Friday, January 27, 2012

Jonah Goldberg on Gingrich's moon talk

It’s rare that I disagree with Jonah Goldberg but in his G-file today I think he largely gets the pushback on Gingrich’s moon colony statement wrong.  Goldberg self describes as “a cathedrals in space kind of guy” and then writes:

We are a pioneering people, and I see the effort to, as Reagan said, "slip the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God" as a worthwhile endeavor for a great nation. I bet the Founders would be more comfortable with the idea of American expansion to the moon than with, say, Medicare….

If that's all too frilly for you, think of it this way: Lord knows I'm no Keynesian, but if you believe even a fraction of this multiplier stuff or a scintilla about the need to train up a new generation of scientists and engineers, then spending money on space exploration makes a lot more sense than most of the junk in the stimulus. I'm completely pragmatic about how to do it, and heavily biased toward free-market approaches, but I think it's worth doing.

The mockery of Gingrich over this seems more like a poor reflection on our own national spirit than on Gingrich himself

It strikes me as the argument put forth here isn’t up to Goldberg’s usual high standards. It is first and foremost out of time and place, which is something of a starting point for conservative reflection.  Colonizing the moon may be worthwhile, but now when we are hugely indebted and already terribly over-committed?  And yes, the Founders may very well favor space exploration over Medicare, but Medicare is a done deal and not going away.  And as to the comparison to the stimulus, what Goldberg is curiously leaving out is the none of the above option. 

To be fair, Goldberg opens the argument with a nod to all of these critiques saying:

Now, yes, when the country is drowning in debt, proposing a moon colony is arguably politically crazy (though Floridians on the Space Coast probably don't think so). Indeed, when you have a reputation for saying whacked-out stuff, leading with your lunar ambitions can be confused too easily for lunacy itself.”

But it isn’t just politically crazy it is crazy, like a family fighting off bankruptcy deciding to buy a new sports car because the automobile and driving the open roads is a unique expression of the American spirit.  As John Podhoretz put it on Twitter, “the issue with Gingrich and space isn't that space is silly. It's that talking about space colonies during a crisis is the act of a flake.”

NOTE: I can’t link to the G-File as it is not posted on any site, but you can sign up for it and the other National Review newsletters here

Nice introduction

I’ve just started reading Simon Schama’s A History of Britain.  William has won the Battle of Hastings (1066) and become king, but of course everything isn’t settled just yet.  Schama goes through the potential troublemakers:

“‘Eadric the Wild’ of Wales who was said to have married a fairy princess and introduced her to the king—‘Beauty, say hello to Beast, Beast, say hello to Beauty.’”

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

State of the Union --1881

A link to Chester Arthur's State of the Union report in December of 1881 was put on Twitter by someone.  It is pretty interesting in a compare and contrast way to say Obama's address last night.  I don't think you need to read it--I haven't--but rather skim through it to get its flavor.  Most noteably it isn't an especially political document but rather a report on the current state of the union (I know, how shocking! It seems that there was at least the possibility then that something in politics would actually conform to what it was reputed to be.  What primitives.)

Arthur's State of the Union is extraordinarily expansive in reporting on foreign affairs when of course America's position wasn't nearly as central as it is today, and the ending where he details the government's revenues and expenses for the fiscal year made me smile as I've thought something like this should be on the front page of every newspaper once a year.  Note, the calamity that opens the report is the assassination of James Garfield.  You probably knew that, but I had to look it up.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

National peanut butter day - WFB

This morning Jeff Jacoby posted a link to this ode to peanut butter by William Buckley in recognition of what is apparently national peanut butter day.  It is almost Wodehousian

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory - the Republican Party in '12

What can you say about this withering assessment of the Republican field by Bret Stephens other than yep.

And while it may seem from my frequent negative posts on Gingrich that I’m a Romney backer I assure you that isn’t the case.  I didn’t think much of Romney in 2008 and this summer I wrote him off as having absolutely no chance to get the nomination despite my being fully aware of the Republican Party’s tendency to select the next in line.  That is to say that I thought if anyone could lose where success seemed assured it would be Mitt Romney.  I’m not even convinced of his success at Bain, as not having been there and only being able to judge him by his campaign he strikes me as a classic example of the CEO as empty suit, getting credit—since he’s the CEO—for the intelligence, acumen, and skill of the people who worked for him. 

