Archive for October 2009

The conservative comeback

Some good news for conservatives. Twice as many Americans call themselves conservative as they do liberal. At 40% conservative, 37% moderate, and 20% liberal, that’s quite a difference. At the same time, these numbers do not represent a huge shift from a few years ago, especially given the inevitable margin of error in polling. Nevertheless, even a net five percent shift conservative-liberal can mean a significant trend in voting turnout and behavior.

The ideological split does not necessarily translate into equal partisan numbers. True, the generic ballot, which favored the Democrats so long, has tightened and, in some polls shows a Republican advantage. True, too, that the difference in overall party identification among the population, which greatly leaned towards the Democrats in late 2008, now has recovered to the point that it is the closest in a number of years. But there still is a difference that favors the Democrats that is out of step with the ideological split.

The likely reason for the continuing partisan divide has to do with the disaffection of many Republicans with their party over the last several years. Reasons include Bush fatigue (some of it justified—large spending increases in education and Medicare prescription benefits, deficits, the beginning of TARP, Harriet Miers nomination—much not, even about those same topics), dissatisfaction with McCain as a perceived RINO on domestic regulatory and tax issues, the fecklessness of the Congressional Republicans who squandered opportunity after opportunity to be something other than Democrats-lite and who seemed determined to match their friends across the aisle in personal corruption, the media drumbeat of holding Republicans to a higher standard than Democrats, and the somewhat greater tendency among Republican voters actually to hold their candidates to higher personal standards than Democrats do.

There are two very encouraging signs, however. First, the independents are becoming more conservative. That may be ex-Republicans who have assumed the independent label for whatever reason (dismay at the party, as noted above; the “cool” idea of being independent that, implicitly (and erroneously), projects a higher intellect and discernment than being affiliated with a party does), but who still likely vote for Republican candidates the great majority of the time. The ideological breakdown among independents roughly reflects that of the public at large, though, as one might expect, there are more “moderates” among the independents.

Moreover, what constitutes “moderate” is likely to ebb and flow with the political times. With public polling showing majorities concerned about the growth of government, the deficit, the health care proposals, and other policy positions that are reactions against the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress, “moderate” may be the new conservative for many. That, in turn, is likely to translate into a political advantage for Republican candidates in the midterm elections, when presidential personalities matter much less, even though it might not turn into open partisan affiliation. The one difference between such disaffected moderates and those who openly call themselves conservative, and especially those who newly call themselves conservative, is that those who actually adopt a label are more likely to follow that commitment up with a trip to the polls in 2010. It is that increase in voter intensity along with the shift in percentages that tends to cost the party in control of the White House and Congress during the midterms.

The second encouraging sign is explained in this piece by William Kristol in The Washington Post. The emerging and invigorated conservatism and, by extension, Republican Party affiliation, is of the more libertarian-populist type, rather than the Beltway-Country Club type, or the fascistic-populist type. It is of the Rush Limbaugh/Sarah Palin kind, rather than the David Brooks/Mitt Romney kind or the Keith Olbermann/Michael Moore kind. The first is the kind that is likely to make its positions loud and clear, and to resonate with broad swaths of an American people disaffected with the direction and extent of “Hope ‘n Change.” At some point, that libertarian-populist energy will need to be channelled through some more coherent intellectual framework that can be articulated by a political leader and through a broad political platform. Columnist Ross Douthat and Governor Bobby Jindal come to mind as potential contributors to that effort, though they are still incompletely formed in that regard. But we are not there yet, and there is no particular need to quell the tumult until after the 2010 elections. Let the ferment continue and have an intellectual articulation arise once the movement has gathered more force, a bottom-up rather than top-down process that works best in a democratic republic.

