Dear Leader

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I’m sure that the president's choice last night to rein in his brilliance and heart and allow Romney to “win” the debate is part of a brilliant strategy. I’ve understood Barack Obama’s brilliance from the very beginning — I bought a copy of The Audacity of Hope and Change in, like, early 2008. Before everybody else did. Some regular people are intimidated by his brilliance. And his heart. But I’m not. I understand it.

I mean, some people are saying that the president will have to lower himself to that liar Romey’s level and lie to get votes. But Barack Obama can’t lie. I mean, he just can’t — he’s too brilliant and has too much heart. Some people don’t understand that, but I do. I have an original Obama sticker on my Prius — not the Obama/Biden sticker and not a 2012 sticker, but the original “O” sticker that only charter supporters could get.

I know that some people are saying that Obama should have “hit back” at Romney in the debate. But those people aren’t true Obama supporters. They’re just pretenders who only care about the horse-race qualities of an election and don’t understand Obama’s brilliance. And heart. The man has so much heart that he can’t help being so much bigger than people like Romney. Romney and his mean-spirited dismissal of the 47%. What an elitist snob. I can’t believe he got the Republican nomination!

I realize that, at times like last night’s debate, Obama’s brilliance is a cross he has to bear. And his heart. I know that feeling — it’s something people like me and the president have in common. I mean, I’m not going to say I’m as brilliant as Barack Obama. Or have as much heart. But we do share a few similar traits.

I was on Facebook this morning, reading what Michelle had to say about how rude Romney was last night, just ignoring the rules and talking right over that weak moderator. I’m part of Michelle’s true friends circle on FB — not the one that’s open to the public, but the one where you had to have been a charter supporter to get invited. So I get to read what she really thinks. Michelle is so brilliant. Anyway, while I was reading what Michelle really thinks about the debate, I realized something: politics is beneath Barack Obama. His heart is so much bigger. And he’s so much more brilliant.

I understand something now that regular people probably don’t. You have to have been with Barack and Michelle from the beginning to get this — I mean, Michelle gets it. And Sasha and Malia probably get it, but regular people don’t understand. Barack needs a platform worthy of his brilliance and heart. If he chooses not to demean himself and pander in a vulgar popularity contest, it will prove that his brilliance and heart are just too brilliant for the common American voter.

I’ve kind of known that all along, before all the regular people started figuring it out.




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Round One: Romney

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The first of three presidential debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney was held last night. New Jersey governor Chris Christie had boldly predicted that the event would be a “game-changer” for the Romney campaign. As it turned out, Christie was probably overstating things. Nevertheless, Romney’s energetic performance put new life into his quest for the White House, while Obama let slip an opportunity to finish off his Republican opponent.

The immediate post-debate analysis seemed to stress style over substance. Romney, pundits agreed, looked happy to be on the University of Denver stage, while Obama appeared to endure the 90-minute debate. Romney smiled; Obama scowled. Romney was aggressive and weighed in on issues with gusto; Obama was rather detached and professorial. Romney ran roughshod over moderator Jim Lehrer; Obama was more diffident in dealing with the aging and rather incompetent PBS journalist. The performances left MSNBC’s coterie of lefties in a state of near-apoplexy, while at Fox there was smug satisfaction.

This observer thought Romney started and finished strong, while Obama scored some important points in between. The debate was to be divided into six segments. The first three concerned aspects of the economy (jobs, the deficit and debt, and entitlements) followed by healthcare, the role of government, and “governing.” The first segment ran over time — no surprise, given the flabby moderator — and time pressure caused the segment on governing to be dropped. Romney scored substantive points on Obama’s persistent deficits, his energy policy (billions thrown away on green energy boondoggles, lack of oil and gas drilling on federal land), and feeble job growth. Indeed, during the first half of the debate he dominated the stage, despite the fact that some of his arguments and assertions didn’t quite pass the smell test.

About halfway through the debate the subject of Medicare was introduced, and here Obama fought back by eviscerating the Paul Ryan voucher scheme. The president helped himself with seniors, a critical constituency that had already begun moving his way after the selection of Ryan to be Romney’s running mate. Obama also touched a populist chord with some well-chosen words regarding the regulation of Wall Street, and without having to explain or justify the absurd aspects of his main regulatory tool, the Dodd-Frank legislation passed in 2010.

That said, Obama muffed the chance to finish off Romney and end the race a month before Election Day. Obama never mentioned the notorious 47% recording, giving Romney free rein to express (which he did over and over) his love and compassion for everyone in America. He failed to mention the Republican-led House of Representatives, despite the fact that Congress is the most unpopular institution in America. He said nothing about Romney’s tax returns or overseas accounts — juicy populist targets that could have energized not just the Democratic base, but many white working-class voters who lean Republican. For Obama, this debate was definitely an opportunity lost.

Romney, down for the count coming in, picked himself up off the mat and is now back in the fight. For true conservatives — not to mention libertarians — his performance had to grate, for he tried (as usual) to be all things to all people. He was once again short on details about his major policy proposals. And he refused (understandably, since it would be political suicide) to make clear the stark choices America faces, particularly on the fiscal front. His success last night was not, with apologies to Governor Christie, a game-changer, but it does give him hope and the opportunity to make the race competitive again.

Was Obama rusty, as some pundits postulated last night, or did he hold back for fear of appearing to be an “angry black man,” something that he and his handlers have been concerned about since he first declared his candidacy for the highest office? We’ll probably never know, but the betting here is that he will be much more aggressive in the remaining two debates. That and the tendency of Mitt Romney to place his own foot firmly in his mouth will, this observer believes, lead to a second term for Barack Obama.




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Crony College Capitalism

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In several earlier articles in this journal, I began examining the theory and practice of crony capitalism — that peculiar form of statism that ostensibly embraces free enterprise, while arranging for government to control the major economic enterprises by means of its favored supporters (its “cronies”). I suggested that this form of statism is common in failed socialist states, such as Russia, and neo-socialist ones, such as the United States.

Much attention has been paid, by me and others, to the crony car and crony green energy capitalism so artfully practiced by the current administration. But there are many other flavors of crony capitalism. In a recent piece, for example, I touched on what you might call the Obama regime’s crony drug capitalism. Now let’s turn to a flavor that isn’t often noticed. It is what we might term “crony college capitalism.”

Besides studying Saul Alinsky, President Obama has apparently studied Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist theorist who urged his fellow Marxists to go into education, the better to turn regular schools into training grounds for future radicals. Since its earliest days, the Obama regime has been concerned with extending its power in the realm of college education, giving economic rewards to college teachers and students, who are overwhelmingly Obama supporters.

The working class was once a mainstay of the Democratic Party coalition. The new Democratic Party will consist of statist-inclined college educated groups.

Indeed, a recent piece in the New York Times suggests that Obama’s reelection campaign strategy now explicitly recognizes that it has to give up the white working class, except the tiny 7% that is unionized, hence able to contribute largely to the campaign. The working class was once a mainstay of the Democratic Party coalition. The new Democratic Party will consist of statist-inclined college educated groups such as professors, teachers, school and college administrators, therapists, lawyers, librarians, social workers, artists and designers, and their numerous dependents, along with key ethnic minorities.

You can see this calculation at play in Obama’s recent decision to kill the Keystone XL pipeline. The decision cost tens of thousands of blue-collar jobs, but it mightily pleased the environmental lobby, disproportionately college educated folks of statist mindset.

The tactics the Regime is using to corrupt higher education policy for its own benefit are the same it has used elsewhere: identify cronies, expand the size and scope of federal subsidies to them, and expand the size and scope of regulation to attack the cronies’ competitors. More succinctly, the Regime’s crony capitalist game in higher education is — as it is everywhere else — one of rewarding supporters and attacking their (and hence its) enemies.

Start with the rewards for the cronies. One of the Regime’s major “educational” initiatives was its socialization of the student loan industry, which happened just two years ago. A troika of key Regime players — Obama, Rep. George Miller (D-CA), and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) — ended private funding of government-backed student loans (the most common student loans), under the theory that the private lenders (read: banks) were greedy, i.e., only after profits, and not truly interested in helping students achieve a decent education. Government, of course, is run by people incapable of greed, and motivated entirely by their concern for others.

The scheme included the usual outrageous accounting trick. Sympathetic congressmen claimed that by nationalizing student loans, they would “save” $87 billion over 11 years. In the same way, nationalizing GM and Chrysler has “saved” billions, and Obamacare will “save” even more. At the time, the CBO had dutifully scored the savings at $87 billion, but the Director of the CBO, Douglas Elmendorf, had signaled Congress (in a letter to Senator Judd Gregg) that the scoring did not reflect the risk that defaults could be higher than projected. But the Regime pushed its phantom “savings” with a straight face. It even used them to write down part of the costs of Obamacare and justify an expansion of educational Pell Grants (about which more below).

You can see this calculation at play in Obama’s recent decision to kill the Keystone XL pipeline, a decision that cost tens of thousands of blue-collar jobs.

