The Shutdown, and the Sickness at Our Core

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To me, the most ominous feature of this political moment is the fact that most of the American people appear to regard “shutting down the government” as so dangerous, so frightful, so morally detestable, that they will suffer virtually anything, including the horrors of Obamacare, to avert such Days of Doom.

Many of our fellow citizens do not realize, even after 20 years of threats and experiments in this field, that the real effects of the “shutdown” will be minimal. It will mean a short-term lapse of certain “non-essential government services” (there being thousands of such services deemed essential). But I think that most people do realize that. Nevertheless, they are unwilling to part with even a few of the alleged benefits of government, even temporarily, even for an important cause. In other words, they are willing to burden themselves and everyone else with trillions of dollars of debt, to support programs that most of them heartily dislike, at the behest of lawmakers whom they scorn and ridicule, merely to avoid . . . what? Not getting their mail on Saturday? But they probably will get their mail on Saturday.

I know many people who will fight almost to the death to avoid paying for some item they bought that turned out to be defective, but who rant against the Republicans for resisting Obamacare with the only weapons that are available. None of these people happen to be on the government dole, at least in any way that could conceivably be affected by a “government shutdown.” They all have their own, big beefs with government, and do not hesitate to talk about them. Yet this is how they behave.

The usual explanation for such behavior is “cognitive dissonance”: a clash between two attitudes, both of them devoutly held but each in opposition to the other. Yet in cognitive dissonance theory, people try to find some way of reconciling their opposing attitudes, or at least of rationalizing the opposition. That is not happening now. Our fellow citizens simply announce their hatred for government and their hatred for anyone who tries to act against government.

I am afraid that we are witnessing one of those phenomena that signal a deep sickness within a culture, a sickness for which no name or diagnosis appears to be available. You can see it, but you don’t know what it is.

The woodland Indians of North America valued an attitude of grave deliberation, often spending days or weeks in solemn meditation on the right course to take on issues of practical or moral import. Yet their favorite entertainment was the fiendish torture of other human beings, conducted amid scenes of riotous celebration and clinical interest in every detail of suffering. Something, clearly, was amiss — but nobody thought there was, or tried to reconcile the conflict.

Our fellow citizens simply announce their hatred for government and their hatred for anyone who tries to act against government.

When you watch reports of a political demonstration in the Middle East, what do you see? Usually it is a crowd of young men dressed in designer jeans and the latest sneakers, riotously denouncing Western culture and appropriating every possible Western means of communication to advertise their denunciations. Again, one can see the symptoms of some deep internal conflict, but the conflict inspires no reflection among the participants.

I would consider it wrong for someone on welfare, or Social Security, or a government payroll, to advocate strong government, lecture everyone about the virtue of following government orders, and denounce opponents of big government as anarchists. This would, however, be readily understandable, self-consistent, and in its way psychologically healthy: you benefit from big government; therefore, you openly advocate it. But so far, only Harry Reid, a creature from outer space, has done that; only he has called the opponents of big government “anarchists.” Tens of millions of other citizens lament the government and all its works, as if they themselves were anarchists, while simultaneously resenting and denouncing the very idea of “shutting” it.

In this way — this way alone, but it’s an important way — they are sick, and Harry Reid is healthy. There is something very wrong with this picture.




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The Tea Party House Roller Coaster

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So Speaker Boehner decided that the danger of the fiscal cliff destroying the economy was a graver risk than letting Obama and the Democrats collapse America into a statist nightmare of never-ending deficit spending and ever-higher taxes. Tea Party darlings Paul Ryan and Grover Norquist both supported the fiscal cliff deal, and they had some legitimate arguments: taxes were permanently lowered for most Americans, taxes went up only on the rich, and the Tea Party House can use the automatic sequestration, in March, and the coming debt ceiling showdown in February, as leverage to extract spending cuts from the Democrat-controlled Senate and Obama.

But what does it all mean? I think there is no reason why the showdowns to come later this year will be any different from the fiscal cliff, New Year's Day drama. We are headed for a hellish roller coaster ride on which we face dangerous, potentially disastrous duels between the president and the Tea Party House over whether America is headed toward bigger or smaller government.

