"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Monday, December 06, 2004

The Most Potent Blog Yet . . .

With all due respect to our own eminent economists, the most potent Econ. blog ever has opened for business. Nobel Prize winner Gary Becker and federal judge/innovator of the the highly influential law and economics movement Richard Posner have begun blogging. I normally hate all the self-referential "blogging is so important" language from many practitioners of the art, but this is a big, big deal and lends a lot of credibility to blogging as a means of communication. Posner is one prolific son of a gun. Heaven only knows how many millions of words he'll fling into cyberspace in the days to come.

What's All This Christian Stuff?

Now, I'm no exponent of the Christian America thesis, where we posture that every American founder was an orthodox Christian, but I do think the strict separationists and multi-cultural types go a bit far in their attempts to sanitize Christmas for the public. Christianity is a large and indelible part of America past and present. So, enough with renaming Christmas trees as Unity trees and similar nonsense. To do so is akin to striding about Dublin complaining about the prevalence of all the Irish stuff in abundance.

Hard Landing History

In December 1983, Stephen Marris of the Institute for International Economics wrote, "Crisis Ahead For The Dollar" for Fortune magazine. "When capital begins to flow out," Marris predicted, "U.S. interest rates will rise. And as the dollar goes down, inflation will accelerate." The dollar subsequently soared to astonishing heights for a couple of years and inflation fell by about ten percentage points.

In the Summer 1987 issue of Foreign Policy, Lester Thurow and Laura D'Andrea Tyson wrote the following warning about "The Economic Black Hole":

"The more Washington is forced to rely on a continuing fall of the dollar to restore the trade balance, the . . . more expensive imports will become with respect to exports. The drop in U.S. living standards will be consequently greater. A further drop in the dollar also threatens to touch off a worldwide recession and add instability to world financial markets . . . . As import prices continue to increase, the inflation rate will continue to accelerate."

In his 1988 book, America in The World Economy, C. Fred Bergsten wrote, “If foreign investors and central banks finally stop lending such quantities to the United States . . . the dollar will plunge and interest rates will soar."

Actually, the stock crash of October 1987 was as close as we ever got to a hard landing – not because the dollar had already fallen for more than two years (as a matter of deliberate G-7 and Fed policy), but because Treasury Secretary Baker then invited both U.S. and foreign investors to flee dollar-based investments by announcing in a TV interview that he wanted the dollar to drop even more. Significantly, the Fed had also raised the fed funds rate from 6.1 percent in January 1987 to 7.3 percent in October, which did not help. Even then, however, proponents of twin deficits and hard landings had it all wrong. The budget deficit in fiscal 1987 was sharply lower, not higher. And interest rates did not soar but fell in the wake of the October crash. The economy soon recovered and so did the dollar. We had recessions in 1990 and 2001, of course, but they too did not follow the hard landing script.

In short, the hard landing crowd has been very wrong for a very long time. Yet they keep peddling the same old story whenever (1) the U.S. economy is growing faster than others, and (2)there is a Republican in the White House.

So, the U.S. is once again said to be at grave risk if foreigners suddenly decide to sell their U.S. stocks and bonds. But if the current account deficit could not be financed then it could not exist. Hard landing zealots thus begin by fretting about the gap between imports and export and end by fretting that gap might disappear. They also claim trade deficits are bad because they will make the dollar fall; but the falling dollar is good because it will shrink the trade deficit.

If a falling dollar reduces the trade deficit and a shrinking trade deficit lifts the dollar, then it follows that a falling dollar must make the dollar rise. All of this makes as little sense as the related pretense that “restoring confidence” in a currency depends on higher taxes.

P.S., An apology is due to my old friend Bruce Bartlett, who’s earlier e-mail to me (mentioned in my previous blog) was, of course, a joke. I only meant to be teasing him about teasing me, nothing more.

Civil Libertarians for Christ in the Public Schools

Even the Illinois American Civil Liberties Union thinks it's all right for public schools to have Christian Christmas carols in school activities, according to this article in today's Chicago Tribune. "Christmas songs about Christ are fine at this time of year, [IACLU] spokesman Ed Yohnka said," the Tribune story noted.

But not all the news is good: a local suburban Chicago school, in a decision representative of policies in many schools across the nation, sponsored last week a very "inclusive" Chrismas celebration that entirely excluded any mention of Jesus Christ, as documented in the Tribune story mentioned above. Some muscular local Christians quickly raised a fuss, led by the Illinois Family Institute working with the national Alliance Defense Fund, and although the school's district superintendent denied any intent behind the omission and "said his teachers did nothing wrong this year," he added that "he would review the holiday programs next year to make sure Christians are not perceived to be slighted," according to the Tribune report.

It's interesting to see that the people we hire to run our public schools are more radical about excluding religion than even the local ACLU chapter is. As the Illinois Family Institute and Alliance Defense Fund have observed, it is essential that the public hold these people accountable for their actions and make sure that their programs and curricula truly reflect the beliefs of the persons who pay for this vital and highly expensive public service.

Christians Tired of "Getting Pushed Around"

Denver-area churches decided that the official, government-sanctioned secularization of the Christmas holiday had gone too far recently when the city's mayor replaced the traditional "Merry Christmas" banner atop the local City and County Building with a "Happy Holidays" greeting. Christians around the city rose up in protest by descending on the city's annual Christmas parade and sang carols emphasizing the Christian origins of the celebration, as noted in this surprisingly sympathetic account in the New York Times. "Like a spark in dry tinder, the result was a flare-up that caught even some church leaders by surprise. A holiday rite that had drawn thousands of paradegoers annually suddenly became a symbol, for many Christians, of secular society run amok." The article noted that the parade's organizers promised to reevaluate their policies and said the event may never be the same.

The congregation that seems to have had a large part in sparking the reaction is led by a former Marine who served in Vietnam as a helicopter gunner, as the Times article reported. The article said members of his church described him as "not a man who likes getting pushed around." Personally, I am impressed and cheered by this revival of "muscular Christianity."

A liberal society certainly has room for reasonably inclusive expressions of its people's religious faith, and in my view, a local Christmas celebration, with the community allowed, and not required, by the government to acknowledge and commemorate the essential religious nature of the occasion, certainly falls into that category.

War on Terror Widens Again

Sen. Kerry's presidential campaign argument that the War on Terrorism is actually all about finding bin Laden and bringing him in for criminal prosecution was always absurd, in my view, but the recent attack on the American consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as reported here in the Times of London, should explode that idea thoroughly. The network of terrorism that has set its eye on the United States, the West, and the rest of the modern world is far bigger than OBL and has to be attacked at the roots. The root of all this evil is state sponsorship of terrorism, for activities on this scale simply cannot occur unless some nations turn a blind eye to terrorists in their midst. We must always keep that in mind when considering what to do about terrorism today.

Reasonable people can disagree over whether an overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq was a necessary and appropriate part of the remedy, but what cannot be denied is that the War on Terror does and must range quite far, and that state sponsorship of terrorism must be halted entirely. In addition, it is also evident that only the United States has both the resources and national courage to lead such a fight and indeed, to go it alone if necessary. Whether we have the will is the only important question remaining.

Supreme Court Commentary: Clarence Thomas

Senator Harry Reid from Nevada told Tim Russert that Clarence Thomas is an embarrassment as a Supreme Court Justice. I'd love to know how he reaches that conclusion. He says Thomas' opinions are poorly written. Has he ever read one? I've certainly made my way through a few Thomas opinions and never saw the alleged lack of judicial intellect or temper. I suppose Earl Warren's opinions were better, the ones where he simply told his law clerks how he wanted the case to go and had them find a way to support it.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Dollar Disorientation

In my latest column "Dollar Disorientation" I threatened to continue pursuing the muddled issues of twin deficits and dollar devaluation on this blog. Bruce Bartlett, who I criticzed rather sternly, e-mailed a suggestion that he could advise me of other topics to write about. Yet Bruce and I worked together at Polyconomics back in April 1989, when I was invited to present the following testimony at the Federal Reserve. My views have not changed much, but I gather his have.

The last section alluded to my "A Baedeker to Better Living" The Wall Street Journal, February 23, 1989.

I condensed this and took out refrences, but it's still complex. The main point is to show that these arguments have been going on for a long time. My next blog will be simpler, I promise.

Excerpts from
“International Economic Policy: Choices, Problems and Opportunities for the Bush Administration”

Testimony before the System Committee on International Economic Analysis
Board of Governors, Federal Reserve System

Alan Reynolds April 14, 1989

Policies that threaten recession or inflation are to be avoided, regardless of their promised effects on budget or trade deficits. Although a recession might reduce the trade deficit, it would surely increase the budget deficit. And although a weaker dollar might conceivably reduce the trade deficit, it would surely increase inflation.

So long as the U.S. is operating at high employment, a slowdown in the growth of government purchases and government-financed consumption would help free-up real resources, such as energy and labor, to expand private production. An increase in taxation, on the other hand, does not free-up resources for private production, but instead permanently transfers private resources toward government services (which are quite difficult to export).

