Thursday, December 22, 2011

UN Embarrasses Itself - Again

The United Nations General Assembly (GA) has once again made a fool of itself. In proceedings today, it held a minute of silence as a sign of respect for the death of North Korean dictator (and general madman) Kim Jong-il, who died this past Saturday. The president of the GA, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, called for a twenty-five second ovation, stating:
It is my sad duty to pay tribute to the memory of the late Kim Jong-il, Secretary-General of the Workers Party of Korea, Chairman of the National Defence Commission of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army, who passed away on Saturday, December 17...
While Western leaders boycotted the ceremony and the GA meeting was sparsely attended, the honoring of such a tyrant as Kim Jong-il rudely displays the daftness of the UN, representing yet another utter failure to even approach a reasonable interpretation of the United Nations' founding principles. It also signifies a capitulation to the worst form of North Korean propagandizing, creating even more material for the North Korean leadership to brainwash their people into accepting the supposed successes and laudatory nature of the failing regime.

Of course such behavior from the UN General Assembly is not surprising. However, as it continues to let itself be used as a political forum for the world's most hateful regimes, despotic dictators, and terrorist organizations to spew their hatred, it only serves to undermine any sense of morality in the international system.


Was It Wall Street or the Government?

A recent Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) investigation into Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two government sponsored enterprises (GSEs) that were integral to the housing boom and bust, now formally argues that these two organizations committed massive fraud, which underrepresented their exposure to subprime mortgages and contributed to the economic meltdown.

The Wall Street Journal expounds how this investigation blows holes in the argument, often proffered by anti-capitalist Democrats, that Wall Street is solely to blame:
Democrats have spent years arguing that private lenders created the housing boom and bust, and that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac merely came along for the ride. This was always a politically convenient fiction, and now thanks to the unlikely source of the Securities and Exchange Commission we have a trail of evidence showing how the failed mortgage giants turbocharged the crisis. 
That's the story revealed Friday by the SEC's civil lawsuits against six former Fannie and Freddie executives, including a pair of CEOs. The SEC says the companies defrauded investors because they "knew and approved of misleading statements" about Fan and Fred's exposure to subprime loans, and it chronicles their push to expand the business.
And while the GSEs were somewhat independent from the legislature and the bureaucracy, the paper trail seems to go further back. At least some of the incentive for the alleged fraud was directly caused by government's social policy of getting every American his or her own house - regardless of the ability to afford it.
The Beltway story of the crisis claims that Congress's affordable housing mandates had nothing to do with it. But the SEC's lawsuit shows that Fannie degraded its underwriting standards to increase its market share in subprime loans. According to the SEC suit, for instance, in 2006 Fannie Mae adjusted its widely used automated underwriting system, "Desktop Underwriter." Fannie did so as part of its "Say Yes" strategy to "provide more 'approve' messages . . . for larger volumes of loans with lower FICO [credit] scores and higher LTVs [loan-to-value] than previously permitted."
Unfortunately, this is what happens when the government meddles in private-markets for social engineering purposes - prices (and risk) get mispriced, bubbles are grown, and then busts bring the economy down. And while this does not fully absolve Wall Street (fraud did occur and non-criminal stupid decisions were made) or the consumer (the role that greedy homeowners played in buying too much house or refinancing to buy flat-screen TVs and BMWs is unfortunately overlooked), it does shed light on the harm government can do. Sometimes trying to help people ends up with a worse outcome than doing nothing, especially if all potential consequences are not considered from the outset.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Stop Trying to Control Everything

For a long time, Americans have turned to the government to solve their woes. When things "go wrong" the government has been the readily accessible and presumably best organization to make things right. Social problems, economic recessions, health concerns, cultural discords, and the like have all been placed under  government oversight.

Government officials have often done a poor job at solving these problems, partially because the solutions are outside the scope of what a government can successfully do, partially because legislators and bureaucrats often fail to appreciate unintended consequences, and partially because rigid bureaucracy is generally ill-formed to adapt to changing circumstances in the real world. Yet, unfortunately many Americans still turn to the government as the problem-solver. This impulsive desire to turn to the almighty government comes from a general malaise in the American psyche that wants others to carry the tough burdens (or at least a lack of confidence in the ability to achieve), a human desire to control his environment, and an undue confidence that the government is the only institution that can solve big problems. The latter, of course, is rooted in a fundamental lack of imagination on how other forces can have tremendous impacts. The government can be seen, it is tangible, and thus to the naive it is the only means to implement solutions. The less tangible - social, cultural, and economic forces - are summarily dismissed.

But while there has long been criticism of expansive government, there appears to be growing popular antagonism to these outmoded ways of thought. Former Florida governor, Jeb Bush, writes a powerful critique of the need for the "right to rise." He argues that government causes more harm than benefit by its incessant interloping in the marketplace and its attempts to solve the 'problem' of risk.
But when it comes to economic freedom, we are less forgiving of the cycles of growth and loss, of trial and error, and of failure and success that are part of the realities of the marketplace and life itself. 
Increasingly, we have let our elected officials abridge our own economic freedoms through the annual passage of thousands of laws and their associated regulations. We see human tragedy and we demand a regulation to prevent it. We see a criminal fraud and we demand more laws. We see an industry dying and we demand it be saved. Each time, we demand "Do something... anything."
He goes on to discuss the pressures he faced, as a governor, to always find a solution, to always be the one to "do something," even though there was not always something to be done. The pattern is emblematic of the corrosion of the American way, where Americans now look for the easy way out, for someone else to solve their problems, and for a cushy, utopian lifestyle free from any possible harm.

In a similar vein, Robert J. Samuelson argues that Keynesian economics, the economic theory that has justified government management of and intervention in Western economies since the interwar period, is on its deathbed. Government management of the economy may have been appropriate when governments were small, nimble, and able to tweak the economy at the margin; however, now these policies are increasingly a disaster.
Deficit spending and pump priming were plausible responses to economic slumps. Now, huge governments are often saddled with massive debts. Standard Keynesian remedies for downturns — spend more and tax less — presume the willingness of bond markets to finance the resulting deficits at reasonable interest rates. If markets refuse, Keynesian policies won’t work.
However, governments have long since abandoned prudent use of such policies, distorting the original intent of Keynesianism to justify massive government control and intervention in the private sector. This has not only rendered Keynesianism ineffective but created ripples of problems across the American landscape. The death knells of this philosophy, are deeply rooted in a growing lack of confidence that some enlightened, technocratic government is truly able to solve the country's woes.

Unfortunately, some still tenaciously cling to the outmoded confidence in government. They cannot envision an alternative. They cannot accept that not only can we as humans, with our minimal capacity, not fix every problem, but that it is often not desirable to try and do so. Failure can be a good thing, self-reliance can be empowering, problem solving can build character, and being independent can yield a better world than  stifling, top-down control. Mankind cannot control every aspect of its environment, not through individual or government action. The sooner we let go of this pernicious desire to shape our surroundings into some ideal and the sooner we let go of the false hope that only through government's magical hands will we better our world, then the sooner this country will be able to progress.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Grabbing the Center

Elections are won and lost in the center. So seems to be an increasingly vocalized mantra from some of the more sensible on the right. The argument is fairly simple: while America is generally a center-right country, a large number eschew extreme candidates, whether on the far left or right. The politician that can successfully grab the middle stands to win the election.

Some conservatives, though, have long been arguing against this perspective, claiming instead that a more "pure" (read: further right) candidate is needed. But this logic fails. The far-right will vote for a moderate conservative over the leftist Obama, and, given their intense dislike of the incumbent, will undoubtedly head to the polls for Mitt Romney rather than seeing the president re-elected.