So, all in all, it is increasingly a good prospect for conservatives, as the President Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi have done in a few months what even optimistic prognosticators thought would take several election cycles, namely, invigorate and unify the opposition. But, as Kristol points out, while they have important roles to play to delay or derail Obamanomics, the Republican insiders do not have the legitimacy or qualities to lead that opposition openly. That will fall to outsiders who can more convincingly don the mantle of libertarian-populist opposition to the collectivism promoted by the political elites currently in control of the government and most civil institutions.

The single payer Trojan Horse

President Obama has insisted that a “public option” merely provides some more choice for consumers of health insurance. Conservative critics allege (and I certainly agree) that the option is a Trojan Horse intended to drive private health insurance (except perhaps some boutique policies) out of the market and bring about a single payer system. Candidate Obama in his early incarnations certainly supported such an outcome.

This post at Verum Serum documents some of the deceptions of Democratic politicians and liberal journalists and other supporters of the public option as a strategy to reach the objective of single payer. Here’s the video, where the mask slips and the truth comes out.

 

The recovery mirage

The much ballyhooed 3.5% growth of GDP in the third quarter is a mirage, as the increased spending is not due to any change in fundamentals but to policies with the solidity of quicksand. The temporary cash-for-clunkers program and other tax and stimulus gimmicks are set to expire. That will drag down the next quarter. Then the Treasury needs to start winding down its exposure of trillions of dollars sloshing around. Either tighten and risk a double-dip recession or wait and risk higher inflation. The longer the fed waits once the economy begins to pull forward (as it may start doing soon, though not at 3.5%), the higher the risk of inflation.

This Bloomberg article has some quick and sobering analysis that sounds right to me. I agree with the conclusion that there may well be growth, but that it will be in the anemic 2% range. Moreover, I think it will be accompanied by inflationary pressures due to the irresistible impulse of Democrats to increase spending that will have to be financed through a monetized deficit, as I don’t see China and others continuing to buy Treasury offerings to support structural deficits that will get worse for a long time. But, then, a devalued dollar may be, as I’ve said before, the weapon of choice nominally to rebalance financial institutions’ balance sheets and to revive manufacturing by making American exports cheaper in a manner of economic warfare. That strategy only works, however, if we don’t have to keep paying more in inflated greenbacks for energy imports, and our unwillingness to expand domestic production makes that unlikely.

Torture notes

I have previously written that, based on the torture statutes, case law, and the description of the prescribed method of waterboarding, the procedure does not rise in brutality to the level of torture. However, that conclusion can change, depending on why, when, and how waterboarding is done. Has music performed the same role as waterboarding in efforts to deal with al Qaeda?

There is an effort by various musicians to find out whether their works were played to soften up detainees for interrogation until 2003. In this publicity-seeking grandstanding demand by mostly has-been acts six years after the fact, the musicians characterize the government’s action as torture. I entirely believe that the government played music, repeatedly and loudly, to destabilize the detainees’ psychological and emotional equilibrium. The U.S. did that during the Bush (I) administration to compel former Panamanian strongman and drug entrepreneur Manuel Noriega to surrender to U.S. forces after he holed up in the Vatican’s embassy in Panama City.

There is no doubt, then, that music can be and has been used to break down the resistance of the detainees. But whether or not it amounts to torture, as the musicians claim, depends on a number of circumstances. Playing some kinds of music may be torture per se. For example, having to listen at all to Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against The Machine, the Bee Gees, any form of rap, or the Meow Mix Jingle constitutes torture per se.

On the other hand, sometimes torture depends on the circumstances under which the music is played. For example, as every parent knows, probably going back to Mozart’s parents telling him to stop banging on the piano as if he were Little Richard, playing “what those crazy kids now call music” at high volume constitutes torture. Thus, it would only constitute torture having to listen to “The Real Slim Shady” if the volume were high enough actually to make out the song.

A different circumstance to weigh in a torture assessment may be the topic involved. Thus, Two Live Crew’s “Me So Horny,” Sir Mix-A-Lot’s paean to large rumps, or some of Fergie’s vocalizations would not constitute torture if they were played to get a recently-arrived detainee to talk. On the other hand, if those pieces are played to some guy who’s been detained at Gitmo for years and has been deprived of the reality of what those songs describe—that’s torture.