The United Kingdom and Australia moved from budget deficit to surplus in the past few years, yet nonetheless have sizable current account deficits, high inflation and extremely high interest rates. Clearly, there is no automatic link between budget and trade deficits, or between budget deficits and inflation. The "policy mix" idea -- the theory that higher taxes are a substitute for prudent monetary policy -- is a proven recipe for stagflation. Easy money simply stimulates nominal GNP (demand), while higher tax rates suffocate real GNP (supply).

Many economists who did not anticipate the U.S. current account deficit nonetheless confidently "project" that it will continue indefinitely. The usual policy conclusion is that the dollar should be repeatedly devalued.

By accounting convention, the current account deficit equals investment minus private savings and government deficits. Many economists have emphasized "net" figures for investment and savings, often expressed in nominal terms and divided by gross national product. Regardless of the legitimacy of such statistical creativity, it is gross investment outlays that have to be financed from domestic or foreign wealth, not simply the net portion. Measured in 1982 dollars, gross private investment increased by 42% from 1980 to 1988, from $509 billion to $721 billion. Since it is highly unlikely that real savings could have increased that rapidly, particularly if marginal tax rates had been higher, the 1984-88 surge in investment was partly financed by reduced U.S. investment abroad (notably, fewer loans to LDCs) and by increased foreign investment in the United States.

Since the current account deficit is mainly a real phenomenon -- an increase of real investment that exceeded the increase in real savings -- it follows that depreciating the dollar could only help by reducing real investment or (less likely) increasing real savings. Another big drop in the dollar could indeed cut real capital investment, and thus narrow the gap between investment and savings. It would do so because taxes on real profits and capital gains increase with inflation, reducing the incentive to invest. Moreover, the Federal Reserve would be likely to respond to the inflation by temporarily raising interest rates, thus causing households and firms to postpone purchases of durable goods and structures.

A familiar academic point is that a one-time depreciation of the dollar merely results in a one-time increase in the level of prices, not an ongoing increase in the rate of inflation. Yet a one-time increase in the price level certainly looks just like inflation to the public and the politicians, so the Fed feels compelled to react to past depreciation of the dollar by a subsequent freeze on bank reserves. The resulting lucrative real return on cash makes it impossible for producers of, say, houses and cars, to recover past costs that had been inflated by the previous devaluation. This results in squeezed profit margins, and cutbacks in investment and employment. In this way, a lower dollar may indeed reduce the trade deficit, but it does so by provoking contraction.

Commodities priced in dollars can normally be expected to increase with a lower dollar -- including the price of oil -- since such commodities become cheaper to foreign countries which therefore purchase more. The increased cost of imported commodities, as well as reduced competitive pressure from imports, can be expected to increase prices of U.S. exports. Once dollar prices of imported commodities and exported finished goods have been inflated by the lower dollar, the net effect on the volume or value of imports and exports is ambiguous. Since there is little spare capacity to quickly expand the volume of exports, devaluing the dollar for that purpose mainly boosts prices. On the import side, there is no certainty that reduced quantities of imports will ever outweigh the increased price, particularly for essential imports such as oil or nickel. Since a drop in the dollar strengthens foreign demand for oil and other commodities that the U.S. imports, bidding-up their prices, that effect alone can make dollar depreciation counterproductive.

On the other hand, efforts to deliberately slow the U.S. economy, through monetary stringency or surtaxes, could likewise prove dangerous, particularly for foreign countries dependent on net exports for employment. One immediate effect would be to reduce output more rapidly than employment, causing falling productivity, rising unit labor costs and falling profit margins. Another effect would be cancellation of contracts and orders for plant and equipment, needed to expand capacity for export and for import-substitution. The resulting reduction of potential supply and productivity are harmful to the longer-run inflation outlook, even though prices might be temporarily depressed by going-out-of-business sales.

There are also practical difficulties with the using dollar devaluation as a trade weapon. Toyota has not been able to raise prices enough to compensate for the stronger yen, because of competition from Korea, Mexico, Brazil, Canada, and U.S. plants making Japanese cars. The weaker dollar reduced the cost of commodities to Japan, making price restraint feasible for finished goods. Japanese and European producers of autos, electronics and chemicals also responded by moving more production inside the United States, but that means more imported machinery and materials which increase the U.S. trade deficit in the short run. Indeed, the U.S. has virtually imported entire factories.

Another reason such capital surpluses and trade deficits are self-correcting is that the relative improvement in U.S investment opportunities must eventually face diminishing returns. As plant and equipment becomes more abundant in the U.S., and relatively scarcer in capital-exporting countries, the relative return on additional investment will begin to look more attractive elsewhere.

So long as capital is free to move between countries, the old idea that current accounts "should" be balanced is literally impossible -- it implies zero capital flows. Chronic current account surpluses are a symptom of relatively poor after-tax real returns on capital. The best solution to so-called "imbalances" of trade and investment flows is to improve investment opportunities elsewhere -- particularly in Continental Europe, Latin America and Africa.

In short, the main challenge to the new Administration, and to the Federal Reserve, is to continue to lead the world toward expanding opportunities for investment, employment and trade. That requires secure property rights, including money that is expected to hold its value over time, predictable regulations, reasonable taxation and free trade. The more countries that follow such policies, including Marxist economies, the less burden on the United States and Japan to serve as locomotives for the cabooses. This is no time to make a fetish of mere instruments and symptoms, such as budget or trade gaps, at the expense of the broader picture.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Bush's Cabinet Choices

Frank James provides a very interesting story on George Bush the Younger's Cabinet choices, in today's Chicago Tribune, offering some perceptive and useful insights into the president's personality. Bush, James observes, tends to keep his distance from higher-status Old Republicans, especially those of the East Coast variety. He much prefers the company of "self-made" individuals, especially those who have overcome very severe difficulties to become successful adults. He seems to have much greater respect for such persons and to see them as more trustworthy. In addition, the author observes that although Bush did have a decent trust fund for his education, he made most of his money himself. The article also delves into the positive and negative sides of these character traits. Well worth reading.

Friday, December 03, 2004

More Book Plugging . . .

Lately, I've been reading Alister McGrath's The Future of Christianity. McGrath is particularly worth reading because he succeeded academically and professionally as a scientist before jumping off the track and becoming a superb scholar of religion and history. This is one well-rounded mind we are dealing with. Virtually everything I've picked up with his name on it has been worth the time. This book is no exception. Discover McGrath and you discover a treasure trove. He's very prolific.

Some Holiday Cheer

Happy Chanukah next week, my fellow proletarians. While many of the policy geniuses in Washington view the ever-weakening dollar as the joyous payoff to a winning spin of the dreidel--- export sectors generally and manufacturing in particular will boom!---the reality is that a weakening dollar is bearish for the economy in the aggregate. Exports will increase and imports will be come more expensive and thus will decline; and so the aggregate pie will become smaller. In short, the economy will be poorer because of the weakening dollar, and this will show up as a "one-time" increase in the aggregate price level.

That is not the same as an increase in the rate of inflation, although the two are difficult to distinguish because of the way that we are forced to measure aggregate prices changes. (An increase in inflation is an increase in the
rate at which prices rise over time; a weakening dollar, again, yields a one-time aggregate price jump.) And so the Beltway geniuses really ought to abandon their infinite myopia and consider what the Fed might do when confronted next year with what will appear to be rising inflation: They will have incentives to tighten, as their job is to achieve price stability. This will be the incorrect policy prescription, as the sources of a weakened dollar cannot be reversed by slowing the printing press (although higher interest rates as an ancillary effect will increase the demand for dollar-denominated assets, thus perhaps propping the dollar up). Will this negate the increasing unwillingness in Asia to hold dollars? That is doubtful; and so next year offers the possibility of a weak dollar, higher prices in the aggregate, and an economic slowdown due to Fed reactions. This may not happen, but it is hardly implausible. What is implausible is the prospect that conventional Beltway wisdom actually will recognize this scenario as serious, in that much Washington commentary follows the herd as it applauds a weak dollar as a source of "jobs," or some such nonsense. That the Administration seems not to be immune to this way of thinking is a good reason to drown our sorrows. And I am not talking about egg nog.

Trailing Edge Film Review: Luther

Wednesday was the DVD release date for Luther, starring Joseph Fiennes and Sir Peter Ustinov. This is one lovely film and if it had been released after The Passion, would have been a bigger hit than it was. I predict the DVD will have a larger life than the film did. I had to rent it, since Wal-Mart inexplicably did not have the good taste to offer it for sale!

Here's all the review you really need to hear. My wife HATES historical films. I popped in Luther and invited her to join me. Maybe a better way to put it would be that I positioned her to watch the movie with me. I brought it home and announced I rented it hoping she would watch it with me. She bit and we watched together. I'm happy to report that she thoroughly enjoyed the movie and did not engage in side tasks while it played. Instead, she was impressed with this man, Luther.

