Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Mask Is Off

Larry Kudlow, who has educated me in the ways of economic science starting back in the early 80's, had on his TV show one Donald Luskin, another of the truly good guys and straight shooters on the scene today. Unsurprisingly, he weighed in with an impassioned, off the cuff riff not unlike many posts by David and me in this space over the last 18 months. Listen to the entire segment of Kudlow's CNBC show to hear Luskin's dead-on take on the Bamster. The kernal of what he said, picked up in res media:

"None of the things that are happening now should have been a surprise. The things that Obama is doing, his war on capitalism, his unholy partnership with Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi in the war on capitalism are exactly all the things he promised in his campaign. There is no bait and switch, no surprise--look, you and I are optimists, we tried to think he was a centrist because he appointed someone like Larry Summers instead of someone like Robert Riech, but you know, the mask is off. He is trying to socialize this country, with socialized health care, with carbon taxes, with raising taxes on hedge funds and private equity funds and even ordinary investors. He wants to wipe out your 401K so you will be dependent on the federal government for your health care and your retirement, and until that runaway train, that legislative onslaught, that is being made possible in the name of emergency, until that train is halted, stocks cannot sustain any meaningful rally."

Some of you--and you know who you are--have been thinking David and I have been too harsh on the One, rushing to judgment as it were. But we were on to Barack the hard leftist in moderate/pragmatic/centrist clothing from the beginning. We are now witnessing the full court press by the hard left in finalizing their 70 year old dream of politicizing all of American life, controlling you in every discernible aspect of your life.

Sort of like the 1980's TV show "V", in which alien invaders masquerade as humans in order to take over the world.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Hitch in Beirut

Readers of this blog will want to know, if they haven't already heard, of Christopher Hitchens' dust up in Lebanon with the brown shirts of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, on a trip there with independent journalist Michael Totten. Totten's first person account gives a view of the seamy underbelly of life in a place overshadowed by these throwbacks of the 1930's fascist era.

Briefly, Hitchens and Totten were strolling on a Beirut street discussing the posters and flags the SSNP had plastered all over Lebanese cities in the wake of the Hezbollah takeover last May. Their symbol, a modified swastika, rightly enraged Hitchens, who was surprised to turn a corner and see the very thing, on a marker commemorating the brave assassination of two Israeli soldiers buying coffee on that spot by SSNP goons. Hitchens attempted to tear it down; failing that, he defaced it with a black marker. Thugs appeared immediately, and he was beaten soundly while onlookers, including police, averted their eyes.

Fascism is alive and well in many parts of the world, and is being spread under the aegis of its blood relative, radical Islam (even though the current instance is of the SSNP in Syria, which is an Orthodox Christian movement-may God damn them). Civilized people are easily cowed--note the people with the biggest Islamic radical problems are the Brits, the Dutch, the Belgians, the Swiss, the Canadians, the Swedes, the French, and the Spanish, though they all think they have bought off their antagonists with their bowing and scraping and preemptive obedience. They are all counting on their Western civility and Anglo sense of fair play to restrain the worst impulses, and speak to the better angels of, their fascistic intruder/guests. That tactic will make every city in Europe a Beirut.

The only rational response to such threatenings is Hitchens'--early and often. It remains to be seen if there is enough starch in the broad American body politic to stiffen the fabric against the fascistic impulses just beginning in our country. Arm yourself with the truth--read Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism and Jonah Goldberg's recent Liberal Fascism and get up to speed on the 21st century version of the bright shining "movement of the future" circa 1930. Everything old is new again, as we enter another low, dishonest decade.

Scratch Jindal from the List

Well, at least now we know where not to place our hopes for a GOP answer to Barack Obama in 2012. After President Obama's speech before the joint session of Congress on Tuesday, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal stepped into the bright and unflattering light of national public scrutiny and made it helpfully clear that he is nowhere near ready for the highest office, and perhaps never will be.

Here is David Brooks's take.

Nicole Gelinas at City Journal has this to say in "Jindal's Missed Opportunity."

