The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Monday, August 30, 2010


Ahead of this week’s negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, carefully overseen by Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton, it might be time for a change in strategy. After all, the Palestinians have already made a "non-negotiable demand"—that Israel not build additional apartments in Jerusalem (a.k.a., “settlements”) or Fatah will pull out of the talks. Hamas refuses to talk and has instead reiterated its firm position that Israel cease to exist. Oh, well.

In past negotiations, Israel has been asked or coerced into concession after concession. The Palestinians, on the other hand, come to the negotiating table and make demands (similar to the “settlement” demand they’re making this time). They do this from a position of weakness, and that, in itself, seems to be a bit odd, but whatever. After making their demands, they offer very little or nothing in return. Since the President views himself as a man with unique negotiation skills and has worked very hard to establish himself as a friend to the Muslim and Arab word, it would seem reasonable that he try something new.

He might begin by suggesting that the Palestinians offer one or more tangible concessions as an act of goodwill. That is, a concession that can be counted or measured in some way.

After all, the Israelis have made numerous tangible concessions in the past. All of them were either rejected by the Palestinians or executed unilaterally by the Israelis (think: the unilateral departure from Gaza).

Of course, those who characterize the Palestinians as an “oppressed” people might argue that they certainly can't offer land for peace as the Israelis will have to do. They would also argue that as a "poverty-stricken” people (don't bother mentioning the upscale restaurants, the overflowing food bazaars, or the luxurious shopping mall that all appear in the "refugee camps" in Gaza), they cannot offer financial concessions as the Israelis will have to do.


Here are a few things that President Obama can suggest in the way of tangible concessions that might demonstrate goodwill on the part of the Palestinian people and also demonstrate to the American people that Barack Obama truly does have some degree of influence in the Arab world.

Concession 1: The Palestinians would be asked to remove all school books that contain virulently anti-Semitic references from all of their schools and universities. It's a relatively small thing, I know, but meaningful nonetheless. The cost of replacement books could be borne by a coalition of NGOs and European countries who care so deeply about the plight of the Palestinians.

Concession 2: The Palestinians would be asked to remove any children’s television program that contains virulently anti-Israel rhetoric or suggests that the murder of Jews is something to be admired. Because this might leave significant holes in Palestinian TV programming, the United States would offer any of a number of syndicated cartoon shows as replacements. Each would be carefully censored to eliminate any situations that would be offensive to Muslims.

Concession 3 (the big one): Palestinians would be asked to turn over 50% of their rockets and other heavy weaponry to the UN. If, in fact, they are, as they profess, truly interested in a peaceful resolution, it would seem reasonable that reducing their ability to purposely target innocent civilians (a clear violation of international law) would reduce their liability in the court of world opinion. Oh, wait, world opinion never seems to worry about the targeting of Israeli civilians. A useful concession, nonetheless.

Three simple concessions—none very expensive or onerous—might do wonders. In fact, they might help to convince many of us in the Center that the Palestinians are serious this time.

Okay, Mr. President, time for you to work your magic with our friends in the Arab world.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


Over the past few weeks, those on the Left who have been staunch defenders of the “ground zero Mosque” have labeled 2/3rds of the American public as “racists,” “bigots,” Neanderthals,” “xenophobes,” or “un-American.” The most common ad hominem attack is the charge of “Islamophobia.”

In a thought-provoking article, James Taranto provides insight into the reasons that underlie the name calling and introduces a new phobia:
The British philosopher Roger Scruton has coined a term to describe this attitude: oikophobia. Xenophobia is fear of the alien; oikophobia is fear of the familiar: "the disposition, in any conflict, to side with 'them' against 'us', and the felt need to denigrate the customs, culture and institutions that are identifiably 'ours.' " [emphasis mine] What a perfect description of the pro-mosque left.

Scruton was writing in 2004, and his focus was on Britain and Europe, not America. But his warning about the danger of oikophobes--whom he amusingly dubs "oiks"--is very pertinent on this side of the Atlantic today, and it illuminates how what are sometimes dismissed as mere matters of "culture" tie in with economic and social policy:
The oik repudiates national loyalties and defines his goals and ideals against the nation, promoting transnational institutions over national governments, accepting and endorsing laws that are imposed on us from on high by the EU or the UN … The oik is, in his own eyes, a defender of enlightened universalism against local chauvinism. And it is the rise of the oik that has led to the growing crisis of legitimacy in the nation states of Europe. For we are seeing a massive expansion of the legislative burden on the people of Europe, and a relentless assault on the only loyalties that would enable them voluntarily to bear it. The explosive effect of this has already been felt in Holland and France. It will be felt soon everywhere, and the result may not be what the oiks expect.

What’s we’re seeing today is an American version of oikophobia, but if the term were applied to those on the Left as regularly as they apply the clearly pejorative terms I mentioned earlier, I suspect they’d be more than a little perturbed.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Turning Soft

With the exception of a few of the President's most ardent cheerleaders, virtually every serious observer reports on a worsening economy. Neil Irwin of The Washington Post states that “the recovery is losing steam” and then writes:
There's a pattern here, and it's not a good one. Virtually every major economic indicator to come out in the past two months has been disappointing in one way or another. Retail sales. International trade. Weekly jobless claims. The monthly employment report. Housing starts.

In fact, of the major data releases, the only one I can think of that has been decent over the past couple of months was last week's industrial production report.

When the economic data first started turning soft earlier in the summer and it looked as though the recovery could be losing steam, I tried not to leap too far into major conclusions. Data is often uneven at economic turning points, and economic recoveries sometimes move in fits and starts.

But as the third straight month of weaker data comes to a close, the brutal reality is that all the indicators are pointing in one direction. The data are all either coming in in line with diminished expectations, or surprising in a negative direction. It's not an uneven recovery-- it's not much of a recovery at all.