Our friend and co-proprietor, S.T. Karnick, engaged in a beautiful act of film review on Luther for National Review Online. You can follow the link and read it there. For my part, I'll note that the film is somewhat hagiographic. You don't get a lot of Luther's darker moments here. You don't get the crassness of his frequent references to flatulence and gastrointestinal ailments. You don't get his late in life anger toward the Jews. You don't get the full extent of his part in the Peasant War and massacre of said peasants. But you do get a sense of his astounding confrontation with the Catholic Church of the period and the dedication he brought to bringing the Scripture to the people in a language they could read. This was an amazing man of stupendous talent, energy, and conviction. Luther provides a satisfying film experience in which one may get to know him.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

A More Complex Look at Dan Rather

Peggy Noonan is a wonderful writer who happens to have worked for Dan Rather. Here are the last three paragraphs of her Opinion Journal piece on Cronkite's successor:

"Ultimately this is what I think was true about Dan and his career. It's not very nice but I think it is true. He was a young, modestly educated Texas boy from nowhere, with no connections and a humble background. He had great gifts, though: physical strength, attractiveness, ambition, commitment and drive. He wanted to be a star. He was willing to learn and willing to pay his dues. He covered hurricanes and demonstrations, and when they got him to New York they let him know, as only an establishment can, what was the right way to think, the intelligent enlightened way, the Eastern way, the Ivy League way, the Murrow School of Social Justice way. They let him know his simple Texan American assumptions were not so much wrong as not fully thought through, not fully nuanced, not fully appreciative of the multilayered nature of international political realities. He swallowed it whole.

He had a strong Texas accent, but they let him know he wasn't in Texas anymore. I remember once a nice man, an executive producer, confided in me that he'd known Dan from the early days, from when he first came up to New York. He laughed, not completely unkindly, and told me Dan wore the wrong suits. I wish I could remember exactly what he said but it was something like, "He had a yellow suit!" There was a sense of: We educated him. Dan wound up in pinstripe suits made in London. Like Cyrus Vance. Like Clark Clifford. He got educated. He fit right in. And much of what he'd learned--from the civil rights movement, from Vietnam and from Watergate--allowed him to think he was rising in the right way and with the right crew and the right thinking.

People are complicated, careers are complicated, motives are complicated. Dan Rather did some great work on stories that demanded physical courage. He loved the news, and often made it look like the most noble of enterprises. He had guts and fortitude. Those stories he covered that touched on politics were unfortunately and consistently marred by liberal political bias, and in this he was like too many in his profession. But this is changing. The old hegemony has given way. The old dominance is over. Good thing. Great thing. Onward."

More Karl Rove Brilliance . . .

Great stuff from Newsweek about the Karl Rove strategy for building an FDR-style enduring majority:

“In all cases, Rove wants to force Democrats to defend taxes and lawyers. Trained in the ways of direct-mail targeting, he doesn't want to seduce the whole country, just an expanded version of what he's already got. He's aiming at fast-growing exurban areas, where small-business entrepreneurs—mostly Gen-Xers—tend to distrust the New Deal paradigm of government. "We want to pay increased attention to those vibrant small-business climates," says Rove.

“And it is in these places, where suburbs meet what's left of the countryside, that the GOP's conservative stands on social issues are welcome even (perhaps even especially) among younger families searching for stability and reassurance in a world of Darwinian economics. In the next term, Rove said, Bush will push—hard—for a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union of man and woman, and for "strict constructionist" judges. "Voters like the president because he doesn't blink and he doesn't waver," says Rove, "and he isn't going to start. He says he values life, and he means it." The cold calculus: force Democrats to defend gay rights and unfettered access to abortion.”

This is political brilliance at work. Make the Democrats really own the consequences of their public policy and see if the public likes what it sees. The language here is thrilling. Force Democrats to defend taxes and lawyers. Force them to defend the abortion license. I hold back on endorsing the characterization of the GOP as trying to force Dems to defend gay rights. “Rights” is too broad a formulation. The question is whether the shape of family life will be reshaped from the point of view of civil society.

Who Cares for Cures That Don't Give Us a Reason to Kill?

A critical point that is too often missed in the debate over stem cell therapies is that so-called adult stem cells (ASCs) have shown great success in doing the very things that advocates of embryonic stem cell (ESC) harvesting hope to achieve with ESCs.

As I note in my article in today's issue of The American Spectator, the term adult stem cells is in fact a misnomer because one of the best sources of these cells is umbilical cord blood. Ironically, stem cells from that source have in fact worked an astonishing miracle in curing a South Korean woman who suffered from a spinal problem similar to the type that befell the late Christopher Reeve, former Superman actor and strenuous advocate for research into the use of embryonic stem cells.

As this case vividly illustrates, all the evidence appears to show that there is no need whatever to argue over the morality of using ESCs; we can already do much more with adult stem cells, and all indications are that there are countless possibilities for their use that are still untapped. This should be very good news for everyone, of course, but supporters of ESCs seem not to want to hear it, and the press appear to be taking their orders from them.

Why aren’t the ESC supporters interested in pursuing ASCs? Let’s ask the classic question, qui bono? The only people in the world who benefit from the harvesting of ESCs who would not benefit from ASCs are people who make a living by destroying human embryos. And if we were to find that we simply must harvest ESCs so that we can have all the wonderful benefits they provide, then we would have a real, truly positive good coming from all those abortions the nation’s doctors perform each year, wouldn’t we?

If that sounds cynical, so be it. It is in fact the only plausible explanation for the preference for embryonic stem cells over the adult variety.

For just a hint of the good news on the effectiveness of adult stem cells, see the Yahoo.com story on the South Korean woman here.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

A Rare Bit of Harmless Gay Marriage Humor

Flipping through a local community magazine, I came across the following line:

"My neighbor is confused by the whole gay marriage controversy. He just can't understand why a gay man would want to marry a gay woman."


It Ain't Obama . . .

William J. Stuntz earned a lot of attention in a TechCentralStation column on how to bridge the divide between evangelicals and the academic elite. In the column, he asks the plaintive question, "Barack Obama are you listening?" I would humbly suggest that he's asking the wrong politician. Obama is about as conventional a left-wing politician as you will find, his speech to the DNC notwithstanding. Look elsewhere, friend.

End of Year Book Recommendations

Hugh Hewitt started this thread on his blog and S.T. Karnick's The Weekly Standard has their holiday book issue out, so I'm ready to weigh in with a few recommendations.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Lancelot by Walker Percy
Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy
Hitler’s Niece by Ron Hansen
The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton

This is not necessarily a top five, but it shows what I’ve enjoyed and what comes to mind easily. As you can see, I REALLY like Walker Percy. If you were to speak to a big group of thoughtful, young, male Christian conservative types, you'd find that they're walking around with a copy of Walker Percy novel in their back pockets as opposed to Catcher in the Rye.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Chesterton on Morality in Art

It is all but impossible for people to talk about art and morality in the same sentence these days, a phenomenon that G. K. Chesterton saw coming, several decades ago. Consider the following from his essay "Tom Jones and Morality," published in his book All Things Considered:

"The truth is that [the inability to understand the complex view of morality presented in a book like Tom Jones] mark[s] a certain change in the general view of morals; not, I think, a change for the better. We have grown to associate morality in a book with a kind of optimism and prettiness; according to us, a moral book is a book about moral people. But the old idea was almost exactly the opposite; a moral book was a book about immoral people. A moral book was full of pictures like Hogarth's 'Gin Lane' or 'Stages of Cruelty,' or it recorded, like the popular broadsheet, 'God's dreadful judgment' against some blasphemer or murderer. There is a philosophical reason for this change. The homeless scepticism of our time has reached a sub-conscious feeling that morality is somehow merely a matter of human taste—an accident of psychology. And if goodness only exists in certain human minds, a man wishing to praise goodness will naturally exaggerate the amount of it that there is in human minds or the number of human minds in which it is supreme. Every confession that man is vicious is a confession that virtue is visionary. Every book which admits that evil is real is felt in some vague way to be admitting that good is unreal. The modern instinct is that if the heart of man is evil, there is nothing that remains good. But the older feeling was that if the heart of man was ever so evil, there was something that remained good—goodness remained good. An actual avenging virtue existed outside the human race; to that men rose, or from that men fell away. Therefore, of course, this law itself was as much demonstrated in the breach as in the observance. If Tom Jones violated morality, so much the worse for Tom Jones. Fielding did not feel, as a melancholy modern would have done, that every sin of Tom Jones was in some way breaking the spell, or we may even say destroying the fiction of morality. Men spoke of the sinner breaking the law; but it was rather the law that broke him. And what modern people call the foulness and freedom of Fielding is generally the severity and moral stringency of Fielding. He would not have thought that he was serving morality at all if he had written a book all about nice people. Fielding would have considered Mr. Ian Maclaren extremely immoral; and there is something to be said for that view. Telling the truth about the terrible struggle of the human soul is surely a very elementary part of the ethics of honesty. If the characters are not wicked, the book is. This older and firmer conception of right as existing outside human weakness and without reference to human error can be felt in the very lightest and loosest of the works of old English literature. It is commonly unmeaning enough to call Shakspere a great moralist; but in this particular way Shakspere is a very typical moralist. Whenever he alludes to right and wrong it is always with this old implication. Right is right, even if nobody does it. Wrong is wrong, even if everybody is wrong about it."

