Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Literature, Poetry, and Books


Everything presses, but I decided to do nothin' useful today.  Watched all of Rigoletto for the first time.  Wept at its beauty.  Samples: Bella figlia and La Donna E Mobile .  Listened to a lot of great tunes. Samples:  West End Blues (Armstrong) and St. James Infirmary (Teagarden) and My Bucket's Got a Hole in It (Marsalis and Nelson).  Read some poetry. Samples: Farmer Dying (Richard Hugo) and Flammonde, Eros Turannos (E.A. Robinson) and  Women (Louise Bogan) and Holy Willie's Prayer (Burns).  Read some Lincoln aloud, and then re-read parts of  A Soldier of the Great War in silence.

It is a good ending for the year.

Happy New Year!


Auld Acquaintances the President Wishes he Could Forget . . .

As 2010 wanes, the UK's Telegraph correspondent in Washington, Nile Gardiner, writes about the many reasons making it unlikely we'll see the Presidency of Barack Obama waxing in 2011.  He argues that "liberal hype" about a political comeback for the President in 2011 is seriously wishful thinking, at best, and he lists four significant points--any one of which by itself would be sufficient to be a game changer in 2012.  It is hard to see how Obama can fight off political disaster--even supposing massive Republican stupidity--when confronted with all four of these facts. 

Most significant in his list of reasons for Obama's impending political doom is number two on the list:  the fact that self-identified "conservatives" now outnumber self-identified "liberals" by a ratio of 2.5:1.  Of course, this does NOT mean that Republicans outstrip Democrats by similar margins or that their path, going forward, is a primrose one.  I think what this really demonstrates is that the American people are in the midst of a serious struggle to figure out what it is that they stand for--what it means to be an American.  Obama, Pelosi and Reed have performed the extremely useful service of clarification.  We may not fully know what we are, but it is pretty safe to say that after 2010, we certainly know what we are not.  If the political story of 2010 was the story of Americans figuring that much out, the political stories of 2011 and 2012 promise to be even more interesting as we begin to rediscover our political heritage and argue its merits.  Politics can never, exactly, be like one gigantic graduate seminar; but the last year and a half have really seemed like something close to it.  I hope we're all ready when the real tests come.

Categories > Presidency


Et Tu, Football?

Is it too far a stretch to cite yesterday's Kansas State - Syracuse Pinstripe Bowl game as an example of the evils of big-government, excessive regulation and lowest-common-denominator political-correctness?

For those who missed the game, KS's Adrian Hilburn quickly saluted the crowd / American flag following a touchdown which could have (following a 2-point conversion) tied the game. However, for his "excessive celebration," Hilburn was penalized and KS subsequently lost the game.

The decision to criminalize celebration during a sporting event is unbelievably absurd. Pittsburgh's Jack Lambert didn't go far enough when he lamented "they should just put a skirt on the quarterback." The nanny-state sissies running football would have the entire team in bows and ribbons.

Unsportsmanlike conduct was an honorable penalty. Intentionally attempting to unnecessarily harm another player is contrary to the standards of gamesmanship. Spearing, late-hits and the like should be punished, as they demean the game and cross the line of decency.

But celebration? Combined with the proliferation of "illegal" hits - which really only means tackling a highly paid QB or wide receiver - the game has been neutered by administrators who have lost the love of sport and succumbed to the gradual enervation of joyless regulation. How can it be that Europe and (post-) Communist countries like Russia allow celebration on the field, whereas America has legislated the suppression of emotion?

This is America. For God's sake, let the boys play!

Categories > Sports

Literature, Poetry, and Books

The King is Dead; Long Live the King

2011 will mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible. 1 billion copies have been printed since the KJV first rolled off the press in 1611.

As a genuine translation of scripture, the KJV occasionally lacks merit - the result of political motivations among 17th century Protestants in England. But as a work of English-language literature, the KJV is without compare. It was not only the Bible of England, but the Bible of Jefferson, Lincoln and America. Even arch-atheist Richard Dawkins admitted, "Not to know the King James Bible is to be, in some small way, barbarian."