Obama's ultimate goal is a less free, more state-controlled economy, of which Obamacare was only the beginning. The Tea Party was our best chance at stopping his socialist agenda. But because anxiety and fear are always resented, and the Obama vs. Tea Party House confrontations are portrayed as scary by the mainstream media, the American public will probably come to hate the Tea Party House, and the Tea Party may pay a steep price for brinkmanship in the 2014 Congressional elections.

Who will win in deciding America's future? I think Obama has already won. The Democrats will always use the scarecrow of the supposed disaster that will happen if the federal government shuts down to pressure the House into raising the debt ceiling and ending sequestration. Speaker Boehner, by bringing the Senate deal to a floor vote over the Tea Party's objection, has already proven that he buys this argument. If the federal government's vastly bloated bureaucracy is viewed as "necessary," then the debate over America's future is over before it has begun. Look forward to a coalition of the House Democrats and the “moderate” House Republicans, with the Speaker's help, neutralizing the Tea Party-conservative alliance for the next two years, with truly disastrous results for the United States and our economic policy.

The Tea Party may be able to get some spending cuts, but can it seriously alter the structure of American statism? I doubt it. At this point only a series of electoral victories by the Libertarian Party to give the LP legitimacy would pose a true challenge to the dominance of the American Left, and that seems implausible. The Tea Party consists of good people, but the Republican Party as a whole is too soft to win this duel, and the Tea Party has not yet been able to realize its goal, taking control of the GOP from within.




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The French Disease

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The French were just handed an affront to their out-sized pride. Moody’s has just downgraded their national debt. France has now lost its sterling AAA rating, dropping a notch to Aa1.

Moody’s cited a number of reasons, including France’s rigid (i.e., over-regulated) labor market, its lack of innovation, and its high level of national debt. The first two factors seem likely to lead to the undermining of its industrial base, and the last leaves it open to the bad debt problems of Greece and Spain, the agency noted.

Of course, it is unlikely that the new, avowedly socialist regime of Francois Hollande will alleviate any of these problems — in fact, it will likely exacerbate them by further poisoning the economic system with statist nostrums.

But lest we laugh too loudly at the French, we need to remember that we have the same disease. The neosocialist regime of Obama has also massively proliferated restrictions on the labor market. Start most notoriously with Obamacare, whose onerous provisions become fully operational in 2014, and which will slap huge new expenses on companies for employees working 30 or more hours a week (at least for companies with 50 or more employees). Add the aggressive use of the NLRB to force unions on hapless employees and businesses, insane new regulations on fossil fuel energy (especially coal production), the Lilly Ledbetter Act, dramatically expanding the ease of filing sex discrimination lawsuits, and so on, and you have the same fate in store for our productivity and innovation.

Regarding our national debt, we are already worse than France, not just in absolute amounts (we are a bigger country), but as a percentage of GDP. The French are at about 90% debt to GDP ratio, while we exceeded 100% early in Obama’s profligate tenure.

No doubt this is what has moved Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to call for a radical new change in our legal system. He recently proposed that America should just eliminate the limit to debt altogether, knowing that the existing limit will be hit in the very near future, and not relishing a congressional fight over the matter. Let’s just borrow money with no limitations, until we spend ourselves into prosperity.

Jason’s Law of Karma in political ethics is that people get the government they deserve. This is just as true for us as it is for the French. We are all Greeks now.




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Fiscal Sanity

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When the Tea Party took control of the House of Representatives in 2010, my worry was that they would sell out and become status quo conservatives — like most Republican politicians who have paid lip-service to laissez faire.  After the 2011 debt crisis, my fear is precisely the opposite.  The Tea Party House is too idealistic, too unwilling to compromise.

It seems to me that most Tea Party House members have been influenced (at some distance, granted) by Murray Rothbard, who suggested that you must insist upon total capitalist freedom right now. They have also been influenced by Ayn Rand, who likened compromise to poison. This must make a lot of libertarians happy, but it makes me both scared and happy. There are two reasons why I am scared, and one very different reason why I am happy.

First, as someone who believes in practical idealism, I believe that change must be enacted slowly or it will be doomed to long-term failure. The government has been quasi-socialist since the New Deal, and the American economic system has developed in such a way that it is designed for government to play a role. Simply eliminating all government intervention overnight instead of gradually phasing statism out would almost certainly harm the economy and worsen the recession, as the system would be unable to cope with the gaps in its structure.

Going from freezing to boiling instantly is a shock to any system, whereas increasing temperature gradually enables an organism to adjust and adapt. If the United States government shuts down before the free market has a chance to adapt and develop systems to replace government functions, the result will be chaos.

