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December 2011 Archives

December 1, 2011

Rearrangement, if Not Changing, of the Guard

Executive Director Steve Buri, as of today, becomes the new President of Discovery Institute and I become Chairman of the Board and a "Founding Fellow." This is my long desired personal achievement as someone who has carried the institutional responsibilities of management for 21 years. It will allow me to help Steve and the other fellows and staff in strategy and project development and to do more of my own research and writing.

In a time of economic troubles and philosophical confusion, Discovery has extended a course of "purpose, creativity and innovation" in public policy and culture.

Geroge Gilder (who remains, of course, a senior fellow) and such original Board members as Tom Alberg will be here to help Steve. So, too, will the internationally famous team of Steve Meyer and John West, who head the Center for Science and Culture, Bruce Agnew at the Cascadia Center, and the leader of our other programs. The new Wealth, Poverty and Morality Center, with Jay Richards and George Gilder, among others, will defend the ethics and utility of free markets that are now under concentrated attack in Washington, DC. So will our Center on Human Exceptionalism, led by Wesley J. Smith, and our technology and public policy program. Other initiatives--including a focus on the future of communities--will be highlighted in the year ahead. Despite the hard times, Discovery is thriving!

To keep this unusual group of fellows and staff organized, productive and well-supported Steve Buri is exactly the right man. He has experience in local elective office, politics and public policy--and 11 years of on-the-job-training here. Steve is personable, reflective and trustworthy. You can count on him.

December 6, 2011

That Dubious Word, "Social"

There was a poll not long ago showing that most people think a "socialist" is someone who likes to get together with friends and party. Therefore, calling someone or something "socialist" may not carry quite the wallop some conservatives imagine. What to do, except educate?

It takes a while, but education works. Early in the campaign season last year in Washington State voters reportedly were supportive of an income tax on "the rich" until they were persuaded (with reason) that any such tax would soon devolve to them. Taxes have a way of doing that, as citizens in states with income taxes can attest. When people realize, similarly, that "social justice" really means higher taxes, more regulations and runaway welfare, they may not think it sounds like so much fun.

Jonathan Witt, now at Acton Institute (and still a Discovery fellow, too), has written a piece for The American Spectator that examines several words of this sort. He also makes a kind reference to another colleague, George Gilder.

December 7, 2011

Budget Taunts vs. Economic Progress

The scariest thing about our economic crisis is the unreal way the President and most media are addressing the subject; namely, by rhetorical taunts and symbolism. It's hard to believe tha tthey are serious about the economy to hold back on politicking. For example, the grandstanding Mr. Obama says he won't leave Washington until the Congress (he means the House) deals with (he means passes) an extension of the payroll tax reduction.

The first thing to be said is that the payroll tax reduction doesn't do anything to employ people. It goes to people who already are employed, and, of course, it raises the deficit even further. It is just more "stimulus". Of course, the President wants to "tax the rich" to pay for this stimulus. His proposed tax increase to cover it is "temporary", supposedly, but it can be counted on to reduce the amount of money in the private sector that is available for savings and investment--in creating new jobs.

It's too bad one can't call Mr. Obama's bluff and tax the daylights out of the super-rich. Many of them are Democrats, anyhow, especially the crony capitalists who manipulate government policies and connections for advantage. The difficulty is that taxing the rich won't help and may hurt economic growth. The tax may be sold as hitting rich bankers and trustfunders, but it actually will hit small businesses and venture capital firms. And, since taxing the rich can't possibly suffice to meet our "needs", the definition of "rich" will quickly after an election ratchet way down into the middle class.

The media's role in this charade cannot be understated. The Seattle Times today runs on page one a Washington Post news story that is so slanted as to constitute an editorial. After quoting a professor saying that Obama "is trying to show how far the Republican Party has strayed" (from Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt), the reporter, David Nakamura, states (as if it were a counterpoint), "Still, Obama delivered a searing indictment of core Republican economic theory, with the GOP brand of 'trickle-down economics' drawing some of the harshest criticism.

"That theory," Nakamura goes on, "which holds that greater wealth at the top generates jobs and income for the masses, 'speaks to the rugged individualism and healthy skepticism of too much government,' Obama said. 'It fits well on a bumper sticker. There's the problem: It doesn't work. It has never worked."

Guess what, Mr. Obama and, especially Mr. Nakamura? Nobody in the GOP advocates something called "trickle down economics." That is a term of derision for supply side economics, which is a different matter. Further, "trickle down economics" has never been advocated on a bumper sticker, to my knowledge. So why are you both using this term-in a supposedly serious speech and a supposedly serious new story?