Another circumstance would be the number of times the song is repeated. Played often enough, say at Christmas time when the daughter is practicing for her ballet performance, even “The Nutcracker” becomes torture. Combine the repetitive playing with the intriguing name (“All right, pal, we’re going to introduce you to the Nutcracker”) as the detainee is led into an unfamiliar room, and, sure, that can be torture. Now, imagine if the song is “Jingle Bells,” or anything by bands named Deicide or Saliva. Even if those works are not torture per se, repeated exposure would be Poison (oh, wait, they aren’t named).

On the other hand, I don’t believe that hearing the theme songs from Sesame Street or Barney can constitute torture. They kind of fade into the subconscious over time as the brain adapts. With seven kids, over the years I have been exposed to those songs countless times. And, as this blog fully attests, I am perfectly normal.

Then there is the matter of styling. Listening to the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner can be a rousing experience. If done in that cute off-key way that kids sing it, listening to the styling can be heart-warming. But then there is the way “artistes” deliver their “interpretations” at sports events and other such gatherings. As these songsters pant and shriek and extend notes beyond their natural lifespans, at a volume usually associated with small jet engines, the experience turns torturous. The performers typically then misunderstand the clapping of hands as applause, leading them to believe they should pursue a career in singing. Judging from my reaction, the clapping is an attempt to see whether the listeners are still sensate and registers a general sense of relief that they have survived the pain and ordeal.

By itself, merely having to listen to the anthem of the Great Satan may be annoying to the detainees, but hardly torture. On the other hand, when it is sung as if by the Great Satan and his malevolent horde, it may well cross the line.

Just as with other techniques aimed at softening up the detainees, the playing of music might or might not be torture, then. It is often highly situational. I am pleased, though, to see so many musicians agree that their works arguably are crimes against humanity, something that many of us have long known. Yes, metalheads, I am talking about your favorite band.

But, not to worry any longer about such difficult distinctions. Our President has decreed that harsh interrogation methods will not be used. Everything must be non-coercive and in accordance with the Army Field Manual (except maybe at those temporary CIA secret prisons that are not being shut down though the President says that they sort of will be). Given its current culture of political correctness, I rather doubt that the Army would even allow the playing of a decent John Philip Sousa march. Instead, each detainee will now get a free head set and a playlist of cool jazz, with some classic Motown thrown in. Certain detainees may, if they wish, opt for a collection of show tunes, instead. Then each can select his own music as a prelude to the interrogation conversation over coffee and crullers.

More evidence-free anti-Scalia “journalism”

Left wing blogs recently went into overdrive deriding Rush Limbaugh having temporarily been taken in by a false claim that Obama’s Columbia thesis finally had been released and contained various statements that could be read as contemptuous of the U.S. and the founders of the country. BTW, it is claimed that Obama wrote no college thesis, unlike other Columbia seniors, only an honors seminar paper or thesis that no one can find. The press can, of course, quickly find the college thesis of the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Virginia and records of the debates over the book purchases by the Wasilla public library during Sarah Palin’s tenure as mayor. Likewise, the Obama college transcripts have not been released, whereas the press demanded the much earlier transcripts of George W. Bush. Likewise, George W. Bush’s complete military records were released (and, in the case of Dan Rather, reporting, forged), while John F. Kerry’s were not. Ditto for Bob Dole’s medical records versus not for Bill Clinton’s. One detects a pattern.

Considering the numerous times that they have been fooled by information that was available much longer than the fake Obama thesis (such as the racially-loaded statements falsely attributed to Limbaugh), one would have thought the Left would keep a low profile. One would have thought so in vain. Well, no sooner has the dust settled over the Left’s Limbaugh defamation, than they defame Justice Antonin Scalia, again with false attributions of racial remarks.