The independents, those who voted for Obama three years ago and are now sorely disappointed, will be more hesitant to vote for what appears to be an extreme GOP candidate, than a more moderate one, like Romney. Since, these are the powerful swing voters, their apprehension could be disastrous, giving Obama yet another four years.

Karl Rove, architect of the Bush Jr. campaigns, seems to agree. He has argued that a successful candidate needs to draw votes from both the left and the right and be representative of all of America. This is the strategy that worked for the "Big-Tent" Republicanism of Ronald Reagan, who created an entire new group of Democrats - the Reagan Democrats.

In the Wall Street Journal, syndicated radio show host Michael Medved provides a powerful argument to this effect.  He concludes:
In short, the electoral experience of the last 50 years does nothing to undermine the common-sense notion that most political battles are won by seizing and holding the ideological center. In the last two presidential elections, more than 44% of voters described themselves as "moderate," and no conservative candidate could possibly prevail without coming close to winning half of them (as George W. Bush did in his re-election). 
The notion that ideologically pure conservative candidates can win by disregarding centrists and magically producing previously undiscovered legions of true-believer voters remains a fantasy. It is not a strategy. At the moment, it is easy to imagine Mitt Romney appealing to many citizens who would never consider Rick Perry or Herman Cain. It is much harder (if not impossible) to describe the sort of voter—Republican, Democrat or independent—who would refuse to support Mr. Romney (over Barack Obama!) but would somehow eagerly back Messrs. Perry, Cain or Gingrich, let alone Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum or Ron Paul.
Conservatives, as well as their moderate and progressive neighbors, may have plenty of reasons to oppose Mitt Romney in favor of some rival candidate. Electability can't reasonably count as one of them.
Ideology certainly has its place, but those that are truly committed to correcting the misguided course this nation is on must be careful not to be blinded to their own detriment. Democracy is fundamentally about compromise, even if a compromise is worse than some alternative "pure" option. If the Republicans want a seat at the table, if they want to be able to influence the direction of the country, they must be politically smart as well.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Tyranny of Language

Republican Congresswoman, and presidential candidate, Michele Bachmann was heckled off of the stage at a recent foreign policy speech aboard the USS Yorktown, by a group of Occupy Wall Street protesters. The protesters interrupted her speech by reading in unison their own prepared words. Bachmann, who was visibly shocked and perturbed, was briefly escorted off of the stage. Upon returning she commented, "Don't you love the First Amendment?" She later went on to criticize the protesters as "ignorant" and "disrespectful."


While Bachmann is certainly right on the latter point and is justifiably annoyed at this abominable behavior, she gives the protesters far too much credit by calling what they did an exercise in free speech. Free speech is an essential right that prevents the silencing of other perspectives and ideas because one (particularly the government) disagrees with them. It primarily exists to allow opposition to freely challenge the ideas of those who have power.

However, it is not a shield behind which individuals or groups can hide to silence other's speech. This is precisely what the protesters did. They made noise to prevent Bachmann from voicing her perspectives and robbed her of the right to speak. This is the same tyranny that occurs when a speaker (or protester) is thrown in jail or punished in order to be silenced.

Free speech is not about words or sounds which emanate from one's mouth. It is about prohibiting coercive force from being used to silence one's ideas; regardless of how smart, crackpot, or weird these ideas are and certainly regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with them. The coercive use of the weapon of language to prohibit another from speaking is as tyrannous as using any other coercive method to silence different opinions.

It does not matter who one is, whether a Tea Partier shouting down a Democrat or an OWSer shouting down a Republican, these techniques are abhorrent. They are a direct affront to and violation of free speech, despite trying to hide behind the banner of this right. Free speech is needed to preserve the dialogue that underpins democracy. If we allow anyone to silence others, we will destroy the fabric of our system.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

@ FutureChallenges: An Artificial Protest: Occupy Wall Street

A discussion and analysis of Occupy Wall Street has been published at Bertelsmann Foundations FutureChallenges.org, that argues that OWS has severe structural issues and is thus far from a real protest movement. Not only does it lack a coherent message (although that is slowly changing), most of its constituent members are motivated by factors that are not conducive to a successful political force. OWS is driven by an obsession with the David-and-Goliath complex, a romanticization of protest, and a large amount of cognitive dissonance. While economic grievances may be real, OWS is far from a potent political force.
The American media has been awash with jubilant exaltations of Occupy Wall Street (OWS). However, despite many claims, the movement is not a transformative revolutionary force. While indubitably there is a small core that is committed to dramatic, even revolutionary, change, they are not representative of most Americans, or even, arguably, of most protestors in the streets. Accordingly, OWS will not have the dramatic impact championed by the chattering class.

Great Friends of Israel

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and President Obama failed to turn off their microphones when they decided to bash Israeli ally Prime Minister Benyamin Netanayhu. Sarkozy was overheard saying that, "I cannot bear Netanyahu, he's a liar." Obama responded with sympathy stating,"you're fed up, but I have to deal with him every day."


While the two are certainly entitled to their opinions, one would think it wise not to let such criticisms come out in such an embarrassing and public fashion. No one has doubted Obama's animosity towards the Israeli government (and, well, the French were never questionable on this front), but such statements only confirm the dismal relationship that the president has developed with an important ally. Such gaffes can only continue further deterioration in the US-Israeli relationship and hinder any ability for the US to serve as an honest mediator in the peace process. If Obama has not done enough to thwart a just peace in the Middle East through his foolish foreign policy, this vocal outburst certainly helping the cause.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Is the Mainstream Losing Interest in OWS?

Here's an excerpt from a poignant critique of OWS from the Washington Post's Michael Gerson. The whole article is worth a read.
At what point does a protest movement become an excuse for camping? At what point is utopianism discredited by the seedy, dangerous, derelict fun fair it creates? At what point do the excesses of a movement become so prevalent that they can reasonably be called its essence? At what point do Democratic politicians need to repudiate a form of idealism that makes use of Molotov cocktails?

The emergence of Occupy Wall Street raised Democratic hopes for the emergence of a leftist equivalent to the Tea Party movement. The comparison is now laughable. Set aside, for a moment, the reports of sexual assault in Zuccotti Park and the penchant for public urination. Tea Party activists may hate politicians, but they venerate American political institutions. Veneration does not always involve understanding. But the Tea Party’s goal is democratic influence.
...
And we are beginning to see what direct action means. Occupy DC protesters recently assaulted a conservative gathering, then took over a public intersection to prevent the passage of luxury cars. Blocking the path of one driver and his 2-year-old son, an activist shouted, “Sorry, but you have no power right now.” That is the opposite of participatory democracy — the use of power to intimidate a fellow citizen on a public street. It is the method of British soccer thugs.
...
Defenders of OWS dismiss this as the work of a few bad apples. But the transgressors would call themselves the vanguard. And they express, not betray, a significant ideological strain within the movement. Since the 1960s, some on the political left have sought liberal reform through the democratic process and nonviolent protest. Others have sought to hasten the crisis and collapse of fundamentally illegitimate social and economic systems. Both groups can be found within OWS, but the latter is ascendant.
As ANR has argued before and has been written elsewhere, Occupy Wall Street is fundamentally a flawed, if simply a "fake," protest movement. While there are certainly real grievances throughout America, OWS is not a viable movement that can address them. This isn't an argument about OWS's ideology (if it has one), which is certainly open to criticism on its face, but a structural criticism. It seems that the mainstream is starting to recognize this too.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Economic Harm of OWS

For a movement that professes to be protesting the dismissal state of the economy, including the lack of jobs, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) appears to believe that hampering the mechanisms of capitalism is a smart move. Yesterday, members of Occupy Portland shut down the Port of Portland, preventing any trade from proceeding. The Port of Portland is the fifth largest port (by tonnage) in the United States and is thus responsible for an enormous amount of trade and jobs, both at the port and in markets that rely upon the trade.