Yesterday housing sales for July hit a fifteen year low, and today, average housing prices have dropped yet again.

In a move that has become tiresome, the Obama administration looks backward and blames George W. Bush for all of these problems. Although there is no question that the seeds of the great recession were planted during Bush’s administration, Barack Obama has been in office for one and a half years. In his first month in office, he promised the public that the enactment of his economic stimulus would keep us away from an unemployment rate of eight percent. He was right. The unemployment rate is now 9.5 percent and shows no signs of recovery.

Why has President Obama been so ineffective in grappling with the difficult problems we face? Is it political inexperience? or lack of private sector experience? Or ideological stubbornness that negates the ability to adapt? I think it’s all of these and more.

John Stossel tries to define the underlying causes for poor job creation:
The problem today is that the economy is not being left alone. Instead, it is haunted by uncertainty on a hundred fronts. When rules are unintelligible and unpredictable, when new workers are potential threats because of Labor Department regulations, businesses have little confidence to hire. President Obama's vaunted legislative record not only left entrepreneurs with the burden of bigger government, it also makes it impossible for them to accurately estimate the new burden.

In at least three big areas -- health insurance, financial regulation and taxes -- no one can know what will happen.

At the same time, respected business people are sounding the alarm. Declan McCullagh reports on a speech by Intel CEO Paul Otellini:
Otellini's remarks during dinner at the Technology Policy Institute's Aspen Forum here amounted to a warning to the administration officials and assorted Capitol Hill aides in the audience: Unless government policies are altered, he predicted, "the next big thing will not be invented here. Jobs will not be created here."

The U.S. legal environment has become so hostile to business, Otellini said, that there is likely to be "an inevitable erosion and shift of wealth, much like we're seeing today in Europe--this is the bitter truth."

Not long ago, Otellini said, "our research centers were without peer. No country was more attractive for start-up capital... We seemed a generation ahead of the rest of the world in information technology. That simply is no longer the case."

The Obama administration’s insistence on big government solutions has done nothing but create uncertainty within the business community. When a business can’t determine the on-going cost of a new employee (due to vague regulatory requirements), it tends not to hire. Worse, when it sees a government environment that is anti-business, it tends not to invest in new manufacturing facilities. The result is stagnation.

President Obama needs help and advice from the private sector, and he needs it now! His economic team has relatively little private sector experience and the President himself has none. He needs to get a Jack Welsh or a Warren Buffet or a T. Boone Pickens (or all three) directly involved, and then he needs to listen and to act. He also needs to work with the hated GOP to enact policies and, if necessary, legislation that reduces the the uncertainty that now burdens business, and as a consequence, allows companies large and small to create private sector jobs. He needs to do this immediately. If he does not, he will preside over a double dip recession and an economy that could be crippled for a generation.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Soft Power

In a continuing testament to the success of the Obama administration's “soft power” diplomacy with Iran, the Islamic republic thumbs its nose at UN and Western sanctions (aided by both China and Russia who, apparently, are unimpressed with our country’s diplomatic efforts in their spheres), announces a new 600-mile range weaponized drone to much fanfare, and in the spirit of peace and understanding, calls it “the minister of death,” builds a fleet of swarming speedboats whose only purpose is to sink oil tankers and close the Straits of Hormuz, continues to hunt down and execute any opponents of its repressive theocracy, and is estimated now to have 3 public and another 6 or 7 secret uranium enrichment facilities. The Mullahs are coming around, folks, soft power diplomacy is working.

Just this week, the administration, with the uncritical assistance of the MSM, has created a narrative that according to Jed Babbin “credits its intelligence expertise with deterring an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.” This will allow the President to express (in Charles Krauthammer’s words) “theatrical outrage” if Israel strikes Iran.

As I’ve stated in earlier posts on Iran, it’s fairly obvious that many in the West and the Gulf want to use Israel as a “cat’s paw.” Let Israel do our dirty work (accompanied by a secret sigh of relief by both Gulf Arabs, Europe, and the U.S.) and then roundly condemn Israel for doing it.

Jed Babbin provides further background:
For almost two years, President Obama has used every diplomatic tool at his disposal to strengthen US ties to the Islamic world, often at Israel's expense. His administration's strongest statements and actions have been against Israel on issues ranging from construction of new Israeli homes in Jerusalem to pressure to engage in direct talks with the Palestinians.

In contrast are Obama's "open hand" policy toward Iran, his nomination of an ambassador - our first in at least five years - to Syria and his reported collaboration with Egypt on an international resolution saying the Middle East is a "nuclear free zone," which is aimed at Israel's nuclear weapons program.

Obama's attitude toward Israel is reminiscent of the British and French governments' attitudes toward Czechoslovakia in 1938 when they combined to pressure the Czechs into surrendering the Sudetenland to Germany.

The difference here is that though Chamberlain and Daladier did get the Czechs to agree to their terms, there is no reason to believe that Obama's effort has "persuaded" Israel that Iran should be allowed another year to pursue its nuclear program undisturbed. There is every reason to believe that the Israelis will attack Iran as soon as they believe they can defend themselves adequately against the inevitable counterattack.

Regardless of the [New York] Times's spin, Obama's "persuasion" of Israel only increases the pressure on the Netanyahu government, and makes the attack on Iran more likely.

As a matter of strategy, I am against Israel’s unilateral action against Iran. The potential for unintended and even disastrous consequences outweighs even the existential threat to this small, modern democracy located among medieval dictatorships and virulent theocracies, all of whom want Israel eradicated. But I understand Israel’s dilemma and recognize that very, very tough decisions will have to be made sooner, rather than later.