Harold adds:

Hold on there partner. Way too early to scratch Jindal. Nicole Gelinas's experise, and it truly is expert, is financial and economic. David Brooks went over to the dark side many moons ago, and is only correct as often, and for the same reason, as a stopped clock. To listen to these two--and a host of other progressive "conservatives" who so want to be included by the cool kids in DC, is to buy into the prevailing sentiment that the way something is said is far more important than what is said. Obama delivered a soothing imitation of a rationally prudent and pragmatic leader offering a program to address the "crisis". (I submit the main crisis is the wholesale government takeover of American life, establishing soul-killing socialism for generations if not forever.) But his words belie his intent--he is not going to waste this "crisis", and his cool rhetoric is like the spoonful of sugar helping the socialist medicine to go down. If Jindal stumbled a bit on his freshman outing, so what? Are we mistaking speech for action? Remember how Clinton used to announce some policy goal, and then act as if the work were done, problem solved? Jindal is only 37; in his remaining time as governor (which is likely to run two terms) he will make Louisiana one of the bright spots in the nation with his tax cuts and regulatory reforms. Standing in an empty hall in front of a camera crew responding to the One in the conspicuous splendor of the House of Representatives and in front of a partisan audience is a gauranteed second place finish, especially when the MSM can be counted on to discount the Republican response no matter what--even before the fact. The "we want to be cool too" Republicans are not helping by assuming the whole of the Democrat critique and taking it on as their own, albeit in a slightly modified form. If style is the only or even the main criteria, we are vulnerable to demagoguery in a way we have not previously seen. Jindal will get better--in fact has been better many times--and will be around as a leading voice for conservatism for decades. I am not dismayed by his bobbling the ball on this play--the game is not over.

David adds in turn:

Harold, after I read your helpful post on Beirut (and, with the news of Hitchens getting a beating, a concerning one), I wondered if I would also find a rejoinder from you to my Jindal post. You did not disappoint.

I can't say you're wrong. I can only say that I'm skeptical.

If he's a learner with uncultivated native ability, I'll be thrilled. But what he needs to learn is the art of rhetoric. Of course you are right that the way something is said is not more important than the way it is said. But what a political leader says gets lost and even distorted if he doesn't master the art of presentation. That includes prudently applying his principles in view of his particular circumstances and audience so that his audience--those he wants to elect him--will embrace the wisdom of those principles. I think he missed on both scores. But we are agreed in hoping that he will grow in office.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Monsters Among Us

Last Friday, an 11-year-old boy in western Pennsylvania shot his father's fiancee in the head with a youth model 20-gauge shotgun while she was sleeping, killing her, and leaving her two daughters, ages 7 and 11, motherless. The victim, 26-year-old Kenzie Marie Houk, was eight months pregnant. As monstrous as it is for a boy of that age to kill someone so close in relationship to him, and at point blank range, having no concern even for her baby, and with no doubt bloody and horrible results, what is even even more monstrous is that he was able then to put away his gun, get on the school bus, and head off to school as though nothing unusual had happened.

Though most people have heard this story, I find it remarkable that two stories I have read report this monstrous act while revealing the monstrosity of their own moral attitudes.

The original AP story I read added this comment concerning the baby: "Houk's fetus died within minutes due to a lack of oxygen, Lawrence County Coroner Russell Noga said." It is at least ironic that while reporting on what is clearly a monstrous act by a child, the reporter uses language which is intended to preserve our emotional comfort with acting monstrously toward our unborn children. No unindoctrinated woman suffering this kind of loss would say that she lost her "fetus" eight months into her pregnancy. Unless you want to kill it, convince someone else to kill it, or speak of it with cold, scientific abstraction for some other reason, it's a baby.

Then the psychologist adds an opinion, and the moral understanding takes a nosedive from its already lamentable depths.

The Washington Post quotes psychologist Patricia Papernow, an expert on blended families, saying, "It looks awful from the outside and sort of unspeakable, but these are the kinds of feelings that are pretty normal in a new stepfamily. You just hope there's not a loaded gun around."

You see, from the point of view of the most advanced thinking in social science, there's nothing wrong with the boy. He's perfectly normal. The problem is the prevalence of guns in that part of the country.

Notice that from her enlightened vantage point, this particular slaying is only "sort of" unspeakable.