Rocky Road

So I'm reading Tim Wu's The Master Switch and I was struck by a couple of quotes.  Wu wrote "in the immediate aftermath of the AT&T breakup, consumers saw a drop-off in service quality utterly unexampled since the formation of the Bell system.  In fact, the "competitive" industries that replaced the imperial monopolies were often not as efficient or successful as their predecessors, failing to deliver even the fail-safe benefit of competition: lower prices."  But there is a payoff.  Wu writes that "the breakup of Bell laid the foundation for every important communications revolution since the 1980s onward.  There is no way of knowing that thirty years on we would have an Internet, handheld computers, and social networking, but it is hard to imagine their coming when they did had the company that buried the answering machine remained intact."

This got me think of the Ryan Roadmap's approach to reforming health care. The Roadmap (and other conservative proposals like the one offered by James Capretta and Thomas Miller) would transform our system from one with little or no visible price system for consumers and where health care providers are used to billing either private insurers or government for routine medical costs, to a system in which providers would compete for health consumer dollars (for noncatastrophic costs) directly through price and quality.  While I'm all in favor of this shift, I wonder if a sudden transition (even one phased in over several years) would produce similar problems to the ones that Wu described as providers initially flounder around trying to adjust to a new model.  I'm even more worried about whether our politics would ever allow such a sudden shift to happen.  People are a lot more risk averse about their health care security than they are about their phone service.  That is why I think it is important to push primarily for incremental reforms that increase the number of people on consumer-drive health insurance policies and that show concrete benefits to subgroups of the population (and also regulatory reforms to improve price transparency.)  This would allow providers to partially reorient themselves towards customers as well as insurers and the government and show the broad public that moving to a more market-oriented system has more benefits than drawbacks.

So what would this market-oriented system look like?  Well when I first read this Walter Russell Mead post I thought it sounded too science fictional, but really it presents a change no weirder than the change from the rotary phone my parents had in 1980 to the cell phones that are now available to the middle-class (and often the nominally poor.)  I don't think conservatives should promise those kinds of benefits if conservative reform proposals are adopted.  Greater take home pay with continued health care security should be enough.  But we will only get there piece-by-piece and every gain will be through political trench warfare.  Staking reform on one huge radical-sounding change probably reduces the chances of averting government-run health care.    

Categories > Politics

Refine & Enlarge

Constitution as gimmick

Ezra Klein of the WaPo being interviewed on MSNBC about the Constitution, it doesn't bind because it cannot be understood.  Silly stuff.  One minute and ten seconds long.
Categories > Refine & Enlarge


Thought for the Day

So I'm reading a lot of old material in preparation for this lecture in about ten days, and this fragment from Albert J. Beveridge in 1898 caught my eye:

If the Government can make money with a stamp, why does the Government borrow money?  If the Government can create value out of nothing, why not abolish all taxation?

Someone ought to put these questions to Robert Gibbs at his next daily press briefing, and watch hilarity ensure.
Categories > Economy

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Against the New Congress

Let me bring to your attention Katrina vanden Huevel's (of the Nation) positioning herself against the upcoming new tyranny (of the minority) of the 112th Congress.  Also note Lexington's (The Economist) amusing (and silly) comments about the Visigoth's coming to DC, etc.
Categories > Refine & Enlarge

The Family

The Case Against Hobos and for Marriage

Jonah Goldberg has made a highly qualified case for bourgeois homosexuals (Hobos) and hence for same-sex marriage.   In the lively new University of Chicago journal, Counterpoint, "Carl Roberts" anticipated why Jonah's argument fails.  Unlike the Robby George-inspired recent natural law essay "What is Marriage?"  Roberts bases his argument on social science. 

Roberts maintains that legalizing same-sex marriage would change the cultural underpinnings of marriage from procreation to companionship.  This profound shift undermines marriage in general (here he uses the Chicago lingo of "incentives").  It subsequently encourages single motherhood, which clearly is the major source of urban poverty. 

The conservative journal (edited by Chicago undergrads) boasts a series of thoughtful articles on Martin Diamond, Jane Austen, gun rights, Lady Gaga, and many other topics of enduring and contemporary interest.  May it be blessed with a Rockefeller!

Categories > The Family


MoveOn's Solution to the Holiday Blues just released a Christmas (silly me) holiday message:

It's tough out there this holiday season. We all see the signs: a family member out of work, a neighbor who still can't afford health care, or a child not getting enough to eat.

So as a community, MoveOn and its members have chosen a few extraordinary nonprofits to support together. From thousands of nominations, we've voted to support Habitat for Humanity, Feeding America, and Planned Parenthood with our combined dollars.

I'm just wondering which of those problems an abortion clinic is supposed to fix? 