A posteriori experience from the student loan nationalization confirms what a priori economic reasoning would naturally suggest: the government generally runs things less efficiently than the private sector does. The Department of Education now reports that the default rate on student loans has surged by about one-fourth, from 7% in 2008 to 8.8% in 2009. Worse, because of another government accounting trick, these figures are deceptively low. The government loan program has options that allow some students to pay less that they really owe (these options are euphemistically called “income contingent” and “income based” repayment plans).

Besides rewarding its likely supporters with student loans, the Regime moved to expand the Pell Grant program — to double its funding, in fact. And it is resisting the efforts by the Republicans in the House of Representatives to rein in the program by requiring that recipients have a high school diploma or GED(!).

As a consequence of these policies, and the fact that in deciding who gets student loans the government doesn’t bother looking at the students’ assets or credit histories, the aggregate amount of college student debt has risen dramatically — up by 25% over the past three years, a time, please note, during which Americans generally reduced their personal debt load by 9%. Student debt now exceeds total consumer credit card debt. It now tops $1 trillion.

Of course, the Regime has revealed a solution for the problem it helped so much to create. It proposes to roll forward a law that helps college students mitigate and even get out of their student loan debts. Under current law, students must make monthly payments of 15% of discretionary income, with the balance of their loans forgiven after 25 years. (“Forgiven” means, of course, that the taxpayer eats the remaining cost of a college degree that mainly benefits the degree holder personally.) A law passed by Congress in 2010 and scheduled to take effect in 2014 will drop payments to 10%, with the balance of the loan forgiven after 20 years. Obama now wants this to take effect starting next year — which just happens to be his re-election year.

This is all on top of an existing program that allows students who enter “public service” (read: students who go to work for government or other nonprofit agencies — both areas in which employees tend overwhelmingly to vote Democrat) to have their loans forgiven after only 10 years. All of these “forgiveness” programs are projected to cost the treasury $575 million a year — quite unforgiving for the taxpayer.

Moreover, Obama is now proposing that students be able to combine their older (pre-Regime-takeover), federally-backed private loans together with the new government loans under a new lower interest as well as under the new rules.

All this is obviously aimed at buying the votes of all college students, but especially appealing to the ones whose degrees — say, in social studies, humanities, ethnic studies, women’s studies, and so on — make it likely they won’t earn high enough salaries to pay off the loans in 20 years.

Of course, complete student loan debt forgiveness is a prominent demand of the Occupy Wall Street protesters (those foot-soldiers of the welfare state so conspicuously embraced by the Regime), and a sizable proportion of students generally. One “We the People” petition on the White House website calling for total student loan forgiveness already has more than 32,000 signatures, and a similar petition on “SignOn.org” has garnered 640,000 signatures. You can bet Obama is after those votes.

Government, of course, is run by people incapable of greed, and motivated entirely by their concern for others.

How has the higher education business reacted to the increased amount of money it can now extract from students — because the higher education business can now extract more from government? The reaction has been predictable, from the economic point of view. Colleges have dramatically increased their tuition and fees. The costs of higher education have risen even faster than the costs of health care, which is widely viewed — even by the Regime — as out of control. Lavish funding for students has college administration and staff — another of the Regime’s core constituencies.

A recent report shows that just year, in-state tuition and fees for four-year public universities jumped by 8.3% on average, to a new high of $8,244. Private colleges saw tuition and fees jump by 4.5% on average to a new high of $28,500. (The state universities, at least, had to contend with a cutback of state support.)

The notion that increased federal funding of higher education has fueled its explosive growth in costs is the focus of a fine report by Neal McCluskey and Vance Fried, put out by the Cato Institute. The authors point out that profits at colleges — public and private, for-profit and non-profit — have escalated during the past three decades. They calculate the current costs in two different ways. They first is the “buildup" method, in which the researcher adds up all the input costs — professors’ compensation, administrators’ compensation, utility costs, etc. The second is the “internal accounting” method, which uses the actual accounting numbers furnished by colleges (numbers that few states make available, if you are talking about public colleges).

The authors find that both methods yield roughly the same result, about $8,000 a year at an average residential college.

Tuition figures are readily available. Using 2008 figures, tuition for a full-time student averages about $13,500 at a private 4-year college. This is a profit of $5,500 per student — or about a 40% margin. Add in charitable donations into the college endowment targeted for teaching, and the profit margin is even higher.

Moreover, they estimate that the margins at public universities are roughly the same, when you factor in the state subsidies (paid by the taxpayers) along with the tuition (paid by the students and their parents).

The high profit margins are the result of colleges jacking up their charges over the past 30 years. McCluskey and Fried note that even in constant dollars (i.e., correcting for inflation), average tuition and fees have gone up 300% during that time.

In what other industry do you see this sort of price inflation? On the contrary, in private industry, (real) price reduction is the norm. Prices of computers — even prices for laser eye surgery — have dropped dramatically over the years. But in the massively subsidized college business, which has seen its direct government subsidies — as well as the subsidies given to students — rise dramatically, price gouging has become the norm. The authors note that federal aid to students has gone up by an astounding 400% over the last three decades.

As the ever-prescient Glenn Reynolds recently put it, “When the government subsidizes something, producers respond by raising prices to soak up as much of the subsidy as they can. Colleges are no exception.”

Why is it not obvious to the average taxpayer that college costs are exploding precisely because of the generosity of that selfsame taxpayer? I confess that I find this psychological mystery even more interesting than the economic issues I have been addressing.

Certainly, part of the problem is the rational ignorance spoken about in public choice theory: ordinary citizens are being screwed by greedy rentseekers, but those citizens remain uninterested, because of the asymmetry of self-interest involved. Each one of them loses only a relatively small amount of assets, while the rentseekers in the higher-ed business stand to make out like bandits. Even now, after the massive increase in federal and state funding of our increasingly dysfunctional K-12 public schools system, and its colossal and consequent failure (as evinced on international tests), the public is reluctant to institute deep changes, such as universal school choice.

The default rate on student loans has surged by about one-fourth, from 7% in 2008 to 8.8% in 2009. Worse, these figures are deceptively low.

Besides the normal rational ignorance of citizens, however, I suspect another reason. People who are usually critically aware have their senses dulled by the very concept of “nonprofit” institutions. I notice this phenomenon in my business ethics classes. It seems almost analytically true to the average student (and by extension, the average person) that in a nonprofit business, there should be no “principal-agent” problem. That is, since the people who created the institution are not in it for profit — unlike the despicable money-grubbers in private industry — their employees must also be devoted solely to delivering the service that the principals intended, instead of ministering to their own self-interests.

In the case of public and nonprofit private colleges, the service to be rendered is primarily student education (and to a lesser degree, research for the benefit of the people generally). The principals are the founders (in the case of private colleges), the taxpayers (in the case of public colleges), the donors, and the students (and parents) who pay tuition. The principals expect the agents — the college professors, administrators, and staffs — to work to achieve the service goals of the principals.

But the principal-agent problem (which is the problem of getting self-interested agents to do what is intended by the principals) is no less acute when the principals are presumed to be altruistic (as are the taxpayers and donors) than when the principals are themselves clearly self-interested (as are the owners of a for-profit business).

What the agents of the nonprofits typically do is just what the agents of profit-seeking enterprises do — continuously seek to expand their compensation, while diminishing their workload. They try for smaller classes, higher salaries, better retirement packages, more grants, fancier equipment, plusher offices, more research assistants, more student aides, more secretaries, more assistant deans, more time off, more holidays, more sabbaticals, more time attending professional conferences, and easier tenure requirements.

I have noted elsewhere one manifestation of this phenomenon: the explosion of the number of college administrators. Not only has the number of administrators at nonprofit colleges gone up, their pay has, too. For instance, in a major piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education points out that 36 nonprofit colleges had compensation packages well over $1 million in 2009. In its survey of 519 private nonprofit colleges, the Chronicle found that the median total compensation was $385,000.

This delusion that nonprofits are immune from greed helps explain the flip side of crony college capitalism, the Regime’s war against for-profit colleges, institutions that the Regime’s supporters in the academy universally despise.

The Regime has conducted a long, deliberate struggle with these colleges (especially chains such as Westwood College and National University). When the Regime controlled Congress, the attack took the form of “hearings” into the biggest chains. The “hearings” were essentially show-trials, exposing the for-profit colleges for being, well, profit-seeking. The people in charge obviously thought — or pretended to think — that the colleges were inferior, and sought out cases of consumers who claimed to have been harmed by being students there. These testifiers told sad tales of running up large loans getting worthless degrees.

In the massively subsidized college business, which has seen its direct government subsidies rise dramatically, price gouging has become the norm.

This sham show was just polemical tactics. The congressmen on the attack never once called students from public and nonprofit private colleges to testify about the student debts that they had run up while pursuing degrees that never got them jobs. I mean, it’s not as if we couldn’t find students who had accumulated big debts at, say, a California state university (where the presidents sometimes earn salaries in the $400,000 range) to acquire degrees in various unemployable subjects — women’s studies, say, or sociology. The Regime could have found plenty of such “victims,” of this I can assure you.