Why the Occupy movement thinks that stopping economic flows is an intelligent tactic is beyond comprehension. Not only would it seemingly undermine any potential support they could garner from those who do not sit on the far-left of American politics, but such strategies undermine attempts to improve the economy. It is nonsensical to prevent people from working and interrupt economic activity in this economic climate.

OWS has had pernicious effects on small businesses, particularly those located in the vicinity of the protests. Shops, for instance, have been forced to close as protesters have driven away paying customers. Other businesses have had to lay-off employees in order to stay afloat. And many banks have been forced to close their doors for fears of potential violence. None of this helps the economy or the newly minted unemployed.

But the follies of OWS do end there. There have been reports, admittedly isolated for the time being, of Occupy protesters attacking banks, stores, and other institutions of "capitalism." While not yet the mainstream of the movement, which has largely been peaceful, such violent trends are worrisome. The last thing this country needs is to descend into further turmoil.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Some Sense Regarding the Housing Market

It is about time someone talks honestly about the economy. According to The Wall Street Journal, Mitt Romney commented about the housing market and foreclosure:
One is, don't try and stop the foreclosure process. Let it run its course and hit the bottom. Allow investors to buy homes, put renters in them, fix the homes up. Let it turn around and come back up. The Obama Administration has slow-walked the foreclosure processes that have long existed, and as a result we still have a foreclosure overhang.

Number two, the credit [that] was given to first time homebuyers was insufficient and inadequate to turn around the housing market. I think it was an ineffective idea. It was a little bit like the cash-for-clunkers program, throwing government money at something which was not market-oriented, did not staunch the decline in home values anymore than it encouraged the auto industry to take off.
The Journal went on to say:
How's that for refreshing? After five years of politicians trying without success to postpone disclosures and levitate the housing market, Mr. Romney dared to tell the truth. Parts of the U.S., including Nevada, still have too many homes, and that supply needs to be sold off and fixed up so the market can find a bottom before home prices can start to rise again. The faster that process proceeds, the faster the recovery will take hold.
While the personal plight of many individual Americans is heart-wrenching on the personal level, meddling in the housing markets is the sort of disastrous policy that helped push the economy to its current state. Why can so many correctly criticize the bailout of big banks, insurance companies, and auto manufacturers, but not realize a bailout of Main Street is just as dangerous? The government's expressed desire to "prop-up" or "boost" the ailing housing markets are simply other terms for "create a new bubble."

By distorting incentives the government encourages individuals and institutions to incorrectly calculate risk. Inevitably, this will lead to sub-optimal outcomes. As difficult as it may be to watch the nefarious outcome of poor risk management, it is sometimes better for all to simply do nothing. The government not only does not have the ability or resources to "help" everyone, but it creates awful drags on the economy, as current policies have demonstrated, and breed future problems when it foolishly tries to become a superhero.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Hypocrisy of OWS

NRO's Jim Geraghty points out just a touch of irony that exists in Occupy Wall Street (OWS). OWS cannot seem to avoid the fact that the very things it is supposedly protesting against, are essential aspects of human nature and society—characteristics even OWS cannot escape from demonstrating.

[The full text is not available online since it is an email newsletter, NRO's Morning Jolt. I have included the it below.]


I'm just fed up with the greed of the rich and powerful, man, like those Occupy Wall Street organizers. The New York Post offers us a great belly laugh: "Even in Zuccotti Park, greed is good. Occupy Wall Street's Finance Committee has nearly $500,000 in the bank, and donations continue to pour in -- but its reluctance to share the wealth with other protesters is fraying tempers. Some drummers -- incensed they got no money to replace or safeguard their drums after a midnight vandal destroyed their instruments Wednesday -- are threatening to splinter off."

One occupier laments, "The other day, I took in $2,000. I kept $650 for my group, and gave the rest to Finance. Then I went to them with a request -- so many people need things, and they should not be going without basic comfort items -- and I was told to fill out paperwork. Paperwork! Are they the government now?"

You can hear the laughter at UrbanGrounds:
The obnoxious drummers are upset that their vandalized drums won't be replaced from the $500,000 in the general fund nor will they be getting funds for infrastructure (a shed) to keep them safe. The money collected is actually sitting in a bank, that's right a BANK! Isn't this motley crew opposed to banks AND capitalism? What bank and what is the name on the account? Is it an individual account or is it a corporate account? Is the person or group that the account belongs to registered and is making required filings? The Schadenfreude is strong in this one!

When the "Parasites On Parade" finally ends, and it will, some one or some small group is going to have a lot of "walking around" money, while the smelly masses who panhandled for it will be in the same sorry condition they were in before, blaming unknown individuals and corporations for all their troubles.
The Post also shares:
Filth-ridden Zuccotti Park is a breeding ground for bacterial infection loaded with potential health-code violations that pose a major risk to the public, an expert who inspected the area warned.

"It's like Walmart for rats,'' Wayne Yon, an expert on city health regulations, said yesterday.

"There's a lack of sanitation, a lack of controls for hot and cold water," Yon said. He saw at least 15 violations of the city's health code -- the type that would easily shut down a food establishment.

He noted the lack of lavatory facilities, as neighbors repeatedly complain about protesters defecating in the area and the stench of urine.
A.J. Strata wonders if the Occupy Wall Street crowd understands that they are inadvertent advertisements for why their vision of the world can't work:
So when I watch a tent city culture play government and cry for equality I see [it] for what it really is. Look at these people living in tents, calling one a kitchen and one a counsel center, fighting law enforcement while crime runs rampant amongst them. It's a sad joke!
What, am I supposed to trade in my upper middle class home I worked a life time to obtain, turn in my cars and motorcycle, give up all I have to go play communist commune in a park somewhere?
Are they nuts? Herman Cain wants to change the tax code and is getting nervous ninnies taking shots at him from all sides. These silly people in these occupy zones want to replace our entire society!
Good luck with that one.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Eat Local?

Here is an article that will make the elite "organic" crowd spew out their tofu in frustration. Foreign Policy writes how the "buy local" movement is horrible for the world's poor and not necessarily any better for the environment (or your health) than your standard internationally traded produce.
[T]hese First-World food fetishes are positively terrible for the world's poorest people. If you want to do the right thing, give up on locavorism and organics ├╝ber alles and become a globally conscious grocery buyer. This should be the age of the "cosmovore" -- cosmopolitan consumers of the world's food.
The article goes on to discuss how genetically modified (GM) crops are not the horrible, unsafe perversion of nature that many on the left (and Europeans) make them out to be. While arguing they may not be a "panacea," the author correctly points to their possible current and future benefits.

Additionally, the article blows holes in the accepted wisdom that eating locally actually helps the environment. It states:
For example, it is twice as energy efficient for people in Britain to eat dairy products from New Zealand than from domestic producers. It is four times more energy efficient for them to eat lamb shipped from the other side of the world than it is to eat British lamb. That's because transporting the final product accounts for only a small part of the energy consumed in the production and delivery of food. It's far better to eat foods from places where production itself is more efficient. For example, New Zealand cattle eat clover from the fields while British livestock tend to rely on feed -- which itself is often imported.
The bottom line is that (global) trade is good. Economies of scale, which are often the result of international trade and improved technologies (GM crops), help both the environment and the poor—the latter by providing jobs and supplying cheaper food. Those that profess otherwise seem to widely out of step with their supposed enlightened aim of helping humanity. While anyone is certainly entitled to spend their personal money as they choose, they should at least be clear regarding their motivations and effects. The "eat local" and "organic" trends are a luxury that can be afforded in many Western countries; they are not noble solutions that positively address the global problems that many who live these lifestyles purportedly want to solve.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: An Inflated Movement

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is "inept, incoherent and hopelessly quixotic"—and this is from their gushing supporter Eugene Robinson, who goes on to offer effusive and saccharine praise. The media has been awash with such puerile punditry—half-baked attempts to turn this rabble into a meaningful cause. But the truth is that these characteristics—the disorganization, lack of coherence, lack of mission and purpose—that Robinson and his compatriots are trying to turn into redeeming qualities are precisely why OWS is asinine.