The problem is that Barack Obama is the first U.S. President in history who has clearly demonstrated that he cannot be trusted as an Israeli ally. Because the Israelis rightly think that no one has their back, President Obama has inadvertently increased the likelihood of war in the Middle East.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

No Matter

Throughout 2007 and 2008, Hamas lobbed thousands of rockets into Israeli population centers. Their intent was to injure or kill Israeli civilians. Their success was limited only by their own incompetence and Israeli bomb shelters.

George Will comments:
Rocket attacks from Gaza increased dramatically after Israel [unilaterally] withdrew. The number of U.N. resolutions deploring this? Zero.

The closest precedent for that bombardment was the Nazi rocket attacks on London, which were answered by the destruction of Hamburg, Dresden and other German cities. When Israel struck back at Hamas, the "international community" was theatrically appalled.

Now, President Barack Obama, exhibiting the unlimited hubris that has become the hallmark of his administration, has decided to bring the Israelis and Palestinians to Washington for face-to-face “peace talks.” No matter that the Palestinian leadership is weak and represents only half of the territorial elements occupied by the Palestinians. No matter that Hamas (and its now replenished and improved rockets) remains committed to Israel’s destruction and will play no part in Obama’s little party. No matter the far stronger Palestinian leaders than Mahmoud Abbas have been offered significant concessions by Israel, only to walk away and at the same time initiate a murderous Intifada in which 1000 Israelis died. No matter that the Palestinians have never made a serious concession on any issue that might lead to peace.

President Obama will enter the fray, and with his enormous charisma, solve a conflict that has been an intractable problem for every president since Truman. After all, he’s been so successful in his other foreign policy endeavors. For example, using his vaunted “soft diplomacy,” Iran has decided to stop nuclear development, North Korean has made peace with the South, Russia and China support our efforts at the UN, Venezuela has decided to tone down its anti-American rhetoric, Afghanistan is going really well, … oh, wait, those things didn’t happen, did they? No matter. This will be different.

Friday, August 20, 2010


In their counter-offensive to the groundswell of public anger over the “ground zero mosque” (GZM) and in their effort to protect President Obama, Left-leaning pundits are suggesting that any objection to the GZM is unAmerican.

In article after mainstream article, commentators and reporters accuse a significant majority of the American public of (1) trampling on Freedom of Religion, (2) outright Islamophobia, or (3) rank stupidity.

Bobby Gosch writing in Time Magazine asks “Does American have a Muslim Problem?” His piece exemplifies the Islamophobia mime and begins by noting generously that “You don't have to be prejudiced against Islam to believe, as many Americans do, that the area around Ground Zero is a sacred place.” but soon concludes that “it is plain that many of Park51's [GZM] opponents are motivated by deep-seated Islamophobia.”

He goes on to suggest that although there has been no violence against Muslims in the U.S., “hate speech” is on the rise. Mr. Gosch never mentions the “hate speech” that appears daily in government-sanctioned media throughout the Muslim world, nor the direct and irrefutable “hate speech” spoken almost daily by national leaders such as Iran’s Mahmoud Amadinejad.

Margaret Carlson writes an article that exemplifies the stupidity mime:
How can President Barack Obama be so right about the mosque and yet get it so wrong?

Here’s how: He is so supremely confident in his intellect that he forgets, on his way to the correct decision, to slow down and pick up not-so-gifted stragglers …

He’s an intellectual comfortable with abstractions, a former editor of the Harvard Law Review, a constitutional scholar, a community organizer …

Ms. Carlson fails to recognize that more than a few of us have degrees to match the President’s, are very comfortable with abstractions. and have accomplished far more in our lives than being a “constitutional scholar” (an assertion that is highly suspect) or “a community organizer” (a job that most serious 45 year olds would be embarrassed to put on their Resume). She fails to grasp the simple reality that there are many, many reasons to oppose the GZM and that none of them have anything to do with the stupidity of us “not-so-gifted stragglers.”

In both cases, Gosch’s and Carlson’s arguments is both offensive and condescending. But in reality, their use of ad hominem attacks is nothing more than laughably predictable and pathetically unconvincing.

Update: (8/20/2010):

As an example of a more reasoned argument (one that does not use ad hominem attacks or insult those who champion the mosque), consider the words of conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer:
Radical Islam is not, by any means, a majority of Islam. But with its financiers, clerics, propagandists, trainers, leaders, operatives and sympathizers -- according to a conservative estimate, it commands the allegiance of 7 percent of Muslims, i.e., more than 80 million souls -- it is a very powerful strain within Islam. It has changed the course of nations and affected the lives of millions. It is the reason every airport in the West is an armed camp and every land is on constant alert.

Ground Zero is the site of the most lethal attack of that worldwide movement, which consists entirely of Muslims, acts in the name of Islam and is deeply embedded within the Islamic world. These are regrettable facts, but facts they are. And that is why putting up a monument to Islam in this place is not just insensitive but provocative.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


It appears as if President Obama’s clumsy entry into the “ground zero mosque” debate has heated up rhetoric on both sides, but before considering the current debate, it might be useful to consider two snippets of history.

In the year 637 AD, Jerusalem was conquered by the Rashidun Caliphate army during the Muslim conquest of the region. Fifty years later, the Muslim conquerors decided to build a mosque which today is called the Dome of the Rock. The architects and engineers that constructed the mosque could have placed it anywhere within Jerusalem. There are beautiful hilltops overlooking the city that would have highlighted the magnificent structure. Instead, they chose to build the mosque directly on top of the ruins of the second Jewish Temple, even then the most holy of all Jewish sites. Some would argue that the Dome of the Rock was the first example of a "triumphal mosque"—built on the Temple Mount as a subtle reminder of Islam's conquest of this region.