It seems that when one monster emerges from the woods, he draws out a few more. When that happens, it's wise to make a note of where they're coming from.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Barack Obama's Flying Circus

When Barack Obama is not reading up on Abraham Lincoln for tips on how to be President, it seems that he is combing through the collected works of Monty Python for ideas on how to increase tax revenues.

Well, perhaps it was not an idea the administration floated by means of the sucker at the head of the Department of Transportation. Perhaps the idea actually originated there.

The Obama administration will not support a policy of taxing drivers based on their mileage, the Transportation Department said Friday after a published interview in which Secretary Ray LaHood called it an idea "we should look at." In a written statement, the department said, "The policy of taxing motorists based on how many miles they have traveled is not and will not be Obama administration policy."

Speaking to The Associated Press, Transportation Secretary LaHood, an Illinois Republican, said, "We should look at the vehicular miles program where people are actually clocked on the number of miles that they traveled." The remark was part of a discussion about various options to help make up for the highway funding shortfall on the federal level (CNN, February 20, 2009).

If not the policy itself, at least the approach bears a striking resemblance to the Monty Python's Flying Circus "Tax on Thingy" sketch (1970). (The sketch itself starts at 1 minute 40 seconds on the clip.)

Should we anticipate the establishment of a Department of Silly Walks? It could mean a million new jobs.

But apparently I am not the first to connect Mr. Obama's approach to government with the zany, madcap comedy troupe. This picture, along with several others, comes from Comedy Central's Indecision 2008. One commenter wondered how, if he were elected President, Sen. Obama would protect the country against attacks with fresh fruit. A month into his administration, we still don't have an answer to that question.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Killing the Economy With Good Intentions

The Constitution should require entrance exams for elected public office. Too many Congressmen, for example, do not understand the basics of economics, and yet they throw themselves into "fixing" the economy or using economic policy to remedy what they see as social ills.

One basic principle of economics and of public policy is the so-called law of unintended consequences. Rob Norton, former economics editor at Fortune magazine, explains it this way:

The law of unintended consequences, often cited but rarely defined, is that actions of people—and especially of government—always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended. Economists and other social scientists have heeded its power for centuries; for just as long, politicians and popular opinion have largely ignored it. …

Most often, however, the law of unintended consequences illuminates the perverse unanticipated effects of legislation and regulation. In 1692 the English philosopher John Locke, a forerunner of modern
economists, urged the defeat of a parliamentary bill designed to cut the maximum permissible rate of interest from 6 percent to 4 percent. Locke argued that instead of benefiting borrowers, as intended, it would hurt them. People would find ways to circumvent the law, with the costs of circumvention borne by borrowers. To the extent the law was obeyed, Locke concluded, the chief results would be less available credit and a redistribution of income away from “widows, orphans and all those who have their estates in money.” (Concise Encyclopedia of Economics)

We have seen this in the current housing/credit/economy crisis. Well meaning Democrats pressured Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and banks in general to make housing loans to poor people who could not afford houses. Banks developed loan products that in turn attracted people of all sorts to purchase them. What we are now calling "toxic loans" flooded the system. Housing demand shot up, and then home prices followed, creating a price bubble. When the bubble burst, as inevitably it had to, the collapse was systemic and catastrophic. Here we are. Good intentions. Bad policy. Unintended consequences.

Iowahawk's adaptation of Margaret Bourke-White's 1937 original

It's the poor who pay the price for ill-advised government "help"

A "must read" on this subject is The Economist's View of the World by Steven Rhoads (Cambridge, 1985). This University of Virginia professor explains what basic economic concepts people people need to understand in order to be effective public servants in the modern world. He then brings political wisdom to economics, explaining how a fuller, political perspective needs to supplement the economist's understanding of human affairs.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Measure of Our National Distress

In this video clip, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) admits that we may have to nationalize the banks, and my own Congressman, Pete King (R-NY), is open to the idea. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), who is as far off in left field as anyone in Congress, says with great satisfaction, "We've come a long way!" Yes, Congresswoman, but it's not progress. It's plummeting.

Actually, when Pete King is seriously entertaining the notion of nationalizing banks, it makes me wonder what they know that I don't know.

The Economist is also talking along those lines.

Here is an excerpt from this week's cover story, "The Obama Rescue," which it calls "a huge wasted opportunity in the economic crisis."