Second, if the Tea Party House refuses all compromise and continues to insist upon an idealism-or-nothing approach, the American public may become afraid of the dangers of radical change, and popular sentiment may easily turn against the Tea Party and libertarianism. The Tea Party and libertarianism are not identical, but the Tea Party movement is essentially a populist lowbrow form of libertarianism. If the Tea Party brand becomes unpopular it could set the libertarian movement back decades. The majority of the voting public can easily get scared by apparent extremists who threaten economic calamity in the name of abstract ideals.

This is so even though the Tea Party represents the very best ideals embodied in a long history of American patriotism dating back to the American Revolution. As a case in point, many Tea Party House idealists voted against the debt ceiling compromise, meaning that they wanted the government to default on its debt, which would have triggered a doomsday scenario for the American economy. I suspect that this scared many mainstream voters.

Nevertheless, and in spite of the above, I am actually happy as well as scared that the Tea Party House has taken such an insane approach. The Tea Partiers are crazy, but the modern liberals and conservatives are crazy too, and our insanity is better than theirs. A debt default would have been no more insane than ObamaCare or the war in Iraq. Trillions of dollars of unchecked growth in entitlement spending and more tax-and-spend Democratic budget deficits over the next decade would do more harm than a temporary government shutdown. Lofty idealism is a breath of fresh air, given the stagnant corruption that has emanated from Washington for the past century, and “much must be risked in war” (to quote The Return of the King).

I am happy with the Tea Party House’s strategy because the Tea Party could easily lose the House in 2012 and the movement might stall and dissolve, so this 2011–12 era may be our one and only opportunity to shrink government and restore fiscal sanity. Therefore the Tea Party should continue to fight to cut the government as much as possible, and make it difficult for future Congresses to undo its achievements, because the Tea Party may not last forever. The Tea Party House could be our one shot at saving America from an Obama-led collapse into socialism. In the context of my happiness over the Tea Party House’s unyielding idealism, a little bit of fear isn’t really such a bad thing after all.




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A Call to Repentance

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Are there libertarians who still regard President Obama with affection?

I understand that some people voted for him because they wanted to punish Bush and his fellow Republicans. The Republicans were warlike, and they were spendthrifts.

Well, if punishment is on the agenda, I want to be first in line to give some. Plenty, in fact. I’ll never get over George Bush’s ability to lie, lie, and keep on lying. But did you expect something better from Obama, you who supported him?

You did. I know you did. I heard you — at length.

As you said, Bush went to war, twice. But Obama continues running both wars, and he started a third one, the marvelously useless war in Libya. If he doesn’t get us involved in Somalia or Haiti, it will be a wonder.

As you said, Bush spent too much money. But Obama started off by spending a trillion dollars on a feckless economic program. He instituted a healthcare scheme that, basically, nobody wanted, which will cost at least half a trillion more and will give us notably less effective healthcare.

On August 8, Obama addressed the nation’s economic problems by demanding higher taxes and accusing those who don’t (such as you) of having caused the present economic distress. While he was talking, the stock market dropped like a rock. It lost 634 points that day.

But perhaps those who expected something libertarian out of Obama were right in one respect. His presidency has been wonderful for the gold market.




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The Perfect Ending

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After an agonizingly protracted battle, congressional leaders and the president reached an agreement to raise the debt limit, with some minor cuts in spending now and supposedly more cuts in the future, cuts that will be determined by a bipartisan panel.

There has been considerable rending of clothes and gnashing of teeth on both the left and the right sides of the political spectrum. But really, the agreement probably captures the mood of the majority of Americans.

As I have noted before, people are only just beginning to see the entitlement spending iceberg towards which the nation’s economy has been sailing for decades. But polls show that the public — including self-described Tea Party members — still strongly support the major culprits in the fiscal follies with which the country is beset: the entitlement programs, especially Social Security and Medicare.

In sum, the public is beginning to see the problem, but remains clueless — or, to wax Nietzschean for a moment, deliberately blind — to the real cause of the problem.

The agreement had immediate effects; though not ones, I daresay, that were comprehended by the supercilious solons who spawned it. And I’m not talking about the Standard & Poor’s downgrade.