The basic problem with OWS is that they do not know what they are criticizing nor do they know what they want. Instead they just want to make some noise. They have descended on the streets to join a protest-cum-fiesta, with no agenda in mind. In other words, they are pointlessly trying to create turmoil (or just trying to be part of the "crowd").

There are two underlying tenets of leftist philosophy that are implicitly driving this movement to the streets. The first is the so-called "problem of the underdog" (alternatively the "David and Goliath complex"), where the underdog is automatically granted moral superiority while the "overdog" is castigated as evil, corrupt, abusive, and the like. In cases where there is no clear underdog, a battle of words and propaganda usually ensues to claim the mantle of the oppressed. This conceptualization of the world is generally a driving theme on America's left. The underdog is to be reflexively defended against the oppression of the overdog, without any consultation with facts, history, logic, or other essential inputs that often underlie rational behavior. Whether the powerful is white, male, American, Israeli, rich, or a business owner, they are rubber-stamped with moral opprobrium.

The incorrectness of this knee-jerk damnation should be self-evident. Certainly while those in power can be in the wrong, their identity does not automatically imply that such is the case. However, this unfortunately has become a guiding principle of the left and a motivator of OWS. The unwashed have flocked to Zuccotti Park, the "headquarters" of OWS in NYC, because of an innate bias against the supposed overdog. Wall Street, CEOs, and bankers have been pilloried simply because of their identity and their perceived positions of power. And while there was indisputable wrong-doing by some on Wall Street (just as there is indisputable wrong-doing by those in Washington and on Main Street, the latter unfortunately far too often ignored), the attack on the system shows a lack of understanding of Wall Street's purpose and how basic things, like economics and finance, work. Instead it shows the deeply rooted bias, endemic to leftist ideology, of anyone who is perceived as being "top dog."

Secondly, OWS is motivated by the romantic aura that the left drapes around social revolution and protest. Acts of civil disobedience are lauded simply because they are performed, generally regardless of the cause. Protest has become an end unto itself, the mission and message are secondary, if existent at all. In a sense, a segment of the left wants to "recapture" the spirit of the 1960s, a time when protest was successful, partially because there were causes to protest about (some justified, others less so). "The Occupy Wall Street movement is an exercise in nostalgia. It’s an attempt to recreate the excitement of 1968, when the world’s youth took to the barricades," says a blogger at The Telegraph. The hippie mentality is evident in the drum circles, tie-dye, and other throwbacks filling Zuccotti Park. OWS is not really protesting—they have nothing to protest about—they are throwing a party, living in a revolutionary dreamworld, and trying to recreate some romantic notion that never existed.

The movement, if it can be called that, has tried to link itself not only to the 1960s, but to the Arab Spring and even the Tea Party. But the truth is, it shares little in common with any of these movements. The key lacking feature is that OWS has no agenda. They have no demands nor do they offer any alternatives to the status quo. There is, in fact, nothing political about them. The Arab Spring has a clear agenda of removing the tyranny and dictatorship that has lorded over the various Arab nations for decades. They have a goal and can clearly define when part or all of that goal has been achieved. For all their problems, (and ANR has been critical of the Tea Party), the Tea Party has a clear platform and agenda. They propose and can judge legislation according to a set of principles.

OWS possesses none of this. Their vague discussion about "economic justice" is meaningless. They are grossly out of touch with any sort of philosophical underpinnings of their beliefs. There is no social or political argument to be found.

Charles Krauthammer has decisively described the condition of OWS.
To the villainy-of-the-rich theme emanating from Washington, a child is born: Occupy Wall Street. Starbucks-sipping, Levi’s-clad, iPhone-clutching protesters denounce corporate America even as they weep for Steve Jobs, corporate titan, billionaire eight times over.

These indignant indolents saddled with their $50,000 student loans and English degrees have decided that their lack of gainful employment is rooted in the malice of the millionaires on whose homes they are now marching — to the applause of Democrats suffering acute Tea Party envy and now salivating at the energy these big-government anarchists will presumably give their cause.

Except that the real Tea Party actually had a program — less government, less regulation, less taxation, less debt. What’s the Occupy Wall Street program? Eat the rich.
The sad thing is how much some circles want to turn OWS into something consequential. Whether for nostalgia, a romantic notion, political expediency (look at the unions and many Democratic politicians), or simply because anyone in a suit must be a bad guy, many are beating their drum-circle drums to create meaning out of this "protest." But OWS cannot go anywhere, certainly not in its current state. Instead it just disrupts and distracts, removing focus from the very real problems many Americans are facing. At worst, it may lead to wholesale violence and division, precisely what America does not need. America's economic woes are all of our faults—we should be coming together to find solutions, not playing rounds of "point the finger."

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Israel's Terrible Blunder

Israel is usually pretty smart when it comes to security and mitigating the threats from terror. There is, however, one area where they repeatedly fail to maintain their vaunted standards: their willingness to negotiate for hostages. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Tuesday that the Israelis had reached a deal with Hamas, the terrorist group and Gaza's governing regime, for the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Shalit, who was abducted five years ago by Hamas agents, will be swapped for some 1,000 Hamas prisoners currently being held in Israeli prisons, many of whom are serving life sentences for terrorism.

The deal, however, is dreadfully foolish. By rewarding Hamas's kidnapping, the Israelis are only facilitating the re-occurrence of such heinous events. It is never wise to provide hostage-takers with incentives to continue their behavior. The payment of ransoms is a sure way to put future Israelis at risk. The only successful way to deter such behavior is to ensure that abductions will never be rewarded and that kidnappers can expect severe punishment for such transgressions.

Equally damning is the price that Israel has agreed to pay for the return of Shalit. It will now release scores of murderers and terrorists, many of whom are sworn to Israel's destruction. At least some of them will undoubtedly commit further terrorist attacks—in all likelihood causing the deaths of more Israelis. It is impossible for the Israeli government to morally justify the release of terrorists when death for some unfortunate Israelis is the inevitable outcome. Trading one captured prisoner for potential, even if undetermined, dead is unfathomable.

Finally, as harsh as it may seem, Israel will not be getting back the national hero that Shalit has been romanticized into over the past five years. As anyone who is familiar with Stockholm Syndrome knows, five years of isolation in a Hamas prison will not have worn well on the young Shalit, who was only 19 at the time of his capture. It is highly probable that Shalit has been completely brainwashed and indoctrinated by Hamas through years of psychological and physical control and torture. In all likelihood, over the course of his imprisonment, his handlers were able to break him. A worst case scenario is that he comes out of captivity as a mouthpiece for Hamas, slamming the very Israelis who sacrificed to gain his freedom. Obviously, such an outcome would be a huge propaganda win for Hamas and a demoralizing blow for Israel. Needless to say, it would only contribute to the mounting costs of this foolish prisoner swap. [1]

However misguided, the venerable roots of Israel's policy should not be denied. The intention is pure—to ensure that no solider is left behind, whether alive or dead. This is at least understandable, if not in some simplistic way commendable. It is undoubtedly comforting for the soldiers of such a small state to feel protected by their government. Nevertheless, while one's heart bleeds for the tragic Shalit, the government must consider the broader picture. There are better ways to maintain a commitment for the safe return of one's soldiers. Finding alternative means to punish Hamas, deter abductions, and obtain Shalit's release are the only method to fruitfully maintain Israeli security. Prisoner swaps will only lead to further tragedies and should never be a policy option.