But a crony capitalist jihad — like any other jihad — is always directed at one group on behalf of another group, to wit, the cronies who inspire and sometimes fund the jihadists.

In crony college capitalism, these are primarily unions, especially teachers’ unions (and allied guilds, such as the American Association of University Professors). These cronies despise for-profit colleges, not merely on philosophic grounds, but because their faculties are non-unionized. To put this simply: they fear the growth of these enterprises in the way that Teamsters fear the expansion of Wal-Mart. For example, the AAUP has strongly attacked for-profit colleges, and called for dramatically increasing regulation of them.

The cronies don't care whether there is any greater pattern of "abuse" at for-profit colleges than at supposedly eleemosynary ones. If they wanted to find that out, they could do detailed observational studies that ruled out confounding variables (by correcting for ethnicity, income-level, and asset bases of parents, SAT scores, and high-school GPA), and see whether similar graduates from for-profit colleges fared any worse on the job market than graduates of nonprofits.

Also in the attack on for-profit colleges are trial lawyers. One notorious example is Florida attorney Chris Hoyer, who is suing Westwood College now, and looking at suing at least seven other for-profit colleges. Hoyer is a donor to the Regime, of course.

Naturally, however, the Regime’s Department of Education has plans to strengthen regulations governing for-profit colleges — yet another way of aggrandizing the federal government, at the expense of yet another part of the economy.

We can put an ironic cap on this discussion by noting a recent report out of the House of Representatives. It points out that over the past decade, while tuition has increased 4.5% at nonprofit private schools, and a whopping 8% at public colleges, it has gone up only 3.2% at for-profit colleges. This competitive edge would be reason enough for the Regime's desire to protect its cronies.

For the record, I think the government-backed student loan program should simply be ended. It is encouraging students to take on debt for degrees that have a dubious payoff, and creating thereby a massive moral hazard: a constituency of people who want to burn the taxpayer by not paying back the loans in full. Moreover, these government loans help inflate college costs pointlessly for all students.

Instead, let all college loans be between private lenders and individuals, with no tax dollars at risk, and with self-interested lenders using their judgment in lending money, knowing that if they loan to incompetent students or for unusable degrees, they may find that the students can’t pay and will discharge the debt in bankruptcy.




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The Sarah Palin of the Wild-eyed Left

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Right now, our ineffectual President is not the highest-profile among those who would make slaves of free citizens; his incompetence as an executive has reduced him to a cynical, groveling faux populism. The highest-profile slaver is not a significant writer or intellectual of the Left; those who might be significant waste their time performing on cable television minstrel shows. It’s not an internet or New Media big-shot; they’re more interested in feuding than influence.

Right now, the highest-profile collectivist in America is a woman named Elizabeth Warren. A Harvard Law School professor and aspirant to elected office in Massachusetts, she combines the President’s cynicism with the intellectual Left’s focus on cable TV performance and a strong internet presence. Her writing indicates a trivial, though eminently credentialed, mind; her body of work reads more like Suze Orman than Richard Posner or Lawrence Tribe.

If you follow the news or scan left-leaning media outlets, you’ve heard Warren’s name. If you live in Massachusetts, you know that she’s seeking Teddy Kennedy’s old U.S. Senate seat, presently occupied by Scott Brown. But the chances are that you, like most Americans who aren’t wild-eyed Maoists, have a vague impression of the woman.

But it’s important to clarify that vagueness. This woman reflects several current trends in American culture — most of which are not good.

She was born Elizabeth Herring in Oklahoma City in the late 1940s. It was the front end of the Baby Boom, but her childhood wasn’t Happy Days. When Elizabeth was a young teenager, her father had a heart attack and related health issues. These led to severe financial problems for the Herring family. They lost a car to the repo man . . . and fell out of what they considered the middle class. Her mother went to work as a telephone operator. Later, Elizabeth waited tables to help support the family.

She was bright. Did well in school. Got a debate scholarship to George Washington University in the nation’s capitol — and left Oklahoma. Quick as she could.

GW isn’t an intellectual mecca. The biggest part of its student body is made of underachieving kids from affluent families who pay full freight, leavened with some smart kids from hinterlands there on scholarship.

While still an undergraduate, Elizabeth married a classmate named Jim Warren. In 1970, she graduated with a degree in speech pathology. Jim pursued a career and established himself as a middle-class breadwinner; Elizabeth used her degree to get work helping children who were recovering from head traumas and brain injuries.

Various left-wing media outlets were entranced by the soft totalitarianism of Warren’s schoolmarm demeanor.

But that wasn’t satisfying. The collegiate debater felt drawn to something more ambitious. Law school. While having two children with Jim, Elizabeth cobbled together a law degree — starting out at the University of Houston and eventually finishing at the Newark campus of Rutgers. Along the way, she interned at a white-shoe Wall Street firm and was an editor of the Rutgers Law Review.

She got her law degree in 1976 and ran a solo practice in the New Jersey suburbs, focusing on wills and real estate closings. She taught Sunday school, reading and telling kids about Methodist founder John Wesley. She still cites Wesley as an inspiration.

In 1978, she and Jim divorced. That seems to have changed many things.

Elizabeth moved from practicing law to teaching it. She started at Rutgers and moved through short-term gigs at the University of Houston, Texas, and Michigan before getting a tenured position at the University of Pennsylvania. And, as she explains it, she began to change from a free-market advocate to a full-blown statist.

While her academic research wasn’t exceptional (more on that in a bit), she was a dynamic classroom instructor and popular with students. While Reagan and the elder Bush occupied the White House, she refined an approach that worked well in the university setting. The actual content of her writing and speaking is usually unexceptional; but she conveys — by demeanor and implication — sentiments that click with campus radicals. She signals progressive pieties that flatter students and colleagues, making them feel they aren’t just careerist clerks but Deep Thinkers interested in Profound Issues.

She moved from UPenn to Harvard in 1992.Today, she is the Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law, teaching commercial law and bankruptcy. She is or has been a member or officer of: the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; the American Law Institute; the Executive Council of the National Bankruptcy Conference; the Federal Depository Insurance Corp.'s Committee on Economic Inclusion; the National Bankruptcy Review Commission. As I’ve noted, she’s eminently credentialed.

She signals progressive pieties that flatter students and colleagues, making them feel they aren’t just careerist clerks but Deep Thinkers interested in Profound Issues.

Most university professors are expected to produce a steady stream of peer-reviewed academic articles and research papers related to their fields. Generally, law professors have some relief from this severity; because law schools are usually profit centers for their universities, law school teachers can focus on classroom teaching rather than driven academic publication. Still, a law professor is expected to produce — or at least contribute to — the occasional academic paper.

Here, Warren has had some trouble.

In 2005, she and several colleagues published a study in the academic journal Health Affairs on the relationship between medical bills and individual bankruptcy. They concluded that half of all families filing for bankruptcy did so in the aftermath of a serious medical problem and that 75 percent of those families had some form of medical insurance. This gave a lot of rhetorical ammunition to people vilifying “evil insurance companies” and calling for “health care reform.”

Some readers questioned the study’s methods. As a surprisingly good analysis from ABC News noted:

The Harvard report claims to measure the extent to which medical costs are “the cause” of bankruptcies. In reality its survey asked if these costs were “a reason” — potentially one of many — for such bankruptcies.

Beyond those who gave medical costs as “a reason,” the Harvard researchers chose to add in any bankruptcy filers who had at least $1,000 in unreimbursed medical expenses in the previous two years. Given deductibles and copays, that’s a heck of a lot of people.

Moreover, Harvard’s definition of “medical” expenses includes situations that aren’t necessarily medical in common parlance, e.g., a gambling problem, or the death of a family member. If your main wage-earning spouse gets hit by a bus and dies, and you have to file, that’s included as a “medical bankruptcy.”

So, the study was marred by the hacky left-wing politics that pass for “consensus” in many of the social sciences. (The University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit caused a similar controversy when it filled its reports on global warming with comparable manipulations.)

While academic research isn’t her forte, Warren has shown greater enthusiasm for more popular fare. She has co-authored (with her daughter, Amelia Tyagi) two consumer books on personal finance, All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan and The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke. The books offer useful, if basic, financial advice. They read like personal-finance versions of celebrity cookbooks — people who come to the books because they like Warren probably find them worth the price; others probably don’t. In its review of The Two Income Trap, Time magazine wrote: “For families looking for ways to cope, Warren and Tyagi mainly offer palliatives. . . . Readers who are already committed to a house and parenthood will find little to mitigate the deflating sense that they have nowhere to go but down.” Like most of the establishment media, Time has been generally favorable to Warren in other contexts.

In the mid-2000s, Warren and some of her Harvard law students wrote a column called Warren Reports for the popular left-wing internet news site TalkingPointMemo.com. Warren Reports purported to be a deep-think collaboration like the libertarian-leaning opinion site Volokh Conspiracy; it ended up being less deep analysis and more hacky partisan spin.