Categories > Progressivism

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The Constitution and the 112th Congress

This Washington Post front-page storyis about how the Constitution is the focus of the new GOP House rules.  It is very much worth reading, even though the Post calls it "the tea party-ization of Congress."  Silly, isn't it.  But, ignore the bias and you learn much about Boehner's intentions.  The Constitution will be read aloud on January 6th.  There are interesting quotes from many folks, including Boehner, Amar, et al.  Is this cosmetic stuff only?  I'm hoping not.

Categories > Refine & Enlarge


Who's Buried in Wilson's Tomb?

Today is Yesterday was Woodrow Wilson's birthday.  He is the only president buried in the National Cathedral.  Reminds me of seeing Machiavelli's tomb in a church in Firenze.
Categories > Presidency

Foreign Affairs

Harvey Sicherman, RIP

Mac Owens offers a few good words on his passing.  I have known his name and his virtues for years, and then recently sent a couple of students to intern at FPRI and they came back speaking very well of him, in tones similar to Mac's.  He is a loss to the country he loved.
Categories > Foreign Affairs

Health Care

Health Care

We know that Charles Kesler's "The Stakes of Obamacare" is the best thing on the subject, emphasizing the moral and political effects, the "toxic sentiments" that goes with socialism, but now we also have a shorter, but also thoughtful essay by Tevi Troy, called The Democrats and Health Care (the subtitle, in the paper version of Commentary on my desk, is An Account of Political Self Destruction).  I think this on-line version is the whole of it.
Categories > Health Care


Out of House and Home

Stories of the times from today's Wall Street Journal:

The owners under pressure include Tasha McLaughlin, a 33-year-old mother of two in Sacramento's South Natomas neighborhood. She and her husband, Steve, bought their two-bedroom house in 2004 for $256,000, intending to stay about five years. After 11 months of trying to sell it between 2006 and 2007, the family took it off the market.

"Everyone is saying we should foreclose or claim bankruptcy, but I have a moral issue with that," said Mrs. McLaughlin. "The more we try to pay the mortgage and pinch pennies, the more we get punished."

Now, with a similar home down the block listed for $80,000, the McLaughlins are accepting that they won't recoup their losses anytime soon. Their interest-only loan is set to increase their current $1,600 monthly payment to $2,200 in seven years. If they were to default on their mortgage and walk away, they calculate that in about the same time, seven years, their credit scores would be stable enough to allow them to buy again elsewhere.

"I am just going to swallow my pride and walk out. I have to," said Mrs. McLaughlin. "The market for homes is not going up."

Categories > Economy

Pop Culture

Predictions, 2011

So over at National Review Online, I offer my predictions for 2011 on the third page, right below K-Lo's.  One of them involves Jonah Goldberg and his hero canine companion, Cosmo.  (Yeah, that's one way troll for a link--Ed.)
Categories > Pop Culture


Chewing the Fat

An interestig debate has broken out at Commentary's blog between Peter Wehner and J. E. Dyer over Sarah Palin's criticism of the national healthy-eating campaign.

Wehner takes Palin to task:

Michelle Obama has encouraged parents to make sure their children exercise and eat healthy and has emphasized more nutritious school lunches. Ms. Palin seems to view this as an attack by Leviathan against individual liberty and parental authority. "What [Mrs. Obama] is  telling us is she cannot trust parents to make decisions for their own children, for their own families in what we should eat," according to Palin. "Just leave us alone, get off our back and allow us as individuals to exercise our own God-given rights to make our own decisions." And at a visit to a Pennsylvania high school, she handed out cookies to students. The reason, she wrote on Twitter, was to "intro kids 2 beauty of laissez-faire" amid a "Nanny state run amok."

This is worse than silly; what Palin is doing is downright counterproductive.

For one thing, nearly one out of three children are overweight or obese. The annual cost of treating obesity and related preventable chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and orthopedic issues constitutes fully 16.5 percent of all U.S. spending on medical care ($168 billion).

Dyer begins by noting that Wehner has recently been arguing that conservatives must make a moral case for economic freedom.  Ultimately, he thinks that mocking the First Lady's efforts is probably not prudent, but the heart of the argument is here.  The moral case for economic liberty:

cannot stand alone. Economic conservatism is intrinsically linked to political liberty, a liberty meaning not just the right to speak freely on political matters and to vote, but the right to set limits on the central government's power and regulatory reach. This debate we have had, if possible, even less over the past two decades than the debate on the moral foundations of conservative economics. This very question is what motivated the American colonists to declare independence from the British king, but our public discourse today has fallen into a set of unexamined bromides on topics like the meaning of political liberty and the proper relation of man and the state.