Approximately a hundred years after the construction of the Dome of the Rock, the city of Cordoba, Spain became the seat of the Islamic Caliphate. Christians and Jews lived in the city, but were Dhimmi—that is, to live without harassment by Cordoba’s Muslim rulers, they were, according to Sharia Law, forced to pay special taxes that only second class citizens were required to pay. Today, it's interesting to note that the developers who insist on building the Mosque near ground zero have chosen the name "Cordoba Initiative."

It is neither paranoid nor bigoted to ask whether the site location for the “ground zero mosque” (on hallowed ground for all Americans) by a Muslim group that calls itself the “Cordoba Initiative” has symbolism beyond ecumenical understanding and interfaith diversity. It is reasonable to ask why the Muslim supporters of this project are incapable of exercising sensitivity to the raw emotions of the vast majority of all Americas and building their mosque elsewhere. But according to many commentators on the Left, those questions should not be asked, and those asking them are religious bigots, Islamophobes, and anti-freedom of religion.

As I stated in two earlier posts, the widespread objection to the “ground zero mosque” has absolutely nothing to do with religious freedom. It is not a constitutional question, and couching it in those terms (as the President and his supporters continually do) is intellectually dishonest. Muslims, Hindus, Mormons, Christians, Jews, Wiccans, Rastafarians and many, many others,have the right to practice their religions and do so openly and without harassment throughout the United States. Ironically, the same cannot be said in a significant majority of the Muslim countries.

And yet, the Left insists on cloaking this debate in terms of “religious freedom.” They do this because it then allows them to launch ad hominem attacks on anyone who disagrees with their point of view. It also allows them to engage in their favorite pastime—moral preening.

The same commentators who today castigate the public for its stand against the “ground zero mosque” and suggest that stupidity and bigotry are the drivers for that position, praised the American people for wisdom and insight immediately after the election of our current President. Stupid and bigoted, or smart and wise? You can’t have it both ways.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Reciprocal Sensitivity - II

Mike Lupica of The New York Daily News tells the story of Bonnie McEneaney, one of the thousands of family members who watched in horror as their loved one were murdered by Islamists on September 11, 2001.

He quotes McEneaney, a thoughtful, quiet woman who lost her husband in the twin towers, using her comments to convince the reader that despite the politically correct claims of the President, this issue is not about freedom of religion [Muslims are free to build Mosques throughout the five burroughs of Manhattan], but it is about sensitivity.
Only this debate isn't about correctness. Or freedom of religion. Or even the idea that if this mosque doesn't get built, it will mean we are now deciding about religious freedom in this country one neighborhood at a time. It is about common sense.

More than that, it is about the constituency of Sept. 11.

"Nobody disputes the principle of freedom of religion," Bonnie McEneaney was saying yesterday. "Of course Muslims should have the same spiritual rights the rest of us have. The question isn't about that. The question is about sensitivity. To me, this is solely about sensitivity, the feelings of the friends and relatives who lost loved ones on 9/11."

In an earlier post , I made the same point. Why is it that we must always be sensitive to the feelings of Islam throughout the world, but Islam (one fifth of the World’s population) is never asked to be sensitive to the feelings, culture, or societal desires of the West? Why is it that Barack Obama crafts a foreign policy that goes out of its way to exhibit sensitivity to Islam (up to and including an apologia for perceived injustices on the part of the West), but never asks Islam to apologize for (and condemn without equivocation) the many wrongs perpetrated in its name? Sensitivity is a two way street, and right now, in New York City, it’s all one way.

Like most of his supporters on the Left, President Obama preens in his protection of “religious freedom,” creating a strawman that changes the subject. Is he really so naïve that he believes his own argument, that he doesn’t see the irony of discussing “religious freedom” for a religion that in many parts of the world gives new meaning to the word “intolerance?”

Of course, the other consistent argument that comes from the President’s supporters on this issue is that unreciprocated sensitivity is a winner with the Islamic street, that the United States becomes a beacon of religious freedom because it is doing the difficult thing.

Richard Fernandez disagrees and clearly enunciates the reality of our actions:
All bending over backward tells moderate Muslims is that the American political elite will abandon everything — even Ground Zero — to the radicals. It tells the Muslim world that the American elite, from cowardice or moral vanity will sell out anyone. And that doesn’t breed Muslim respect; it breeds universal contempt. Then they will turn to each other and say, “if you were thinking of fighting by America’s side, don’t”. With a guy like Obama as your shield, who needs a sword? Brookings, Zogby and Pew have documented the drastic fall of Obama’s popularity in the Muslim world. His fall is matched by a corresponding popularity of Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who is now 12 times more popular than he is in the Middle Eastern surveys. If the Obama way wins friends and influences people in the Middle East then how come nobody loves him?

But Obama, the ideologue, persists in his argument, albeit that his spokespeople are now lawyering his comments.

The problem is that 70 percent of American citizens (including 70 percent of those of us in the Center), don’t buy it.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Just Pathetic

Throughout his campaign and into his presidency, Barack Obama criticized the preceding administration for its lack of sensitivity to the Muslim world, its almost total lack of outreach to the Palestinians and other Arab dictatorships, and it’s confrontational approach toward Islam’s most potent country, Iran. In Cairo, early in his presidency, the President apologized for the West’s treatment of Islam. Only this week, in discussing a Ramadan dinner he will host at the White House he suggested that it "remind[s] us of the principles that we hold in common, and Islam's role in advancing justice, progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings."

Really? It’s tempting to suggest a few counter-examples, but let’s not get off-track.

It’s interesting to note how all of this outreach is working out. The Christian Science Monitor reports:
The Brooking's poll, conducted with Zogby International in late June and early July in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, and Jordan found that "positive" views of Obama among Arabs had slipped from 45 percent to 20 percent in the past year, and that his "negatives" had soared from 23 to 62 percent.

