Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others.—Churchill

Monday, December 20, 2004

Michael Fumento Is Making Sense!

Fumento is one of those reporters who combines journalism with the amazing additional skill of knowing what the heck you are talking about. He applies this skill to health journalism and does a nice job of shedding further light on the stem cell controversy. Check out this passage from his latest NRO piece where he discusses ASC's (adult stem cells) and ESC's (embryonic stem cells):

There's no scientific research so promising that it can't be hyped further. Still, the ASCs — which the Democrats won't acknowledge, and which the New York Times recently claimed have proved futile in treating human illness — have actually been helping people in the U.S. since 1968. On one website you'll find a list, far from comprehensive, of almost 80 therapies currently using ASCs. This is treatment — not practice or theory. Incredibly, there are also about 300 clinical trials involving ASCs.

By contrast, the number of treatments using ESCs is zero. The number of clinical trials involving ESCs? Also zero.

The usual response to this is — as we saw with Kerry at the debate — none at all. There is quite literally a nationwide effort to cover up the value, or even the existence, of ASCs. But if there is a response, it's usually that ASC research has had a huge head start, and that ESCs only need time (and, more important, massive federal funding) to catch up.

Newt Gingrich

As reader Greg reminded me in a comment on the last post, Newt Gingrich is an Amazon book-reviewing madman. He's one of the top reviewers in Amazon history. A lot of it is thrillers, but there are also some very serious books in the mix. The reminder about Newt's book reviewing activity is a bit depressing because one suspects we are the poorer for Newt's exit from Congress. Newt is clearly no angel, but he is a brilliant policy wonk and a really creative person. It could make a lot of sense to get him in a Presidential cabinet post. I'd like to hear his thoughts on the War on Terror.

Christmas in Mississippi So Far . . .

I'm visiting my in-laws and have brought their daughter and golden grandchild with me. They live in Hattiesburg, which is a university town. School is out and every retail outlet is incredibly crowded. Looks to me like the retail sector is in full, full swing. I once heard an armchair economist say he could tell you how well the economy was doing by counting trucks on I-35. I suspect we could do something similar with mall traffic and parking.

In the meantime, my search for Thomas the Tank Engine related accessories like blankets, t-shirts, and pajamas has been a complete failure after a lengthy search. Doesn't anyone out there want to get even richer? I've got a two year old with needs!!!

I Admire The Purity, But . . .

What about conspiracy charges and bank information reporting requirements? It seems to me that if we take a pure "harm" approach to the law we will find ourselves unable to successfully police serious problems like organized crime. We often complain as citizens that the police are unable to protect us until after something terrible has already occurred. Laws aimed at deterrence and prevention by criminalizing conduct that precedes the actual harm causing activity are one way to meet that problem. We have to be very careful, but I think the balance is worth striking. We didn't start out criminalizing actions that don't cause immediate harm, but our experience has led us to do so in response to live threats.

Yes, I'm a very poor libertarian. More of a law and order type with small government leanings.

Harm and the Law

Hunter writes, regarding laws against driving after having drunk two glasses of beer, laws which he supports and which I oppose: "Harm is not the only basis for enacting a law and punishing violators. Deterrence and retribution are also bases for invoking the power of the state."

I respectfully disagree. There is no basis whatever for deterrence of or retribution for anything that does not harm anyone. Laws against merely drinking and driving do not pass the harm test when, as is true in most U.S. states today, no actual offense that could even potentially cause harm in itself is required for prosecution.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Law and Its Reasons

Harm is not the only basis for enacting a law and punishing violators. Deterrence and retribution are also bases for invoking the power of the state. The DUI laws are clearly based on a deterrence philosophy which has given every appearance of working.

Who knew that Alan's posts on wine would lead us inevitably down the path to drunk driving laws?!!!

Speaking of Alan, I was interested to hear he appeared on Larry Kudlow's show recently. We're running a very humble blog here. Most bloggers bend over backwards to let you know where they've appeared and where they're going. I've got the opposite problem with the old school policy wonks on this site!

Friday, December 17, 2004

DUI Laws—A Quibble or a Principle

I see no valid reason to have DUI laws at all, given that there can be no offense if there is no harm, and the harm is not a person's blood alcohol count. The harm is in whatever they may have done wrong while driving, regardless of what one might wish to attribute as the cause. It doesn't matter what caused the harmful behavior; if an act hurts other people and should have been averted, it is criminal regardless of one's blood alcohol count, or one's feelings toward a racial group or sexual behavior, for that matter. DUI laws make as little sense as hate crimes laws and are foolish and oppressive.