If anything I’d say that Mark Steyn’s take on Mitt Romney on The Corner is too generous.

On Newt, you know this already (if you've been reading this blog)

Me from the post, The Character of Newt’s Intelligence, on November 30th:

“But even if his intelligence is conceded, it strikes me as a) not conservative and b) not well suited to the office of president.  The central characteristic of Newt’s mind is that it is prolific, but there is little evidence of it having any real depth or of any wisdom.”

National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru in his column for Bloomberg yesterday:

Gingrich has more original ideas than most of us. But for a president, what’s much more important is the ability to tell the good ones from the bad -- an ability called judgment.”

And Ben Kennedy who was the history department chair who in 1970 gave Gingrich his job as a historian at West Georgia:

The thing about Newt is he's clever but he's not intelligent. A mile wide and an inch deep.”

“You know he makes an occasional reference to Appomattox or something like that. I think Newt's understanding of history is not very deep.”

Saturday, January 21, 2012


Some things worth reading or listening to:

b)      Mark Steyn on the lost art of going down with the ship and what it means

c)      An old Firing Line appearance by Ron Paul.  I think Buckley zeroes in on Paul’s fundamental error quite nicely

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Ken Minogue on hyperactive politics

“To a liberal…’complex modern societies’ are networks of interdependence, and every day the filiations of the network increase in number.  But the entities thus related—individuals, firms, institutions, etc—are never equal in social power….Hence it is the business of government to step into society to correct the evils which are constantly being produced by the unregulated condition of social life.  The great liberal sagas are about the large-scale operation of this principle.  Men in pursuit of a profit develop the slave trade and the state eventually steps in to make it illegal.  Early factory owners use their power over their employees to work them for long hours in bad conditions.  The movement of population leaves behind parliamentary constituencies so small as to be a gift of local magnates, necessitating a reform of the franchise.  And so on.  Government is a fountain of justice forever irrigating the dry places of society.” [Aside: “liberal sagas” describes perfectly my high school history classes]

And the result:

“…political hyper-activism is an attempt to remove the element of power from social and economic relations by the invoking the power of government to reduce the social balance of power.  But what it actually does is to drain the productive reality of social and economic relations, and transfer the question of power to a new sphere of politics in which government appears as a court besieged by suitors.  As there are no ascertainable rules by which a government can allocate benefits in this situation, society becomes a complex of stridently squabbling groups seeking impossibly large amounts of an inadequate cake.”   [Note, that liberalism having brought this about then sanctimoniously complains about the lack of civility in political discourse] “What people get no longer depends on what they can do, but on the pressure they can exert on government, often by damaging their fellow citizens.  The logical outcome of this is a new corporate version of the Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all.”

Kenneth Minogue, Conservative Essays, On Hyperactivism in Modern British Politics, 1978

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"A public doctrine"

"There is now a more realistic view of the function of politicians; it is seen more clearly…that they are victims as much as initiators and that, since much of what they say is parasitic, it matters much more than Oakeshott, for example implied, what exactly they are parasitic on.

What they are parasitic on is whatever has been established by all those elements in the intelligentsia who can communicate in the widest sense.  This includes politicians, not, however, as autonomous agents or guardians of a mystery but as leading actors playing democratic roles and helping to produce what may be called the public doctrine of this country.

A public doctrine is that loose combination of interlocking assumptions about politics, science, scholarship, morality, education, aesthetics, and religion which constitutes the basis on which decisions are made about public matters.  It is fed from many sources and is expressed with varying degrees of articulation."    - Maurice Cowling, Conservative Essays, The Present Position, 1978

I commented skeptically a few days ago on the poll result that indicated America to be a center right country on the basis of self-identification.  The above observation by Maurice Cowling partially addresses my doubts.  I would argue that along with other factors (political practice is rather obscure, actual politics lags opinion) part of the observable disconnect between poll and practice is that the ‘public doctrine’ in America is still left-liberal.