First, as the US Treasury reported, the national debt immediately shot up $238 billion to a grand total of $14.58 trillion, officially hitting the mark of 100% of GDP. We as a nation have hit that mark only once before, right after World War II, the biggest foreign war we ever fought. We are now there again, in a time of comparative peace. As the report drily notes, this debt level puts us in the league of countries such as Italy and Belgium.

The second effect was not a stock market rally created by the exuberant joy of investors, relieved that disaster had been averted, but instead a massive sell-off, caused at least in part by the recognition that disaster looms.

All this brings to mind the old adage: a country gets the government it deserves.




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End of the Beginning or Beginning of the End?

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After much huffing and puffing, the barons on Capitol Hill have reached a deal that prevents the US government from defaulting on its debt. At the same time they staved off, for the time being at least, a downgrade in America’s credit rating. The president, our Othello, was offstage as the deal was struck, and now finds himself a diminished actor, even as he prepares for his most challenging role as a candidate for reelection.

What in fact has occurred? The United States government has been pulled, kicking and screaming, into taking its first baby step toward fiscal responsibility. Elections, we find, do matter. For, love them or hate them, it is the Tea Party Republicans elected to Congress in 2010 who compelled Uncle Sam to stand up and walk. They and they alone managed to force the issue over the debt ceiling. Of course, they got nothing like the deficit reduction they were looking for. But they have both changed the debate in Washington and achieved a modest first step toward fiscal sanity.

The squeals of distress emitted by Democrats and their supporters in the media (most notably the New York Times) make plain just how much the tide has turned in Washington and, perhaps, the country at large. The consequences of spending beyond one’s means were brought home for the average American in the Panic of 2008. As a result of that financial meltdown, it became common wisdom that out-of-control government spending must, at some point, lead to disaster. It was this realization, as much as opposition to “Obamacare,” that led to the Tea Party sweep in 2010.

Nevertheless, great dangers remain for the Republicans. The second round of spending cuts mandated under the just-passed legislation amounts to a drop in the ocean of American debt. We are still looking at trillions of new debt being added over the coming years — an unsustainable level of deficit spending and borrowing. To solve this problem, revenues must indeed be on the table. The Republicans should come out strongly for real tax reform, with a lowering of both personal and corporate rates tied to the elimination of loopholes and other steps to broaden the tax base. If the Republican Party’s plan is to allow General Electric, for example, to continue to reap billions of dollars in profits without paying any federal tax, they will be signing their own political death warrant.

Additionally, some Republicans are clearly opposed to major cuts in the defense budget. That the people will accept austerity except in defense is an illusion. The United States is not seriously threatened militarily by any power on earth. We currently spend about the same amount of money on defense as the rest of the world combined. The global commitments of the United States must shrink. When Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said, as he emerged from the Senate vote on the debt ceiling, that America must finance Egypt’s transition to democracy, he revealed himself as doubly out of touch, for it is equally absurd to believe either that American dollars can create democracy in the Arab world, or that the average citizen is willing to throw away his hard-earned money on such a will-o’-the-wisp.

Congressional Democrats, on the other hand, are acting as if they have solved the deficit-debt problem, and are talking about moving on “to what Washington does best — creating jobs and opportunity for Americans.” If this is what they truly believe (and it certainly appears that many of them do think this way), then they too are barreling down the road to self-destruction.

The president is talking about a balanced approach, but does he mean it? He ignored the opportunity to move toward a balanced budget in the wake of the Bowles-Simpson commission’s report and the mandate for fiscal responsibility given to Congress by the voters in 2010. And even if he is serious, does it matter? He overreached himself in pushing for revenues in his one-on-one negotiations with Speaker John Boehner, and was then reduced almost to a cypher as Congressional leaders forged a deal largely on their own. His poll numbers are down and his political relevance is in question. The mediocrity of the Republican presidential field is his one comfort.

There is, of course, a dirty secret out there, unspoken but quietly acknowledged by many thoughtful people. It is that nothing the politicians can do will prevent another serious economic crisis, one perhaps much worse than 2008. The debt and deficit issues are not resolvable without draconian cuts and revenue increases, which taken together must derail any prospects for sustainable economic growth and job creation. Resorting to the printing press, as in 2008, is impossible given the level of government indebtedness. In any case it would only postpone the day of reckoning. A Keynesian jobs program was tried in 2009 and largely failed, at a cost of nearly a trillion dollars. Vast numbers of people lacking the education or skills needed in an economy that has been transformed by globalization will be left with nowhere to turn. The private sector cannot use them; the public sector will no longer be able to support them. Therefore we face . . . what? We certainly seem fated to live in “interesting times.”