America cannot rescue the world economy alone. But this double offensive [the stimulus bill and Geithner's proposed fix for the financial system] by its biggest economy could potentially have broken the spiral of uncertainty and gloom that is gripping investors, producers and consumers across the globe.
Alas, that opportunity was squandered. Mr Obama ceded control of the stimulus to the fractious congressional Democrats, allowing a plan that should have had broad support from both parties to become a divisive partisan battle. More serious still was Mr Geithner’s financial-rescue blueprint which, though touted as a bold departure from the incrementalism and uncertainty that had plagued the Bush administration’s Wall Street fixes, in fact looked depressingly like his predecessors’ efforts: timid, incomplete and short on detail. Despite talk of trillion-dollar sums, stockmarkets tumbled. Far from boosting confidence, Mr Obama seems at sea.
They explain that a fiscal stimulus without fixing the financial system cannot bring lasting economic recovery. But the bad news is: "The scale of troubled loans and the estimates of likely losses—which are now routinely put at over $2 trillion—suggest many of the country’s biggest banks may be insolvent."
The Economist proposes "some form of 'bad bank' for toxic loans (with temporary nationalisation part of that cleansing process, if necessary) and guarantees to cover catastrophic losses in the “good” banks that remain." Of course, nothing is temporary in a Democrat power grab. The scary thing is, sadly, there may be no choice.
Feb. 24, 2009 update: In today's Wall Street Journal ("Bank Nationalization Isn't the Answer"), William Isaac, chairman of the FDIC from 1981-1985, says, "People who should know better have been speculating publicly that the government might need to nationalize our largest banks. This irresponsible chatter is causing tremendous turmoil in financial markets. The Obama administration needs to make clear immediately that nationalization -- government seizing control of ownership and operations of a company -- is not a viable option."

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Principle of Population

In my continuing concern over the politics of shrinking populations, I noticed this Break Point article by Chuck Colson -- "Japan's Unique Crime Problem," January 8, 2009.

Japan has a strikingly low crime rate for a tightly packed, industrialized country. But they are seeing an increase in "property crime such as shoplifting, pick pocketing, and embezzlement, but also a rise in violent crime." What makes this especially interesting however is the demographic group largely responsible for the mayhem--senior citizens.

Between 2000 and 2006, the number of Japanese over 70 charged with a crime more than tripled—to nearly 30,000 a year. Assaults have risen 17-fold and shoplifting and pick pocketing four-fold in the past decade. Even murder rates among the elderly are rising. All told, Japanese senior citizens were responsible for one in seven crimes, up from one in 50 in 1990.
The reason for this is Japan's plummeting birth rate.

An important part of the explanation lies in the increasing isolation of Japan’s elderly. Japan’s microscopic birthrate has produced an aging population with no one to care for it, whether children or paid caretakers. Japanese elderly are so starved for companionship that they buy talking dolls they think “are actual grandsons and granddaughters,” according to the manufacturer. Japan’s demographic collapse—the product of plummeting marriage and birth rates—has weakened the Japanese family and, with it, the entire society.

If we kill off our children, or radically restrict their number in other ways, and if we school them in selfishness when we do have them, we should not be surprised if we end up lonely and poor in our old age.

Break Point provides this reading list.

Silver-Haired Shoplifters On the Rise In Japan,” Washington Post, 30 November 2008.

Elderly Offenders on Rise,” Japan Times, 16 October 2008.

Justin Norrie, “Japan Tremor as Geriatrics Lead Crime Wave,” The, 3 May 2008.

A Day without Mexicans: Demographics in the Developing World,” BreakPoint Commentary, 11 June 2008.

Demographics and Prosperity: Demographic Winter and the Economy,” BreakPoint Commentary, 10 June 2008.

Demographic Winter: Where Have All the Children Gone?,” BreakPoint Commentary, 9 June 2008.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Trouble With Trillions

One of the best known and best loved episodes of Star Trek was one titled "The Trouble with Tribbles", where fuzzy little creatures with no apparent purpose threaten the good order of the entire Enterprise as well as a large Federation government project with their irrepressible reproduction. The unleashing of so many trillions of dollars into our economy, which like tribbles, have a soothing effect on human beings, will have a similar inflationary effect: at first, the crew views these tribbles with affection, but as they come to multiply and appear everywhere, interfering in a seemingly benign way, they begin to get sick of them, as too much of a good thing overwhelms their serious business.