In this vein, I took particular notice of the following passage from Peter Wehner's post today on Sarah Palin mocking the First Lady's anti-obesity campaign.

... the problem of childhood obesity is real. And there are entirely reasonable steps that can be taken to address it, including (to name just one) banning vending machines from schools. Does that constitute the "nanny state run amok"?

I understand the question is meant to be rhetorical. But there is actually a very large segment of the American population that would answer, "Of course." The central government's interesting itself in our obesity because that government has made the cost of our health care "its" problem - and proposing therefore to ban vending machines from schools putatively governed by local school boards and the states - can legitimately be considered at odds with the American idea of government as limited, constitutional, and federal. This arguably puts the proposition at odds, by extension, with the American idea of the citizen, the state, and natural rights. 

Categories > Conservatism


Ideological Tribalism

I was watching a little bit of Beck the other day and it put me in mind of this typically smarmy Matthew Yglesias post from earlier this year.  Yglesias writes that Barry Goldwater's opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has continuing relevance in understanding Amercan conservatism because "his sincere political ideology led to horribly wrongheaded conclusions [italics in original.]  Okay, remember that.

The Beck show was built around the Japanese-American internment during WWII.  The internment was a case where FDR (to use Yglesias' own words) "stood shoulder-to-shoulder with white supremacists" in order to strip members of an ethnic group of their basic rights.  Now one difference is that Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act (again using Yglesias' own words) "out of principled constitutional reasoning" while FDR's racist and absurd policy (Japanese-Americans in Hawaii and elsewhere were not interned) was based on a combination of political opportunism and the ideological conviction that (to use liberal congressman Pete Stark's words) "The federal government, yes, can do almost anything in this country."

So what is Yglesias' point and what is Beck's?  Yglesias' point is that American conservatism was and is inherently flawed for putting up a political champion who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Becks' point is that the liberal icon's support for the deployment of federal power to round up and arbitrarily intern and strip the rights from Japanese-Americans indicates a foundational and continuing flaw in American liberalism. Yglesias tried to soften the special pleading inherent in his argument by conceding that while "liberals have been wrong in the past", Goldwater's error is different because Goldwater's nomination was a "foundational moment" for conservatism - unlike say the peripheral role that the FDR administration played in the history of liberalism. 

Yglesias and Beck deserve each other.  They are both practicing the same kind of partisan and opportunistic essentialism.  They both imply that a now repudiated policy once held by people who claimed a label in the past demonstrates a fundamental wrongness relevant to current disputes.  Neither is quite willing to state the absurdity underlying their arguments (well, maybe Beck has - I haven't seen most episodes).  For Yglesias it boils down to the insinuation that support for lower tax rates and less government spending is inherently in latent alliance with white supremacy, and for Beck it is that support for Obamacare is a step toward concentration camps.

Liberals have spent decades trying to understand and explain why FDR's internment of Japanese-Americans was wrong on the level of liberal principle.  Conservatives have sought to explain why, as a matter of conservative principle, Goldwater was constitutionally and morally wrong to oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Most liberals seem to understand that conservatives can assert the unconstitutionality of the federal health insurance purchase mandate without at the same time advancing the cause of Jim Crow.  Most conservatives seem to understand that liberals can support the same federal mandate without putting us at increased risk that Japanese-Americans will again find themselves in concentration camps.  This reasonableness in our politics exists despite the efforts of some ideological propagandists to divide us into warring tribes and make the tribesmen dumber and more self-satisfied.  

Categories > Politics


The Disingenuous Expansion of Judicial Activism

I caught the Bill of Rights Institute's debate between Angelo Codeville (Claremont Institute and Boston Univ.) and Jeffrey Rosen (New Republic and George Washington Univ.) on "Interpreting the Constitution" in D.C. on December 15.

Rosen took up the liberal position, and continued the trend - common amongst the left since the Citizens' United case - of expanding the definition of "judicial activism" into meaninglessness. This precise issue of definitions came up in the Q&A, and Rosen attempted to eschew any use of the term (as counter-productive) before including any judicial review of a law within the meaning.