MSNBC Picks Up the Adult Stem Cell Story

The good Mr. Karnick blogged on this earlier, but since MSNBC is reporting the story, I thought I'd mention it again. Adult stem cells are helping people recover in amazing ways. We've seen none of that with embryonic stem cells. My wife told me she learned nothing remotely approaching ethics in courses by the name in medical school. Our apparent cluelessness about why its wrong to exploit embryos indicates that ethics may be another one of those areas where we publish more and more pretending to know less and less about what we once knew almost as a matter of course.

Here's the link to the story. Fascinating stuff.

Good Multiculturalism, Bad Multiculturalism

Christmas is here and yet again we have the usual wrangling over whether to publicly celebrate Christmas, celebrate all the potential holidays (including the very lame Kwanzaa), or celebrate a generic winter festival. I have a movie in my head where a British captain of some sort goes on an adventure with a Jew, a Hindu, and a Muslim. Maybe he's allied with all of them against some monstrous foe or perhaps fate simply causes their paths to cross. In the movie in my mind, I see each of the characters being who they are without a lot of apologies about it. That's good multiculturalism. Bad multiculturalism is when we think we are doing our friend a favor by ignoring our own traditions or patronizing them about theirs because we aren't threatened by it. The vital public square is the one where we learn to be who we are and strive to convince others in a vigorous, fair-minded, positive and honest manner. The patronizing forbearance we give a concocted celebration like Kwanzaa has got to go. Ditto the sanitization of the celebration of one of the most consequential events the world has ever known.

The Problem with Discretion

We may have arrived at the key point of the argument. I can think of at least one good reason why it is good to specify a particular blood alcohol level. First, we achieve a strong degree of deterrence. I haven't checked the studies, but I suspect the actual incidence of a person having several drinks and getting behind the wheel is significantly lower than it once was simply because the penalties are so great. Deterrence of that sort is important because we can't exactly trust drunks to know whether or not they are good drivers under the influence when decision time arrives.

Back to the question of God-given rights. When I ponder what rights my creator may have imbued me with at conception, the right to drive a car on government roads after a few drinks does not score very highly on the list. I agree that the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure is a good candidate, but when we get to that one we are simply quibbling over the details of how a DUI law should be implemented rather than arguing the greater issue of whether such a law should exist at all.

Who Rules the Roads

The reason that alcohol is treated this way is not the spectacular and unique nature of alcohol as a cause of accidents. Most accidents are in fact caused by inattention due to the driver doing something else while driving or lack of sleep. The reason that alcohol is treated in this way is that people can easily imagine it being uniquely dangerous when it is not. It is clear that alcohol can impair one's driving ability, but it is just as clear that a low IQ can have the same effect.

I think Sean's article answers all of your objections, so I won't go over them in any detail here.

The key is, as Sean argues, we can respond appropriately to criminally irresponsible driving without making any particular level of blood alcohol illegal. This is the way the law is supposed to work.

To Debate or Inebriate . . .

I didn't go so far as to say that building the roads gives the government plenary power over those who drive upon them, but I do believe the government is free to set reasonable conditions for their use. For instance, drivers must be somehow qualified as through a course or an exam leading to licensure. The expectation that one would operate a large and deadly machine while not impaired seems likewise reasonable. My rationale supports government making driving under the influence illegal and punishable. I would not go so far as to say government should have a blank check to search and seize, as with a road block sobriety test. I think that is too much. But is it acceptable to have highway officers on the alert for poor driving that may indicate inebriation? I would think the answer to that question is yes.

What Overcomes a Right?

Hunter's point that those who build the roads have the right to set the rules for their use has some resonance, but I cannot agree that building roads gives the government open-ended regulatory power over everything that happens on them. In particular, I should simply point out again that regardless of who paid for the roads, U.S. citizens have a right to be free of unjustified searches and seizures by their government, wherever they happen to be. A citizen has a right to enter a government building, for example, and if he is not making a disturbance and is not in a place restricted to authorized personnel, the government has no right to detain or otherwise search him, regardless of how much wine he had with his dinner. Just so for the roads.

Hunter argues that the government's confiscation of property and subsequent building and maintenance of roads overcomes this right, but it appears to me that the only one who can overcome a right is he who gave it. And if that Particular Source has spoken on the matter of drinking and driving, I have not yet heard it.

Libertarian Roads

Before I'm accused of lacking imagination in this debate over drunk driving, please understand that I would agree to a different view of things in a true small government or libertarian society. If the roads were privately financed, I would be very happy to see the owners of roads decide whether to make driving free from the influence of alcohol or drugs a matter of terms and conditions. Then, we could choose whether to take the road populated by those who agree not to drink and drive or the road (less traveled, perhaps) populated by those who would prefer not to accept such a limitation on their driving.