Take a look at the episode here, either for the first time, or as a nostalgic return.

And consider the inflationary hangover awaiting us as the trouble with trillions makes itself known to us. You could be forgiven for thinking this is a Klingon plot to destroy us.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Washington's Sheer Cloudy Vagueness

In his classic essay, "Politics and the English Language" (1946), George Orwell explores the gross misuse of language by political leaders. "In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. ... Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness."

Last week, after Tom Daschle withdrew his name from nomination as President Obama's Secretary of Health and Human Services in charge of seizing control of the health care system for the government, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid went before the cameras to praise his old friend. He only momentarily referred to Daschle's failure to pay $140,000 in taxes. He described these unhappy developments, saying only, "some things came up."

Apparently, this is his way of speaking to the American people. Here we see our Senate Majority Leader trying to convince an interviewer that, unlike in certain oppressive countries, paying taxes in America is voluntary.

Instead of conceding the interviewer's point, but then explaining that there is nonetheless an important element of liberty in our tax system (we can arrange our affairs so that we have tax shelters and deductions), he goes for the Big Lie and argues that paying taxes is simply, univocably, and obviously voluntary. When the interviewer confronts him with the truly obvious connection between civil penalties for not paying your taxes and the coercive nature of the system, he plays dumb. He even claims that the responsibility we have for calculating our own income taxes makes it a voluntary system (even though they always check my homework and tell me the real figure later). So it seems that the Senator is either deceitful or thick. Which is more charitable conclusion? And what are we to think about the majority of voting citizens in Nevada?

Of course, when Orwell spoke of "the indefensible," he was addressing far more serious concerns than our still manageable tax burden and our legal requirement to bear it. Orwell has the following in mind.

Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.

Nonetheless, a free and vigilant people, when faced with shameless doubletalk of this sort from an elected official, would make sure to send him looking for work after the next election.

Harold adds:

I propose an Orwell watch here among readers of this blog; there will surely be many instances as we spiral the drain into socialism, Democrats being the party of deception, misdirection, and obfuscation. I can think of three Orwellian news speak items right now:
  • "tax cuts", according to Obama, are now what used to be known as tax credits, or more straightforwardly, transfer payments, aka welfare.
  • "ear marks", allocated spending the Congress sneaks into bills under cover of darkness, are no where to be seen in the "stimulus" bill, according to Obama. Right.
  • "economic stimulus" is, according to the Bamster, just spending. Any spending will do, as John Maynard Keynes argued, even building pyramids or just digging holes and filling them in. So why not spend on the 40 year wish list? But we have known since Jimmy Carter, if not the father of American democratic socialism himself, FDR, that Keynesian pump priming and deficit spending do not yield the multiplier effect that made the theory so attractive to big government types. "Stimulus" in Orwell/Obama speak is political stimulus for the Democrat party, with the private sector picking up the tab.

Large cash prizes* for the best contributions to the Orwell List!

* cash prizes paid in Zimbabwe currency.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Social Security is Inheritance Security

I'm feeling all "United-States-of-Obama" at the moment, all sweetly in agreement with others who have moved beyond the old disputes. I just read Michael Kinsley who, in the previous age of darkness, we would have called a "liberal." But whether he has changed or I have changed, or maybe we've all changed (or been changed), he makes a lot of sense in his recent TIME essay, "Entitlement Myths" (Feb. 9, 2009).

His point is essentially that whereas Social Security was established to protect the aged against poverty and suffering in their years of disability or retirement, it has become a way of saving money to pass along to your children.

Meanwhile, though, families--middle-class families, not just rich ones--are passing hundreds of thousands of dollars on to the next generation in their wills. Fair enough, if they worked for the money and saved it. In fact, wonderful. But much of this generosity, it turns out, is made possible by Social Security and Medicare. How much? Hard to say. What is easier to say with certainty is that most people today and in the future will get more back from these entitlement programs in retirement than they put in during their working lives.