Who talks about the American people as "the masses", by the way? Why would Republicans ever adopt this phraseology that is typical of Marxists?

Obama increasingly sounds like a candidate in the last stages of a reckless campaign, and media representatives like Nakamura sound like his shills.

Biblical Culture Can Survive Secular Schools

It probably is a mistake for those who want to expose children to the Christian faith to keep trying to do so in old ways at public schools. The case law against it goes back to the 1940s and today the pressure of public opinion and the bureaucracy militate against overt religious expression. Parents determined to have "Christmas Pageants" at school may be disappointed.

However, while the current liberal zeitgeist does not approve of religion, it does approve of "culture". Therefore, the way to present a pageant around the Christmas story might be to showcase it in a general music and drama program for "winter break". The story of Joseph and Mary and the baby Jesus is part of Western civilization. The songs around it bespeak the traditions of England, Italy, Germany and, say, African Americans. All of that is safe to bring forward. In other words, what is not acceptable in school when presented as religion is welcome as culture. Even some atheists want their children exposed to the legacy of our civilization and they know very well that that includes Handel's Messiah and the spiritual, "Go Tell it on a Mountain."

In a similar fashion, Christians can promote classes that teach the Bible as history. Many secular groups, and outright atheists, support this aim under the same rubric that the Bible is an important part of our cultural heritage. So let the Bible be taught as literature and history. Christians will find that without any editorial support, the scriptures will speak for themselves. Let those that have ears, listen. Regardless, the students will have a greater appreciation for the Bible.

December 10, 2011

Russian Version of Crony Capitalism

No country's history proceeds on its own anymore, uninfluenced by events elsewhere. Thus, there was a great deal of interest in Russia in the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, just as there were with the Arab Spring. Yet, in the aftermath of the demonstrations against Vladimir Putin and United Russia that followed the parliamentary elections, Putin is blaming the public displays on--Hillary Clinton.

This is like politicians in the American South during the civil rights movement who blamed the demands for change on "outside agitators." If Putin merely expressed annoyance with the tone of U.S. scolding, it would be hard to disagree. Whether it is Clinton or her predecessor, Condolezza Rice, moralizing U.S. Secretaries of State seem to think that they should be constantly announcing what other governments "must" do. It's hard to know what such near-daily lectures accomplish, other than infuriating heads of state with whom we must deal. Once in a while? Sure. All the time; it is a little hard to take.

Nonetheless, Putin cannot imagine that his problems with the Russian people are the result of comments made by Hillary Clinton and the United States government. There was too much Internet evidence of fraud in the elections. One blogger became famous for the beatings he endured in government hands. These protests hardly look like the work of Ms. Clinton or the CIA.

Instead, Prime Minister Putin might consider that the long-suffering Russian people can see in the Occupy demonstrations in the U.S. how a truly democratic country handles dissenters. Comparatively, America almost coddles them. Police protect them, even when they invade private parks and public buildings and then set up camps. In Russia, the Kremlin either attacks demonstrators (in the old days) or, at best, criticizes them as stooges of the West (these days).

Russia is suffering from crony capitalism, a politicized form of mercantilism: state sponsorship of industries, state manipulation of supposedly private companies, preferential regulations and official corruption that hobbles new businesses. It isn't fascism, but it is hardly the kind of free marketplace of ideas and enterprise that Russians thought they were getting twenty years ago. Sadly, the first efforts at liberalism after the fall of communism were chaotic and badly delivered, and the consequent economic collapse brought about the Putin reaction. Had his party spearheaded more serious reform and resisted the temptation to enrich its leaders and managers, Mr. Putin ciould have succeeded much more than he has. Had he merely decided to limit his leadershi to the twelve years he has put in so far, he would have retained his popular standing. He probably could have kept (and still may keep) the mansions he has built for himself since assuming public office.

Instead, Russia now serves as an example of how persistent, unyielding crony capitalism can demoralize an economy and democracy. People are right to object. Paired with the fiscal failures of Social Democracy--through over-spending--in most of Europe, you have twin dangers that should flash political warning lights in America during our own lesser, but very real crises.

December 12, 2011

Is the New Newt a Durable Newt?

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The rise of Newt Gingrich's poll numbers has given rise to some strikingly candid analyses by conservatives who like Newt but are terrified that he will get nominated, and almost as worried that he might get elected President. Peggy Noonan covered that ground admirably in the weekend Wall Street Journal. Today, the Journal's "Political Diary" (online by subscription only) carries four blog posts, all about Newt, including one from editorial page editor Paul Gigot. Though he is impressed by the former Speaker's sense of humor and his ability in Saturday's debate to "control his tendency toward condescension and vainglory," Gigot worries that Newt could blow up at any time. How long will supporters have to hold their breath?