Note:

[1] This is not meant to say that Israel should not do what it can to ensure Shalit's return—it should—but simply that the benefits the Israelis will get from a swap are not only most likely lower than they expect but certainly not worth the broader costs.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Redistributing GPA

University students in California put accepted liberal wisdom to the test in a well-executed video. Posing as petitioners, they asked bewildered classmates to sign a petition that would mandate redistribution of GPA points from those fortunate enough to have high GPAs to those with low GPAs—in order to bring everyone closer to the university median. Unsurprisingly, most students demurred, claiming it was unfair to take what they had worked hard to earn and give it to others. Regrettably, most were then unable to reconcile this belief with their contradictory support of a "tax-the-rich" mentality. Its quite sad how so many Americans, particularly our budding scholars, accept such arguments whole-cloth without thinking through the underlying reasons and implications.

The video is a few months old, but highly poignant given the equally obtuse rhetoric coming from the Occupy Wall Street movement.


Sunday, September 25, 2011

Netanyahu on Meet the Press

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat down with David Gregory on Meet the Press to discuss the current state of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Netanyahu forcefully explained why Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's bid for unilateral statehood at the UN is untenable. He offered that the only way to a secure and viable peace, consisting of two independent states, was through direct negotiations.

 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Chris Christie: In It, To Win It?

The New York Post reports that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has stepped back from his adamant refusal to run for president and may be jumping into the race. According to the report, Christie will provide an answer this week "after getting lobbied hard from some of the GOP’s top leaders and money men."

The Post states that Christie has offered criticism of the current batch of GOP candidates, arguing they are not providing voters with the answers they are looking for. Christie stated:
I think what the country is thirsting for, more than anything else right now, is someone of stature and credibility to tell them that and say, ‘Here’s where I want us to go to deal with this crisis.’... The fact that nobody yet who’s running for president, in my view, has done that effectively is why you continue to hear people ask [Indiana Gov. Mitch] Daniels if he’ll reconsider and ask me if I’ll reconsider.
Christie's entry would certainly unsettle what has become essentially a two-candidate race. Current front-runners Mitt Romney and Rick Perry have seemingly taken the lead not because of any intrinsic qualities but because they are merely better than the rest of the pool. Romney would certainly do a commendable job as president but is rather bland and not overly appealing to the Tea Party-base. This has allowed Perry to steal part of the spotlight. However, some of his positions and unfortunate gaffes have put the essential independent voter ill-at-ease with his candidacy.

Christie would undoubtedly break the mold. As the pugnacious Republican governor of the very Democratic New Jersey, he has been able to appeal to independents and some Democrats. His no-BS style is precisely what the electorate wants in Washington. In many ways Christie is the opposite of Obama—he is a leader that eschews the pettiness of politicking and pushes through needed and helpful legislation. His early battle with the teachers unions demonstrate his ability to stand behind necessary legislation despite misleading rhetoric from opposition special interests.

Christie is precisely what the Republican Party needs—a candidate that can fire up the base, appeal across aisle, and honestly and forcefully communicate a better way forward. While Obama's odds of reelection are slipping of their own accord, Christie would offer the best chance of a desperately needed change in the White House.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Obama Turns to the Rabbis

President Obama is starting to worry about the growing divide between the administration and American Jews, a normally solid constituency in the Democratic base. Last week's special election in NY represented the most recent signal of the Jewish voter's distaste with Obama's administration.

According to recent Gallup poll numbers, 40% of Jews disapprove of Obama, while only 55% approve of the president. This represents a sharp falloff from historical numbers. Obama received 78% of the Jewish vote in the 2008 election.

Aside from general economic concerns, much of this decline in support is due to Obama's lackluster policies in the Middle East. His attempts to push an Arab-Israeli peace have unsurprisingly backfired. His two major sins—pushing Israeli PM Netanyahu on settlements and demanding an agreement based on the 1967 borders—have greatly angered many Jews. These policies have led to stalemate, as they forced both Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to become locked into non-negotiable positions.

Obama's naive meddling has led to the most recent disaster today at the UN—a unilateral call for statehood by the Palestinians. Not only has this dealt a blow to the possibility of peace, but it has put Obama in an untenable position. If, as expected, this petition goes to vote in the Security Council this coming Monday, the United States will use its veto, undermining Obama's futile attempts to reach out to the Arab world. The administration's poor foresight has boxed them into a horrible corner, leaving them with little saving grace in the eyes of the international community. Somehow Obama has managed to anger everyone on all sides of the issue.

While there is little to be done about the international community at this point, Obama is apparently desperate to shore up the Jewish vote—a key constituency in what is an increasingly uphill battle for reelection. Obama  has directly reached out to a wide community of rabbis, attempting to garner Jewish support by sprinkling High Holiday[1] sermons with administration talking-points:
...[T]he Obama administration on Thursday convened a conference call with several hundred rabbis and Jewish leaders. According to a participant on the call, President Obama promoted his jobs bill—noting that those who have been more blessed should pay their fair share—and briefed the rabbis on U.S. efforts to counter the push for a declaration of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.
Phone calls with religious leaders is apparently a regular event, but one that has increasing importance as the president gears up for the 2012 election. The administration is clearly on the defensive, sending out Democratic National Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (a Jew), to assure pundits that Obama has firmly maintained the Jewish vote. Wasserman Schultz rejected any indication of trouble with the Jewish vote, stating:
That is absolutely not the case, and it will be demonstrated in the election next year that the natural home for Jewish voters, both domestically in terms of policy and in our Israel policy, is the Democratic Party and President Obama as our candidate.
Wasserman Schultz must either live in la-la land, oblivious to the poll numbers, or simply be hoping that if she states the illogical enough it will become true. Unfortunately for Obama, it is unlikely that simple rhetoric will help his waning support among Jews—or other demographics, for that matter. If Obama wants to win reelection he has to change his strategy: cut out the meaningless speeches and actually show some good policy. The administration needs to turn around the economy and straighten out foreign policy, not beseech rabbis to indoctrinate their congregations.



Note:

[1] The Jewish High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) will occur over the next two and a half weeks.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Essay Wins First Prize in New Threats To Freedom Essay Contest

My entry, An Old Threat in a New Garb, was awarded First Prize in the New Threats to Freedom essay contest. The entry was a response to Christine Rosen's The New Behaviorists, an essay included in The New Threats to Freedom book. The original essay discussed how behavioral science is a growing threat to freedom, as policymakers attempt to rely upon "expert" knowledge to legislate individuals' behaviors.

The response argued that behavioral science is not intrinsically bad, but instead a new tool that is sometimes used for age-old purposes of control. Tracing the history of increasing government from FDR, the argument holds that "ideology of centralized elite-run planning has since remained a staple of the American landscape." While this ideology ebbs and flows in intensity of implementation and precise form, it has consistently been utilized by various policymakers.

Behavioral science is the newest form of this desire to control. But as the essay argues, proponents of freedom should be careful to avoid disparaging the science because of its inappropriate use.  Behavioral science has much to offer and should not quickly be dismissed.