Meanwhile, the Asia Timesreports on the results of a poll of citizens of Arab countries:
When respondents were asked to name the world leader they admired most, Obama's standing was less than 1%. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was cited most often (20%), followed by last year's top pick, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (13%), and Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (12%).

So, a holocaust-denying thug who murders his own citizens for political dissent, advocates the stoning of women for adulterous behavior, continually threatens to vaporize Israel, and tweaks the United States at every opportunity polls at 12 percent and the President—“less than 1 percent.”

So much for the benefits of sensitivity.

Richard Fernandez of The Belmont Club comments further:
The hope that appeasement would be rewarded by respect has earned the President a kick in the nose. Perceived strength generates its own legitimacy in rough places; Arabs who have traditionally feared Persia now believe it has a right to build nuclear weapons. They have watched Iran push the President’s flaccid arm down to the table and drawn their own conclusions. The policy of apologizing for America has not won friends or influenced people; it has not even delegitimized Iranian expansionism. It has produced the contrary result.

One can only wonder whether Barack Obama has learned anything from all of this. My own view is that he has not, that the “outreach” mime is so strongly held that he is unable to adapt his behavior to the realities of a difficult and dangerous world populated by vicious adversaries.

And yet, his supporters in the media, along with those on the Left who refuse to belief his ineptness is real, continue to praise his outreach. They continue to believe that words and phrases can change the behavior of bad actors on the international stage, much like “hope and change” did with the American electorate in November of 2008. Again Richard Fernandez comments:
Belief in magic and faith in spells runs strong in political Washington. The New Republic’s print edition describes the reaction of the Administration on “April 14, 2009 as Barack Obama’s standing in the polls was beginning to slip”. Obama was looking for a phrase to bring back the love, “something that would evoke comparisons to Theodore Roosevelt’s Square Deal, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.”

Obama had hit on the phrase the New Foundation. He tried it out with Presidential historians at a private dinner in the White House. Doris Kearns Goodwin nixed it. She said it sounded “like a woman’s girdle”. Goodwin was right. But it underscores the complete vacuity of a public policy built on wordsmithing. The administration was trying on words like a courtier at Versailles might try on a hat or a dress thinking it would make a difference.

Not that there is anything wrong with hats or dresses or deckchairs. The only thing wrong is imagining that rearranging these articles on the deck of the Titanic will keep it afloat. There’s something crazy about that, something pathetically crazy.

Nah, just pathetic.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Campaign Mode

Over the past two weeks, President Obama has returned to the only thing that he seems to do well—campaign mode. Reuter’s reports:
AUSTIN, Texas, Aug 9 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama attacked the economic policies of his Republican predecessor George W. Bush in Bush's home state on Monday as evidence of the way Republicans would operate if given power in Nov. 2 U.S. congressional elections.

At a fund-raising event for Democrats in Dallas, where Bush now lives, Obama said the former president's "disastrous" policies had driven the U.S. economy into the ground and turned budget surpluses into deficits.

Obama defended his repeated references to Bush's policies, saying they were necessary to remind Americans of the weak economy he inherited from Bush in January 2009.

"The policies that crashed the economy, that undercut the middle class, that mortgaged our future, do we really want to go back to that, or do we keep moving our country forward?" Obama said at another fund-raising event in Austin, referring to Bush's eight years as president.

"Campaign mode" allows for selective memory. It encourages half-truths, divisive attacks on the opposition, and a penchant for applause lines delivered to friendly audiences. Barack Obama is very comfortable in campaign mode. The problem, I’m afraid, is that he’s not campaigning for the presidency, he is the President and he, and he alone, is now responsible for our domestic and international policies and challenges. Blaming George W. Bush may energize the President’s left-leaning base, but polls indicate that those of us in the Center are less than impressed. His direct attacks on his predecessor are unprecedented in modern times and are perceived by many as childish rants by a man who doesn't seem to understand the wisdom of a small plaque that sat on another Democratic president's desk: "The Buck Stops Here."

The President states that “the former president's 'disastrous' policies had driven the U.S. economy into the ground and turned budget surpluses into deficits,” but being in campaign mode he conveniently forgets to mention that his party has controlled both houses of Congress with significant majorities since 2007. In January of that year, unemployment was 4.7 percent and the debt was at 8.4 Trillion. Today, after 42 plus months of Democratic leadership and 19 months of an Obama presidency, unemployment has risen to 9.5 percent and the national debt is $13.2 trillion. Worse, Obama's brain trust can't seem to reduce unemployment and continues to increase the debt.

In his best campaign mode style, the President asks “do we really want to go back” to the Bush era?

What Mr. Obama seems unable to fathom is that many citizens of this country would gladly “go back” to 5 percent unemployment, less debt, fewer back-breaking entitlements, and a Bush administration that for all its failings (and they were many) acted with far less arrogance and considerably more maturity that one we have now.

Friday, August 06, 2010


Let’s assume your next door neighbor, like many Americans, is upside-down on his mortgage. As real estate continues its free fall after the crash, your neighbor owes more to the bank than his property is worth. So he leans over the fence and asks you to help him pay his mortgage. How would your respond?

If you’re like most of us, you’d be sympathetic, but indicate that all of us have been affected by the great recession and that your first responsibility is to your family. You have to save for your children’s college education, repaint the house, and pay for the myriad expenses that every family faces. Nicely, you’d say “no.”

Although it’s far from a done deal, it looks like the Obama administration may try the same thing that your neighbor tried. But instead of asking you for help, the President, working through government agencies his administration controls, is going to tell you that you must help bail out homeowners who are under water. James Pethokoulis reports:
Main Street may be about to get its own gigantic bailout. Rumors are running wild from Washington to Wall Street that the Obama administration is about to order government-controlled lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to forgive a portion of the mortgage debt of millions of Americans who owe more than what their homes are worth. An estimated 15 million U.S. mortgages – one in five – are underwater with negative equity of some $800 billion. Recall that on Christmas Eve 2009, the Treasury Department waived a $400 billion limit on financial assistance to Fannie and Freddie, pledging unlimited help. The actual vehicle for the bailout could be the Bush-era Home Affordable Refinance Program, or HARP, a sister program to Obama’s loan modification effort. HARP was just extended through June 30, 2011.