What is it with the Left and their false charges of racially-loaded remarks? I am not even convinced that they do this on purpose. It is as if their constant invocation of race and their inability to see social issues through other than a racial prism have so distorted their faculties for critical thinking that they see the racial result they want to see even when it isn’t there. Just so long as it confirms their prejudices about others.

As an aside, I particularly enjoyed the author’s list of repeated liberal offenses against truth and fairness in reporting and his take-down of the legal commentator for C-BS, the network that at least practices truth-in-advertising in its name. This commentator, Andrew Cohen, predictably matches the ideological tone of his bosses in presenting biased accounts of Justice Scalia, as NRO’s Ed Whelan lays out in his post, “Andrew Cohen’s Evidence-Free Anti-Scalia Jeremiad.”

Of course, there is no apology and no clear correction, even when the falsity is exposed. The problem is that, with the function of the Internet, these false statements will be thoughtlessly reproduced and find their way into history.

Keep the government out of pay decisions

There is a version of the “golden rule” that says, “He who has the gold makes the rules.” An old variant of this is the “silver rule” that says, “You take the king’s silver, you become the king’s man.” It’s a repetitive and old lesson that is being learned again at the highest level of business. As has been obvious for some time, the official Pay Czar has ordered significant cuts in pay for the highest level executives at seven companies that received taxpayer bail-outs. There will also be benefits cuts and a shift in compensation from cash to long-term stock holding. I yield to no one in my disdain for Bank of America or Government Motors GM, but this is very troubling. Despite the White House’s protestations to the contrary, it is predictable that there will be further attempts to control executive pay. The Fed chairman already has made noises about controlling all bank executives’ pay.

Also, there is no guarantee that this will not happen to other businesses that receive government funds, or that it will be limited to highly-paid executives. Right now, the administration is just talking about milder internal corporate governance measures that are not, on the whole particularly dramatic. But more potent interference is a distinct possibility. The federal and state governments already put many conditions on government contractors that interfere with internal administration and with very basic property rights. Government puts mandates on educational institutions that receive a variety of federal funds. The precedents are in place, and there is no reason for confidence that, once habituated to this kind of interference, an ideologically leftist administration will restrain itself.

While the business executives at General Motors have to take this interference, the union bosses and the union workers whose demands over the years under the cover of protective labor laws have helped cause the companies’ difficulties suffer no government interference in their operations and compensation. Moreover, while the shift of executive pay from cash to performance-based stock options is a defensible idea, history tells us that this will not quell the class-warfare rhetoric from the Democrats when the time seems right to them. When some executive or another exercises those stock options in the future and realizes a large profit, the accusations of greed will fly. The politicians will conveniently ignore that the reason for those profits will be the years of lower cash compensation and a promise that the executive will be rewarded based on the company’s performance.

The solution, as with many such matters, is not to take the government’s poisoned apple. Take the Hillsdale College approach and refuse the government’s hand. Sooner or later, that hand will try to choke your freedom.

The health care debate no one wants to have

Robert Samuelson, writing in The Washington Post, succinctly lays out the fallacies of the “public option.” From affordability to cost control to improved quality of care to competition and choice, the government option as sold by the politicians is a mirage. Many Americans have the common sense to understand that government cannot repeal the laws of economics and create something out of nothing. But the politicians hope that a fantasy repeated often enough will convince a sufficient number of people who believe in bumper sticker policy to get the public option through Congress.

A point not mentioned by Samuelson is the fiction of the “state opt-out” that is being touted as a way for states to avoid the public option if their voters don’t want it. The problem, as my students know from studying Congress’s use of the spending power to “persuade” states to comply with federal policies, is that political reality cannot conform to theory. Under the plan, the residents of the United States will be taxed to pay for the government plan’s costs. Those costs, as Samuelson demonstrates, will inevitably rise through a number of predictable developments (such as the withering away of private plans and increased number of participants in the government plan). Whatever private plans remain will provide more limited coverage and will become more expensive as the pool of participants drops. It will become politically untenable for a state to have its citizens pay taxes for a plan that will offer lower, taxpayer-subsidized costs to people in other states, yet make such an option unavailable locally.