Note also that if Cowling is correct, and I think he is, then the social/cultural battles which seem out of place and annoy so many people, make perfect sense in that they are about establishing the frame in which political decisions are likely to be made.

The politics of economics

"Unfortunately, it is seldom possible to insulate economic judgments from political ones, or to expect complicated economic ‘truths’ to be accepted ‘on their merits’.  Some parts of the argument have gone over the heads of the electorate while others, in the form in which they are adopted…, have been adopted within an egalitarianising framework which makes nonsense of the rest."

Maurice Cowling, Conservative Essays, The Present Position, 1978

Sunday, January 15, 2012

NFC playoffs

The dirty little secret of sports is that the championship isn’t as significant as the fan generally thinks.  Except we aren’t really inclined to think about it, unless we happen to be fans of very good teams that end up not winning the championship.

But not having a dog in the fight, that’s the main thing I take away from the NFC playoffs this weekend.  With the 9 – 7 Giants beating the 15 – 1 Packers and the up from nowhere 13 -3 49ers defeating the more established 13 -3 Saints it is at least arguable that the two best teams in the NFC have been dispatched by lesser opponents.  As I’ve argued before [] there is a certain ambiguity in sports and how it defines best.  One would normally think that best would be determined over a suitably long period of time, but actual sports operate playoff systems that tend to reward ‘getting hot’ at the right time rather than consistent excellence.

And no that isn’t sour grapes from a disappointed Packer fan.  I grew up in Minnesota.  Enough said on that score, I should think.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The individual

Michael Oakeshott on the individual that emerges in the middle ages as part of his examination of the character of a modern European (including the USA) State:

Tis glorious misery to be born a man.’

“What has to be reckoned with is a historic disposition to transform this unsought ‘freedom’ of conduct from a postulate into an experience and to make it yield a satisfaction of its own, independent of the chancy and intermittent satisfaction of chosen actions achieving their imagined and wished-for outcomes: the disposition to recognize imagining, deliberating, wanting, choosing, and acting not as cost incurred in seeking enjoyments but as themselves enjoyments, the exercise of a gratifying self-determination or personal autonomy….

The self here is a substantive personality, the outcome of an education, whose resources are collected in a self-understanding; and conduct is recognized as the adventure in which this cultivated self deploys its resources, discloses and enacts itself in response to its contingent situations, and both acquires and confirms its autonomy.  Nor does the experience of this disposition imply the worship of ‘non-conformity’, or a resolution to be different at all costs.  The conduct it prompts is not composed of unconditional choices, and it does not require indifference to moral or prudential practices or aversion from any but self-made rules.  It is composed of actions and utterances which reflect the contingent sentiments, affections, and beliefs this particular self has made its own, performed in subscriptions to practices whose resources it has made its own.  The autonomy of such a self and independence or originality of such conduct lies not at all in an unconcern for the conditions which specify the arts of agency….In short what is postulated and emphasized here is a collected personality, autonomous on account of its self-understanding and its command of resources it has made its own.  And half of this self-understanding is knowing its own limits.

This disposition may express itself in a modest an unaggressive self-reliance, in a man’s acquiescence in his own capacity for self-enactment, whatever it may be; and even quite humbly in a man’s knowing how to belong to himself and a preference for being related to others in these terms.  And it may go along with an undismayed acknowledgement and admiration of the superiority of others, an aristocratic recognition of one’s own unimportance, and a humility devoid of humiliation….

Where personal autonomy is thus given a place in a moral practice, conduct will be recognized to have an excellence simply in respect of its authenticity and perhaps to be, in part, justifiable in these terms….Of course this may be exaggerated into an exclusive moral ideal, excellence in conduct being identified with this authenticity; but this is a corruption which every disposition recognized as virtue is apt to suffer at the hands of fanatics."