The full text of the essay can be read at New Threats to Freedom.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Rebuke Against Obama

One of America's most Democratic congressional seats has gone red.  NY-09, the district once held by former Congressman Anthony Weiner, was won last night by Republican Bob Turner in a special election to replace the disgraced former congressman.  The loss of this long-held district is a huge blow to the Obama administration.

The Democratic pedigree of the district is astounding and the statistics say it all.  The district, currently a bastion of (mostly Orthodox) Jews and Catholics nestled in Queens and Brooklyn, has been held by Democrats since 1923.  It has produced such notables as Chuck Schumer (current senator from New York) and Geraldine Ferraro (vice presidential candidate for Walter Mondale).  Only two Republicans have held the seat since 1874 (for a total of six years) and over the entire history of the United States, Republicans have represented the district for approximately nine years.

Yet even if the statistics are insufficient to convince naysayers of the impact, local Democrats concede the results are a clear rebuke of Obama. For instance, Democratic analyst Hank Sheinkopf said:
The Democrats said no to Obama, no to his economic plan, and no to his position on Israel.... It’s major smack at Democrats, a definite rejection of President Obama and it’s a warning that says if Catholics in the most blue of blue states can vote for the Republican they can do it in other states as well and the Democrats may have real trouble.
But while Sheinkopf is correct to focus on the Catholic vote, Obama should also worry about the second major demographic that makes up NY-09:  the Jewish vote.  New York Democratic leader Ed Koch outwardly supported Turner's campaign as a message against Obama's approach to the Middle East. Many Jews, a large Democratic staple, have become increasingly frustrated with Obama's caustic policies towards Israel and have turned against the administration.  This vote is a major indicator of that trend.

Dan Senor, in the Wall Street Journal, details a laundry lists of administration affronts to Israel, but sums up the meaning of the vote rather succinctly.
A Public Policy Poll taken days before the election found a plurality of voters saying that Israel was "very important" in determining their votes. Among those voters, Republican candidate Robert Turner was winning by a 71-22 margin. Only 22% of Jewish voters approved of President Obama's handling of Israel.
This trend, should it continue, does not bode well for the president and will certainly aid the Republicans come 2012.  Obama is getting hit hard in the supposedly safe bastions.  His mismanagement of the economy, poor foreign policy, and general inability to manage the political climate in Washington, have alienated many of his traditional voters.

And yet despite this wealth of evidence, many Democrats have tried to disavow any linkages to the administration's policy.  This is foolish.  Democrats can choose to ignore the lesson, but the interpretation of the special election as a rebuke against Obama stands rather solidly.  Even Turner acknowledged that there was little daylight between his and former opponent's, Democrat David Weprin, positions, particularly regarding Israel.  The voters, he argued, were not so much voting for him as sending a message of discontent to Washington.  Hopefully, for Obama's sake and the country's, the message does not fall on deaf ears.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Egypt's Protesters Destroying Peace with Israel

Egyptian protesters are squandering their newly found independence as they turn to violence instead of peacefully trying to build a free democracy. On Friday, protesters attacked the Israeli embassy, tearing down a concrete wall and looting the building.

Israeli quickly had to evacuate their personnel, except for the deputy ambassador.  According to reports, police did little to stop the rioting, although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu credits the Egyptian authorities with assisting in the evacuation of Israeli citizens.  Netanyahu was quoted saying:

The fact that the Egyptian authorities acted with determination and rescued our people should be noted and we extend them our thanks.... However, Egypt must not ignore the severe injury to the fabric of peace with Israel and such a blatant violation of international norms.

The Egyptian street should be very careful to avoid turning their rage towards the Israeli government, while the Egyptian authorities should do everything in their power to quell such rioting and destructive behavior.  It is in everyone's interest to maintain a robust peace between the two neighboring states.  No one, save the fundamentalist Islamists, will benefit from renewed strife between Egypt and Israel.

While it is unlikely for the relationship to quickly terminate in the near future, this is the second major instance in a month where Egypt's new government has failed to prevent attacks directed at Israel.  This is a worrisome trend, demonstrating not only that the Egyptians do not fully control their territory but also putting unnecessary strain between two of the region's most powerful states.  Peace between Egypt and Israel is essential for continued stability in the Middle East.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Just Another Stimulus Package

Obama's "jobs bill," announced last night, is just another stimulus package, plain and simple.  But not only is it just another Keynesian[1] spending package, it is the same old policy proposals cloaked (poorly) in a new garb.  The Wall Street Journal said it best:
If President Obama's economic policies have had a signature flaw, it is the conceit that by pulling this or that policy lever, by spending more on this program or cutting that tax for a year, Washington can manipulate the $15 trillion U.S. economy to grow. With his speech last night to Congress, the President is giving that strategy one more government try.
It seems that Obama has the vision of a new New Deal - the same type of stimulus; filling potholes, building infrastructure, and the like, that has already been attempted twice with little success during the Great Recession.  This is the same Keynesian economics that has, for some, justified profligate spending since World War Two.  Its record is, of course, highly debatable - after all, it was not so much the New Deal that brought America out of the Great Depression but World War II.  And while the staunchest defenders retort that military expenditures are government spending and thus justify Keynesian economics, there is a qualitative difference insofar as WWII spending occurred amid massive domestic and international structural changes.

But even if one concedes that Keynesian stimulus worked during WWII, it is the only event in American history that can make this claim.  Subsequent attempts have largely failed - most clearly demonstrated in the two most recent stimulus packages.  It is time to jettison this outmoded economic philosophy.  A simple enough reason is that Americans are catching on to the reality - any stimulus has to be paid by the taxpayer down the line.  Obama may wish to paper over this by claiming the "jobs bill" is fully funded, but the reality is if he is able to squeeze a few more billion out of the Super Committee, it should be used to further reduce our debt, rather than pay for new programs.

The truth is that the economy is failing to right itself because of fear.  Business owners and entrepreneurs have little certainty as to what is going to come out of Washington - more taxes or less, greater spending or austerity, increased or decreased regulation, downgrades, debt or solutions.  This has led to a near paralysis as a wait and see mentality has set in.  The volatility of the stock market says it all.  We have all become manic-depressives.

If Obama is serious about jobs, he has to allow business to do what it does best - get to work - by creating the stability it needs to properly function.  This is not even a call for decreased regulation or taxes [some regulation, as Obama pointed out is necessary to protect the safety and security of workers and consumers], but a need for businesses to know that their operating environment tomorrow will be the same as it is today.  This small thing, renewed confidence, will allow them to go forward and make long-term plans.  It is an easy solution - maybe too easy for a Democratic party beholden to the notion that complex government programs are needed to solve man's everyday problems.

The Republicans shouldn't even consider the bill; it is a waste of time.  Sure Obama will try to peg them as obstructionist and thus the Republicans should avoid grappling in the mud.  Their response so far - no response - is perfect.  There is no debate here, just political theater as Obama launches he reelection campaign. [But if one feels compelled to see what's economically wrong with his proposal the Heritage Foundation has put together a concise list.]




[1] Keynesian economics is the economic philosophy that government spending is sometimes needed to support the economy.  First developed by John Maynard Keynes in the early 20th century, it has often been used to justify countercyclical deficit spending (i.e. during recessions) by the government to stimulate the economy.  Largely beyond its original intent it has been argued by some (most notably following the Kennedy administration) that it should not solely be used during recessions but during other times of non-full employment.  This argument has led to deficit spending during economical booms to increase employment.  

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Showdown at the UN and a Setback in the Middle East

According to the New York Times, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has confirmed the Palestinians' decision to appeal to the UN for unilateral statehood.  While the vote will undoubtedly fail to pass the Security Council, there is a good chance that it will pass the General Assembly, where the US does not possess a veto.