The move, if it happens, would be a stunning political and economic bombshell less than 100 days before a midterm election in which Democrats are currently expected to suffer massive, if not historic losses. The key date to watch is August 17 when the Treasury Department holds a much-hyped meeting on the future of Fannie and Freddie.

So, families that have been responsible over the years, that have not over-extended on their housing, who have paid their mortgages faithfully while watching their equity decrease dramatically, may now be asked to subsidize those who have been somewhat less responsible in their financial dealings.

But why not? After all, in this era or Obama-style big government, it's Washington that controls every aspect of the economy. Burdened by government disincentives to create job and the threat of higher taxes, the economy has stalled. Unemployed people (many of whom are upside-down) need a good job, not a phony bailout. But for the past 18 months, the President hasn't been able to figure out how to help the private sector to create jobs. But he's really good at spending money we don't have. Long-term debt? No worries. After all, Obama and his genius advisors will be long gone when (to quote the President’s past mentor) “the chickens come home to roost.”

If the Obama administration implements this new extra-Congressional bail-out scheme, it’s an admission of three things:

  1. the President knows he could never get congressional support for a move like this and has decided to end-run his own majority in the legislative branch;

  2. the President recognizes that his economic stimulus approach is an abject failure and as a consequence knows that a growing economy (something that just might bailout people who are upside down) is unlikely in the near future, and

  3. the President is perfectly willing to use a blatant short-term attempt to buy votes without considering its long term impact on the deficit and the generations of young people who will grow up and be asked to pay it off.

There's no doubt a few million mortgage holders will be thrilled with the President's gift, but those of us who will pay for it may be slightly less enthralled with his generosity.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Bibi Aisha

The New York Times reports on a Time Magazine article about a beautiful, young Afghani woman, Bibi Aisha, whose family gave her to the family of a Taliban fighter to settle a blood debt. The NYT provides a summary of her fate:
At age 12, Aisha and her younger sister were given to the family of a Taliban fighter in Oruzgan Province under a tribal custom for settling disputes, known as “baad.” Aisha’s uncle had killed a relative of the groom to be, and according to the custom, to settle the blood debt her father gave the two girls to the victim’s family.

Once Aisha reached puberty, she was married to the Taliban fighter, but since he was in hiding most of the time, she and her sister were housed with the in-laws’ livestock and used as slaves, frequently beaten as punishment for their uncle’s crime.

Aisha fled the abuse, but her husband tracked her down in Kandahar a year ago, took her back to Oruzgan, and on a lonely mountainside cut off her nose and both ears and left her bleeding. She said she still did not remember how she managed to walk away to find help.

In Pashtun culture, a husband who has been shamed by his wife is said to have lost his nose, Ms. Naderi explained; from the husband’s point of view, he would have been punishing Aisha in kind.

It appears that this tragic story has become a hot point between those on the Left who want to the U.S to leave Afghanistan and those on the Right who want to stay. Time writes:
BagNews, a left-leaning Web site about the politics of imagery in the media, saw the matter in conspiratorial terms. “Isn’t this title applying emotional blackmail and exploiting gender politics to pitch for the status quo — a continued U.S. military involvement?” wrote Michael Shaw.

Richard Stengel, Time’s managing editor, said he thought not. “The image is a window into the reality of what is happening — and what can happen — in a war that affects and involves all of us,” he wrote in a statement on Time’s Web site.

The story of Bibi Aisha is both tragic and infuriating, and, I suspect, repeated far too frequently in Afghanistan. But Bibi Aisha’s story is less about whether we should leave or stay and more about the utter futility of trying to transform a tribal, 8th century culture that is driven by extreme Islamic laws.

President Obama, much to the approbation of the Right,” has decided that the War in Afghanistan is his “just war.” After months of “deliberation” he decided to double down by adding troops but never really indicated what good that would do. His stable of the best and brightest, exhibiting a level of extreme hubris that has become their signature, seemed incapable of recognizing that history was against them, that Afghanistan was what it was, and that a modern Western power could not change it.

We should leave Afghanistan in an orderly way, but sooner rather than later. Those who argue that our departure will result in other Bib Aisha stories fail to recognize that our presence has done little to stop them from happening anyway. We cannot and should not attempt to change a corrupt, tribal, Sharia-driven society in which more than half the populace is illiterate, the gross national product is dominated by heroin production, and Islamists own the night and are poised to take the daylight. There are times when we should be humble enough to recognize that the United States, even with the best of intentions, cannot fix every country and every culture.

Bib Aisha is leaving Afghanistan for the United States. In our country she will receive reconstructive surgery and hopefully learn to read and write. She will have a chance at a good life. But thousands of other beautiful, young Afghani woman remain hostage within an Islamist culture that subjugates them. It’s up to Afghani’s to change that, but first they have to decide to leave the 8th century. We can’t make that decision for them, and we shouldn’t try.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Reciprocal Sensitivity

If your sole source of news is the mainstream media, I suspect you’re only vaguely aware of Park51—a controversial proposal to build a Muslim community center/mosque two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center. Politicians and spokespeople on the Left see no problem with Park51, arguing that religious freedom is sacrosanct and that we should welcome the diversity implied by the $100 million project. Those on the right suggest that Park51 is a metaphorical finger in our eye—symbolizing (albeit subtly) the Islamists' greatest victory against the Great Satan—a victory that cost over 2,700 innocent civilians their lives. Both sides of the political spectrum are wrong.