Michael Oakeshott, On Human Conduct, Character of a Modern European State

Doubting the 40% conservative result

I keep hearing from conservative commentators that America is a center-right country and I keep wondering what they are talking about or how otherwise intelligent conservatives could believe such a thing.  So yesterday’s poll results that 40% of the public identifies themselves as conservatives (35% moderate, 21% liberal) leaves me unmoved and apparently I’m not the only one. 

In his Morning Jolt (you can sign up for it at National Review Online) Jim Geraghty writes:

The caveat: How many conservatives know what conservatism is? How many people call themselves conservative but vote, and think, in ways that you or I might not find all that conservative?” 

Yep.  And later in the day I noticed further confirmation of this when it was observed that 20% of those identifying themselves as ‘conservatives’ described themselves as Democrats.  I will submit that if you are a conservative and still find the Democratic Party congenial you are at the very least confused. 

But be that how it may, one simply has to look at actual elections, actual political results to realize that whatever the polls say America is not politically center-right in any meaningful sense. 

What these poll results remind me of is an anecdote my brother use to tell from his marketing days back when Charmin use to run the Mr Whipple “don’t squeeze the Charmin” ads.  In focus groups and other consumer feedback vehicles that hatred for these ads would come through loud and clear.  If you believed what consumers said no one would buy Charmin because they so hated these ads.  Except Charmin at the time had about an 80% market share. 

I’ll believe America is a center-right country when I start seeing center-right policies being supported.  And conservatives who believe these poll results are kidding themselves and making a big mistake.  By taking these results seriously they may think they're winning most of the arguments.  They/we aren't.  What we are seeing is a lack of confidence in liberalism, the end stage of the progressive era, not any actual evidence of conservative support. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Bain Capital and finance - an NRO discussion

There is an interesting discussion at NRO and the Weekly Standard regarding the attacks on Bain Capital, and by extension Mitt Romney, by a few of the other candidates, most notably Newt Gingrich.  The point being discussed is the alleged compulsion on the part of conservatives to defend finance by way of defending capitalism. Yuval Levin states it thus:

But it has revealed two problems that conservatives who have risen to Romney’s defense and the Romney team itself will need to address. The former have too easily treated finance as the entirety of capitalism, and so have needlessly made both the defense of finance and the defense of capitalism more difficult.”

Levin is usually very sound, but I think his contention that conservatives have treated finance and capitalism as being one in the same is absurd.  To be sure a defense of finance has been prominent lately, but then we are in recession caused by dislocations in the financial markets and the occupy wall street protests are, if targeted at all, a protest against finance so one would hope a defense of finance has been mounted by those who believe in capitalism.  But where is the evidence that the two have been conflated as being one in the same by conservatives?

Prompted by Levin’s post Michael Walsh added his own supporting argument drawing a contrast between finance and production of goods and services.
A bestselling author creates wealth for himself and others by sitting alone at his desk and then producing something the public wants to read and buy. George Eastman basically invented the photography industry (now fallen on hard times), Henry Ford, the modern automobile industry. A screenwriter or two, even if they’re sitting poolside in Beverly Hills, create out of whole cloth a movie script that sells to a studio and then provides employment for hundreds or even thousands of people — employment that did not exist until they started typing with one simple question in their minds: ‘What if . . . ?’ All of these folks deserve the rewards they get, and ought to be able to keep most of them.
But the public — after decades of enduring pixel-pushing Masters of the Universe, corporate crooks engaged in liar’s poker as they loot the suckers, convicted felons who try to manipulate the American political system, and other assorted enemies of the people — is rightfully suspicious of men who make millions off the lives and fortunes of others and then act as if they’ve accomplished something unique and original.”

This is terribly confused, and only in part because it makes a similar mistake to what Yuval Levin has warned against by treating one practice or aspect of finance as its entirety.  But more fundamentally it glides over the central contribution of finance and what Bain Capital was doing.  Walsh’s example loses sight of the sequence in which a screenplay becomes a movie and employs thousands in the process, and fails to grasp that the receipts or in-flow of cash comes after the movie has been made, marketed, and released.  The screenplay, no matter how creative, doesn’t become a ‘product’ doesn’t put anyone to work, unless someone is willing to fund it.  Moreover the writer and workers all get paid whether the final product finds an audience or not.   It’s only the financier who really loses if the venture doesn’t turn a profit (and that he doesn’t share in the creative reward only extends the point).