Medicare and Social Security are supposed to be insurance against the perils of old age: poverty and illness. They are not supposed to be gifts or subsidies to the children of retirees. Yet that is what, in large part, they have become. The reason for insurance is that you can't predict the future. If an elderly woman has diabetes and her husband needs heart surgery, then dies anyway, leaving her impoverished, Medicare and Social Security should be there for her. And if it all costs far more than she ever put into the system, that's O.K. too.

But if our elderly woman dies with $691,000 in the bank, it's evident that she didn't need the government money to pay for her health care or to avoid plunging into poverty. She wasn't lying or cheating--she might have been legitimately worried--but her worries turned out to be unnecessary. And society, having kept its promise to her, should get at least part of that money back. Oh, yes, designing a system to achieve this would be a nightmare--maybe impossible. The incentive for old folks to squander their savings would be enormous. Maybe it can't work.
Social Security is childrens' inheritance security at the expense of national economic security.

When George W. Bush won the 2004 election he began spending his political capital attempting to reform Social Security. He utterly failed and sent his capital down a political rat hole. Kinsley challenges President Obama to keep this question in mind as we enter what the President has called a "new age" of "hard choices."

Thursday, February 5, 2009

With Friends of Religion Like This...

These words are good to hear coming from a Democratic President. At the National Prayer breakfast today, President Obama said,

No matter how much money we invest or how sensibly we design our policies, the change that Americans are looking for will not come from government alone. There is a force for good greater than government ("Obama Expands Faith-based Programs," New York Times, Feb. 5, 2009).

Before you start thinking that you had the guy all wrong, however, consider these questions.

Will religious groups be forced to hire homosexuals? “No matter what we choose to believe, let us remember that there is no religion whose central tenet is hate,” he said. In Democratese, those words have a very limited range of meaning.

Will Christian groups be forced to hire people from outside their faith? Will this disciple of Jeremiah Wright corral Evangelical groups into the social gospel step by step with the allure of "free money for good work?" Likely both. Last July, during the campaign, he spoke from what seemed to be firmly held principles, saying,

“If you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them – or against the people you hire – on the basis of their religion.”

Here is an interesting footnote, however. He also said, “There is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being. This much we know.” Nonetheless, his religious conscience is clear in his support for partial birth abortion.

Good Morning Comrades!

Glen Beck wonders "why not go all the way?"

Innes adds: When you take government money, you have to submit to government regulation. So now we see the government telling companies how much they can pay their executives, whether they should have private jets or even fly first class (or even fly at all!), where they can have their executive retreats (it's Wisconsin Dells this year, boys; enjoy the waterslide), and how much they can pay for a toilet stool. Yet businesses and industries are lining up to get in on this "free money."

George Bailey, in It's a Wonderful Life, learned to resist the allure such an offer of help. Like Mr Potter's seemingly kind offer to help the Savings and Loan survive their liquidity crisis, it's not a bailout, but a buyout. And he who pays the piper calls the tune.

But what's our problem with this? Who are we to question the Dear Leader? The government runs everything so cost efficiently and with such people-friendly service, perhaps it's better that they take charge of everything that's important.

But seriously, perhaps we all need to read Hayek's The Road to Serfdom.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

When Evil Is Cool

What is it about evil that attracts human beings? It is the opposite of good, destructive of everything human beings hold dear, and find necessary for survival individually and as a species. All our large sociological constructs are ordered toward mitigating its destructive tendencies—religion and politics to be sure, social manners and mores, but even society itself, and civilization, can be said to be arrayed against evil and in favor of moral norms that favor not just human survival but human flourishing. The protection of women and children, of marriage and family, of trustworthiness and honest dealing, truth telling, are universally central to human societies.

So, the question again—if evil is so easily recognized as an existential threat, why is it so pervasive? The dogmatic answer (and I cast no aspersions on the word or the concept of dogma) is that Original Sin corrupts us so thoroughly that evil is second nature—actually, according to the Bible, it is our first nature. In this light, the question becomes, how is it that any good exists in the world? And again, the dogmatic response is “greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.” We are made in His image, and not even the god of this world can completely efface that image, try as he might. Yet evil seems to be the reigning characteristic of this world.