While in a practical sense the vote is meaningless - the General Assembly does not have the power to grant statehood - the decision to press for unilateral recognition will have severe negative consequences for the Israeli-Arab peace process.  Abbas's decision to proceed follows extensive pressure by Israeli, American, and other diplomats to avoid making an international scene at the UN.

The vote could serve to severely raise tensions in the region, already inflamed by the Arab Spring.  Some pundits believe that it could spark rioting and Israeli reprisals within the West Bank and Gaza.  It has already led to increased divisiveness in the world community as the US Congress has moved to cut funding to any UN organization that supports unilateral Palestinian statehood.  But worst of all, it may force Israel, already feeling isolated and abandoned, particularly by its number one ally, to retrench, granting further power to anti-peace extremists.  Ultimately, the vote will cause greater polarization between the sides and move them further away from an attainable peace accord.

Undoubtedly, the Obama administration's shoddy handling of the Middle East has contributed to this unfortunate turn of events.  Obama's insistence on Israeli preconditions for negotiations, namely an immediate freeze on building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and a bold-faced demand for a settlement based on the 1967 armistice lines, has all but terminated any common ground for negotiations.  While these terms will likely be incorporated into any final peace accord, they cannot serve as starting points for negotiations.

Obama may understand the need for these terms in any final agreement, but he has allowed his policy wonkery to get in the way of sound politics.  His vocalized demands have forced the Israelis to harden their positions, especially given the right-wing basis of the governing Likud coalition.  Likewise, such explicit preconditions have boxed-in Abbas, who can no longer come to the bargaining table deprived of these assurances (the Israelis won't be giving them) without appearing to undermine his people.

This is clearly a huge factor in precipitating Abbas's turn to the UN, a move that angers both the US and Israel.  According to the NYT:
Mr. Abbas says for direct talks to begin, Israel should carry out a short-term freeze in settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as well as agree that the basis of the talks would be the lines drawn in 1967.
This is shame.  The Middle East peace process has enough hindrances already and sorely does not need more.  Accordingly, any forward movement on a Palestinian state will be thwarted the moment the issue is put to a unilateral vote before the General Assembly.  Hopefully, the Palestinian leadership realizes this before it is too late.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Has Perry Helped Romney?

Dana Milbank has an interesting thesis:  Rick Perry's rapid rise to the top in the race for the GOP presidential nomination has helped former front-runner Mitt Romney.
[Perry's ascent] has, by unburdening Romney of his head-of-the-pack status, released him from the tedious and timid campaign he was running. Relieved of the high expectations, Romney is free to take sides unapologetically in a battle over whether the Republican Party will reclaim its mainstream traditions or remain a protest movement.
Romney, who has led in the vast majority of primary polls over the summer, has recently and summarily been replaced by Perry, who shot to the top following his recent entry into the field.  Perry has strongly appealed to the Tea Party movement, but has caused some consternation among moderates and independents.  His entry has also notably hurt Tea Partier Bachmann, in addition to Romney.


Whatever Perry's immediate success has been, Milbank's argument cuts to the core of the Republican primaries.  Simply put, they are a battle between the moderate establishment and the far-right Tea Party.  Ultimately, the GOP (particularly the far-right) is going to have to decide if it wants to select a candidate that hews the Tea Party line or choose someone that has a greater chance of wooing moderates and thus defeating Obama.  


If Milbank's argument is right, Romney now is in the best position to portray himself as the only one that can beat Obama.  According to Milbank, Romney has successfully began recasting himself a moderate, pro-market, Republican by presenting reasonable conservative economic solutions and announcing a mainstream team of economic advisers, while shedding the fire and brimstone of the Tea Party.  When it comes down to the actual primaries, such a tactic may swing the vote in favor of Romney, who can appeal to the sensibilities of the GOP: "Select me or Obama gets four more years."  The Republican base may be fired up about Tea Party candidates, but if such a candidate cannot beat Obama in a national election, he is useless.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Don't Fear the Islamists

The Arab Spring and the fall of Arab leaders, particularly US-allied dictators such as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, have led to much consternation in many circles.  While few would refute that the likes of Mubarak, Libya's Qaddafi, or Syria's al-Assad are genuinely good guys, some argue that the stability provided by these despots is preferable to the unknown vacuum that will result after their downfall.  Particularly, it is argued, that with radical Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, waiting in the wings, these secular dictators are a safer bet for Western interests.

There is little doubt that another Iran (an Islamist led regime) would not bode well for US interests in the Middle East.  Even Syria, the most anti-Western regime currently experiencing Arab Spring turmoil, could tilt further towards the Iranians.  However, these fears are considerably overblown.  There is much ground to believe that even if Islamist groups gain greater control in these countries that the outcome will be more benign than many doomsdayers predict.

First, it is far from clear that many Islamist groups want to control their governments.  Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, has disavowed any attempt to control the legislature and is running an incomplete slate of candidates.  Arguably this is because many Islamists are concerned that the next general government will fail and thus feel it is best to be in opposition, not in control.  Furthermore, many prefer to target the softer realms of government - welfare, religion, health services, etc. - and are not quite ready to take on the higher politics of foreign policy and economic affairs.

This later point dovetails with the second reason to avoid fear over the changes in the Middle East.  The Islamists have, for decades, been a force of opposition.  This is a relatively easy role to play, particularly when a country's leadership consists of dictators or military juntas.  However, as Islamists step out from this role two trends will emerge.  First, there will be growing divergence within the movement.  As an opposition they could remain strong and united in saying "no;" as leaders they will invariably differ in how to proceed. [This may be another explanation for why the Islamist leadership is wary about taking full control of the government - they wish to get their base in line before power splits them apart.]  Invariably such dissension will weaken the movement and undermine their ability to create serious harm.

The second trend to emerge will be that of moderation.  Those who assume leadership positions in democracies with strong non-Islamist bases will be forced to tailor their message and policy goals in order to maintain their position.  For instance, Egyptian Islamists have long disparaged the peace accord with Israel, but it seems unlikely that, once running the country, they would choose to create a new enemy on their border by repudiating the deal. Such moderation will lead to further fractionalization of the movements and more amenable rulers.

Finally, it is doubtful whether the Islamist parties, particularly in their present manifestations, will be able to maintain significant popular support to dominate their respective countries. While they have historically been the most vocal and organized critics of the Arab regimes, the Arab Spring has largely been a secular movement.  In fact, the recent revolutions largely discredit the Islamist movement, which has failed over the past decades to achieve what these secular, youth movements have achieved over the past year.  The Arab Street does not want to shift from secular dictatorships to theocratic ones.  This partially explains the moderation of the Islamist movements but will also explain the inevitable rise of more secular parties.

None of this is to say that the next few years will be a time of peace and harmony in the Middle East.  Nor is it to suggest that the West's interests will always be paramount under these new regimes - new democracies will undoubtedly be fickle.  These new countries will not be younger, carbon-copies of the West but youthful and unique states that blend democratic institutions with experiences and expectations of the Arab and Muslim world.  Many policies may be anathema to America sentiments, for instance the treatment of women.  However, it is arguable that despite what a Western would call "missteps," most new democratic regimes will not be nearly as threatening as some fear.

In a sense, the un-repression of the Islamists will be their death knell.  Their ideology will be unable to withstand the open competition natural to democracy.  The superior systems of democracy and freedom will undoubtedly win the hearts and minds of the people, as the Islamists will be forced either to moderate or splinter off into smaller groups.  While this may not happen immediately and it is quite possible to have a seriously wrong turn in the short-run, over the long-run it is relatively clear that such an ideology cannot have a long-lasting hold.  One only need to look at the current struggles in Iran (and possibly soon to be second revolution) to understand this point.