Both of the NRO posts reference an earlier post by Jonathan Last at the Weekly Standard.  Like the others, Last suffers from the same confusion on what constitutes a successful company or product writing “When people think “job creation,” they typically think about an enterprise that builds something” as if finance and what Bain Capital did isn’t connected to things being produced.  But at least Last (least Last?) gets around to the heart of the matter when in the 5th of six points he notes: “You could make a sophisticated economic argument that access to capital is even more important than entrepreneurial genius in the grand scheme of things.”  Indeed.  Having been involved in a start-up company I can testify that funding is no mere after thought and I’d be willing to bet that a significant number of otherwise ‘good’ companies die on the vine because they are for whatever reason under-capitalized. 

Like capitalism finance in all its forms isn’t without fault.  Like any idea of practice it has been perhaps extended at the very least to areas of diminishing returns.  Irving Kristol was correct in giving capitalism two but not three cheers.  The same as true of finance, even if it isn’t the same thing as capitalism.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

British prestige

“Tailors naturally considered London their holy city.  My grandfather, the best tailor in Orvieto, ironed his trousers, like everybody else, with reverse creases at the sides, but added some horizontal creases too because he had noticed English travelers always wore them that way.  He did not realize the horizontal creases appeared because travelers had to fold the trousers to pack them in trunks and suitcases.”

Luigi Barzini, The Europeans, The Imperturbable British

Friday, January 6, 2012

Wilbon illustrates my point in the prior post

Not long after posting some thoughts on the recess appointment issue below and bringing up what I take to be the crucial loss of self restraint I flipped on the sports talk show PTI.  The two hosts, Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, discussed Western Kentucky losing last night to Louisiana-Lafayette in college basketball when the latter scored at the end of the game with six players on the court.

Kornheiser praised the Western Kentucky coach for complaining in a restrained manner about the officiating error and “acting like an adult” to which Wilbon responded: “I don’t want him to act like an adult, I want him to act like a coach, to fight for his team.”

The Recess Appointments

“Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world... but for Wales?”

That line of Thomas More from A Man For All Seasons comes immediately to mind in the constitutional controversy that’s resulted from the President’s recent recess appointments.  Constitutional challenges between the respective branches shouldn’t be entered into lightly and yet here we are for appointments to a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the NLRB or probably more accurately to help get Barack Obama re-elected. 

On the subject, a few observations:

1)  As I understand it the recess appointment procedure set forth in the Constitution stems from the long period of time in which congress was then out of session and should also be read in the context of the far more limited and focused government of the time.  Appointments here were to positions that were essential to a functioning government, not to an agency yet to get off the ground.  And John Steele Gordon puts his finger on something important when he points to the language being “the” recess, rather than “a” recess.   In short, the allowance for recess appointments should be narrowing, if not going away entirely, instead of expanding.

2)  The matter of the pro-forma congressional sessions is harder to work out.  First, the stall tactic is perverting the advice and consent power by being applied not so much to the appointee as to the agency.  Republicans aren’t so much blocking Cordray as blocking the CFPB resulting from passage of Dodd-Frank.  This shouldn’t be supported.

That said, the way the CFRB is set up in Dodd-Frank is a travesty.  In effect, the new agency has been set up without any congressional control including the most basic power of the purse.  Congress can override the President and assert control over foreign policy by not funding engagements, but somehow in the mind of Chris Dodd and Barney Frank a new regulatory body shouldn’t be so constrained.  This is absurd; the stuff of banana republics.

3)  In his column on the subject today Jonah Goldberg correctly puts the focus on honor though in only going after Harry Reid his reach is too limited.

