State of the Union

We’re All Still Keynesians Now

Lawmakers in Washington provisionally reached a deal (nothing yet is set in stone as I write) to avoid going over a “fiscal cliff” of their own infernal design.

Except that, technically, the country will go over the cliff, as the House won’t vote on the measure—a compromise reached by Vice President Biden and Sen. Mitch McConnell—until tomorrow, or possibly Wednesday.

Grover Norquist went the full Orwellian, maintaining this deal, which raises taxes on individuals making $400,000 and couples making $450,000—the first such increase in 20 years—is not really a tax increase.

And to top it off, half of what made the fiscal cliff so threatening to the fragile economic recovery—roughly $1 trillion in “sequestration” cuts to the federal budget over 10 years—has been delayed for two months, right around the time that a fight over the debt ceiling will be in full swing.

The short version: We went over the cliff, but not really. Everyone’s taxes will go up in 2013 (if you account for expiration of the payroll tax holiday). And we get to do it all again two months from now. Which means the cliff was just a bridge to another cliff. Or something like that.

As to the question of who “won” the standoff, that verdict, too, is murky. On its face, the deal is a victory for the White House and Democrats in Congress. They didn’t get the revenue they’d been seeking—they’ll get about $600 billion, well short of the $1.2 billion compromise nearly reached with House Speaker John Boehner—but they gave up virtually nothing in spending and extended unemployment insurance for a year without offsetting the $30 billion pricetag. The key, as uneasy liberals have noted, is what it will mean for debt-ceiling negotiations. With taxes off the table, will the focus henceforth be squarely on cutting spending, as Republicans insist? Or will Obama extract more revenue for any cuts he agrees to, as he insisted in a press conference Monday?

How this will play out is anyone’s guess, but it’s hard to bet against the assumption that Congress will find some way to avoid imposing pain in the short term.

We’re all still Keynesians now, like it or not.

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A Blogger’s Resolutions for the New Year

The year 2012 has been rough for several tribes to which I belong, including Red Sox fans, residents of downtown Manhattan, and (soon enough) middle-class taxpayers with a long way to go until retirement.  On the other hand, it’s been a pretty good year for heterodox conservatives, especially those associated with this magazine. We remain on the fringes of the Republican, or any other, party. But as David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Chris Hayes and others have recognized, we’re successfully staking out a position in the public debate.

I’m proud to have made a small contribution to that success since I began contributing to State of the Union last May. Even so, there are many posts that I wish I’d written differently–or not written at all. Unlike Scott Galupo, I lack the probity to subject my work to a comprehensive self-audit. Instead, here are my three resolutions for improvement in 2013.

1. More research. Blogging is a great medium for quick interventions in running debates, as well the development of new ideas. But neither of those advantages excuses shoddy research. Several times in the last year, commenters have pointed out that I’ve overlooked important information or failed to support my claims. They’ve often been right, and my professional and intellectual responsibilities go beyond a Google search. Next year, I resolve to do more and more thorough research before weighing in. Readers of The American Conservative deserve nothing less.

2. More originality. In addition to enabling facile argument, to the rapid-fire character of the Internet encourages piling on. Too many times, I’ve merely echoed another writer’s views, sometimes even a writer for this site. In the coming months, I resolve to add some new fact, argument, or idea to the conversation with each post. I know that I won’t always succeed. But I hope to do better in the attempt.

3. More constructive argument. The posts of mine that have attracted the greatest attention are critical. In other words, they generally argue that someone else is foolish or mistaken. There’s a place for this kind of argument. But it’s only fair that it should be accompanied by positive statements of one’s own view, including specific policy suggestions where they are relevant.

In 2013, then, I aim to say more about the implications for “real politics” of the sometimes abstract principles I have discussed on this site. By doing that, I hope to promote and support the position that the The American Conservative has already achieved as the most lively, thoughtful, and provocative journal on the contemporary Right.

It’s been a great ride so far, and I look forward to even better times with the editors, contributors, commenters, and readers of this site. To all: Happy New Year!

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Trial by Jury 2013

Senator Rand Paul is boasting about how he preserved the right of every American citizen to a trial by jury through an amendment that he cosponsored with Senators Mike Lee and Dianne Feinstein. His press release claims that he has protected “the rights prescribed to Americans in the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution with regard to indefinite detention and the right to a trial by jury.” But check out Congressman Justin Amash’s more accurate assessment of what occurred:  “The heart of the Feinstein amendment:  ‘An authorization to use military force, a declaration of war, or any similar authority shall not authorize the detention without charge or trial of a citizen or lawful permanent resident of the United States apprehended in the United States, UNLESS AN ACT OF CONGRESS EXPRESSLY AUTHORIZES SUCH DETENTION.’ [Amash’s emphasis]. Well, that Act of Congress is the 2012 NDAA, which renders the rest of the Feinstein amendment meaningless.”