On the Left, people like Tom Friedman write:
When we tell the world, “Yes, we are a country that will even tolerate a mosque near the site of 9/11,” we send such a powerful message of inclusion and openness. It is shocking to other nations. But you never know who out there is hearing that message and saying: “What a remarkable country! I want to live in that melting pot, even if I have to build a boat from milk cartons to get there.” As long as that happens, Silicon Valley will be Silicon Valley, Hollywood will be Hollywood, Broadway will be Broadway, and America, if we ever get our politics and schools fixed, will be O.K.

A wonderful sentiment, no doubt, but to call it naïve is an understatement. Worse, it misses a much bigger point that I’ll get to in a moment.

Park51 is not about religious freedom. Moslems are free to build Mosques throughout the five boroughs of Manhattan and just about everywhere else in the USA. They are equally free to practice their religion and do so with remarkably little harassment, given the bellicose attitude of a non-trivial percentage of Islamic extremists who reside both inside this country and abroad.

But Park51 is also not about symbols or a nefarious plot on the part of Islam. True, the construction of a Mosque so near to the World Trade Center site could be construed as a symbol of Islamic supremacy, but we can’t read the minds of its sponsors. Sometimes a Mosque is just a mosque. When the Right asks questions about funding for Park51, they should be answered clearly and completely to ensure that Wahabbi money is not involved. But rejecting the project just because it is Islamic is wrongheaded.

So what is Park51 about? I think it’s about a surprising lack of sensitivity on the part of the Moslems who proposed it and those on the Left who champion it. Let me digress for a moment.

In the early 1990s, the Carmelite order opened a convent near the entrance to Auschvitz, the infamous concentration camp that was pivotal in Germany’s attempt to exterminate Jews, gay people and other “undesirables.” Jewish organizations thought the location of the convent was inappropriate and after a few years of debate, Pope John Paul II asked the nuns to move. They did. The Pope never said that there was anything wrong with the location of the convent, but he was sensitive to the bad feelings it created near hallowed ground for Holocaust survivors and their families.

Of all the possible locations in New York City, why was a site two blocks from hallowed ground chosen? Did none of the Moslem proponents of the project consider that it might precipitate bad feelings among the tens of thousands of people in the immediate area who lost loved ones after the Islamic terrorist attacks? And if they did, did they care? Apparently not. Unlike Pope John Paul II who showed sensitivity, the proponents of Park51 showed none.

Worse, the titular home of Islam, Saudi Arabia, won’t allow the Christian bible to cross it borders, and would never allow the construction of a Church or Synagogue anywhere in the country. Could you imagine the construction of a small church on the road leading into Mecca?

According to Tom Freidman, we should be proud that “You can study Islam at virtually any American university, but you can’t even build a one-room church in Saudi Arabia.” Proud? Maybe. But I think it’s reasonable to be angry as well.

There comes a time when the people of this country should expect—no, demand—reciprocal sensitivity. I think this is that time. If Islam wants us to believe that it truly is the religion of peace, it should have the maturity to be sensitive to the placement of Park51, recognizing that just because they have the right to put it there doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Tax the Rich

President Obama, most of his advisors, and many on the Left who still support his policies take it as an article of faith that taxes on “the rich” should be increased. That’s why there’s going to be a fight in Congress on rescinding the Bush tax cuts.

Those who favor tax increases have a simple rationale—we’re running a serious deficit and the “rich” can easily afford increased taxes. That in turn will help reduce the deficit by providing the government with additional revenue.

To sell their rationale to the general public, they resort to class warfare arguments, suggesting that every small business owner who is doing well is no better than a trust fund slacker like Paris Hilton or a Wall Street Master of the Universe like AIG's Joseph Cassano. They suggest (dishonestly) that the “rich” don’t pay their “fair share,” although it’s exceedingly difficult to understand how paying 70 percent of all income taxes collected isn’t a fair share. They argue that those who aren’t rich are burdened with payroll taxes, forgetting that payroll taxes are actually fee-for-service payments (e.g., Social Security or Medicare) that are made many years in advance of the service being rendered (others would argue that these payments are actually a Ponzi scheme, but that's a different discussion).

But at the end of the day, the administration’s insistence of increased taxes is bogus because the Obama strategy simply won’t work. Although it sounds counter-intuitive, history indicates that increasing taxes on “the rich” results in reduced government revenues. Economist Arthur Laffer provides some data:
Anyone who is familiar with the historical data available from the IRS knows full well that raising income tax rates on the top 1% of income earners will most likely reduce the direct tax receipts from the now higher taxed income—even without considering the secondary tax revenue effects, all of which will be negative. And who on Earth wants higher tax rates on anyone if it means larger deficits?

Since 1978, the U.S. has cut the highest marginal earned-income tax rate to 35% from 50%, the highest capital gains tax rate to 15% from about 50%, and the highest dividend tax rate to 15% from 70%. President Clinton cut the highest marginal tax rate on long-term capital gains from the sale of owner-occupied homes to 0% for almost all homeowners. We've also cut just about every other income tax rate as well.

During this era of ubiquitous tax cuts, income tax receipts from the top 1% of income earners rose to 3.3% of GDP in 2007 (the latest year for which we have data) from 1.5% of GDP in 1978. Income tax receipts from the bottom 95% of income earners fell to 3.2% of GDP from 5.4% of GDP over the same time period.

Virtually every serious economist (with the notable exception of Paul Krugman) argues that increasing taxes in the teeth of a serious recession is counter productive, removing spendable dollars from an economy that depends heavily on consumer spending.