I strongly endorse Chesterton's analysis given here, and I believe that only when our critics are once again able to address the moral implications of literature in a sophisticated manner, and our authors openly analyze the moral choices of their characters with reference to some standard outside their own personal tastes, will our society, and indeed our civilization, have any hope of being thought fully healthy.

A Different Angle on Creation

Jay Homnick sets his powers of pun-ology and analysis to the issue of creation and where God and man fit into the mix. It's a worthwhile read.

David Brooks Straightens Things Out . . .

I have frequently complained about the media's regular treatment of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as if they were the major spokepersons for evangelical Christians. In an excellent NYT column, David Brooks makes the point that John Stott of England has probably been more influential for evangelicals. I don't totally agree with Mr. Brooks. He's right that Falwell and Robertson don't have nearly the influence many reporters and pundits believe they do, but John Stott is not the right person to peg as the go-to guy. I think the twin pillars of the evangelical community are James Dobson of Focus on the Family and Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship. The best candidate for a predecessor and inspiration for the two men would probably be Francis Schaeffer, some of whose books are knock your socks off brilliant, particularly The God Who Is There. Both Dobson and Colson founded their respective organizations and are of advanced age. I often wonder who will step into their shoes. Right now, there are no obvious contenders.

Learning from Lewis

Evangelical Christian leader Chuck Colson presents an insightful view of the great author, critic, philosopher, and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis on the 106th anniversary of the latter's birth, in an excellent column on today's TownHall.

Colson offers an unusual but quite correct and astute explanation of what made Lewis such a great thinker: Lewis was not an evangelical—

"Why was Lewis so uncannily prophetic? At first glance he seems an unlikely candidate. He was not a theologian; he was an English professor. What was it that made him such a keen observer of cultural and intellectual trends?

"The answer may be somewhat discomfiting to modern evangelicals: One reason is precisely that Lewis was not an evangelical. He was a professor in the academy, with a specialty in medieval literature, which gave him a mental framework shaped by the whole scope of intellectual history and Christian thought. As a result, he was liberated from the narrow confines of the religious views of the day—which meant he was able to analyze and critique them. . . .

"The problem is not that modern evangelicals are less intelligent than Lewis. As Mark Noll explains in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, the problem is that our sharpest intellects have been channeled into biblical scholarship, exegesis, and hermeneutics. While that is a vital enterprise, we rarely give the same scholarly attention to history, literature, politics, philosophy, economics, or the arts. As a result, we are less aware of the culture than we should be, less equipped to defend a biblical worldview, and less capable of being a redemptive force in our postmodern society—less aware, as well, of the threats headed our way from cultural elites."

American Evangelical Christians have been unsurpassed in their enthusiasm for C. S. Lewis, and they are to be commended for that. However, as Colson points out, they still have a lot to learn from him. For starters, I should like to point the evangelicals to Martin Luther's Two Kingdoms theology for a very reliable way out of the labyrinth.

Unsophisticated, Left-Wing Whispering . . .

One of the major stars of the Bush victory is now the target of a whispering campaign among liberals who claim he is gay. I won't repeat his name so as to avoid spreading the rumor. The fact that there is now an attempt to "out" such a person tells you a lot about lefties and their understanding of the Christian right. They believe that by identifying a key player as a gay person, Christian right-wingers will go crazy and call for that person's resignation and/or marginalization. They are wrong about that. I am plugged into Christian social engagement projects from several different angles and know some significant people in the movement. Their understanding of the issue of homosexual orientation is much more sophisticated and carefully thought out than any caricature in common currency today would suggest.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Reader Alert!

The cultured and good-looking readers of the Reform Club weblog will notice that we now have two top drawer economists providing comment. Ben Zycher and Alan Reynolds are tag-teaming the silliness that often passes for economic reporting and speculation in the media.

More Economic "Analysis" from the 1980s

Alan---courteous man that he is---has neglected to tell the full tale of amusement from the early 1980s in terms of the economic debate of the time. (I was a senior staff economist at the Council of Economic Advisers at the time, and so I know.) The $64 question of the day was why interest rates were high and the dollar strong. Don Regan, the Treasury Secretary and one of Wall Street's finest, argued that interest rates were high because of persistent inflation expectations. But if that were true, the dollar should have been weak, not strong. So Regan argued simultaneously---without missing a beat---that the dollar was strong because of large capital inflows from overseas (the flip side of the current account deficit); but if that were true, interest rates should have been low.

It was obvious to all of us little people (OK, ignore my waistline) that Ronald Reagan---steadfast in the counterinflation fight and firmly in favor of reductions in marginal tax rates---had created economic conditions in which rising investment demand drove up real interest rates and created a current account deficit, both of which outcomes were highly salutary. That the Beltway geniuses and the conventional wisdom soothsayers were blind to such simple realities was amusing.

The Many Magnificent Wonders of the Current Account Deficit

Our favorite economist (and Reform Club coeditor), Alan Reynolds, has promised to write soon about Alan Greenspan's recent comments worrying about the current account deficit, and in the meantime he sends us the following brief note:

"Mr. Greenspan's assumed two-way link between current account deficit and the dollar bothers me most (aside from the stubbornly silly 'twin deficit' and 'hard landing' fables).

"In this story, the trade deficit makes the dollar go down, and the falling dollar then cures the trade deficit which, presumably, must make the dollar go back up -- thus causing a trade deficit which makes the dollar go down again, and so on. I once described this as voodoo economics in the Wall Street Journal.

"In the early '80s, however, Alan Greenspan and Marty Feldstein accused President Reagan of causing the current account deficit because budget deficits made the dollar (and interest rates) go UP! Now the same devilish budget deficit is said to make the dollar go DOWN. Up, down, who cares? The main thing is to fret and gripe about something. The solution, of course, is always the same -- higher taxes. Only the problems change."

We look forward to Alan's full analysis of the varying accounts of the causes and effects of the current account deficit.

A Reason to be Thankful!

We can all be thankful the Presidential election is over and that it wasn't too close. Over the break, I watched my father carefully scanning the internet for NASCAR (or as I affectionately call it, NECKCAR) racing news. Now that the season for Dales and Darrells is over for at least ten weeks, there are rabid race fans yearning for a way to unleash pent-up energies. If Kerry were pulling legal strings and manipulating recounts, the assembled frustrated fans of NASCAR might be rioting in numbers that would make Watts look like a picnic of fancy lads and lasses.

Trailing Edge Film Review: THE INCREDIBLES

Thanks to a visit from the boy’s grandparents, the wife and I got our first opportunity in a VERY long time to see a movie together. We chose the much lauded box office megalith, THE INCREDIBLES. The film was directed and written by Brad Bird, who was the primary mover behind THE IRON GIANT, which was a fabulous animated feature. (If you haven’t seen it, go rent it. It’s superb for adults and children grade school and older. I plan to add it to the permanent collection in the near future.)

The Incredibles is a compelling action-driven story with a better portrayal of super powers than I’ve ever seen. Mr. Incredible’s super strength, ElastiGirl’s super-flexibility, Dash’s super-speed, and Violet’s invisibility and force fields are all played to maximum effect. At the same time, the personalities, family roles, and ages of the different characters are also well-utilized to involve the viewer. This film has pace, depth, and delivers a satisfying conclusion. In short, it is a virtual can’t miss for the movie fan looking for a diverting way to spend a couple of hours.

For those who like to examine a film for message, there is also much to be explored here. The first main theme is the importance of accepting excellence and the benefits and drawbacks that arise from it. The superheroes have been put out of business through a combination of envy and lawsuit harassment that put me much in mind of the plight of physicians in America. The second theme is family. Director/writer Bird shows great concern for the enduring value of the intact family with married mother and father.

Given that I’m no great shakes as a film critic, here’s hoping our true expert, Mr. S.T. Karnick will step in with his analysis at some point.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Welcome, David Gold Listeners

We offer a hearty welcome indeed to our new friends who heard about us on the David Gold show this afternoon on KSFO 560 AM in San Francisco, where yours truly appeared as guest and spoke about John Aschroft and today's political controversies. Have a look around, and feel free to comment on anything you wish. For a quick rundown on what we do here, and why, we invite you to have a look at the following posts in particular:

Why the Reform Club

America the Liberal

Liberals and War

We hope that you will enjoy your time here and return often to join in our ongoing discussion of where America is going, and why. Best w's, STK

Friday, November 26, 2004

An Unscientific Observation . . .