A real state choice plan would be to have no national public option, but allow the states to develop their own. The increasingly desperate financial state of RomneyCare in Massachusetts and the problems with the limited child-oriented LingleCare in Hawaii would put brakes on any careless state forays into government-funded health care for the general population.

The winner, and still champion, will be

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about my nightmare of President Obama winning multiple Nobel Peace Prizes as rewards for continuing efforts to end America’s status as the world’s superpower. After all, the Norwegian committee has made no bones about its reasons for giving Obama this year’s award based on a nomination that had to be received no later than about ten days after his inauguration as President. They gave him the award to help move him in the direction away from the perceived America-first unilateralism of George W. Bush. Obama’s first nine months in office have certainly given them cause for optimism.

Now comes Carbolic Smokeball. The lads there must have an “in” with Vegas oddsmakers, who seem to have posted Obama as the favorite to win the 2010 prize. Moreover, the President appears to be in a mood to defend his title multiple times over the next eight years. As the President has said, he may be skinny, but he’s tough, as he has shown in attacking the tea party protesters, doctors, insurance companies, auto companies, Rush Limbaugh, and FOX News. And he’ll keep saying that whenever he sits down and talks to Putin, Hu Jin-Tao, Kim Jong-Il, Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, and anyone else who will listen.

Pastors AWOL in culture war

I am in the process of getting the baptism in the Roman Catholic Church that I didn’t get as a child. Parents of mixed religious heritage, and all that. It takes a year of classes and other activities, along with a drawn-out review by the bureaucracy of one’s prior marital relationships, to be accepted. This is a much more drawn-out process than what is done by some of our more enthusiastic and consequent Protestant friends. It bespeaks of a seriousness about, and appreciation of, the profound nature of religious sentiment in humans that is also reflected in the rich layers of complexity of Catholic doctrine that attracts me to the faith. That said, the very ecumenism and universality of Catholicism, and the faith’s appreciation for the many facets and the complexity of God’s creation, can also lead to a sort of institutional tepidness.

Our parish priest surprised and astonished me (pleasantly) a while back by taking an uncommonly strong sectarian position regarding the doctrinal claims and sacred foundation of another religion. While his tone was still diplomatic, the essence of the message was intoxicatingly judgmental. The reason I was so surprised was that it is rare to hear such a doctrinally self-assured and utterly non-defensive message. Afterwards, I thanked him for that dogmatic breath of fresh air that usually cannot penetrate the fog of platitudinous and studiously tolerant pronouncements of Catholic clergy intent on demonstrating their multicultural bona fides and ecumenical pacifism and on not giving offense at all cost.

There even has been the occasional nugget from Pope Benedict when his background in his previous position as head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith comes through and he proceeds with his project of countering the threat of secularism and relativism. Unfortunately, this is too often followed by statements that are viewed as apologies for the preceding nuggets by those unwilling or unable to parse the carefully constructed follow-up statement.

Still, such statements stand in contrast to the usual doctrinal timidity and defensiveness of churchmen. Most Christian men (and, in some denominations, women) of the cloth restrict themselves to anodyne proclamations and a general tenor of soft inclusiveness of all believers in (any) religions as well as non-believers, and of forgiveness towards all sinners. I understand some of the religious basis for this approach. I also understand that the modern perception of Christianity’s, and especially Catholicism’s, history as an alleged tool of supposed Western aggression may produce such a stance of non-judgmentalism to outsiders.