Hey, hey wait up a minute.

I won't take Mr. Karnick on when film is the issue, but public policy is a different matter. The drinking and driving laws, it seems to me, are a very good idea and make a lot of sense once you accept the parameters of government in our society. Who finances the roads upon which we drive? Answer: federal, state, and local governments. May they attach conditions, particularly those that bear directly upon safety concerns, to the use of those roads? I would have to say yes. Drunk driving can result in the imposition of massive negative externalities upon other people and the state. The ultimate negative externality would be, of course, death. Other possibilities include damage of others' property, damage of state property, creation of massive traffic jams, lost time, lost wages, diversion of public emergency vehicles and personnel from other potentially pressing situations, etc. In my view, the implementation of strong public disincentives against drunk driving seem eminently reasonable. Cato Institute types, bring rain upon my head!

Drinking and Driving

Sean Gabb, of the Libertarian Alliance, based in Great Britain, has written an excellent piece on "Why Drinking and Driving Should Not Be a Crime," published a while ago on his Free Life Commentary site. Sean has sent it to me because he notes that he is at present "the only person in the country willing to go on air and oppose the general hysteria over drinking and driving." His argument is a powerful one, based on the idea that the law should not use prior restraint but instead impose appropriate punishment for harmful actions—and driving a vehicle after drinking alcohol cannot reasonably be called harmful unless someone is actually harmed by it. Thus and in tandem, Gabb calls for far stronger penalties for those whose drinking or other bad driving choices result in negligent homicides and similar disasters.

Gabb points out that the law is despotic in its effect, as it gives the government free reign to stop people and question them about whether they have done something wrong, which no liberal regime would do, and certainly not as a habit. To me, this is a critical point.

Finally, Gabb notes that the law "has a double agenda, one open, the other hidden; and pursuit of the latter compromises pursuit of the former. Years of propaganda about the horrors of drinking and driving have tended to obscure the fact that alcohol is not the only cause of driving impairment. Rather as I have, most people have come to attach notions of extreme immorality to drinking before driving. Few such notions are attached to driving while tired or stressed, or after drinking lots of tea or coffee, or while in desperate need of a pee. Yet these are often at least as dangerous as driving slightly above the legal alcohol limit. And they are ignored.

". . . [M]uch of the propaganda against drinking and driving has nothing to do with reducing injuries to life and property, and everything to do with making it harder to enjoy a drink in good company. Macaulay once said of the 17th century puritans that they hated bearbaiting not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators. His epigram applies equally well to the modern puritans, who bray about the horrors of driving after half a pint of lager while refusing even to consider the effects of half a gallon of black coffee."

Excellent article; read it here.

Conservative in the Welfare Machine

Bernard Chapin is an acquaintance from the world of online journalism and a pretty apt social critic. He occasionally writes about his work experience as a school psychologist in Chicago. His latest offering is raw and has an instinctual sense of truth about it. Read about it here.

Here's an excerpt to whet your appetite:

"Within a few months, I had turned from a person who completely accepted the value of the welfare state into a serious skeptic about the entire operation. Before August of 1998, I thought that the government dole kept a large amount of our population from starving and that abuses of the system were glaring exceptions. What I discovered was that abuses were intrinsic to govocharity’s service delivery. I found that those who received entitlements often felt entitled to receive just about everything else as well. I became so numbed to the belief systems of our parents that many statements, which I would have found shocking in the past, no longer surprised me."

Thursday, December 16, 2004

The Good Word on Baylor and Robert Sloan

Sloan deserves plaudits for prodding Baylor down bold path
By William Murchison

For The Dallas Morning News' Texan of the Year, who else but – my boss? ---I insist on plainly advertising that relationship. That's for the sake both of intellectual honesty and of any reputation I enjoy for deadlier accuracy with a brickbat than a bouquet. I offer here a sizable bouquet – but let's not get carried away about it.

At my age, I can think of no self-serving requests to beg of my boss, Dr. Robert B. Sloan Jr., save one: his promise to persevere as president of Baylor University, where with grace and valor he worketh mighty works.

What a guy! Let me tell you how I know.

A few years ago, that notable Baptist institution on the Brazos invited me to become Distinguished Professor of Journalism. Me – a Texas U. and Stanford man. Worse, perhaps, a high-church Episcopalian whose idea of a good hymn-sing is Byrd overlaid with Bach.

Why the invitation? It was explained to me that Baylor, under Dr. Sloan, had just undertaken an ambitious 10-year program. The goal: Move Baylor into the top tier of American universities, strengthening, rather than diluting, the school's historic Christian commitment. Yes, and to this purpose I might have something to contribute.