One gets the sense there is blood in the water with regard to the debate over evolution as the be-all, end-all explanatory theory of origins. As many of you know, I wrote a favorable review of Uncommon Dissent, a new ISI book featuring essays by intellectuals who doubt Darwin. One of the critical emails I received came from an MIT-affiliated gent who is part of Project Steve. The purpose of Project Steve is to show that a large number of scientists named Steve support the dominant theory of origins. This is what passes for a response to an invitation to debate for the evolutionary biology community. Instead of facing down guys like Michael Behe, Bill Dembski, David Berlinski, and many others who poke provocative holes in the neo-Darwinian synthesis, we see the evolutionary biologists turn into rhetoricians giving answers like:

1. These guys are fundamentalists!
2. They're sneaking God inside a Trojan Horse!
3. We're right because we have to be right!

I'm just an observer in all of this. Would I be pleased to see a materialist shibboleth like hard-core evolutionary theory cut down a peg? Sure. Is it that big of a deal to me? No. What really interests me is the degree of repression and intimidation that is directed against anyone who disputes the party line. Like I say, I think there's blood in the water.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Roughness and Toughness

I think that there is in our society today a lamentable confusion between two conceptions of masculinity, which I believe can be encapsulated in two words: roughness and toughness.

signifies the willingness to force others to submit to your will. A rough man, as signified by the term roughneck, won't take anything from anybody. He'll fight for what he thinks is his, and often for what is not his but which he merely wants. He is willing to do to others whatever harm is necessary to achieve his goals.

Toughness signifies the tendency to accept punishment from the world. A tough man is one who seeks to do what is right, and recognizing that not everybody else is into that same pursuit, knows that he will have to receive much trouble for his attempts to do good. A tough man will take a lot of abuse rather than do what he knows to be wrong. A tough man lives by the rules, and doesn't look to force other people to do his bidding, including those times when he knows others are doing wrong. He would rather accept unfair abuse himself than visit well-deserved pain on someone else.

(To me, Jesus Christ is the highest example of a tough man.)

Young men, you might well ask yourself which of these types of man you aspire to be. Young women, you might well inquire of yourself which of these types of man you would like to be with.

Until more of us aspire to the right ideals, our society will continue to deteriorate.

Moral Reasoning and Disrespect

Chicago Sun-Times writer Rick Telander has an excellent column on the endlessly discussed implications of last Friday night's melee at the Palace at Auburn Hills. Telander addresses the social implications of the event, specifically the matter of personal responsibility which I have brough up in my own discussions of it on this site. Telander writes,

"It is the moral reasoning -- the ability to factor in social grace, empathy, future ramifications, justice, and responsibility -- that eludes Artest. As it does so many other athletes. And fans.

"Indeed, what if Stern is trying to change what is seemingly the biggest cultural constraint of all: what it means to be a man? The new concept of 'disrespect'?

"You can push any rational man only so far, and then he must fight back or lose all self-esteem. But is that self-esteem called into play every time someone bumps into you, calls you a bad name, douses you with beer?

"'I think it starts at a very young age,' [sports agent Mark] Bartelstein said. 'I see things that I can't believe at AAU games and the like. Players are not competing, they're trying to embarrass the person they're playing against. No one's held accountable, because if you're a great player, someone will always find a rationale to have you on the team.

"'After a touchdown or a dunk, you're proving your manhood. It's a culture that is all about embarrassing someone or calling attention to yourself instead of just competing. It's incredible.' Changing that, commissioner Stern, will be a lot harder than making someone take a pill."

Welcome American Spectator Readers . . .

Glad to have you back at the Reform Club. Take a look around. Posting may be a bit light over the holiday, but we'll pop our heads in from time to time.

Hope you found the book review of Uncommon Dissent challenging and uplifting. The debate over the neo-Darwinian synthesis is heating up. The itinerant pastors who once debated scientists are being replaced by, well, scientists. If you're really interested in following current developments, I recommend you visit the Discovery Institute online.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The Denigration of Self-Control

Excellent article by Geoffrey Norman in today's National Review Online. Norman points out that the melee last Friday night at the Palace of Au burn Hills was inevitable: "The fracas in Detroit was not scripted but it was, nevertheless, inevitable. The NBA sells a product that might as well be called 'gangstaball.' The players are world-class dunkers, exhibitionists, and malcontents. But, as last year's Olympics demonstrated, when they are required to play actual team basketball, they can't handle a squad from Puerto Rico. As the quality of play has declined in the NBA over the last several years, so have fan interest and television ratings."

The NBA has devolved over the years increasingly into a series of mano a mano combats, with the rules being continuously bent to allow the kind of presumably dramatic one-on-one confrontations between the man with the ball and a defender. Rough, physical play has been characterized as a test of every player's manhood. To back down from a confrontation is construed as a sign of weakness, not praised as a laudable instance of self-control. This sort of false toughness has been the sine qua non of the league in the past couple of decades, and team play on the offensive end has indeed thus been deemphasized. It is also why so few players can actually shoot a basketball with any accuracy: that's sissy stuff. Dunking the ball is what really shows them who's your daddy.

The league has actually done a good job of keeping the number of player fights to a minimum, but the atmosphere of the game has increasingly become one of barely controlled mayhem. When the audiences learn from such a culture and react as they have seen these wealthy celebrities do, it should hardly surprise anybody.

Terry Mattingly Gets Religion . . .

And he's pretty much always gotten it. Mattingly is a graduate of my program (Church-State or Religion, Politics, and Society) at Baylor and is the only syndicated religion columnist in America of whom I am aware. You can also read his stream of consciousness at getreligion.org. This week's column has an excellent bit from a self-confessed "alienated journalist":

Nevertheless, it's time to face the facts, said Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.
"I am now taking seriously the theory that we mainstream journalists are different from mainstream America. 'Different' is too pale a word. We are alienated. We may live in the same country, but we treat each other like aliens," he said, in an essay called "Confessions of an Alienated Journalist."
"The churched people who embrace Bush, in spite of a bumbling war and a stumbling economy, are more than alien to me. They are invisible. ... My blind spots blot out half of America. And that makes me less of a citizen, and less of a journalist."
As a Catholic progressive, Clark said he finds it hard to hear "moral values" without thinking of "showy piety and patriotism, with more than a dash of racism and homophobia." He knows all about "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and Bubba the Love Sponge. How come so many other Americans know what it means to be "evangelical," "charismatic" and "born again" and feel at home at church suppers?
Right now, there needs to be "more self-doubt in the journalistic system, as opposed to arrogance," said Clark, reached at his office. "We need to be able to say that we don't know it all and that we need to learn. We need to take a step back."

As one of my old co-laborers in the computer board manufacturing plant used to say, "Ain't dat da dayumn truth?"

The Terrible State of Bioethics

You read something like this and you thank God for a source of values like the Bible and the Church:

"The most radical experiment, still not conducted, would be to inject human stem cells into an animal embryo and then transfer that chimeric embryo into an animal's womb. Scientists suspect the proliferating human cells would spread throughout the animal embryo as it matured into a fetus and integrate themselves into every organ.

Such "humanized" animals could have countless uses. They would almost certainly provide better ways to test a new drug's efficacy and toxicity, for example, than the ordinary mice typically used today.

But few scientists are eager to do that experiment. The risk, they say, is that some human cells will find their way to the developing testes or ovaries, where they might grow into human sperm and eggs. If two such chimeras — say, mice — were to mate, a human embryo might form, trapped in a mouse.

Not everyone agrees that this would be a terrible result.

"What would be so dreadful?" asked Ann McLaren, a renowned developmental biologist at the University of Cambridge in England. After all, she said, no human embryo could develop successfully in a mouse womb. It would simply die, she told the academy. No harm done."

You can read the full story about animals infused with human cells at MSNBC.

Atkins and South Beach Are Krispy Kreeming Me!

About a year ago, my sister and I made the decision to purchase 100 shares of stock. I wanted Microsoft, but she was in favor of Krispy Kreme. As a southerner, I liked her choice. Besides, I figured their aggressive expansion would get them into the Starbucks neighborhood in the near future. Why eat vile pastries and cakes from Starbucks when you could have your coffee with the best hot donuts on the planet? Unfortunately, we bought right at the high point. Earnings have been down since then and I suspect the low-carb craze is what’s killing us. The poor folks in the bagel business seem to be taking a bath, too. Our local bagel shop just shut its doors a couple of months ago.

It’s time for a budding Ralph Nader to come out with the definitive expose’ on Atkins and South Beach. I can see it now. This young crusader will report being followed by women munching on slices of sandwich meat and broccoli bits. Eventually, he’ll bring the whole sordid enterprise down around their ears and my poor Krispy Kreme shares will surge forward as waves of good feeling wash over the pasta and donut-starved masses.

Criminals on the Courts

In today's America, the real currency is celebrity.

George Neumayr notes, in today's American Spectator, that a surprisingly large percentage of NBA players have rap sheets; in a recent season, "40% of them had been arrested for crimes ranging from rape to armed robbery to domestic violence." Newmayr quotes an author who observed, "For many players, encounters with law-enforcement officials represent the rare instance of someone telling them no."