But it seems to me that a religious doctrine, just as a political doctrine, depends on a vigorous promotion of its Truths. That, unlike political doctrine, religious Truths are eternal, only makes it more incumbent on the clergy to be serious advocates for them. I don’t propose the use of political institutions and the appropriation of the law to force religious views on others. Such conversions have to be voluntary. But I am chagrined at the failure to press religious “brand identity” more vigorously. Again, I am not saying to resort to the violence and religiously-rooted terror of Islamic fundamentalists, but to carry out a more consistent and conscious plan to break free of the informal constraints imposed on religious speech within the secularized American culture. No wonder that churches in South America, Africa, and Asia are more vibrant than their American counterparts.

Some of those same points are made by Doug Giles, himself a minister, who excoriates the pastors who refuse to get involved in the culture wars. It is like fighting with one hand tied behind one’s back. Some do this out of doctrinal interpretation, others for monetary reasons, still others due to time limitations. This is not a call for full-time political activism, nor does it require Bob Jones-style rhetoric of intolerance. But it does require a certain backbone on issues of dogma and a willingness to confront people (especially one’s own parishioners) on matters central to the Catholic Church and to Christianity more broadly. Failure to do so weakens the bonds with the broader religious community more than a stronger message might drive away a few who on their insides already have drifted from the message. The figurative sheep need to know that they are in the right flock and that the shepherd’s word holds true. 

French out-macho cheeseburger-eating surrender monkeys

One recalls wistfully the days not long ago when the remark of the groundskeeper on The Simpsons about the French as cheese-eating surrender monkeys struck a humorous, but knowing, response in Americans. Those days are gone. Gone with the Bush administration and the rise of Obamaism. Gone, on the other half of the equation, with the Chirac corruptocracy and the advent of Nicholas Sarkozy. In a classic case of, “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it,” there is a growing awareness among Europeans that the timidity of the American administration in foreign relations can have harmful consequences. Hence, various European generals in NATO recently gave open support to the McChrystal call for more U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Hence also, France’s Nicholas Sarkozy has warned against American weakness against Iran.

The French have long practiced a brash unilateralism in countries that they see as part of their sphere of influence, such as in their former African colonies. Even while the erstwhile president Jacques Chirac was undermining the Bush administration regarding Saddam Hussein’s Iraq by demanding more UN resolutions that the Iraqis had no intention of obeying and the French had no intention of enforcing, they sent their military to West African countries to intervene on one side or the other in the perpetual gang warfare that passes for political contests there. But the notion of the French taking a more robust diplomatic and military view than the Americans regarding threats to international security is wondrous. Yet that is happening under the Sarkozy approach when compared to the Obama administration’s dithering, apology tours, and retreat from security arrangements.

Another difference between our Obamanation and France is that the latter is trying to move away from multiculti liberalism that corrodes social bonds by emphasizing tribalism over assimilation. The government is launching a program to instill in immigrants, most of whom are from Muslim countries, French national pride as an antidote to the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism that preys on the culture of victimhood and separatism that is the inevitable outcome of the efforts of the multiculti sack-cloth-and-ashes crowd. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the President cannot commit himself to recognizing American exceptionalism outright. In similar vein, every American accomplishment that he notes in his speeches on foreign soil is balanced by the mention of some real or imagined American misconduct or transgression.

As for these French efforts, “They include everybody receiving lessons in the nation’s Christian history and children singing the national anthem. Using words which infuriated ethnic minority groups and Socialist opponents, immigration minister Eric Besson also said he wanted ‘foreigners to speak better French’.”

Meanwhile, in the U.S., based on personal knowledge, American middle school textbooks contain detailed descriptions of Muslim and Jewish religious practices and propose a lesson for children to “live as a Muslim for a day,” including praying towards Mecca. But even a mention of Christian religious practices and America’s heritage as a Christian nation gives American pedagogues and education bureaucrats the vapors. Those same pedagogues and bureaucrats stress years of bilingual education that has been shown to retard the learning of English by immigrants. And the President, rather than encouraging students to learn better English, tells them to focus on learning foreign languages (an idea that has independent merit, but after children learn to speak and write English better).