It’s troubling that the best and the brightest in the Obama administration are so ignorant of history. Laffer provides some historical background:
The Great Depression was precipitated by President Hoover in early 1930, when he signed into law the largest ever U.S. tax increase on traded products—the Smoot-Hawley Tariff. President Hoover then thought it would be clever to try to tax America into prosperity. Using many of the same arguments that Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are using today, President Hoover raised the highest personal income tax rate to 63% from 24% on Jan. 1, 1932. He raised many other taxes as well.

President Roosevelt then debauched the dollar with the 1933 Bank Holiday Act and his soak-the-rich tax increase on Jan. 1, 1936. He raised the highest personal income tax rate to 79% from 63% along with a whole host of other corporate and personal tax rates as well. The U.S. economy went into a double dip depression, with unemployment rates rising again to 20% in 1938. Over the course of the Great Depression, the government raised the top marginal personal income tax rate to 83% from 24%.

Is it any wonder that the Great Depression was as long and deep as it was? Whoever heard of a country taxing itself into prosperity? Not only did taxes as a share of GDP fall, but GDP fell as well. It was a double whammy. Tax receipts from the top 1% of income earners stayed flat as a share of GDP, going to 1% in 1940 from 1.1% in 1928, but at what cost?

It appears that more than a few Democratic Congressman and Senators recognize these historical truths and have begun to push back. We can only hope that the President allows reason to trump ideology and steps away from his insistence on increased taxes at a time when the economy needs stimulation, not euthanasia.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Volt

Now that GM has officially announced the price ($41,000) of its new plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, the Volt, it appears that commentators on both the Right and the Left are rushing to trash the car and the Obama administration for its efforts in promoting electric vehicle (EV) technology. That’s sad, short-sighted, and ill-informed.

The Volt is a revolutionary vehicle that will allow its drivers to avoid using any gasoline for the first 40 miles driven each day. For millions of Americans who drive fewer miles per day than that number, their daily gasoline consumption will be exactly zero. Yes, they’ll use electricity to charge their cars in their own garage or driveway each night, but power generation capacity is under-utilized at night, often generated with home-grown (e.g., coal, nuclear, hydro-electric)energy sources, and is considerably less expensive than the equivalent amount of gasoline.

On the Right, commentators suggest that tax-credits for the Volt are ill-conceived and that the government should not try to manipulate the automobile market. Such arguments are laughably disingenuous. The U.S. Government subsidizes industries of all kinds, often in ways that are both illogical and ill-conceived. Yet conservatives are somehow exercised over tax credits for a new transportation technology that is well-conceived and is an absolutely essential step in the long road to energy independence.

On the Left, some writers extend their knee-jerk class warfare arguments to the Volt. Charles Lane , writing in Slate makes the typical argument:
It's official: The Chevrolet Volt, the new plug-in electric hybrid car from General Motors, will cost $41,000—that's a four-seat hatchback for about the base price of a BMW 335i. To be sure, a $7,500 federal tax credit cuts that to $33,500, and electricity is cheaper per mile than gas. But barring some huge oil price spike or stiff new gas tax, it would take more than a decade to offset the higher purchase price. Some will pay a premium for the frisson of going green or being the first "early adopter" on the block. Still, this little runabout is a rich man's ride.

And that's my problem with the Obama administration's energy policy, or at least with his lavish subsidies for the Volt, Nissan's all-electric Leaf (likely sticker price $33,000), and Tesla's $100,000 all-electric Roadster: Where does the federal government get off spending the average person's tax dollars to help better-off-than-average Americans buy expensive new cars?

President Obama's ostensible goals are reducing both carbon emissions and the nation's dependence on foreign oil and creating "green" jobs. But it's far from clear that his program will actually achieve these laudable aims at a reasonable cost. And there are cheaper, more equitable policies.

So, the government has no right to subsidize “better-off-than-average Americans” to help them support a fledgling new transportation technology because, poor people won’t be able to afford the first few generations of the product? Following that logic, the federal government should have never built the Interstate Highway system because at the time it was conceived, only “better-off-than-average Americans” owned cars. Even more ridiculous, we should continue our oil gluttony hoping that some miraculous class warfare resistant technology is developed that will punish the “rich” while benefiting the poor. Puleeze.

Writers on both the Right and the Left cite studies from prestigious consulting organizations that project a small market for EVs. I’m old enough to remember similar studies that the very same consulting companies conducted during the late 1970s. Those studies projected small markets and limited growth for PCs. Need I say more?

So what do the Right and the Left propose? On the Right, the argument is to let the free market work without government intervention. The problem is that a market driven approach in the automotive area has tended to reinforce the status quo, and the status quo (foreign oil consumption) threatens our national security. On the Left, we get vacuous comments like Lane’s:
If the federal government wanted to dent carbon emissions and gasoline consumption without subsidizing a handful of rich consumers and client corporations, it would accept that the internal combustion engine is going to be the dominant technology for decades to come—and focus on getting more mileage out of it.

The Obama administration's toughened Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency standards may help in that regard, though they are suboptimal compared with higher gas taxes, which the president—like almost all other politicians—is loath to discuss. At MIT, a team led by engine expert John Heywood has recommended a gradual increase in the gasoline tax, phased in over years and rebated to low-income households, coupled with a system under which consumers would receive a per-MPG bonus every time they traded up from a less fuel-efficient car to a more fuel-efficient one—and a penalty every time they traded down.

I guess it never occurred to Mr. Lane that we can do both—improve gasoline fuel economy while at the same time encouraging a new automotive segment. I guess he has trouble understanding that increased gasoline taxes will hurt the “average middle class” driver far more significantly than a tax credit on PHEVs and EVs.

If I were conspiracy minded, I might conclude that all of the recent Volt bashing is a concerted effort by special interests who feel threatened by the PHEV/EV and want to destroy it before it has a chance to succeed. No, that’s paranoid. I’m sure those who are opposed are simply offended by our long overdue effort to do something about energy independence rather that just talking about it.