Amash is right and Paul is wrong. The Military Commissions Act and the 2012 NDAA are both acts of Congress that authorize the unlimited detention of American citizens and anyone else together with subsequent processing through military tribunals or no trial at all.

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My Punditry Self-Audit

Slate’s Dave Weigel puts himself through the paces of a self-audit: What did he get right and wrong in a year seemingly full of twists and turns (but not really, when you think about it)? Since I think it should a best practice for pundits, I thought I’d undergo the process myself.

My first two posts of the year argued that 1) Mitt Romney was “unbeatable” as a primary candidate—being not-well-liked was actually a strength, as he couldn’t be knocked off of a pedestal he wasn’t standing on. And 2) the Iowa Caucus returns spelled trouble for the GOP. Romney didn’t outperform his tally in the 2008 caucuses, and overall turnout was underwhelming.

Romney, for his part, does well among wealthy, older voters. Tonight’s results are mildly troubling for Romney—but more than mildly troubling for the GOP long-term. The party appeals mostly to a segment of the country that’s literally dying.

Score!

Later I argued that Republicans were crazy to feel relieved that Bain Capital had become an issue in the primary—the better to clear the decks for the general-election battle:

I don’t believe the Bain Stuff is nearly as explosive as the [Jeremiah ]Wright Stuff, but it has the potential nonetheless of doing real damage to Romney at the all-important margins: among independents and working-class Republicans in economically depressed states. …

For a solid week, Romney pitched himself as the very embodiment of free enterprise. The doyens of market fundamentalism, from Rush Limbaugh to the Club for Growth, cursed Gingrich for his apostasy. And yet, if Rasmussen’s data is right, Republicans are still signaling that they’re unmoved.

And if they’re unmoved, imagine how the rest of the electorate will react to Obama’s tweaking of Romney’s master-of-the-universe status.

Capitalism. Shut up” did indeed prove to be a terrible strategy for mitigating the Bain pain. Another score, if I say so myself.

Also in February:

At the risk of sounding like a one-note billy, I believe Republican strategists have wildly overestimated Romney’s “electability.” Not only is it true that his background in high finance is easily caricatured; it’s that he seems, with alarming regularity, to confirm the worst aspects of this caricature with his own ill-chosen words.

His efforts to vicariously “feel pain,” Clinton-style, have been chronically inept. (See “I’m also unemployed,” for example.) He is not naturally gifted at politicking, and so he overcompensates in ways that are downright painful to watch. (See his rendition of “America the Beautiful,” for example.)

The Romney campaign thus far has managed to produce a hapless icon—a cross between Henry F. Potter and Lee Greenwood.

I tried to sound an alarm over 1) Romney’s across-the-board tax-cut proposal, predicting it would be an “electoral dead-ender and a fiscal train wreck waiting to happen”; and 2) the Romney campaign’s astonishing boast that it was doing well in urban Ohio.

On the negative side of the ledger:

I foolishly bought into the hype that Romney was “shoring up the base.” I should have stuck with my earlier hunch that Romney’s “floor” of support wouldn’t look that much different from his “ceiling”—which more or less turned out to be the case.

My biggest boo-boo was accepting the conventional wisdom that Obamacare would be struck down by the Supreme Court—one more dead weight to bury the “incredible shrinking Obama legacy.” D’oh!

I tried gamely to keep Romney’s post-debate surge in perspective, but I’ll admit I did briefly go wobbly on my longstanding prediction that Obama would defeat Romney.

Finally, to close out 2012, I was waaaay too optimistic about the prospects for a quick resolution of the “fiscal cliff.”

In toto, I think my soothsaying was more accurate than not in this, my first year at TAC. I hope, readers, that you’ve enjoyed the ride as much as I have.

Happy New Year!

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Can Mitch McConnell Save Us from the Fiscal Cliff?

Noam Scheiber of The New Republic and Conn Carroll of The Washington Examiner discuss:

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Hagel Gets a Sensitivity Litmus Test From the Neocon Press

I’ve no idea how former Nebraska senator and decorated Vietnam War veteran Chuck Hagel became President Obama’s preferred nominee for the job of Secretary of Defense. But when I learned about Hagel’s prospects, I was delighted. A social conservative with a skeptical view of America’s mission to convert the rest of the world to our current version of democracy, Hagel is someone I’ve long admired. Indeed I was hoping his campaign for president would take off four years ago. (Alas, it didn’t.)