But Warren’s hacky politics found an audience. On November 14, 2008 — days after Barack Obama had been elected president — she was appointed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to chair the five-member Congressional Oversight Panel created to oversee the implementation of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act and its main product, the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP).

In other words, Warren oversaw the Wall Street bailout.

Through her term as chair, the Congressional Oversight Panel released monthly reports that evaluated the bailout and related programs. These reports — and videos that accompanied them — served as bully pulpit for Warren. She focused her regulatory enthusiasms on topics including: bank stress tests, commercial real estate, consumer and small business lending, farm loans, financial regulatory reform, foreclosure mitigation, government guarantees, the automobile industry, and the impact of TARP on financial markets. She also testified frequently before House and Senate committees.

From these unlikely venues, a star was born. Various left-wing internet news sites and new media outlets linked to her videos and reported on her congressional testimony. Like the campus radicals at UPenn and Harvard, they were entranced by the soft totalitarianism of her schoolmarm demeanor.

Throughout her various congressional testimonies and internet videos, Warren advocated for the creation of a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In a December 2009 interview with Newsweek magazine, Warren said:

To restore some basic sanity to the financial system, we need two central changes: fix broken consumer-credit markets and end guarantees for the big players that threaten our entire economic system. If we get those two key parts right, we can still dial the rest of the regulation up and down as needed. But if we don't get those two right, I think the game is over. I hate to sound alarmist, but that's how I feel about this.

(Reread that last sentence, keeping in mind the famous negotiating aphorism: “Everything before the ‘but’ is a lie.”)

This quote embodies two essential traits of Warren’s political persona.

First, she identifies important issues but comes to illogical conclusions about them. She’s right that moral hazard had dulled the capital markets; government guarantees for banks that are too big to fail inexorably leads to more failure. But she doesn’t seem to understand her own point. She wants more well-intentioned regulation to cure the problems caused by previous well-intentioned regulation.

Second, she leads with her heart — which is good in love letters but not so great in governance. Most of her public policy statements are full of prefaces, parentheticals and sidebars about how she feels about things.

One challenge for a politician who has lots of stupid people cheering for her everywhere she goes is to avoid losing any connection to reality.

In time, Warren got her new (and additional) consumer protection agency. The Frank-Dodd Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, signed into law in July 2010, created the United States Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — which some in the Obama administration hoped would grow as large and powerful as the FBI.

Warren’s growing legions of collectivist supporters wanted her to be named head of the new bureau. She wasn’t. Some collectivists saw this as apostasy on Obama’s part — he’d caved to the Wall Street establishment by not appointing the woman who’d supervised the bailout of the Wall Street establishment. Others collectivists blamed “the Republican congress” for blocking her ascent.

Warren settled instead for the consultative position of “Special Advisor” to the Bureau. Which she kept for less than a year, when she quit to launch her U.S. Senate campaign. On her way out, she issued a farewell statement (surely one of the few Special Advisors to a non-cabinet-level agency ever to do so) that read, in part:

Four years ago, I submitted an article to Democracy Journal that argued for a new government agency called the Financial Product Safety Commission. I felt strongly that a new consumer agency would make the credit markets work better for American families and strengthen the economic security of the middle class. I leave this agency, but not this fight . . . the issues we deal with — a middle class that has been squeezed and business models built on tricks and traps — are deeply personal to me, and they always will be.

Again, rich subject matter and a jabberwocky conclusion. A “new government agency” will make credit markets “work better for American families”? Not likely. The lesson of the subprime mortgage collapse and the current recession is that statist abominations like the Community Redevelopment Act, TARP (the Wall Street bailout which, it bears repeating, Warren administered) and Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac create moral hazard and obstruct market efficiency.

And, again, the pabulum about her “deeply personal” feelings. Warren’s feelings are a big part of her public persona — as big as policy details or the effects they have on objective reality. This is an unexpected focus for a law professor. But Tip O’Neill would understand. Feelings work well at the retail political level. Paste-eating collectivists put maximum importance on “personal narratives”; they care less about logic or objective reality.

Warren has peddled her emotions with some success in the popular media. She appeared several times on the Dr. Phil TV show. She’s been a recurring guest on The Daily Show. She talked about Wall Street greed in Michael Moore’s documentary Capitalism: A Love Story. And she’s a staple on less popular TV talk shows hosted by the likes of Charlie Rose, Bill Maher, and Rachel Maddow.

Her focus on “personal narrative” also plays into some au courant gender-studies topics. But in a way that doesn’t play out well for gender equality. In short, some on the American Left believe that women prefer narratives to facts . . . and these types applaud Warren’s constant drumbeat of “feelings” that are “deeply personal” to her. But lost in all this postmodernism and academic jargon is the ugly and ancient assumption that women aren’t up to analysis of objective reality.

When Warren jabbers on about deeply personal feelings, she’s not so much different than the notorious talking Barbie doll who complained, “Math is hard!”

For those who are inclined to like Warren, these things don’t matter. They don’t even register. A quick survey of the reader comment sections of left-leaning internet news sites finds the following:

  • I'm 'blown-away' by Elizabeth: she's like a breath of fresh air. I watch this video every morning: its my Doxology!!
  • I love her!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • I love Elizabeth Warren! Such a breath of fresh air. I only wish I could vote for her. But, unfortunately, I'm in Ohio. We need more crusaders like her. You go girl.
  • If the Dems are smart they will highlight E Warren for the next 14 months and then give her a high profile role in the Senate because she IS 2016 staring them right in the face and challenging them to step up.
  • Love her. And I wish she were running for President now. But, she'll be no more experienced in 2016 than Obama was in 2008.
  • I love Elizabeth Warren. She saw the whole mess coming and did something about it. Her campaign now is the most valuable thing I can imagine for the Democrats over the next year.
  • Warren's courage has been contagious so far. Her clarion call to justice for the next generation of Americans can provide Democrats and progressives with an opportunity to reclaim the narrative about how to make America work again for everyone.

(from the Huffington Post)

  • I'm so JEALOUS... I live in Missouri and wish we had someone like Elizabeth Warren to run here. She is AMAZING and she's gonna kick Scott Brown's ass.
  • Getting rid of Scott Brown AND having a MA senator in the ranks of Bernie, Al, and Sherrod?!? Be still my beating heart...Elizabeth Warren will be a wonderful successor to Sen Kennedy.
  • a massive showing for the person who is probably one of the most effective leaders we have seen in a long time.

(from the Daily Kos)

In many ways, these comments are typical of political commentary of all political stripes on the internet. Personality-driven. Egocentric (note how many of the comments start with and focus on the “I” of the commenter). Infantile. At their best, such sentiments can be charming; at their worst, they’re moronic.

And, when Warren is observed in this light, she begins to resemble someone her fans at the Huffington Post and Daily Kos ritually hate: Sarah Palin.

On the surface, Warren is a sort of anti-Palin. Dowdy. Scolding. Harvard professor. Twice-married (the second time to a deferential fellow Harvard professor). Credentialed. Elitist.

But dig a little deeper. Oklahoma native. Scholarship student at a third-tier college. Married at 19. Less-than-gilded law school at University of Houston and Rutgers-Newark.

She’s like Palin in significant ways. They both have built bases of popular support on checkered histories in public service; they both welcome the biases and preconceptions of their supporters.

Here’s an illustrative anecdote: When I told one lefty acquaintance that I was surprised an academic of such modest background had advanced so far, my acquaintance replied indignantly: “What are you talking about? Elizabeth Warren went to Harvard.”

Warren fairly cried out for libertarian scrutiny with one recent quote. A supporter filmed some video of the candidate speaking at a fundraising event. Asked about the president’s ineffective attempts to raise taxes on the wealthy, Warren said:

I hear all this, “You know, well, this is class warfare. This is whatever.” No! There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody! You built a factory out there? Good for you! But I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You, uh, were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory and hire someone to protect against this because of the work the rest of us did.

Now, look: You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea, God bless! Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

The video became a sensation on the internet. Collectivists cheered Warren’s “full-throated” arguments for wealth redistribution.

But reread the quote — it’s not quite that. It’s a poorly-made argument about externalities.

Like a debater who knows she’s making a weak argument, Warren picks the easiest points to support her case for a social contract. Only the most rigid anarchist would deny legitimate externalities like roads and reasonable law enforcement. Those aren’t the things that are bankrupting America. Welfare programs, subsidized mortgages, “free” public services and defined-benefit pensions are the problems.

The promiscuous enthusiasms of Warren’s fans lead them to some genuinely bizarre conclusions.

As far as her talk of workers that the collective has paid to educate, Warren needs to talk to some actual employers. The failure of the American elementary and secondary education system is driving some firms to look abroad and in some cases relocate for competent employees.

Lastly, the notion of “pay it forward” as part of a social contract is dubious. A social contract should more modest than her ambitions for investment in future outcomes. Support of externalities and infrastructure aren’t about paying it forward — a phrase that has developed a popular connotation of karmic debt that people today owe people in the future — they are about paying for external goods in the here and now.