That is exactly the case, and it is the source of the rising thuggishness in that league. Moreover, it is true for countless other individuals who never make it to the pro leagues but are cosseted, indulged, babied, given every break, and almost never held accountable for their actions, simply because some school hopes to bask in the reflected glory of their athletic achievements. They are consequently thrust into the world with entirely unrealistic expectations of what consequences their actions should be expected to bring.

Athletic achievements are quite real and perfectly laudable, of course, but the idea that one's positive accomplishments should earn one a "get out of jail free" card is highly damaging both to the individuals thus indulged and to those with whom they come in contact. The same sort of immunity is routinely granted to entertainment figures and other celebrities. Celebrity is in some ways the very best form of currency: it brings money, social status, allure, a certain amount of immunity from the law, and other such magical powers.

On the social level, however, the admiration of celebrity for its own sake brings disaster. To create a class of people to whom the ordinary laws do not apply is to create an aristocracy, and to concoct one that is not taught a strong sense of responsibility toward those less fortunate than themselves—in fact, one that feels something indistinguishable from contempt for the rest of society—invariably breeds public resentment and, eventually, a thirst for revenge, a desire to take those people down a notch. That is certainly at least part of what was going on last Friday night in the aptly named Palace at Auburn Hills.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Stern Lives Up to His Namesake + Freedom and Virtue

NBA Commissioner David Stern struck a blow for civilization by dropping a weapon of mass suspension on Ron Artest and several other offending players. Artest, who had previously asked for a month off during the season to promote a new rap album, will now be getting a full season off. Others who entered the melee’ with fans will be sharply reprimanded and penalized as well.

The correction of players will not help with the fan problem, though. Might we see the day a barrier has to be put in place between fans and the action? Will spectators need to be informed that they will be photographed on the way in and held accountable for any untoward acts during the game? If anyone ever told you freedom and virtue walk hand in hand, this is what they meant. If we are not virtuous, we will not have freedom. Either our virtues or our enforcement abilities will become paramount. Here’s hoping moral reconstruction can prevail.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Civilization and Savagery

If you haven't read the stories or seen the TV news coverage of last night's brawl in Detroit, in which courtside fans at an NBA game attacked several Indiana Pacers' players, who then charged into the stands and engaged in fistfights with the rioting customers, by all means please do so. It was an ugly scene that says a good deal about what we are becoming as a society. This sort of thing happens elsewhere around the world, of course, and has happened here as well on occasion, but this was a new height of mayhem and madness within a public sports arena at the highest level.

We have become all too accustomed to the sight of people running rampant in our society, as in the massively destructive "celebrations" that commonly pop up in cities whose major team has just won a championship of some sort or other. But this was a regular-season game, and not a very close one, though hard-fought. People seem to find it all too easy to slip out of control today, and we are not going to be able to wish this problem away.

The only real solution is going to be to reconstitute a society that insists that people be at the very least civilized.

But that will not happen, of course, until we openly value civilization.

This is not mainly a law-enforcement problem, it is a philosophical problem.

These people are just acting on what they have been taught. For the past half-century, our schools, laws, and pop and elite culture have all, to an increasing degree, heaped scorn on the very notion of civilization, the belief that some ways of life are better than others—and then we are somehow alarmed when people act like savages.

Simple law-enforcement tactics will help somewhat, but they cannot do it all; they are in fact only a final line of defense. Events like last night's riot should remind us of what a thin line separates civilization from savagery, and that it is not all blue but in fact mostly black and white, and that the ideas we hold, and the ideas we teach, have enormous consequences.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Friday Afternoon DVD Recommendation

I strongly recommend our faithful readers see Gattaca, which stars Ethan Hawke, Jude Law, and Uma Thurman. I've never understood why this movie wasn't a huge hit. The film presents a brilliant dystopian future (perhaps only a decade away) where the genetically engineered constitute a privileged class. Your DNA is your resume' in this world. Hawke plays a young man who dreams of space, but is not the product of laboratory enhancement and will likely only get into a space ship "if he's cleaning it," as his father says. Gattaca explores Hawke's character's plight and the implications for the society at the same time. Check it out.

Getting the Christian Right, Right.

Part of my life as a doctoral student in religion and politics is that I have endure presentations like the one I attended yesterday. A German professor came to one of my seminars and explained the Christian Right's position on Israel and Palestine. In the course of her remarks, she claimed the Christian Coalition is the largest and most effective Christian political organization in America. If you read this blog, you probably follow politics enough to know that the Christian Coalition has not been a significant factor in about 5-7 years. The weight of Christian influence, particularly among evangelicals, is exerted by James Dobson and Chuck Colson, not Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Nevertheless, liberals continue to get it wrong. Listening to this professor speak, I couldn't help but wonder if my feelings were similar to those a black student might have while listening to a white person inform him about his culture.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

TV Networks, Boohoo

The media have had a field day with ABC's ignorant teaser for last Monday night's NFL football game, which was only to be expected. The brief promo piece combined policy and prurience, and it doesn't get better for TV controveries than that.

The first thing I thought about this situation was that there would have been little or no trouble if the player involved had been caucasian and not a jackass. Having the odious self-promoter Terrell Owens and the formerly gorgeous but now ghastly Nicolette Sheridan in an embrace while the latter is presumably naked was definitely a damfool thing to do.

Several prominent African-Americans such as Tony Dungy, head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, have pointed out that the use of a black NFL player--rather than, say, a white owner or coach--plays into some decidedly revolting stereotypes about both athletes and black American males. And I could not agree more: immorality is not the exclusive province of any racial or professional group.

Moreover and more importantly, irresponsible behavior--such as a player skipping part of a game (in a sport where he is paid literally millions of dollars per year) so as to indulge in a momentary dalliance with a female fan, is not the slightest bit amusing, nor is it something most young males (a good part of the Monday Night Football audience) will understand as clever satire. Especially because it was neither clever nor satire.

Leftists in the press, for their part, have been boohooing over the fact that several TV stations refused to show Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg's gory and boring WWII epic, supposedly in fear of having the FCC question their licenses. The specter of Censorship has thus descended on the nation.

Pardon me, however, if I do not panic. The TV networks, after all, do use the public airwaves to purvey their product. And if you use public land to graze your cattle, you have to abide by the rules for use of that land. Nobody objects to that. But put a little fake journalism on the airwaves--as the networks do for approximately a half-hour a day--and suddenly everything you do on the public airwaves is seen as sacred and beyond criticism, let alone censorship.

The very same people on the networks, and their phony civil-libertarian flacks (who have no such enthusiasm for, say, protecting the free expression of religion in the public square), who complain so vociferously about this immiment danger of censorship (which never seems to arrive, as it happens), are the same ones who are so intensely critical of what, say, oil companies, lumber firms, and airlines are allowed to do on public lands. Yet the latter at least produce something that is real and cannot be obtained in any other way. What the TV networks do is entirely redundant: other media deliver entertainment and information just as well.

But even that blatant expression of hypocrisy is not the full measure of the networks' chutzpah. No, remember that just a half-dozen years ago the Clinton administration gave the networks a huge amount of the electromagnetic spectrum--the very scarce "land" in which the entire U.S. public sends and receives electronic messages--for free.

And yet these people invariably complain and shout censorship! when other citizens ask, not force, them to act like decent human beings every once in a while. Sorry, but I cannot call up much sympathy for them.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Easterbrook on the Politics of American Christians

Gregg Easterbrook's analysis of the political leanings of American Christians (cited by Hunter Baker below) is indeed a good one, providing a sensible conclusion that the nation's Christians are about as politically diverse as any other major group.

J. Bottum wrote a similar piece on American Catholics before the election, "The Myth of the Catholic Voter," in the Weekly Standard, available here.

Easterbrook, however, is quite deceived when he writes the following: "Surely it has been bad for American political debate that, on September 11, the nation was attacked by an enemy issuing religious threats; this now seems to cause us to see the world in terms of religious threats. God-fearing conservative Christians are no threat, though some of them can, I'll admit, be pretty exasperating."

As I noted in yesterday's American Spectator, available here, the Left made its choice to jettison all but the most tame, Leftist Christians a long time ago, having in fact moved very far down that path by the early 1960s. To pretend that a confusion over the meaning of the September 11 attacks caused the Left to begin to view Christians with suspicion in recent years is just plain silly. As exemplified by the hysterical response to the brief rise of the Moral Majority, the terror instilled by Pat Robertson's presidential campaign, and the like, the American Left has viewed God-fearing conservative Christians as a threat for quite some time. This is not a momentary confusion, and it is a very big problem for the Democratic Party.

Easterbrook Helps Secular Lefties Take a Breath

Gregg Easterbrook is my favorite lefty. Though he usually goes along with the left-wing program for America, he is also a devout Christian who seems to “get it” when it comes to people of faith. Here’s a paragraph from his excellent column on the popular misperceptions of religious activism in America:

“Many John Kerry supporters or George W. Bush opponents are angry about the results of the election and want to pin the blame on some sinister force. Politically conservative Christianity seems a good scapegoat because most of the media doesn't understand it. But politically conservative Christianity is not some unstoppable force--my guess would be that in today's United States, there are two politically moderate or liberal Christians for every one politically conservative Christian. Surely it has been bad for American political debate that, on September 11, the nation was attacked by an enemy issuing religious threats; this now seems to cause us to see the world in terms of religious threats. God-fearing conservative Christians are no threat, though some of them can, I'll admit, be pretty exasperating.”