For about a week after Hagel’s name surfaced as a possibility for Secretary of Defense, I was also hoping that his nomination would sail through the Senate effortlessly. I no longer think that’s the case. The Log Cabin Republicans yesterday took out a full-page New York Times advertisement to attack Hagel, who once voiced objections to having those who are openly gay serving in the military. He also objected to the muzzling of free speech in what looked like hate speech laws. His opponents have scolded him for being deficient in sensitivity, and in our politically correct democracy that may be the worst possible offense that any mortal could commit.

Leading the charge against Hagel has been the neocon press, with the Weekly Standard out in front of the pack. It seems that Hagel has fought with AIPAC and even once misspoke when he referred to his trouble with “the Jewish lobby.” He later took this back and stated that he meant “the Israeli lobby.” It’s not that the former Senator has disagreed consistently with Israeli policies, and most of the time in the Senate he came down with the rest of his party behind the Israeli government. But Hagel has expressed reservations about his party always lining up on one side in the Middle Eastern conflict and has suggested this degree of partisanship weakens the credibility of Republicans as possible peace brokers. Hagel also made fun of those Republicans (such as Lindsay Graham and John McCain) who went beyond the lobby in their enthusiasm for everything the Israelis did. McCain was rewarded for his cheer-leading with about 20 percent of the Jewish vote in a presidential race against the most pro-Palestinian Democratic candidate in U.S. history.

The neocons have gone after Hagel for being anti-Israeli and by implication anti-Semitic. They’ve also pulled out every charge that the left might care to feature about Hagel being a social reactionary who is too far on the right to represent us as secretary of defense. The neocons (including Fox News contributors) have attacked him repeatedly as a homophobe. But their main charge has been that Hagel once had kind words for the 95-year-old South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, at a birthday party Hagel and other senators attended. Supposedly Hagel made it appear that he was cool with Thurmond’s one-time segregationist record by praising the then almost senile senator’s “life well lived.” Apparently he should have pummeled the decrepit Southern lawmaker instead.

Reading this kind of slime (there is no other word for this invective) I almost feel relief that Obama was reelected as president. The thought of that weathervane Romney presiding over a government packed to the top with Bill Kristol’s buddies is far more frightening than any reckless spending program Obama has inflicted on us. I shudder to think that the main resistance to the leftist media and educational establishment in this country is coming from Bill’s boss and kindred spirit, Rupert Murdoch, who pays for Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. It is appalling that the “conservative” opposition is being funded by this Australian media baron, who is “conservative” on only one issue, an aggressive foreign policy.

The neocons are too powerful for GOP propagandists and establishment conservative journalists to defy. If they decide to pull the right leftward once again, they’re likely to get their way. It won’t be the first time they’ve prevailed. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the neocons upend Hagel while winning applause from both the social left and Christian Zionists in the GOP. I may be wrong, but after having seen the neocons win almost every battle they’ve entered for more than 30 years, I would be astonished to see them lose. Here’s hoping for a change in their fortunes, however, as we go into the New Year!

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Against Charitable Christmas ‘Gifts’

I feel like playing Mr. Manners or New York Times Ethicist for a day.

Ready?

I want to discuss the practice of giving gifts in the form of donations to charitable institutions. No doubt some of you readers received one of these over the just-concluded holiday season. You opened an envelope or suspiciously lightweight box. Then you learned the news that a donation had been made in your name to an organization that, say, rescues abused animals or administers vaccines in the third world.

I’m not sure these are “gifts,” properly understood.

They are overintepretations, perhaps indeed violations, of the Christmas spirit.

A gift by its nature is supposed to be selfless. It doesn’t even need to be a thing; it could be a literal giving of your self. Maybe you’re handy around the house. Maybe you’re a gourmet cook. A donation of your time in this case might well constitute a handsome gift to a friend in need or to the family foodie. A charitable donation, in my opinion, violates this principal virtue of gift-giving. It reflects attention back to the giver. A certain sense of self-righteousness underlies the whole enterprise. “We all have so much already,” the giver says. “I want to help the less fortunate.”

A fine and noble sentiment, I say.

I share it myself.

But the giver in this case needs to hew to the Funeral Principle, wherein donations are welcomed in lieu of memorial flowers. Wouldn’t you consider it at least somewhat inconsiderate to unilaterally donate money to someone or something without the family’s prior knowledge or consent? The lesson here is that two parties may agree it’s a splendid thing not to participate in the material and commercial overindulgence of the secular Christmas season. But these parties should agree to this before gifts are exchanged. The charity-minded giver should ascertain which, if any, organizations the recipient contributes to throughout the year. Maybe, instead of those mosquito nets, the intended recipient would appreciate a donation to her local parish; instead of that animal shelter, a battered women’s shelter. Etc.

