented 


Categories > Politics


An Earmark to the Pledge

In response to the justified griping that the Republican House Members' Pledge omitted renunciation of earmarks:  Propose legislation permitting opponents' omission from campaign finance laws in an amount equal to the amount of the earmark.  Thus a $10 million earmark for a district/state allows each and all of the earmark sponsor's opponents $10 million in campaign funds raised in whatever way they choose--no reporting, no maximum contributions.

Offered in the spirit of Federalist 51:  "ambition must be made to counteract ambition." 

Categories > Congress


And Now For Something Completely Different

Breastfeeding fish.

Just to remind you that some things are even stranger than politics.

Categories > Environment


Tea With John Ashbrook

An old friend and graduate of the Ashbrook program, Jay Hartz, writes a compelling essay discussing the similarities between the ideas of the Tea Party and those which animated John Ashbrook when he challenged Richard Nixon in 1972 for the Republican Party nomination for President.  Reflecting upon some of Ashbrook's speeches and the issues Ashbrook considered most important, it is remarkable to think that he was speaking nearly 40 years ago!  Hartz questions whether Ashbrook was the Lycugus of the Tea Party Movement--the man who paved the way for a turn back toward a more thorough understanding of liberty.  Ashbrook spoke of liberty uncorrupted by what he called "political semantics" that he predicted would cause us, "[o]ne of these days, . . . [to] wake up and believe that individual freedom is tyranny and government control is really liberty." 

I can't speak to the example of Ashbrook as Lycurgus to the Tea Party,  but--without fear of insulting Ashbrook's memory--I am happy to see that, thus far, he has not achieved fame as a prophet.  That's because instead of sitting back and watching Ashbrook's prediction above unfold, Americans are standing up and refusing to allow that frightful prophecy to become our "new reality."  Like generations of Americans who have come before, we appear now to be waking up to the fact that our "new reality" is not going to depend upon the powers of Barack Obama or the work of any other political savior.  Our new reality is going to depend upon whether or not we want to live in freedom and accept the consequences of that freedom, or whether we want to cling to a false sense of security in government control and beneficence.  Are we serfs, or are we men?  Now, more than at any time in our recent history, we may really be at a crossroads and be up against "a time for choosing."  But the choice--at least for this November--will be ours.
Categories > Politics


Beating Down on Big Green

Starring me, in this PajamasMedia video that is running this week in conjunction with the Washington Examiner series about the environmental establishment.  Enjoy!
Categories > Environment


Persuasion and the Art of Political Reform

Ben Boychuk writes an excellent editorial in today's Investor's Business Daily in which he demonstrates the trouble with people who call for spirited educational reforms and look to a "Superman" or a "leader" to enact them.  Boychuk examines the tragic morality play of Michelle Rhee, the embattled chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public school system and takes away a very large point:  the thing well-meaning, manly, energetic and reform-minded folks always seem to forget is that, in a regime where "public sentiment is everything," statesmanship requires much more than a strong arm and unflagging determination--even when you are correct about the substance of what ought to be done.

Boychuk's argument is spot on in regard to Michelle Rhee and the behemoth of the education establishment.  But intelligent observers of our republic would do well to take his point and cut and paste the names Barack Obama or George W. Bush--to name only two without belaboring the point.  The lesson is the same in all cases.  I realize that I am repeating a point I made in a recent post--but since my point then was from Lincoln and not original to me, it bears repeating:

In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed. 

It is excellent and timeless advice.  Is the Tea Party listening? 
Categories > Education


Fair And Balanced

My favorite comment on the Republican Pledge is this blog post by Ross Douthat.  But I'm not nearly as confident as he is that the Tea Party enthusiasm for fiscal retrenchment extends very far toward means-testing Social Security and cutting Medicare reimbursements.  That doesn't mean most tea partiers are against having means-testing phased in slowly or some kind of Medicare reform  that voucherizes the program as part of a larger health care reform (especially if the alternatives are  bankruptcy or a crushing tax burden), just that many tea partiers might not be seeing our budget problems the way Mitch Daniels and Paul Ryan do.
Categories > Politics


All Politics is Local

That's always been a kind of truism in American politics.  Today, however, Steven Malanga shows why, in our current politics, it's true for reasons different from the ones that inspired the cliche.   It also speaks to the difficulties that will face a newly energized GOP and their Tea Party base when, and if, they attain majorities in November.  We're a long ways from cleaning up this mess.
Categories > Politics


Where's the Outrage? Obama and the Black Panthers

The Dept. of Justice falls within the Executive branch of government, but it is one of the most important agencies in the nation to preserve from politicization. This was true when George W. Bush was accused of hiring and firing DOJ employees based on partisan ideology (a fatuous claim intended to prevent realignment of the left-leaning institution). The accusation was a serious attack because it alleged a lack of respect for the rule of law and equality under the law - principle foundations of the American republic.

Yet one of the first orders issued by President Obama was to dismiss a case of voter intimidation against the Black Panthers - even though the damning evidence was caught on tape and the trial had already been concluded in summary judgement against the racist group.

I initially defaulted to disbelief that the first black president could possibly be so impolitic, imprudent and downright daft as to immediately pardon radical black thugs for a crime intended to ensure Barack Obama himself was elected as president. As the beneficiary of their criminal conduct, he would surely be the first to condemn them and insist upon prompt justice. This would surely provide an Obamian "teachable moment."

It's thus shocking to read the testimony of former Department of Justice voting rights section chief Christopher Coates (he resigned after being transfered as punishment for, as the left would say, speaking truth to power). Speaking before the Civil Rights Commission, Coates relates that the Obama administration squashed the verdict because the convicts were black and the victims were white. Politico and WaPo carry the story.

Some incidents lend themselves to various explanations or justifications. I can see no explanation but prurient racism and sociological megalomania in this particular case. My greatest reservation in assessing blame to Obama is that I simply cannot believe he would be so foolish, divisive and racist as to institute the sort of race-based law-enforcement regime alleged in Coates' whistle-blowing testimony. Such obstruction of justice is a serious violation of trust and duty by the president, worthy of formal condemnation in the absence of mitigating circumstances which have not yet come to light.

Categories > Courts

Pop Culture

Everything is Spinning Out of Control

So I see the UN is appointing an official contact person for the whole planet in the event ET does finally make an appearance here.  I say it is a devilishly clever planetary defense bluff.  Upon meeting a UN bureaucrat, we may well fool any advance intelligence that there's anything of worth on this planet, and they'll move on.

Then there's this: The owner of the Segway company has died from a fall from . . . his Segway.  That can't be good for sales. 

Categories > Pop Culture

Literature, Poetry, and Books

Eye on Britain

If you've given up on the Economist, try Standpoint, a monthly magazine devoted to politics, culture, and faith.  Their advisory board includes Tom Stoppard, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and V.S. Naipaul.  H/t to Jeremy Jennings, co-editor of this important book on Tocqueville.