People Learn What They're Taught

One of the maxims by which I understand and judge the world around me is a simple one:

People learn what they're taught.

It explains rather a lot, actually.

A correspondent named Gus, on the spunky Chapin Nation site managed by our friend Bern Chapin, had the following thought which I think illustrates this maxim admirably:

"Thought For The Day

"I was having a conversation with a friend about breast cancer recently when I said that in the past year I had lost two women I had cared about very deeply, even loved, to that disease. Later it struck me that I haven't heard a woman talk about men they cared deeply about or, My God!, loved in a long, long, long time.

"Fire's post today explains part of the reason: the feminist delusion that the safe-guarding of women is the prime responsibility of society (and of course to make that really stick, you have to portray men as monsters) and that women have no responsibility when it comes to sexual harassment (walking around with your boobs hanging out, girls, is a form of sexual harassment) or domestic violence (verbally assaulting a man when you know he cannot hit you without incurring social punishment comes under domestic violence but of a more subtle kind. And there is that rapidly fading belief that all boys are bombarded with that boys should respect girls. I wonder if girls are taught the same thing about boys.)

"The legacy of the feminists like Betty Frieden and Gloria Steinem not to mention the real fruit-cakes like Germaine Greer and Mary Daly will be the same as Yassar Arafat's.
Hatred and the brutalization of people."

Teach one group of people to feel morally superior to and afraid of another group of people, and this is exactly what happens.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Wyatt Earp Was a Republican

And the bad guys were Democrats. What else is new?!!! Read about it here. Okay, it's somewhat tangential, but read anyway!

Self-Congratulation in Political Defeat

If I could ban one type of writing or speechmaking, I think my choice would be simple. I would do away with the "why I lost" message. Brad Carson, who lost his Senate race to Republican Tom Coburn has a column on that topic up at New Republic (subscription required). Former Georgia governor Roy Barnes still glories in the reason for his loss back in 2002. The "official" reason for his defeat was that he took the Confederate-style state flag off the capitol dome and replaced it with something less offensive. Better reasons would be that he governed dictatorially, presided over some really bitter redistricting (not covered by the national press because Republicans were getting nailed), pissed off the teacher's unions (which I liked), and was running in the same party as Max Cleland. He won a Profiles in Courage Award for giving up his seat as a consequence of changing the flag.

Then again, maybe those "why I lost" speeches and columns aren't so bad. I'd certainly rather have Roy Barnes and Brad Carson justifying themselves in courageous defeat than standing in the well at the state or federal capitol justifying legislation.

Who Polarized Congress? Reagan the Liberal!

A little blatant self-promotion if you don't greatly mind: my article on the polarization of Congress and indeed America's two major political parties appears in today's American Spectator online.

The article points out that this polarization is a result of the two parties having changed and solidified their fundamental ideas, which has worked greatly to the Republicans' advantage: "Reagan actually never shook off his core ideas of true (a.k.a. classical, Whig) liberalism. He never left the Democratic Party, Reagan always said, but instead the party left him; and just so, he never left liberalism, but instead modern liberalism left him. As a result, when Reagan ran for the presidency, he emphasized how much social disorder, economic stagnation, and social stratification harmed society's underdogs, taking up a traditionally Democratic theme and offering a highly plausible political alternative. As president, he acted on those premises, and was reelected overwhelmingly."

The Democrats reacted by digging in their heels, but they "would have been smarter to try to woo the evangelicals back into the fold by acknowledging them as underdogs, which would have been an easy, logical move to make. But this would have involved jettisoning the antireligious, ACLU wing of the party, along with the rest of the intellectual class, which they were by no means prepared to do.

"That decision, however, meant that the Democrats would openly become increasingly the party of the privileged classes, which would finally confirm the very role reversal the Republican had been trying to establish: the Republicans as the party of the search for ordered liberty, and the Democrats as the party of privilege, atheism, pacifism, and social and economic sclerosis."

That is where we are today, and it is largely a salutary change, as it brings a certain amount of clarity to the political situation. But there is a problem: the current divide "appears, however, to be an unmitigated disaster for the Democratic Party. The Republicans have their side staked out and seem fairly comfortable with it, despite some internal divisions—but the Democrats seem increasingly uncomfortable with theirs. African-Americans, suburban mothers, and union members, for example, do not share most of the values of the farther-Left side of their party. The three former groups adhere to the Democrat Party mainly for its traditional championing of the underdog, and they are by no means in it for a radical transformation of the American mind and society.

"That tension seems likely to remain until these persons either leave the party or take it over."

In addition, the Republican's current strength may tempt them toward policies that are politically unwise. Hence, "The presence of two strongly plausible political parties, each with a serious respect for the pursuit of both liberty and order both within the United States and in the international environment, would surely be much better than the current situation."

It will be up to the Democrats to change, however, given that the Republicans are benefitting greatly from the current situation.

You can read the full article at The American Spectator, here.

Continuing the Specter Meme

For those who don't know, I'm a law school grad who immediately went to work in public policy and then on to academia. Never wanted to sue anybody, don't you know? Perhaps unsurprisingly, I am an avid court watcher.

In the controversy over what to do about Arlen Specter, I have to side with Hugh Hewitt. Specter is not a conservative's conservative, but he has been willing to support conservative appointees to the court. Having him as the judiciary chairman will make it easier to avoid protracted battles over Supreme Court nominees. To some extent, Senators in the middle will feel that nominees okay with Specter are okay with them. Conversely, if Specter is removed, prepare to hear about how the process is now illegitimate. That's the last thing we want to hear, especially when shaping an institution like the court.

The way to go is to leave Specter in and nominate conservative legal giants like Michael McConnell and Alex Kosinzki. They are too prominent to fail the process and have avoided any excessive rhetoric.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Great Line from Walker Percy

Writing in The Thanatos Syndrome, the unmatchable (in my view) Percy delivered this pithy statement that perfectly sums up the problem with the cultural left:

"There's Hawkeye and Trapper John back in Korea. I never did like those guys. They fancied themselves super-decent and super-tolerant, but actually had no use for anyone who was not exactly like them. What they were was super-pleased with themselves. In truth, they were the real bigots, and phony at that."

The Vacuity of the Fundamentalist Label

Click here to read an excellent article that provides much needed perspective on the issue of religious fundamentalism and its adherents. We need to see about fifty articles like this one to correct the sea of misperceptions that exist among our religiously illiterate opinion journalists of the left.

Speaking of film and religion . . .

Those of you interested in the intersection of faith and film should hurry to Barbara Nicolosi's weblog Church of the Masses. Ms. Nicolosi knows an awful lot about Hollywood, screenwriting, and developing professionalism while pursuing a vocation in the arts. Her project has a lot to do with the notion that it's time for Christians to break out of their segregated markets and address the mainstream culture with their work. Check it out.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Religion in Films

A very interesting article about a very interesting phenomenon—Hollywood's burgeoning interest in religious ideas as expressed in various films—in Friday's Opinion Journal, here. The most important observation in the piece, to my mind, is the author's recognition that motion pictures (like other works of art) often present quite serious ideas under seemingly unrelated or even trivial surfaces. That, of course, is the premise behind this author's own writings about the arts, and it is pleasing to see this understanding gaining some adherents.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

GOP Voter Fraud? Uh, No.

Look here for a pretty thorough debunking of the "voting irregularities" disappointed Dems wish were legit. I've been taken aback by the persistent Democrat concern with voter fraud performed by Republicans. The GOP is the party of fair process, as opposed to fair outcomes, remember? If anybody were to rig the results to achieve some sort of "equity," I suspect it would be the Donkeys.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Cut Flower Civilization: An Explanation

One of my astute co-bloggers asked me to define "cut flower civilization." Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood, who published a number of great books with the famed Harper publishing house mid-century, wrote and spoke of the idea frequently. In a nutshell, the metaphor places civilization in the place of a flower. Modernity/the Enlightenment/secularization represents the cutting of the flower at the stem and then placing it in a vase, or perhaps more appropriately, a beaker. For a while, the flower will continue to live and will maintain its beauty. After all, at least some of the citizens of the new order are the same as those of the old order. But over time, its untimely divorce with the soil (tradition, religous belief, etc.) will result in withering and ultimately, death. Advocates of the cut flower civilization hypothesis would point to the dissolution of the nuclear family, sexual promiscuity/sexual disease epidemics, and greater need for prisons/security measures as indicators that the hypothesis is true and the flower is indeed quite wilted.