Agreement, in other words, should not be assumed.

If you think it’s important to prevent malaria in the third world, that’s great. By all means, you should give of your excess in the name of this good cause. Yet recall always the words of a certain humble Nazarene whose birth we celebrate during this season, who counseled us to “sound no trumpet” when we give to the less fortunate.

Sometimes the appropriate thing to do is to go ahead and give that video game or Cuisinart food processor.

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Second Amendment Symposium

With the shock of the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings still reverberating, TAC today presents a symposium of views on the limits to the right to keep and bear arms. Zack Beauchamp of ThinkProgress.org makes a progressive appeal to conservatives for gun control, while Jack Hunter argues that firearms prohibition is as irrational as liberals see the death penalty as being. Alan Jacobs, meanwhile, considers the issue in light of the Christmas season and the moral demands of Christianity. We also re-present Brian Doherty’s review of Living With Guns: A Liberal’s Case for the Second Amendment, a piece that went to press before the Newtown massacre.

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About Obama More than Hagel

The White House has begun to leak indications that it won’t go to the mat for Chuck Hagel. On Sunday, National Journal reported that Obama is considering other candidates for the secretary of defense post, which of course has been true from the outset. Still it’s a sign Obama may be contemplating a reprise of the Susan Rice play–hang his preferred nominee out to be attacked, and see what happens. If he retreats on Hagel, he would be 0 for 2, and fuel some not very complimentary perceptions about the nature of his presidency.

I have no idea whether Hagel would be confirmed, or if he would be a good secretary of defense. He has a realistic sense of the limits of American power, and opposed the Iraq war early on, which highly recommends him. He has been vociferously attacked by the right wing of the Israel lobby. He has garnered support from some surprising sources, for surprising reasons. The most surprising was Jeffrey Goldberg, a hawkish center-right  Zionist whose reporting frequently serves as an echo chamber for Netanyahu’s views on a  war on Iran. But Goldberg (even Goldberg, I should say) feels that Israel is going too far with building settlements, making a two state solution impossible. He writes:

Maybe, at this point, what we need are American officials who will speak with disconcerting bluntness to Israel about the choices it is making. If the Jewish Home party becomes a key part of Netanyahu’s right-wing ruling coalition, you can be assured that there will not compromise coming in the forseeable future (it’s almost impossible to forsee compromise now.) Maybe the time has come to redefine the term “pro-Israel” to include, in addition to providing support against Iran (a noble cause); help with the Iron Dome system (also a noble cause); and support to maintain Israel’s qualitiative military edge (ditto), the straightest of straight talk about Israel’s self-destructive policies on the West Bank. Maybe Hagel, who is not bound to old models, could be useful in this regard.

I’m no fan of Goldberg, and have often regarded his support for a two-state Israel-Palestine solution as nominal at best; so this position–that confirmation of a tough-love cabinet officer disliked by the Israel lobby would be good for Israel–I would designate as the most surprising thing I’ve read all year.

Importantly, the confirmation process would be a major ideological and even educational event, even if the lobby managed to block Hagel. Jeremiah Haber writes: Read More…

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Unz on Meritocracy: David Brooks’ Sidney Award and Other Reactions

Late Monday night I received a most remarkable and unexpected Christmas present delivered straight from august offices of the New York Times, as David Brooks, one of America’s most prominent center-right journalists, named my recent piece “The Myth of American Meritocracy” as one of the winners of his annual Sidney Awards for outstanding articles of 2012.

Just days earlier, the New York Times had run a major op-ed by Prof. Carolyn Chen of Northwestern calling attention to evidence of racial discrimination against Asian-Americans in elite admissions and a six-sided forum discussing the same topic, with the former ranking as the #1 most emailed Times article of the day and the latter having already attracted nearly 800 comments. It does appear that the Great Gray Lady of New York City is now turning a highly skeptical gaze to the selection policies of America’s leading universities, and I suspect that many Ivy League admissions departments may have a busy holiday season beginning to answer the worried questions of their various presidents and provosts.

Over the last couple of weeks, other prominent publication such as ForbesThe AtlanticThe Washington Monthly, and Business Insider have also focused their attention on the strong statistical evidence I found for the existence of “Asian Quotas” across the Ivy League, as did AEI’s Charles Murray, and quite a number of individual bloggers and pundits. Read More…

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