Warren’s fans aren’t likely to hear any of this, of course. In fact, their promiscuous enthusiasms lead them to some genuinely bizarre conclusions. Here’s what one halfwit fan wrote about Warren’s “pay it forward” quote:

She's wonderful, and dead on with her comments about public investments enabling private success. But she's wrong about "debt" and the national "credit card". Money is a public monopoly. The primary way it comes about is thru federal deficit spending. And US dollars precede US Treasury debt. So there is nothing for children or granchildren to pay back, and there is no "hole" in the budget.

A challenge for a politician who has lots of stupid people cheering for her everywhere she goes is to avoid losing any connection to reality. Life in an echo chamber can lead to bad choices.

Recently, the Daily Kos ran an adoring article on Warren that included a picture of a room full of lumpenprole women and pear-shaped men, cheering on their majestic crusader. To that crowd, and later to several media outlets, Warren bragged that she was the spiritual founder of the Occupy Wall Street protesters. “I created much of the intellectual foundation for what they do.” And:

. . . no one understands better what the frustration is right now. The people on Wall Street broke this country. And they did it one lousy mortgage at a time. It happened more than three years ago, and there has still been no basic accountability, and there has been no real effort to fix it. That’s why I want to run for the United States Senate. That’s what I want to do to change the system.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee jumped on that, issuing a quick press release noting that some of “her Occupy acolytes in Boston” had fought with the police. And ended up in chains.

At the same time, some wild-eyed Occupy Wall Street protesters have demanded that Warren “repudiate” — a totalitarian word — Obama’s bailout of big investment banks (which, again, she oversaw) before they will support her bid for the U.S. Senate. Doesn’t seem like a nice way to treat the lady who created much of their intellectual foundation.

Warren invites this lunacy. By throwing in with the Maoist protesters, she’s likely to have marginalized herself.

There’s a whole year in which candidate Warren’s signals to campus radicals will come back to haunt her. At the Daily Kos, people who “love” Warren are begging her to run for president, in 2016 if not sooner.

A rational person can only hope their love for Warren will be fleeting, just as their love for Obama was. In the mean time, the woman who oversaw the Wall Street bailouts will have talked a lot about her deeply-held feelings. And inched free people who build factories or have great ideas a little closer to slavery.




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The New Civility

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There is a scene in the classic movie My Fair Lady in which a hapless Eliza tries to talk with people who are out of her league, trying to pass herself off as one of them. She makes a hash of it, and Professor Doolittle tries to cover it up by calling it “the new small talk.” I thought of that scene when I learned of one of the recent election events our Great Leader held.

As I have reflected oft before, Obama, when running for office, was a man of many personae. One of the most appealing to an electorate weary of the "politics of personal destruction" (which in those days it was mainly waged against the then president Bush) was “HealObama.” HealObama was the man who would listen respectfully to the angry voices, and by so doing lower those voices, calming them with his gentle, soothing ways, just as he would lower the surging seas by walking on them on his way to a future without global warming. He would be truly the adult — nay, the Messiah — in the room.

In office, HealObama has not much been in evidence. Obama’s favorite trope is to remind his critics that he won, while questioning their own political motives and grossly distorting their political views. He is the master of the strawman technique: anyone who questions onerous regulations is an anarchist, unable to understand that government has its proper role; anyone who questions racial quotas is an unreconstructed racist, indifferent to the need for justice; anyone who questions huge deficits is a millionaire or billionaire, fonder of his personal jet than of the poor children starving to death because of the evil Bush’s horrible policies; and so on. In office, Obama has been an old-fashioned bitch, full of hostile and nasty bile directed at any dissenters.

The bitchery has of late been fully displayed in electioneering. Perhaps the best illustration occurred when he addressed his loyal labor soldiers at a rally in Michigan. Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa was “warming up” the crowd with a few healing remarks, including this love bomb:

We got to keep an eye on the battle we face: the war on workers. And you see it everywhere, it is the Tea Party. And you know, there is only one way to beat and win the war. The one thing about working people is we like a good fight. And you know what? They’ve got a war, they got a war with us and there’s only going to be one winner. It’s going to be the workers of Michigan, and America. We’re going to win that war.

He added, in his best Capo Corleone style, “President Obama, this is your army. We are ready to march. . . . Let’s take these son of bitches [sic] out and give America back to an America where we belong.”

Obama’s response? He said he was “proud” of Hoffa and other labor “leaders.”

Yes, behold the healing politics of mutual respect! The new civility. Obama's soldiers are apparently seething with the same rage that so obviously animates the man himself. It is a kind of unreasoning, instinctive, infantile, and narcissistic feeling of entitlement that easily conduces to violence directed at any perceived resistance. It is a swirling maelstrom of self-absorption that makes its possessor feel naturally entitled to power over the lives of and possessions of the “other.” You know, the enemies in the war, such as those dirty billionaires and their jets.

In office, Obama has been an old-fashioned bitch, full of nasty and hostile bile directed at any dissenters.

This is beyond morally repellent — it enters the realm of the sociopathic. With gleeful abandon, Obama’s regime has trampled on citizens' rights and attacked its perceived enemies, oblivious to the mess it has meanwhile made of the country’s economy. The demented shriek that “it’s all Bush’s fault” is its only excuse now, and it is as pathetic as it is puerile.

You need not be Nostradamus to see what kind of election we are in for. The statist rent-seeking mob — the affirmative-action incompetents, the welfare takers, the crony capitalists, the ACORN and other “community-organizing” scamsters, the Panther poseurs, and the union goons — will be out in numbers, prepared to use force and fraud to see that their candidate wins.

The Republicans had better be prepared for the fight. They had better have plenty of lawyers ready to contest the tsunami of election fraud and voter coercion that is headed their way. And the voters had better watch their backs.




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The Cliché Crisis

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I don’t know about you, but for me the worst thing about this year’s budget “crisis” was the gross overspending of clichés.

No, I’m not crying wolf. I am not holding America hostage. Neither am I rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Nor am I gleefully informing my close friends and colleagues that their favorite proposals will be dead on arrival when they hit my desk. Hopefully, I am acting more responsibly than anyone in the nation’s capital. I hold no brief for revenue enhancements (i.e., taxes), or for throwing grandma under the bus. I consider myself the adult in the room.

Nevertheless, I can’t claim that I cared very much about the budget emergency. I knew that I wouldn’t get what I wanted — even a small attempt to reform the federal government’s fiscal racket — so I couldn’t be disappointed by the spectacle that took place during the last week of July.

You can’t feel very bad because some Nigerian spam artist didn’t send you the $15 million he promised “in the name of God.” In the same way, you can’t feel very bad about the two political parties for failing to fulfill their promise and impart economic health to the country. But you can feel bad about how everyone with a microphone kept insisting, night and day, that we cannot keep kicking the can down the road.

An older cliché informs us that actions speak louder than words. I deny it. Often words speak much louder than actions. We all do a lot of impulsive things that don’t say much about who we usually are. But the words we carefully marshal to impress people in argument: those words are us. If not, what are they?

Here’s a way to measure a mind. Does it invent interesting means of saying things, or does it just repeat what others have been saying, thousands of times over? Does it use words, or do words use it? Is it working with words, or is it just . . . kicking the can down the road?

By this standard, nobody in Washington turned out to be very smart during the great budget embarrassment. Nobody said anything original or interesting. It was too much trouble. Take the cliché I just mentioned. The political geniuses thought about it for a while, then decided to picture themselves standing like idle boys on a country road, gazing balefully at a can that was begging to be kicked — and refusing, in an access of self-righteousness, to kick it. Dennis the Democrat was itching to give it a boot. So was Randy the Republican. But they controlled themselves. They did nothing — a very complicated nothing, but nothing nonetheless. Unfortunately, the can had a life of its own. It vaulted down the road and lodged in weeds from which it will be very hard to extract it.

Well, so much for that cliché. It didn’t work. But the horrible thing was that all these people thought they were being extraordinarily clever when they talked about the can.

This shows you what is so awful about clichés. They stay with us because people keep thinking that these are the words that make them clever. President Obama smiled at his cleverness when he urged Americans to sacrifice some never-specified largesse of the federal government. “Eat your peas,” he said, and smiled. He was being clever, he thought.

An older cliché informs us that actions speak louder than words. I deny it. Often words speak much louder than actions.

Today, it is considered very clever, when responding to some request for a serious opinion, to say, “It is what it is.” That’s what one of the Casey Anthony jurors said, when asked about the possibility that, although he voted “not guilty,” in the legal sense, Anthony might not have been “innocent,” in the moral sense. He wasn’t interested in reflecting on the question. “It is what it is,” he replied. Is that what John Galt meant to say when he suggested that A equals A? Or was the juror paraphrasing some dictum of Jean-Paul Sartre? In any case, I’ve heard that expression four times today, and it’s barely past noon. Last night, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), said in support of the budget compromise, the provisions of which she had not yet read, “it is what it is.”