Judea Pearl, the father of slain journalist Daniel Pearl, writes in today’s WSJ (Feb 3, 09) on the seventh anniversary of his murder, of the acceptance of evil by the academic and journalist elite.

But somehow, barbarism, often cloaked in the language of "resistance," has gained acceptance in the most elite circles of our society. The words "war on terror" cannot be uttered today without fear of offense. Civilized society, so it seems, is so numbed by violence that it has lost its gift to be disgusted by evil.

The “gift” of being able to be disgusted by evil has been a long time in being sloughed off. Perhaps the point marking the serious turn toward evil was the advent of the “new journalism” of Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) and Norman Mailer (The Executioner’s Song), both of whom made the cool, dispassionate observation and depiction of murder by cool dispassionate murderers seem like the setting of a new baseline for analysis. Drawing on the wired-in impulse toward the grotesque and the evil, first pointed out by Plato—he has Leontius in the Republic unable to look away from the floating corpses at the seaport of Athens—journalism, philosophy, and literary criticism have, as Dr Pearl titles his piece, “normalized” evil, even made it respectable as a response by the “Other” to the pc litany of charges against the West. Philosophy trickles down—what is germinated in seminars, conferences, and books takes root and spreads across society, taking in an ever larger expanse of society. Thus, it was not long after Foucault’s celebration of the Marquis de Sade (Discipline and Punish) before the bloodiest, most hideous, graphic, and pornographic murder thrillers were on offer from Hollywood, soon becoming campy, ironic parodies of themselves, offered up as little more than cartoons for social touch-points for knowing teens.

Roger Shattuck analyses evil into four categories: natural evil—weather catastrophes, plagues, and the like; and three sub-types of human evil:

Moral evil refers to actions undertaken knowingly to harm or exploit others in contravention of accepted moral principles or statutes within a society.

Radical evil applies to immoral behavior so pervasive in a person or a society that scruples and constraints have been utterly abandoned;…evil so extreme that it can no longer recognize its own atrocity. Lenin stated it forcefully: "The dictatorship means -- learn this once and for all -- unrestrained power based on force, not on law."

Metaphysical evil designates an attitude of assent and approval toward moral and radical evil, as evidence of superior human will and power. Thus forms of evil arising from human agency are given a status as inevitable -- effectively a reversion to natural evil.

Shattuck argues that the postmodern philosophical obsession with overturning truth and all objectively recognized standards, arising in the first instance from its worship of the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, is what has led to what Judea Pearl calls the normalization of evil. In academic parlance, it is the elevation and valorization of “transgression.” It is in this atmosphere that evil has gotten for itself the name of the good, or at least the “cool.” Thus, all the university courses featuring masturbation, pole dancing, prostitution, and pornography offered in our most prestigious institutions; the long since established argot of “cool”, where “bad”, “wicked”, and even “evil” are descriptors not just socially acceptable, but indicative of one’s cultural bone fides. (The reductio in my mind is “Bad Girls of the Bible”, an attempt to appropriate the current cultural nomenclature for use in a bible study for church ladies).

All of pop culture seems to have been given over to evil and all its works: heavy metal music (note the allusion is to poison), and even “death metal”; rap music’s glorification of every pathology in existence; most of Hollywood’s production for the past thirty years; comic books, and on and on—dozens of other examples have no doubt come to your mind already. The continuous struggle between good and evil is of course the central element in all of literature and poetry, from the dawn of civilization; but the viewpoint has changed—compare Quenton Tarantino’s ironic distance and coolness in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, etc, and Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, to Aeschylus’ Oresteia, or Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, for a not untypical contrast.

We seem to be at a point in our civilization where we have succumbed to evil in its metaphysical sense—where forms of evil arising from human agency are given a status as inevitable -- effectively a reversion to natural evil. “People are evil—get used to it”, would be a slogan capturing the zeitgeist. Or, as this fellow’s T-shirt states) watch the whole video) , “Nice day to rob people.” In fact, as the video shows, many people actually prefer evil, as both Paul and James, following Jesus, aver.

Acceptance of evil is a characteristic of decadence, and Western societies are nothing if not decadent; thus evil is celebrated, goodness is denigrated and mocked.