Not taking sides, it is possible to imagine a reformed and victorious Newt who admits his personal failures and acknowledges that he has changed his policy positions on some issues as new information has become available and as he has learned and reflected. He is an idealist who grew up, not apologizing and not elaborating explanations, merely recognizing the obvious. The former Speaker might point out that he got into Congress wanting to be an agent of conservative reform and that he had significant successes in that regard. A good example was welfare reform. Indeed, the fiscally responsible Bill Clinton was really a creature of reaction to Gingrich's political success in taking over Congress in 1994. As a human being with great intellectual skills and proven legislative abilities, New Newt is perfectly prepared to lead America that no longer wants a faux messiah who makes the waters recede, who dazzles with his smile, but will prefer a more rolly-polly pol in charge who is older and wiser. A man who really does love this country and doesn't aim to change it so much as help it realize its historic potential.

That's the line. Can he follow it and not trip?

December 13, 2011

Why People Take Big Government Personally

News item: Fear of Big Government at Near Record Level

A parking ticket outside a doctor's office on First Hill in Seattle is $44, and an hour later the parking inspector is circling again. He knows where naive parkers can be found. They're the folks who think an hour and a half payment at the meter will suffice, when, chances are, the doctor will take "longer than expected". Fair enough to pay the fine, but $44? It's not about regulating parking spaces, but how to increase City income.

But if five minutes is worth $44 to local government, the citizen's time is not worth much at all. Hence, the $10 a day paid to court jurors ordered to service (in King County, WA, for example). Hence the long waits on the telephone to talk to government agencies.

The State government is the same. Only a few officials--like Gov. Mitch Daniels in Indiana--bother to find what it's like being serviced by the Department of Motor Vehicles. Stand in line for a license in downtown Seattle, as a friend did this week, and you see a sign that says, "Take a number here," with an arrow pointing down. Down is where a table is set, with a box with another sign. It doesn't say, "Press here for a number." It says, "Press for service." One stares at it, eventually pushing the button (will a bell ring, a person appear, or will a numbered card appear?). A numbered card appears, and then one hears a bureaucrat standing nearby, sarcastically saying, "Congratulations, you got a number!" In other words, how dumb can you, the citizen, be? Immediately behind you, however, comes a woman who has the same confused reaction, followed by another. Does the bureaucrat helpfully suggest, "Press the service button for a number"? No. Does he or anyone think to change the sign? No, he waits until people figure it out, then congratulates them. For which he is paid a salary by the people whose intelligence he insults.


Continue reading "Why People Take Big Government Personally" »

December 14, 2011

Best Fresh Commentary on Newt

Tony Blankley was a colleague in the White House Office of Planning and Evaluation in the Reagan years and left to become press secretary to Minority Leader, then Speaker, Newt Gingrich. I've been meaning to ask his opinion of the recent "Newt surge" and what it foretells. A columnist these days, Tony has saved me a call by writing a genuinely original article that describes the connection between the old Newt and the new Newt.

December 16, 2011

Gilder Still Bullish on Israel

Sr. Fellow George Gilder just returned from two weeks in Israel where he thinks high tech innovation has a new, better home than almost anywhere else. Globes magazine contrasts Gilder with local pessimists in Israel.

The consequences of Israel's high tech prowess are felt here not only in the business world, but, perhaps most significantly, in national security. For some reason, major media are not following the remarkable story of Israel military inventions. Do you think they will if a war starts up?

December 20, 2011

The Hush-Hush War

Some wars develop like a quiet fire that nobody notices until it suddenly engulfs a building. That may be the story of Iran today.

The Iranian regime's anti-American covert actions have been going on for years and seem to be escalating. Attacks by the Taliban in Afghanistan that are abetted by Tehran and attacks by Iranian agents in Iraq are manifold. What is new is the US's apparent willingness to fight back more directly. This is a turnaround from the earlier policy of the Obama Administration to engage and placate the mullah regime.

Michael Ledeen reports two explosions today in Iran, adding to the list of mysterious calamities that some are linking to Israel's Mossad. Iran probably is not publicizing the setbacks because they expose Iran's vulnerabilities. Today's explosions hit an oil refinery and a Revolutionary Guards site.

Mr. Ledeen, who has followed Iran for years, believes that domestic opposition is behind the explosions. However, who can say at this point? With the Iranian currency in a 15 percent drop in the past three days, the citizens of Iran certainly have plenty of economic as well as political and cultural grievances against the regime.