Daring souls who venture beyond it is what it is have many other choices of clichés. One of them is to emphasize the idea that, no matter what idiotic decisions they make, they have done their due diligence, just by showing up. A whiff of legalese makes any choice legitimate. Sheer laziness, as we know, can always be justified as an abundance of caution, or a pious respect for what will emerge at the end of the day. At the end of the day the jury may reject the obvious and irrefutable evidence. At the end of the day the Republicans may (and probably will) sell out their voters. At the end of the day we’re all dead. Such things are, apparently, good, because they happen at the end of the day.

That’s a lax, supine, virtually inert locution. Somewhere toward the opposite end of the spectrum is a cliché as old, and as batty, as the House of Ussher. The expression is raves, as in “The New York Times raves.” Have you ever seen a movie trailer that didn’t use that cliché? It’s possible that the thing has become a self-reflexive joke among the producers of these silly ads — a reflection of their knowing superiority over the audience they are hired to manipulate. That’s us, the boobs in the theater — the mindless herd that is supposed to be taken in by the image of the newspaper of record screaming and frothing at the mouth. Of course, that’s what the Times actually does, every day, on almost every page; but why imply that there’s something special about its movie notices?

Speaking of clichéd images, how about the face of? This is another advertising cliché, closely related to poster boy for. Every time I turn to a cable news channel, I see the same old codger in the same ad for the same ambulance-chasing law firm, proclaiming, as if in answer to outraged objections, “I am not an actor. I am the face of mesothelioma.” Who could doubt it? And who could doubt that Casey Anthony is the face of jury imbecility? So what? I am the face of Word Watch. So, again, what? Advertising is intended to convince you to feel something extra about the obvious (or the nonexistent). That doesn’t mean that it’s clever.

Well, let’s escape. Let’s refuse to cast ourselves as the faces of anything other than ourselves. Let’s be individuals. But even then, clichés will pursue us. If we’re successful, we will probably be regarded as a breath of fresh air. And that’s not a good thing. The prevalence of this expression shows how easy it is to turn individualism into something quite the opposite.

Let me put it this way: have you ever met a breath of fresh air who wasn’t either a lunatic or a bore of Jurassic proportions? Or both? And no wonder, because the people who look for breaths of air are usually the stuffiest people around — the biggest conformists, dominators, and fools, in whatever group or institution you encounter them. In my experience, they tend to be people who think that Marxism is the newest idea in town. They are always people who welcome change because they’ve got theirs and know they will keep it, whatever damage their radical protégés may inflict on others. (Recall the late Senator Edward Moore Kennedy.) With the aid of progressive clichés, establishments maintain their existence.

Let’s escape. Let’s refuse to cast ourselves as the faces of anything other than ourselves. Let’s be individuals.

Here’s another one: “she [or he] is a very private person.” We hear that constantly. I heard it the other day on CNN, in reference to Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s chief aide, and wife of the disgraced Congressman Weiner. The expression evokes the whole range of faux-individualist dogmas about privacy and the right to privacy (a cliché invented by a Supreme Court impatient with the stately and accurate language of individual rights provided by the constitution). The implication is that there’s something good about being “private,” meaning “sheltered,” as opposed to being a real person and not giving a damn what the rest of us think of you, or whether we think enough about you to want to take your picture. A sheltered person is someone who cares very much what you think about him, and what the picture looks like; therefore he becomes very private, until he thinks the camera may offer a flattering angle. The people acclaimed as private are almost always celebrities and politicians — creatures of the media, who then resent (or pretend to resent) the media’s incursions into their affairs. Private person is a particularly dangerous cliché, a cliché that distorts reality, a cliché that turns American values upside down.

Someone out there is counseling straightforward thieves and murderers to portray themselves as the compassionate Buddha. But why would you want to be the Buddha’s penpal?

The same kind of expression, though one that generally appeals to a different social group, is compassionate. A couple of years ago, when I was writing The Big House, my book about prisons, I looked at a lot of convict penpal sites. Almost without exception, the prisoners seeking correspondents described themselves as compassionate. Now, I’m not one to shy away from convicts. All the convicts and ex-convicts I interviewed treated me very well. I’m grateful to them. And I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world to have a prison record. But compassionate shows all too clearly that the televised clichés of the middle class are seeping even into the prisons, polluting and corrupting everything they touch. Someone out there is counseling straightforward thieves and murderers to portray themselves as the compassionate Buddha. But why would you want to be the Buddha’s penpal?

One of the worst things about clichés is that they establish themselves as immortal statements of values. No matter how skewed the values are, the antiquity of the clichés attached to them implies that they are worthy of grave respect. This is a major problem with the insufferable clichés of the 1960s, which now, half a century years later, are reverently prescribed to hapless youth, as if they were the cadences of the Latin Vulgate. Hence the young denounce apathy, long to speak truth to power, idolize movements, embrace social justice, declare themselves for peace and global cooperation, commit themselves to the environment, the balance of nature, and (something quite different) change, and haven’t a clue that they are using the cunning vocabulary of the Old Left, c. 1935, and the birdbrain lingo of spirituality, c. 1900. Like a breath of fresh air, long-discredited phrases were transmitted by the Old Left to the New Left of the 1960s, to people (of the whom I am one of which) who had no idea that the words in their mouths had been put there by generations of silly old fuds. They (we) had no idea that even empty clichés can be repulsive and dangerous.

The other night I finally got a chance to see The Spanish Earth (1937), a famous movie that almost nobody who talks about it has ever seen. It was cowritten by the crypto-communist Lillian Hellman; Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos also participated (before they learned better). The film is a “documentary” about the Spanish Civil War, presented from the communist point of view, and it has about as much to do with the truth about that war as Triumph of the Will, from which it freely borrows, has to do with the truth about Hitler. I got a special kick out of the movie and its communist heroes constantly denouncing their enemies as rebels. Take that, you ring-in-the-nose college Marxist! You never realized it before, but the mission of the working class is to quell the rebels.

The most wonderful thing was the survival of so many wretchedly misleading political clichés, the kind of phrases that have soldiered on from Marx to Hellman to Rigoberta Menchú to the presidential aspirations of John Edwards and Barack Obama.

“Why do they fight?” the narrator asks about the Spanish people. Most of them didn’t fight, of course; and those who did took many sides, from Stalinist to anarcho-syndicalist. But never mind; a clichéd question deserves a clichéd answer: “They fight to be allowed to live as human beings.”

Human beings. How many times have we heard that, since? It’s an “argument” for every political program you can imagine.

“How ya doin’ today, Mr. Voter?”

“Uh, I dunno. Not so good, I guess. I think I’d feel more, like, more human if I owned a house. I’d feel more like I was living the American dream. Too bad I come from a working family.

“But that’s good for you — very good indeed! Working families are the meaning of America. So how much do you make?”

“Well . . . nothin’, right now. I been on disability these past few years. Ya know, this acne’s really actin’ up . . .”

“No problem! That’s why there’s a government! No reason why you can’t get a loan. As a working man, it’s your right.

“Damn! Really? Thanks, Congressman!”

“So, anything else I can do for you?”

“Well, uh, I guess I’d feel more human if I could retire at 60 . . .”

Most clichés aren’t deployed to answer questions; they’re meant to anesthetize them. So, if you say, in regard to The Spanish Earth, “Wait — I’m confused. Exactly who are these people who fight to be allowed to live as human beings?”, the film will tell you that they are “the men who were not trained in arms, who only wanted work and food.” These are the people who, we are told, “fight on.”

So at the end of the day, it’s the pacifists who inherit the earth — the pacifists who take up arms. Are you confused? I am. I’d like to know more about these people who are fighters because they don’t want to fight. But what I’m given is another cliché. I’m told that they are people who only want work and food.

Most clichés aren’t deployed to answer questions; they’re meant to anesthetize them.

It sounds good. Modesty is becoming. But one thinks of succeeding clichés, logically deduced from wanting only work and food: “It’s the economy, stupid.” “This election isabout one thing: putting America back to work.” “They work all day long, many of them scraping by, just to put food on the table. And . . . they see leaders who can't seem to come together and do what it takes to make lifejust a little bit better for ordinary Americans. They are offended by that. And they should be.”

That last remark is President Obama’s. The first remark is James Carville’s, back in the election of 1992. The one in the middle is sadly common at all times and everywhere, left, right, and center. Each remark suggests that ordinary Americans want only one thing — work and food. And that is why they vote the way they do.

Consider this the received wisdom, the grand cliché.

I’m offended by that. And ordinary Americans should be too.




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Weiner — For What He's Worth

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A few days ago, the modern-liberal media were full of people calling Anthony Weiner “one of the brightest members of Congress.” Yes, really. Google it, and you’ll see.

It’s sobering to think that these people might have been right. Maybe the other congressmen aren’t even as bright as he is. The difference is that he proved his stupidity by his absurd mismanagement of his own life, while his colleagues have proven it by their absurd mismanagement of the country.

Of course, you can be smart; you can be slick; you can be highly verbal, and you still may not be very bright.

But let’s not think about brightness. Let’s think about niceness.

Niceness doesn’t inspire me. Yet it’s worth noticing. A person who has decent manners, cultivates some empathy with other people’s feelings, is ashamed to tell gross lies to other people . . . that’s a nice enough person. That’s a person who is worthy of some respect. Niceness of this kind doesn’t require much effort. And it’s a logical prerequisite for high public office.