Perhaps it has always been so. But never with so much cool.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Obama's Kinder, Gentler War

In his inaugural address, Barack Obama announced that change had come also to the moral content of our national security policy.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.

We will have a moral foreign policy, and we will fight the War on Terror morally. We will respect the rights of our enemies, even as they conspire and fight to destroy the regime that guarantees us ours. We will respect their rights in the same way that we respect the rights of our own citizens.

This is the way Jimmy Carter began his (one term) presidency, making concern for human rights the organizing principle behind his foreign policy. Twenty-eight years after he left office, we are still dealing with the deadly consequences of his naive moralism.

After taking office, President Obama wasted no time asserting the enlightened moral perspective of his approach to foreign policy in contradistinction to that of his notoriously diabolical predecessor. In "Obama Made a Rash Decision on Gitmo" (WSJ, Jan. 29, 2009), former Bush Justice Department official John Yoo tells us, "During his first week as commander in chief, President Barack Obama ordered the closure of Guantanamo Bay and terminated the CIA's special authority to interrogate terrorists." He did this "without a meeting of his full national security staff, and without a legal review of all the policy options available to meet the threats facing our country."

On the basis of the new President's halt to all military commission trials, Yoo surmises that enemy combatants and al Qaeda operatives such as Ali Saleh al-Marri will soon be tried in civilian courts under ordinary criminal law. Such trials would have to include the requirement that prisoners be read their Miranda rights when they are captured, that they have the right to counsel, that they have the right to remain silent, that their counsel have access to all the intelligence on their clients and information on how it was obtained, and of course that they be treated nicely at all times.
It is naïve to say, as Mr. Obama did in his inaugural speech, that we can "reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." That high-flying rhetoric means that we must give al Qaeda -- a hardened enemy committed to our destruction -- the same rights as garden-variety criminals at the cost of losing critical intelligence about real, future threats.

In chapter 15 of The Prince, Machiavelli says that, “if one considers everything well, one will find something appears to be virtue, which if pursued would be one’s ruin, and something else appears to be vice, which if pursued results in one’s security and well-being.” One does not have to accept Machiavelli's moral universe to understand that you cannot fight a war the way you fight domestic crime, and that a President cannot be faithful to his oath of office if he is determined to treat captured foreign terrorists who are concealing life-saving information the same way he treats the citizens he is sworn to protect. Every President either knows this, learns this, or brings disaster upon the country.


Update: Dorothy Rabinowitz follows up on Yoo's article with her own critique of the President's recent national security endangering measures in light of various naive remarks in "his grim inaugural address" and his pronouncements during the campaign. "Obama's Moralizing Tone May Not Wear Well," WSJ, Feb. 2, 2009. This essay is full of insight and fine polemic.

To hear Mr. Obama speak now on matters like the national defense is to recognize that the leader now in the White House is in every respect the person he seemed on the campaign trail: a man of immense moral certitude, prone to an abstract idealism, and pronouncements that range between the rational and the otherworldly. ... Still, there is no reason to think that his views on security issues and Guantanamo and interrogations, his tendency to minimize the central importance of armed might, are not deeply rooted. They are clearly core beliefs. And that, along with those trumpeting declarations to the world that new leadership had now come to the United States, that we were now a nation worthy of the world's trust -- those speeches suggesting that after years of darkness America had now been rescued, just barely, from the abyss -- will be in the end this president's Achilles' heel. Those are not, Mr. Obama may discover, tones that wear well in the course of a presidency.

On the same page in today's Wall Street Journal, two economists, one from UPenn and the other from UCLA, warn that the wrong government intervention can make a major economic downturn far worse than it would be otherewise ("How Government Prolonged the Depression").

Our research indicates that New Deal labor and industrial policies prolonged the Depression by seven years. ... The main lesson we have learned from the New Deal is that wholesale government intervention can -- and does -- deliver the most unintended of consequences. This was true in the 1930s, when artificially high wages and prices kept us depressed for more than a decade, it was true in the 1970s when price controls were used to combat inflation but just produced shortages. It is true today, when poorly designed regulation produced a banking system that took on too much risk.

Between the President's economic initiatives and his national security innovations, he is already looking like the worst of FDR and Jimmy Carter. That is not a recipe for a great Presidency.