The left long ago attempted to expunge the derided label of "liberal" in favor of "progressive" (John Kerry's unconvincing plea that "liberal" wasn't a bad word notwithstanding), and they are now attempting a similar linguistic manipulation. Rather than saying that they don't favor "activism," they assert that conservatives also favor the practice, and so we might as well shift the conversation elsewhere.

I assume most liberals recognize the disingenuousness of their argument. Marbury v. Madison expressed the valid definition of judicial review to which conservative scholars subscribe: should an act of Congress and the Constitution contradict, the Constitution wins - and the courts are required to enforce the law of the Constitution. Judicial activism seeks to remedy perceived social ills through the courts, in order to circumvent the unenlightened laws of a democratic majority, by empowering courts to strike down laws which are not in conflict with the Constitution, but (in the view of the proponent) should be.

The latter exalts the judicial branch over the legislative as a sort of enlightened priesthood, enforcing a particular social preference on the evolution of American society - it is anti-democratic, philosophically indefensible and contrary to America's constitutional design. Exalting the constitution (as per the conservative view of judicial review) is entirely different from exalting the Supreme Court (the result of liberal judicial activism).

Liberals must not be permitted to muddy the waters by masquerading activism as a central judicial responsibility. Judicial activism and review may have the same result in a particular case, much like murder and self-defense may both result in the same lethal result, but the rationale and intentions are fundamentally diverse. Liberal scholars are not unaware of this distinction, and act shamefully in attempting to obscure their goals. 

Categories > Courts

Pop Culture

True Grist

Sorry, I have to dissent from True Grit's fans.  This is not a film that anyone who loves our country could much admire.  (But I didn't much care for the original John Wayne version, either, which was a kind of caricature of Wayne.)  Since my reasoning involves a kind of a plot spoiler, I'll put that in the comments below.  The Coen brothers are superb filmmakers, but their political attitudes are predictable.
Categories > Pop Culture

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To Define Normalcy

Ross Douthat is certainly a smart guy, and he is said to be one of the better conservative writers out there.  Yet, this op-ed, "Return to Normalcy," shows not only his limitations, but perhaps the limitations of almost all writers/pundits/intellectuals thinking about politics today.  It is clever of him to juxtapose liberal "fantasy" and conservative "freakout" and then imply that a kind of return to "normalcy" (and maybe even moderation or even bipartisanship) is going on.  On the other hand, he cleverly says, he is not sure that any of this is good for the country!  He says that courage is needed and there are hard challenges ahead.  Somehow comity is not enough, and therefore courage is needed.  OK, now tell us more.  But there is no more.  I would not mind an attempt on his part to say something about what is good for the country and how politics should look when there are real disagreements about that.  I am not saying that this can be done comprehensively in 800 words, but couldn't we get a glimpse into it?  Can no one take a shot at this?
Categories > Refine & Enlarge

Literature, Poetry, and Books

Cherokee on iPhone

Cherokee is now available on iPhone and iPad, and it is hoped that this will help save the language by getting the Cherokee youth, lovers of gadgets, to use the language more than they now do.  Out 290,000 members of the tribe, only about 8,000 speak Cherokee.  "What makes you a Cherokee if you don't have Cherokee thoughts?"  asked Rita Bunch, superintendent of the tribe's Sequoyah Schools.

Health Care

The End of Obamacare?

The New Republic's Noam Scheiber suggests, by implication, that the web will make it very difficult, if not impossible, to have a single, large bureaucratic organization in charge of health care for 300 million people.

Categories > Health Care

The Civil War & Lincoln

Defending States' Rights

If, as E. J. Dionne allows, "the central cause of the [Civil] war was our national disagreement over race and slavery, not states' rights or anything else," then there is no reason why we need to associate the defense of federalism with either slavery or racism.

Perhaps Mr. Dionne will soon come out in support of Randy Barnett's proposed federalism amendment.


The Papal Year in Review

Kevin Clarke highlights significant events of 2010 for Pope Benedict XVI, with emphasis on "Travels, saints, and blessed," "Documents and teachings," "Controversies and battles," and a preview of 2011.

Categories > Religion


Does Congress Matter?

Our administrative bureaucracy seems to be happy to ignore both Congress and the Courts.  Time to put some teeth back into the non-delegation doctrines?  Heck, in these cases, Congress didn't even delegate the powers, and unelected bureaucrats are still claiming the powers.

Categories > Congress


On This Day...

In 1941, Winston Churchill became the first British prime minister to address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress. 

(Via NYT)

Categories > History