Now here is Anthony Weiner, who has no niceness whatever. In fact, he is one of the most obnoxious beings on the face of the earth. Having pushed the wrong button and sent a compromising picture of himself to thousands of people, what did he do? He lied. Not only did he lie, he accused political opponents of victimizing him with dirty tricks. He attacked people who asked him whether he had sent the picture, associating them with pie-throwing clowns.

That was his instinct. That was what he did immediately, without any compunction, self-righteously, aggressively, and determinedly, until he realized that more evidence of his absurdity had been found. Then he told what he regarded as the truth, and cried in public about his “panic” and his bad decisions.

The die-hard supporters of this leftist demagogue now attempt to dismiss his troubles as merely sexual and private in nature. But his strategy — immediately chosen and ardently pursued — was to lie about and accuse other people. Not only did he refuse to answer the commonsensical questions of news people (while holding press conferences supposedly designed to entertain their questions); he ridiculed and insulted them. Meanwhile, he sent messages to one of the women who had the goods on him, carefully instructing her how to lie to the media, and making little jokes about it. At the time, the biggest personal regret that Weiner divulged to the media was his fear that people were paying attention to his own moral problems instead of his attacks on the moral corruption of Republicans.

Weiner rose in the esteem of his fellow “liberals” by acting as the crazed pit bull for the Democratic former majority in the House. He made a career out of charging at the camera, barking and snarling about the scandalous conduct of the Democrats’ political opponents. Ron Paul and a few other members of Congress know how to argue for radical positions without demonizing people who commit the sin of disagreeing with them. Weiner, however, had no argument except demonization. Typically, he appeared in public with his mouth shrieking and his arms scissoring up and down, the image of a 21st-century Jacobin, scourging the Enemies of the People.

He was unsparing in his attribution of foul motives to all who disagreed with him. Here’s a report from Feb. 24, 2010. It’s typical. I quote from newser.com:

"‘You gotta love these Republicans,’ Weiner said. ’I mean, you guys have chutzpah. The Republican Party is a wholly owned subsidiary of insurance companies.’"

Challenged by a GOP congressman, Weiner reconsidered his statements.

“‘Make no mistake about it,’ he said, enunciating clearly, ’every single Republican I have ever met in my entire life is a wholly owned subsidiary of the insurance industry.’ Weiner was unapologetic about the remarks in aDaily Kospost afterward, which, CQ Politicsnotes, also contained a plea for donations and a link to a fundraising page.”

And of course, Weiner specialized in accusations that his opponents were not only wrong, but lying. Speaking of people who questioned the wisdom of Obamacare, he said, “First, they start by making stuff up.”

Then, on June 6, Weiner held a press conference in which he finally admitted, because he was forced to admit, that he had (in his suddenly demure phrase) “not told the truth.” He said of his lies, “It was a dumb thing to do . . . . Almost immediately, I didn’t want to continue doing it.” Yeah? Did you see the famous news conference in which he not only gleefully lied, but gleefully called a news person a “jackass” because his outfit was asking some obvious questions?

No, I do not care what happens, has happened, or may ever happen with now-Congressman Weiner’s formerly private parts. For all it matters to me, he can show them to whomever he wishes, at any hour of the day or night. He can romance anyone he wants to romance, in any way he wants to do it. God bless him as he pursues in peace his goal of pleasure.

But that doesn’t obscure the fact that Congressman Weiner is a total, complete, absolute fool. And that shouldn’t obscure the fact that the modern-liberal media respected him, interviewed him, assiduously quoted him, apologized for him, cultivated questions about the ease with which he might have been covertly attacked by wicked political forces, and so forth and so on, and are still purveying approaches and perspectives and points of view according to which he should not be blamed for the nasty piece of work that he is and always, obviously, was. Alas! that such a warrior for righteousness should fall victim to his private flaw. That’s the chant we hear today. But the real flaw wasn’t private.

What this affair has revealed, besides the congressman’s supposed assets, is how easy it is for people who have more words than brains to advance the careers of others like themselves, representing them as the brightest our country has to offer, for no other reason than that they pander to the political prejudices and hatreds of the allegedly educated class.




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Duh . . . Winning!

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I became a Republican so I could vote, in the 2012 primary, for the most libertarian-congenial candidate. Already I am wondering whether this will do any good.

Do I want to be lectured on morality by serial adulterer Newt Gingrich? Can I trust America will be safeguarded from creeping Sharia law by some moralist like Rick Santorum? May I hope the federal takeover of our healthcare system will be rolled back by Mitt Romney, whose plan in Massachusetts so inspired Obamacare? And behind the wild rhetoric and Bride-of-Chucky eyes of Michele Bachmann, can I be certain rationality reigns?

Both the Republican and the Democratic “teams” are in the same league. The overriding concern of both parties is the league’s survival. Each will win a few, each lose a few. But they are both deeply invested in the league — and in the big show it gives the fans.

When Team Red is in ascendancy, libertarians should probably reach as many as possible of those fans in blue jerseys with the bags over their heads. When Team Blue is back on top, we should peel off as many as possible of their disgruntled opponents.

It’s tempting to think there must be a shortcut — that one entire franchise can be purchased by reason and principle. Some will follow reason and principle, but many will not. In every era, many in the citizenry are simply fanboys and fangirls in red or blue jerseys, rah-rahing for their side.

Libertarians tend to want to change the game. We don’t usually think of politics as a game, which may be why we fare so poorly in it. We view the public square as a place for debate, for the engagement of thinking minds. If we sign up to play on one team or another, perhaps we lose something greater than a game. We may lose the chance to make politics something more than the silly, childish bloodsport it has always been inclined to be.

To win maximum public support, libertarians need players on both teams. I’m becoming less optimistic about the prospect of simply capturing the Republican flag and giving up on the Democrats. When I speak with left-leaning friends and relatives, I find them more willing to listen than many libertarians realize. The term “libertarian” has been tainted for them, freighted with all sorts of nonsense that has nothing to do with who we are or what we believe. But they understand government force, because it has been used against them and they live under the constant cloud of its return.

We have been seduced into hoping the GOP has finally gotten it, because it’s become fashionable for people in that party to call themselves libertarians. Some really do understand what that means, but for a frightful number of others, this is only the latest ploy for winning back power. Once they can take the bags off their heads, they’ll return to calling us dope-smoking hippie peaceniks and accusing us of opposing all that’s holy. They’ve done it too many times for us not to suspect they might do it again.

If we want a clearer picture of where these newly-minted Republican “libertarians” want to take this country, we need to pay closer attention to their presidential popularity polls. If polls can be believed as to the general direction of the party, any one of the players currently enjoying big numbers in the GOP will end this exercise in vanity with a second Obama term. Yet polling also shows that no more than half the population wants that. What do they really want instead?

All the leading contenders peddle the notion that more power will win the game, that if they’re nominated, their team can be champ again. If most Republican voters were not still stuck in this fantasy, they would be supporting very different people. But those who will really decide the contest are in the swelling mass of independents who are disaffected with the very idea of league play.

These people give every indication of being more open to libertarian ideas than they have been in years — perhaps ever. They lean libertarian, but describe themselves — in increasing numbers — simply as independents. They are no longer content merely to root for a team. If we don’t want to lose them, perhaps we shouldn’t join one.




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Another Worm Turns

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I have reflected before on the pivotal battle fought by Republican governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin to modify the collective bargaining rights of most public employees. Despite an unprecedentedly brutal fight, with union-backed Democrat legislators fleeing to a different state to deny the Republicans a quorum, an extraordinary anti-Walker and anti-Republican propaganda blitz bankrolled by the unions, massive demonstrations organized and also bankrolled by them, Walker and the Republican legislators succeeded in pushing through their reform bill.

The unions then doubled down, running a multi-million dollar campaign to replace an independent state supreme court judge with a union stooge committed to nullifying the law. That failed, and the unions were stunned. They have seldom met with such abject failure before; the experience is beyond ken, and their ability to comprehend.

Now another blow to union domination has been struck in of all places — Massachusetts!

Yes, lawmakers in the Massachusetts House of Representatives have voted to cut back municipal employees’ ability to bargain collectively for healthcare benefits. (The Massachusetts bill, by the way, includes the police. It thus goes farther than the Wisconsin law, which exempted police and firefighters from the new rules). And they did so by an almost 3-to-1 margin.

In particular, the law would give local authorities (such as mayors) of the more than 350 cities in the state the power to modify municipal employee healthcare benefits, such as by setting deductibles and copayments. The unions are pushing an alternative: if municipal officials and municipal union negotiators cannot reach an agreement, the dispute will go to binding arbitration. This is a common union ploy. Unions know that arbitrators don’t have to face the electorate, and don’t have to balance budgets, either.