Related to which, what the entire fiasco brings up is something I’ve been thinking about for awhile now.  It is only an impression with little if anything in the way of concrete evidence to back it up, so take it for what it’s worth.  But I think this an example of a tendency on the part of the boomer and subsequent generations to operate with little or no restraint other than explicit rules or laws.  The conditional considerations which exist in a moral practice above and outside of one’s particular profession or office have become non-operative.  There isn’t anything that isn’t done because such and such “just isn’t done.”  And I don’t see how a civilization can function very well when the sentiment of restraint is absent.  To operate in such an environment is akin to having a conversation in which the philosophical meaning of every word is examined and disputed.  It isn’t just philosophy that in Oakeshott’s words require “conditional platforms of understanding” but all institutions.  Right now to a considerable extent we don’t have that and until we regain it we’ll be in trouble.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Bachmann out

At Right Turns, Jennifer Rubin has a generally positive post on Michelle Bachmann as she withdraws from the Republican nomination race.  Wrapping up Rubin writes:

And finally, her record of opposition to ObamaCare and the entire Obama agenda, in the end, proved insufficient. Without legislative accomplishments and an executive office in her background, she never quite shook the persona of a conservative motivator and grassroots leader. She is a darling of the right, but she didn’t seem yet ready for the presidency.
She has capabilities greater than many of the also-rans in the race. She has considerable intelligence and fortitude. Should she decide to buckle down, become expert on a range of issues and dedicate herself to the conservative movement and to dislodging Obama, she can have a second act. Doesn’t everyone in America get one?”
To my mind, Bachmann also has to demonstrate that she isn’t an ideologue if she is to be worthy of a second act.  Being a “darling of the right” comes with few costs when you’re in the House and just one vote among many, but the Presidency is a different game.  There everything is best in the circumstances.  What I didn’t see from Bachmann this time around was the ability to move beyond being a principled conservative, to being a principled trimmer.

Thoughts on taxes (and spending)

So with the Iowa caucus still fresh, I’ve decided to post something on taxes or more accurately taxes and spending.  It occurred to me over the holidays that a really good poll question would be, do you pay more in taxes than you get back in spending.  I suspect the results would be similar to asking whether you are a better than average driver with 90% answering in the affirmative.

On the tax side I have in mind all taxes, not just the personal income tax, so this would include payroll taxes and the employer contributions to same.  And this is perhaps as good a time as any to remark that the distinctions between these and other taxes are worthless.  There is no social security account or unemployment insurance account with your name on it accumulating funds until you need to draw on them.  Cash is cash, everything is money in and money out.  The same goes for the related statement that the social security fund is currently in surplus.  Again, this is complete accounting nonsense (the government either is or isn’t running a surplus, end of story). 

On the “cost” side of the equation things get much more complicated.  First the relatively easy part would be to calculate your share of defense, judicial, and administrative spending.  The rest would be an actuarial expected value cost that would need to be adjusted as conditions changed.  Thus, if you were say a 40 year old male as of 2012 there would be the expectation that you would collect so much in social security, unemployment, and medicare/medicaid assistance and have so many more years of income.  Your tax should thus be the current year’s proportion of that total such that when you quit having taxable income the amount you’ve paid in will equal what you will subsequently take out (since the money you pay in is just going right back out I don’t see a return factor being applicable, but you could argue that it exists as a kind of opportunity cost).

The last factor would be some decision on redistribution.  Obviously there will be a segment of poor people who will need help, and I think it makes sense to have the very wealthy make a greater proportional contribution to this assistance, in large part because I think there is a fair amount of luck involved in great wealth.  But the classification of poor shouldn’t be too indulgent.  A redistributional transfer from the wealthiest to say the median income level is absurd.

So after all that, where do I fall out?  I haven’t a clue, although I suspect that even in a good income year I’m not paying enough in taxes to cover my likely future costs on present government commitment levels.  But the important point is I really don’t have any idea and I’m pretty sure you don’t either.  The fact is that on the critical political question of our fiscal position the voters are approaching it from the vantage point of almost complete ignorance.  Actually it’s worse than that.  The voters are approaching it from the almost certainly mistaken angle that what they are paying in is greater than what they are likely to take out.  If democracy requires an informed public, shedding a little light in this area would seem to be worthwhile.