The West would be wise to co-opt this to the best of their ability.  They should facilitate the removal of the current regimes, like Syria, to not only be perceived by the Arab masses as friends of freedom but to undercut the Islamist movements.  This will not only provide greater input and sway into the new regimes, but allow more Western-friendly parties to flourish.  Additionally, the West needs to exploit the inevitable divisions within Islamist movements, cultivating the most moderate and marginalizing the extremists.  While this will not ensure an immediate win on all fronts, it will guarantee the best possible long-term outcome for both the Middle East and the West.

[For two interesting articles that expand on these arguments see "The Rise of the Islamists" by Shadi Hamid  and "Terrorism After the Revolution" by Daniel Byman both published in May/June 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs.]

Thursday, September 1, 2011

American Exceptionalism, the Left, and Obama

What is American exceptionalism?  And, what is Obama's and the American left's view of it?  Shelby Steele has the answer in a well-crafted essay in the Wall Street Journal.
American exceptionalism is, among other things, the result of a difficult rigor: the use of individual initiative as the engine of development within a society that strives to ensure individual freedom through the rule of law. Over time a society like this will become great. This is how—despite all our flagrant shortcomings and self-betrayals—America evolved into an exceptional nation.
Steele's link between this "difficult rigor," essentially the American character, and our own exceptional standing as a global leader is aptly made and far too often not discussed or even considered by many.  Our own commitments to hard-work, sacrifice, innovativeness and ingenuity, individuality, and, amongst other attributes, the rule of law, have played an enormous role in developing the United States as a singularly powerful and desirable (in the terms of other people and nations wanting to be like us or join us) nation.  However, many in America, particularly on the left, do not agree with these values and especially our exceptionalism.  Steele outlines how America's imperfect history has become, for some, a cloak of repulsiveness over America's current successes and the values that helped us achieve them.
At home the values that made us exceptional have been smeared with derision. Individual initiative and individual responsibility—the very engines of our exceptionalism—now carry a stigma of hypocrisy. For centuries America made sure that no amount of initiative would lift minorities and women. So in liberal quarters today—where historical shames are made to define the present—these values are seen as little more than the cynical remnants of a bygone era.  
... 
So we Americans cannot help but feel some ambivalence toward our singularity in the world—with its draining entanglements abroad, the selfless demands it makes on both our military and our taxpayers, and all the false charges of imperial hubris it incurs. Therefore it is not surprising that America developed a liberalism—a political left—that took issue with our exceptionalism. It is a left that has no more fervent mission than to recast our greatness as the product of racism, imperialism and unbridled capitalism.
This self-loathing is bad enough as is.  It is never practically or emotionally commendable to look in the mirror and hate what you see - this is why psychologists make quite nice salaries helping individuals understand that their flaws or historical missteps do not obscure their true value.  But as so often occurs in individuals, Steele correctly argues that this systematic recasting of American values and exceptionalism as morally defunct has lead to the undermining of the very greatness of the American way.   

Since the '60s we have enfeebled our public education system even as our wealth has expanded. Moral and cultural relativism now obscure individual responsibility. We are uninspired in the wars we fight, calculating our withdrawal even before we begin—and then we fight with a self-conscious, almost bureaucratic minimalism that makes the wars interminable.
America seems to be facing a pivotal moment: Do we move ahead by advancing or by receding—by reaffirming the values that made us exceptional or by letting go of those values, so that a creeping mediocrity begins to spare us the burdens of greatness?
In Steele's analysis, this is not just a historical force of the left, but a very real problem of the current administration, who's leaders were raised in the heyday of this sort of political thinking.  Now, as leaders of the very institution they were raised to detest, they are torn between pursuing their responsibility of advancing America's position and being true to the elixir of principles they imbibed as youth.

Mr. Obama came of age in a bubble of post-'60s liberalism that conditioned him to be an adversary of American exceptionalism. In this liberalism America's exceptional status in the world follows from a bargain with the devil—an indulgence in militarism, racism, sexism, corporate greed, and environmental disregard as the means to a broad economic, military, and even cultural supremacy in the world. And therefore America's greatness is as much the fruit of evil as of a devotion to freedom. 
...
As a president, Barack Obama has been a force for mediocrity. He has banked more on the hopeless interventions of government than on the exceptionalism of the people. His greatest weakness as a president is a limp confidence in his countrymen. He is afraid to ask difficult things of them.
All-in-all, this leaves America and the left in a very precarious position.  How do we trust a leadership that wants to "take the country down a notch" or wants to "lead from behind"?  How can the people be comfortable with representatives that were raised on an opposition ideology, who have fixated on what is wrong, not what is right with our system?  But most importantly how can those who ascribe to such beliefs reconcile the fact that their ideology is in many ways at odds with the responsibility of ruling?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Market Rallies After Earthquake Leads to Evacuation of Capitol

Okay, so the market was moving upwards all day.  Nevertheless, it seems to have taken its most rapid climb of the day a short time after the 1:51 PM earthquake forced the evacuation of many government buildings in Washington, including the Capitol and White House.  Telling? Coincidence? Irony?   We'll leave it to the people to judge.



Can Muslims Beat the Islamists?

Andrew McCarthy sheds some interesting light on the ever-present debate over Islam and sharia.  In a well formulated editorial, McCarthy outlines the need for continued focus and discussion on sharia's interaction with the state and the tensions between secularism, moderate Islam, and Islamism (eg. radical Islam).  He argues that it is fair to critique radical interpretations of sharia in order to support moderate Muslim ideology.  He writes:
The hope, of course, is that between Muslim reformers who embrace our liberty culture, and the millions of Muslims who are peaceful, moderate people regardless of what their scriptures may literally command, alternative constructions of sharia will eventually discredit and marginalize the Islamist interpretation. It is a tough row to hoe.... But it is not impossible.
McCarthy develops his argument by poignantly, although admittedly imperfectly, contrasting modern Islam's trials to those experienced in the West's own history.  He outlines a few instances where the West had to move past strict interpretations of religion and reject the commingling of religion and state.
Government [in the US colonies] was based on God’s law, loyalty oaths were mandatory, Sabbath observance was strictly enforced, and brutal corporal punishments were carried out: Philip Radcliffe, for example, was whipped and had both ears cut off for “invectives against our church and government.” Others were executed, usually by hanging, for what, in effect, was the preaching of novel religious doctrines. 
Nor would we today recognize the original Virginia settlements as consonant with what we think of as our way of life. In Jamestown, too, religious duty blended seamlessly with civil law. We need not belabor the centrality of slavery to the developing agricultural economy. But for a time, a bachelor in Virginia was permitted to purchase a wife from among the young, unmarried women sent from England in order to make the colony more attractive. The price was 125 pounds of tobacco.
His conclusion is one of cautious optimism.  Islam has the ability to rise above the backwards, anti-liberal ways that are practiced in so many Muslim countries and preached by many fundamentalist scholars.  But this is only achievable if moderate Muslim voices join with those in the West to challenge and criticize the Islamist perspective.
It took a very long time to find the right balance between the sacred and the secular [in the West], and there is good reason to believe that our most serious problems today are caused by too much suppression of faith, not too little. But Islam has to be given a fair chance to strike this balance. We can’t tolerate jihadist atrocities, and we must fight Islamist efforts to erode our freedoms. But it will not do to smirk and say that Muslims have already had 14 centuries to get it together. How would we have done under that test? 
We have had to come a very long way to arrive at what we are rightly proud to call Western culture and American civil liberties. Our current battle is about preserving that inheritance for ourselves and making sure the Muslims in America who want it are free to have it. In factoring sharia into that battle, we need to be as humble as we are forceful.