Even more remarkable is the fact that the move to rein in Massachusetts’ public employee unions was and is led in great part by Democrats. This is the most dramatic illustration of a growing split in the Democratic Party coalition: more and more Democrats are seeing that their cherished progressive programs are being defunded by the boundless greed of the public employee unions, bogarting all the tax revenues collected by the progressive states. In the case of Massachusetts, healthcare benefits for municipal workers have more than doubled in a decade. And the compensation packages (pay, pension, and healthcare benefits) for municipal workers are consuming about three-quarters of the average municipal budget.

As in Wisconsin, the unions fought viciously to stop the bill they did not want, but to no avail. And shocked they were at the turn of the worm. Robert Haynes, head of the Massachusetts’ AFL-CIO (which represents over 175,000 municipal employees), squawked, “It’s pretty stunning. These are the same Democrats that all these labor unions elected. The same Democrats who we contributed to in their campaigns. The same Democrats who tell us over and over again they’re with us, that they believe in collective bargaining, that they believe in unions. . . .” You can just hear his outrage: dammit, in the good old days, when you bought off politicians, they stayed bought!

Haynes vowed that the unions would keep fighting the reforms to “the bitter end,” and that the union myrmidons would target those renegade Democrats as surely as they target Republicans. His union is planning to expand its demonstrations, bringing in police and firefighters to participate, increase the ads run, and increase the lobbying.

Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo, a Democrat, offered a couple of large concessions to the unions and to members of his own party who are frightened by the unions. The first would give public employees 30 days to argue against proposed changes in their healthcare plans (though without the power to stop the changes), and would give union members 20% of any savings for the first year from contested healthcare changes that local officials impose. (Considering that the bill will likely save taxpayers $100 million a year, this is a pretty good deal.) The proposal brings the bill closer to what Governor Deval Patrick has himself offered. But the unions are still opposed.

It is unclear whether the bill will make it through the Massachusetts Senate, and if it does, whether Patrick will sign it. He is a very progressive liberal Democrat, but his state faces a nearly $2 billion deficit.

However, the win in the Massachusetts House is already telling. It says that we are coming to the place where voters are no longer ignorant of how much the public employee unions have been ripping them off. This awareness is only beginning to grow. It will accelerate quickly as the retirement of the Boomers brings to light just what massive fiscal frauds the employee unions have committed, and as people see their social services begin to crumble.

It also says that there is a limit to how long Democrats will do the unions’ bidding. Under public choice theory, we assume that all actors in the political process (voters, special interest groups, and politicians) are motivated primarily by self-interest. The politician wants to be reelected, and he knows that in most situations, the public isn’t paying attention to what laws are being enacted, while the special interests, such as unions, are. So it makes sense to screw the voters in exchange for special interest financial support. But when the public is aware and concerned, the politician knows that special interest money won’t compensate for the lost votes. In such cases, where voters are no longer rationally ignorant, the politician will be forced to defy the special interests.

We may be reaching that point.




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Causes and Consequences of the Great Election

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With the Republicans scoring a decisive victory in the Nov. 2 election, the salient questions are: why did it happen, and what effect if any will it have on this country’s governance?

Let me amplify my remark that the Republicans scored a decisive win. As of this writing, the GOP has gained a net of 61 House seats, with the possibility of picking up more (as close races get sorted out). This is the greatest gain in House seats in 60 years. The Republicans have taken a net of six senatorial seats; and they have netted six, possibly seven, governorships. Flying under the mainstream media radar, but hugely consequential, is the net gain of 20 state legislatures and about 700 state legislative seats — consequential, because the state governors and legislators have great redistricting power, and redistricting will necessarily follow the 2010 census. There is just no way to spin away the fact that this was a severe pounding for Obama's party.

For all their mistakes, the Republicans, like hedgehogs, got the one big thing right: they made the election a referendum on Obama and his policies.

So why did the Republicans score such a victory? Several factors are important. To begin with, Obama’s two years in office have revealed him as a narrow-minded leftist ideologue, and a shallow-thinking one at that, who lied about all manner of things. His foreign policy failures have been exceeded only by his domestic policy failures, making him already appear worse than Jimmy Carter, in only a fraction of the time it took Carter to reveal himself as bad. After two years in office, Obama's habit of whining about everything being Bush’s fault rings especially hollow.

For all their mistakes, the Republicans, like hedgehogs, got the one big thing right: they made the election a referendum on Obama and his policies, and the voters responded accordingly.

And there is the undeniable role played by the populist Tea Party organization. This loosely-knit group of populists consists mainly of people discontented about the fiscally ruinous policies that the Troika of Obama, Reid, and Pelosi implemented. The tea partiers brought enthusiasm to the election cycle, and they rightly saw the need to get rid of RINOs such as Mike Castle and Lisa Murkowski. For this they deserve praise. My major criticism is that they stink at vetting candidates — they chose some whose backgrounds were shaky at best (such as Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, and Carl Paladino). Angle, for instance (a candidate whom I reluctantly supported financially), proved to be not exactly a polished public speaker. She lost to Reid in what should have been an easy pickup.

I generally support groups that are unafraid to challenge liberal or overly “moderate” Republicans in primary contests. I'm thinking of such organizations as the Club for Growth, which helped to fund Pat Toomey’s defeat of Arlen Specter in the primary and Toomey’s victorious run for the Senate for Specter’s old seat. But going RINO hunting only makes sense when you have done your homework and identified outstanding candidates to replace the RINOs. Notable here was the Club for Growth’s support of the seasoned and powerfully articulate Marco Rubio — a man with a compelling life story. His candidacy was precisely the way to dump an unprincipled “moderate” hack such as Charlie Crist.

The Tea Partiers show the normal drawbacks of populists. I share their dislike of big government, but I don’t think that the traits of ignorance and passion sit well together. The Tea Party won’t go away, and I wouldn’t want it to; but some coherent thought about what is wrong with the government and what can be done to fix it would be useful. Interesting in this regard was a poll of Tea Party members, showing that 62% of them opposed cutting Medicare and Social Security.

Populists usually profess support for free market economics, but curiously oppose many of the practices that define the system.

I believe that passionate populism was the main reason why the election went the way it did. I also believe that anti-government sentiment will continue to grow, and that the passion we have witnessed so far will reach a public-choice tipping point regarding the welfare state. As the baby boomers age, the expenses of massive entitlement programs will rise inexorably. Ever increasing deficits will wreak havoc with our economy, and we will see repeated outbursts of anti-government populism.

But populism is a two-edged sword. Anti-government populism can get out the vote, but it is an incoherent position, containing within itself the seeds of its own incompetence. The populists hate political pros, and want only neophyte Mr. Smiths going to Washington. But that sets the stage for many more Carl Paladino meltdowns: the populists get charmed by a seemingly likeable outsider (someone who never held any political office, not even a freaking school board seat) and give him the primary victory over more established candidates, only to find numerous defects exposed in the main campaign.

Worse, populists usually profess support for free market economics, but curiously oppose many of the practices that define the system. For example, free market economists from Adam Smith on have stressed the importance of free trade. But populists on both the Left and the Right reject it, espousing a mercantilist philosophy that Smith fought hard to overturn centuries ago. Obama claims that he is creating jobs, but in stoutly opposing free trade, he ensures that job creation will remain lower than it would otherwise be. Many populists would do likewise.

Again, many populists (especially those of the Right) hate the free flow of labor, aka immigration; and the arguments they use make it clear that they are just as opposed to legal as to illegal immigration. They believe that immigrants cost large numbers of jobs, result in lower wages, and (this is usually directed at Latinos) that they refuse to assimilate. Of course, if these ideas are sound — and I do not think that they are — then they argue against all immigration, legal or illegal.

Yet again, many populists (especially those of the Left) love government programs that supposedly help the working class. As I noted earlier, even the majority of Tea Partiers have passionate feelings for Medicare and Social Security. Indeed, Republicans made great hay of pointing out that Obamacare cuts $500 billion from Medicare. But let’s be honest: even without Obama's dramatic expansion of governmental healthcare and the comparatively modest expansion under Bush’s senior drug assistance program, the system of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security have been admitted to be unsustainable even by its own trustees.

The Republicans gained from the populist anti-government surge. But the question is what they will be able to do with it, and here I remain skeptical. What are the chances they will actually be able to repeal Obamacare? Rather small. And even if they did repeal it, would that solve the entitlement explosion built into Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security? Certainly not. The dirty secret is that while people rage against big government, even tea partiers love certain government programs, at least until those programs explode.

And what are the chances the Republican House will be able to get America back on track towards free trade? Again, almost nil. As to the chances of the Republicans getting comprehensive immigration reform, one that insures a reasonable flow of labor to American business, well, these are completely nil also.

The Republicans will be able to do some modest good, such as stopping the proliferation of bailout and stimulus bills, and the creation of new entitlements. And I suspect they may save Bush’s tax cuts, including those for the wealthy. But the bankruptcy of the nation still looms. It is doubtful that, in the near term at least, Republicans can institute the radical changes that are needed to bring entitlement programs into sustainability, or to expand our free market economic system — slashing regulation, lowering corporate income taxes, reforming immigration, getting more free trade agreements enacted, and expanding free choice in education.




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