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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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How to Enjoy the Debt Ceiling Fight

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I am enjoying the fight in Washington, D.C., over the debt ceiling — from afar.

If you want the inside dope on what’s happening right now, I don’t have it. I am 3,000 miles away from it, and I have work to do. To me the fight in Washington has mainly been background noise.

In the cocoon of left-liberalism in which I live, the echo is that the “right-wing fanatics in Congress” have gone berserk. That’s what Paul Krugman said in the New York Times, and he is such a smart man. And here is E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, July 21:

“The tea party lives in an intellectual bubble where the answers to every problem lie in books by F.A. Hayek, Glenn Beck or Ayn Rand. Rand's anti-government writings, regarded by her followers as modern-day scripture — Rand, an atheist, would have bridled at that comparison — are particularly instructive.

“When the hero of Rand's breakthrough novel ‘The Fountainhead’ doesn’t get what he wants, he blows up a building. Rand’s followers see that as gallant. So perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that blowing up our government doesn’t seem to be a big deal to some of the new radical individualists in our House of Representatives.”

I turn to the No. 1 radical-individualist web page, and see a denunciation of the Tea Party from another place. Here is Brian Wilson on LewRockwell.com, July 23, claming that the Republicans are really progressives:

“When you assume the Republicans are shills for progressivism, the actions make sense and are easily predictable. If the Republicans won the Debt Debate, government spending would really be cut. Which of course, they don’t want. So they had to throw the fight. Unfortunately, like TV wrestling, it becomes more and more obvious the game is rigged. It's as if the rulers in Washington don't even care if we believe their staged fight. It's just a kabuki ritual they have to perform before stealing more of our Freedom.”

Some folks are never satisfied. Being unsatisfied is part of who they are. Not I; some things I find very satisfying. I tend to agree with George Will, who said on July 22 that the Tea Party is “the most welcome political development since the Goldwater insurgency in 1964.”

These are our people. They are for smaller government. They are against the spending and debt. They are for the constitution. I should be on their side because they are on my side.

It pains some libertarians to identify with the Tea Party. Libertarians see themselves as intellectuals, and as political movements go, the Tea Party is middlebrow tending toward lowbrow. Its people listen to Sarah Palin, B.A., Communications, University of Idaho, and Glenn Beck, whose most advanced degree is from Sehome High School, Bellingham, Wash. These Tea Party people know nothing of Lysander Spooner, the Austrian theory of the trade cycle, or the legal doctrine of substantive due process. I recall the comment by Jeffrey Friedman, Ph.D., Yale, and the editor of Critical Review (a publication I can follow only about a quarter of the time) that the Tea Party had trashed the image of libertarianism on university campuses.

Probably so. Still, the Tea Party kicks butt. In 2010, it got a cadre of rabble-rousers elected to Congress. In this debt-ceiling fight, the new Republicans provoke the furious denunciations of the Krugmans, Dionnes, and other stalwarts of the welfare state. You wouldn’t be seeing these fulminations, including Dionne’s furious blast at a novel published nine years before he was born, if the Tea Party weren’t threatening the left-liberal project.

I love it.

How it’s going to work out, I don’t know. I doubt the Left’s hysteria about a worldwide economic crisis that will flush Americans’ 401(l) money down the drain — if this were so, I think, the stock market would have fallen 20% by now — but I don’t know. The market is not all-knowing, and sometimes it comes down with a thump. I wonder whether the promises offered by President Obama and the Senate Democrats to cut two or three trillions in spending are any good. I don’t know that, either, but even if they break their promises, it seems far better to extract those promises now and pin them to their shirts.

Get while the getting’s good, my daddy used to say.

Will the people turn against the Republicans as they did in 1995? Maybe. Or will a large, vague, unenforceable deal work to Obama’s advantage, allowing him to run as a moderate, beat the Republican nominee in 2012, and save the welfare state? That’s the thesis of George Will, who urges the Republicans not to fall for it. I don’t know how they should play their cards, and unlike Will, I am not going to instruct them. I assume they know what they’re doing, and if they don’t, there is nothing I can do about it.

I hear a muted noise from 3,000 miles away, and note that the fight is still on.

I cheer my side.




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