Novak Gives More Perspective

One of the problems with today's lefties is that they are religiously illiterate. In other words, they have no clue that the civilization they now enjoy is largely built on premises and foundations they claim to despise. Here's a nice bit from Michael Novak (who does know a thing or two about religion):

"For instance, La Repubblica (Nov.7), which I read on the plane, carries a front-page jump column by Eugenio Scalfari, its founder and publisher, under the title "Why We Cannot Call Ourselves Laicists." After confessing his own secular creed — the creed of the Enlightenment and the great principles of liberty, fraternity, and equality — he writes that this does not end the matter. He notes how the Christian idea of a duty to the most needy and vulnerable has undeniably influenced his creed, and how the Christian idea of giving to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's, is a necessary barrier to totalitarianism both Left and Right. The history of the European secular mind cannot be described simply as laicist, he insists, for it also includes a crucial source of light absorbed from Christian faith."

If you need help decoding, "Laicist" means uber secular. There are a few who realize that Christianity is deep in the mix of Western civilization and that Elton Trueblood's Cut Flower Civilization thesis may well be in danger of fully manifesting itself.

How the Enlightenment Really Dies . . .

Andrew Stuttaford has a nice corrective to the gas pains one might experience when reading the ridiculous wailing of earnest American liberals who fear fundamentalist theocracy stands ready to crash over them like a wave:

"In a last attempt to save his life, a desperate Van Gogh reportedly pleaded with his attacker: "We can," he said, "still talk about it." Talk. Dialog. Reason. In response, savagery. The murderer sawed through Van Gogh's neck and spinal column with a butcher knife, almost severing his head. And that, Mr. Wills, is how Enlightenment dies."

Hopefully, the Van Gogh incident will help overwrought liberals understand the differences between murderers and those who might wish to employ democratic processes to reduce the number of abortions in the United States or have some say in the way marriage is defined.

From Dreaming to Dreaming, by Farpoint

The new disc by the South Carolina-based band Farpoint, From Dreaming to Dreaming, finally makes real the potential suggested by the band's first two discs. Farpoint combines progressive rock with American folk traditions and a strong melodic sense to create a very passionate kind of intelligent and sophisticated rock-based music. The first full-length song on From Dreaming to Dreaming, "Autumn Sky," sets the tone with a very catchy organ line and driving rhythm reminiscent of Guy Manning's terrific song "Tightrope" (from his The Ragged Curtain CD) plus a very strong and appealing vocal performance by Dana Oxendine, who is becoming a very accomplished vocalist.

Similarly attractive organ work adorns "Here and Now," which also has a fine lead vocal melody line and passionate singing performances by Ms. Oxendine and Clark Boone. "Sojourn" has a very interesting acoustic-guitar introduction and accompaniment to Boone's lead vocal, and Oxendine's overdubbed choral background is quite effective, as is her gorgeous, ethereal lead vocal in the bridge. The song also has a very beautiful instrumental passage featuring flute, synthesizer, and electric guitar. It is really quite moving.

The melodic inventiveness begins to flag a bit from this high point, so that tracks 8 and 9 are not as strong as the rest, but the band rebounds with very good work on the last two songs to send things home nicely. Some very appealing organ work by Kevin Jarvis and another appealing acoustic guitar accompaniment enliven "Ashley's Song (Sail On)," for example.

Boone's husky baritone voice is used more effectively than on the band's first two albums and has become a positive musical asset for the group. Frank Tyson's growling, grumbling bass guitar is highly expressive indeed and a standout aspect of the production. The percussion of Rick Walker matches him step for step, and the lead guitar work by Mike Givins is quite good if not overly original (which is hardly a criticism—who can really find something truly new to do on lead guitar these days?). Kevin Jarvis's keyboard work provides a solid foundation of melody and chord accompaniment, and his solos are reminiscent of those achieved by the great 1970s progressive bands. The lyrics deal with important matters, largely spiritual ones, in a mature and intelligent way, although, like nearly all popular-music lyrics, they are by no means poetry. The CD artwork is quite attractive as well.

Definitely recommended.

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Secession city by city . . .

At American Spectator today, Lawrence Henry makes an important point about the blue state secession talk, which is that all the red portions of the blue states (which are substantial) would never agree to the deal. Those folks who draw up the United States of Canada and Jesusland graphics are looking at the state electoral map instead of the county one. What they fail to realize is that Jesusland is lapping right up against their own city limits.

My favorite part is the conclusion:

"No, the interesting thing about all the current secession talk is its similarity to the pre-Civil War era. At that time, an area of the country felt itself threatened by the impending loss of a key portion of its agrarian livelihood. Kicking and yelling, it resisted being dragged into the new industrial age.

"So what are the blue confederates kicking and screaming about? What well-nigh irresistible movement toward modernity do they refuse to recognize? Oh, I could name a few things."

Thursday, November 11, 2004

The Righteousness of Action in Iraq

Now that Sam has brought the war up again, it seems like a good time to share my political sense of the thing. Smart people on both sides have their questions about the war in Iraq, but there is one point of discussion that I think has eluded most. Think carefully for a second. If you wanted to manage the aftermath of 9-11 politically instead of strategically, what would you do? My answer is that the President could have looked very good by hitting Afghanistan, knocking out the Taliban, and calling it a day. Americans would have felt the flush of victory and would feel they had a measure of revenge for the loss of life and property endured in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. The fact that he didn’t settle for a fairly easy victory over the Taliban tells me something. I think the security team and the President believed more was required to secure America’s safety and that they decided to pursue that course without regard for political consequences. If that is the case, the adventure in Iraq has been thoroughly righteous.

Liberals and War

In response to my piece on the New York Times and John Aschroft, which is currently appearing in The Daily Standard, a writer friend of mine asked, "Dear me, am I of the Far Right? I insist I’m a Jeffersonian of the Real Right; I think he’d be with me, as would Madison. Btw, I am not against a war on terrorists, and I did not object to going after OBL in Afghanistan, but … Iraq…?"

I think this an excellent question, and will offer a couple of points in answer. My Daily Standard piece was actually meant as a critique of the New York Times's approach to news analysis, not as a defense of Ashcroft. Note that I wrote "however much one might disagree with Ashcroft's actions as attorney general"; I am in fact one of those "one"s. My own position--which I published on www.vdare.com just a week after the September 11 attacks--is that the essential element in any internal U.S. measures against terrorism must start by recognizing the difference between citizens and noncitizens: the former have civil rights, and the latter absolutely do not. That, in my view, would still be a very good guide in how to approach these matters, and would have the advantage of being constitutional.

As to my friend's possibly being on the far Right, consider that by my own calculus I am a liberal. I am a liberal of the Right, aka a classical liberal. Another person on the Right could be either a conservative of the Right or a radical of the Right. See my first post for this site, "Why the Reform Club...", in the October archive, for a more detailed explanation.

I recognize that most modern-day libertarians classify themselves as classical liberals, but I don't think that most of them are exactly that--they would part from Burke and Smith and the other original Whigs in several important ways. For example, Smith was perfectly happy with lots of government intervention in the economy for national-defense purposes (and might very well have approved of the War in Iraq), and Burke's Catholic activism would horrify the Reason crowd, the Randians, and many others on the more-radical Right.

Consider, if you would, the following handy reference point:

Conservatives are primarily concerned about preserving civilization.
Radicals are primarily concerned about transforming civilization.
Liberals are primarily concerned about extending civilization.

As to the War in Iraq, we Reform Club Whigs are catholic on the issue: Hunter and I supported it, and Alan opposed it (see Alan's recent posting, "One Antiwar Zealot for Bush," on this). But all three of us approached the issue from the same premises--U.S. national security as the first priority for our federal government, pursued under any rational and appropriate means the Constitution allows. My position is that the Constitution allows a War on Terror but does not require it; hence I have fundamental assumptions in common with those who oppoosed the War in Iraq for national security reasons. Those who opposed it for economic or ideological reasons (especially pacifism) or because of simple fear of casualties, however, cannot really be considered liberals in my view.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Controversial Ashcroft

The New York Times article on Attorney General John Ashcroft's resignation describes him, rather hyperbolically in my view, as "one of the most powerful and divisive figures ever to serve as the nation's top law enforcement official." That's a particularly weird statement when one considers that compared to his immediate predecessor, Janet Reno, Ashcroft was downright obscure.

The article goes to great lengths to persuade us that Ashcroft held bizarre, "extremist" beliefs that made him naturally controversial, in the paper's rather sad attempt to distract readers from the fact that the controversies to which the New York Times alludes were largely a creation of that newspaper and its political allies, who disagreed strongly with the entire thrust of his policies. In fact, the present NYT "analysis" inadvertently proves the point, as I demonstrate in today's issue of The Daily Standard (the online edition of The Weekly Standard), here.

To the extent that Ashcroft had a "tumultuous tenure," as the caption of the photo accompanying the article puts it, the tumult was very much a creation of the New York Times itself and the rest of the radical Left (aided by a good many on the radical Right). The fact is, the New York Times and the rest of the far Left despised Ashcroft for his openly religious views on politics. It is a pity that these partisans seem unable to admit or even recognize that little bit of extremism on their own part.

A little honesty in this regard and similar situations would go a long way toward restoring the credibility of the New York Times. That, however, seems far too much to hope for.