"Even before the steep drop of the rial over the past three days," Thomas Erdbring reports in The Washington Post,
"Iranians appeared increasingly to be losing faith in their currency. In recent weeks, customers have formed long lines to buy gold, forcing the government to halt all direct official sales last week.

"'People fear that the government is running out of money, and they are taking their measures,' said Hadi Lari, an economist."

Meanwhile, ABC is unusual among major media in reporting on development of the so-far covert war.

December 21, 2011

How Liberal Civilization Fails

When government stops performing its traditional functions in order to take on new functions you are bound to see a collapse of civilization. That is Victor Davis Hanson's Clockwork Orange view of Central California today, where thieves are not imprisoned, but ordinary taxpayers are harassed by government--because they can.

Santorum's Moment?

Former Sen. Rick Santorum, looking tan and vital on Fox News' Greta Van Susteren program, managed to move beyond the social issues agenda he has stressed in the campaign for the Iowa Presidential caucuses to point out why any extension of the payroll tax cut is unwarranted: the payroll tax is actually the support people pay for Social Security. "Cut" it and all you do is add to the increasing failure to hold down entitlement spending. Already the payroll tax doesn't cover Social Security expenditures; the "cut" only makes deficits worse. By intentionally increasing the Social Security system's deficit you also disconnect Social Security further from a retirement scheme and turn it into welfare.

Meanwhile, the drop from 6.2 to 4.2 percent in payroll tax is not noticed by people who benefit from it and and it does nothing directly to create new jobs. If the supposed idea is to stimulate spending, which supposedly boosts the economy, then why not cut the tax out altogether; wouldn't that "stimulate" the economy even more? And since the tax cut already has been in place for a year, where is the evidence that it has done any good so far?

Making sense on this issue, the indefatigable Santorum finally may draw enough attention to himself to start to rise in the serious consideration of Iowa voters. His chief competitors for the conservative Christian vote are probably Rep. Michelle Brachman and Gov. Rick Perry, and the endorsement of two leading conservative Christian leaders recently probably moves him ahead several points. Conservative Christian voters so far have been ineffective in Iowa this year because they are divided.

December 22, 2011

Phony Agreement on Payroll Tax Cut

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Image over substance has been the bane of tax policy discussions for years, and never more than in the current last minute agreement of the House to extend the payroll tax cut for two months. Oddly, it was the Republicans who wanted to extend it for a year instead. Their purpose was to take the issue off the table during the presidential campaign so the Democrats wouldn't keep hitting them over the head on the subject. Somehow, the Democrats and media made them out to be obstructionists holding up a tax cut. Few in the public understood what was going on, and the media didn't explain it to them.

One could only watch with contempt as commentators on CNN last night carried on about the politics of the issue without once pointing out the obvious: the payroll tax cut is a Social Security fund buster. The Social Security tax not collected from people who already have jobs is added right onto the budget deficit in Social Security. This is the kind of entitlement irresponsibility that is bankrupting Europe and that the Congressional elections of 2010 supposedly were fought over.

What might have happened if the public had been told the truth? "Do you think the temporary reduction of payroll payments to Social Security should be extended, even if it means--as it does--that the Social Security System goes even deeper into debt?"

This tax cut ranks right up their with the $200 rebates the Bush Administration handed out just as the recession started. They are short term politics at its worst. The cost is 100 billion dollars in the budget, but even more in lost government credibility.

December 23, 2011

Christmas Business Way Up--for Shoplifters

If you don't pursue shoplifters and put them in jail, you will have more and more of them--as pointed out here a few weeks ago. Now, the prediction comes true. The last minute Christmas shoplifting season 2011 is in full swing, and up six percent from last year. Who says the economy isn't growing?

December 28, 2011

Those Who Dwell in a Cell

Let us pause in the midst of the twelve days of Christmas to remember, and (if so inclined), to say a prayer for political prisoners around the world. One of them, Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Prime Minister of Ukraine, has published a letter in The Moscow Times from her prison cell that reminds us of the personal risks leaders assume even in supposedly democratic regimes. Some regard Tymoshenko as corrupt, but it's hard to judge. The state in such countries has most of the instruments of publicity, as well as law, on its side.

What one can say is that politics should not be criminalized (to use Mark Helprin's useful phrase). There may be some corrupt politicians in jail, but there are surely many more in prison on trumped-up charges, guilty mainly of threatening the political prospects of their opponents. In the popular view, courts treat elected officials more leniently than ordinary people. But the opposite is often the case if the official or former official is a dissident.

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