Here was something to shock even an Episcopalian awake. Churches or religious folk founded some of the great American universities: Princeton, Harvard, Yale, et cetera. In time these schools shed their Christian identities like molted feathers. They made themselves over as secular universities, dedicated to secular truth, howsoever defined. That which the West long had acknowledged and reveled in – the intimacy of the connection between religious and worldly knowledge – got rudely shoved aside.

As Baylor's president since 1995, Dr. Sloan, a rangy West Texas Baptist who took his theological doctorate in Switzerland, presided over an extraordinary reassessment of Baylor's mission, one involving the whole Baylor community.

Yes, it was a wonderful university with wonderful traditions, the community agreed; but there were fresh wonders worth performing. The community could generally raise academic standards; recruit top students; emphasize civilization's classic texts; dramatically improve the physical plant (the new science building looks larger than some Texas counties); and with it all, "achieve a robust integration of Christian faith and the intellectual life." All this, and a lot more, by 2012.

The effort Dr. Sloan leads – well, nothing like it goes on anywhere else. If you take Christianity – or just the religious view of life – at all seriously, you have to be pulling for this amazing endeavor. A couple of months ago, most of the country's orthodox big-league Christian scholars, in a letter to Baylor regents, rejoiced at the university's opportunity "to become the only major university in America, clearly centered in the Protestant tradition, to embrace the full range of academic pursuits."

True, it is inscribed on tablets of stone that any reformer or project of reform will soon enough offend a number of the intended beneficiaries. Without even trying. It is so with Dr. Sloan and the 2012 project. At the thought of either, certain Baylor Bears go: Grrrrrrrr.

A goodly number, blaming their president for incurring debt, hiring too many explicit Christians or both, would like his head served up on a platter and say so – often, I'm sorry to report, in tones unlikely to be described as dulcet or even Christian.

---William Murchison is a contributing columnist to Viewpoints. His e-mail address is

Junior Partner Takedown!

For those of you who don't know, I refer to S.T. Karnick in our private correspondence as "the greatest living film critic in the English language." I mean it when I write it. As you might expect, I, a rather pedestrian critic of movies, am crushed by the slightest exertion of Mr. Karnick's corrective hand. Nevertheless, I shall insist on offering you my own humble efforts in this arena until Mr. Karnick decides to provide us with more review material of his own! He has enough knowledge to provide Trailing Edge Film Reviews to cover the next two centuries.

Another View of *National Treasure*

I liked National Treasure. I particularly enjoyed the film's use of the theme that Knowledge Is Power, which is unusual for action films and a highly welcome change. That was also a strong aspect of the recent TNT movie The Librarian. American action films tend to be about the use of force, rather than strategy, whereas in reality even the projection of force requires a wise use of strategy. Moreover, in a culture that often seems to laud willful ignorance, National Treasure honors knowledge and intellectual achievement. If only for that alone, I consider it well worth seeing.

Why We Should Care About Foxhunting

My article in today's Tech Central Station deals with a subject with which few of us have any direct experience: foxhunting. It is an important matter, however, for Americans and other nations as well as the English, because the assumptions behind Great Britain's recently passed ban on foxhunting are common elsewhere in the world, and are quite toxic. The ban, like so many other laws of our time, reflects the Left's tendency to combine egalitarianism with hedonism. Together, these two notions create a good deal of trouble in the world. Read about it here.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Trailing Edge Film Review: National Treasure

This film was not particularly well-received by critics, but it has done extremely well at the box office. Given that I wanted to see a movie and decided not to see the only other viable option, Blade: Trinity, I went with the popular taste. The decision, was a mistake. Not a huge one. I only lost five bucks (student discount) and a couple of hours. Besides, I was mildly entertained. However, I often found myself thinking of concrete situations in my personal life when I should have been transported to Bruckheimer's Nicholas Cage theme park. (By the way, I have decided John Voight has almost certainly had a nose job somewhere down the line. It doesn't fit his face. Too small.)

First, the film is like an advertisement for the Freemasons. Much was made of the fact that the Lutheran financial group Thrivent financed the film about their church's founder. I have to wonder if some Masons got together and paid for a whoppo product placement here. They are the far-seeing good guys instead of shadowy figures who finance strange temples in your home town.

(minor spoilers here)
Second, the premise is beyond unbelievable. While the Founders were busy securing basic liberties, they were also engaged in a monumental scheme to hide an enormous treasure from the world, ostensibly until it would be ready to receive it. I might have liked it better if we'd had a corny ending like, "The treasure was liberty, son. The treasure was liberty." Instead, there's a giant museum treasure that was inexplicably splitting time with the American Revolution as key projects to be pursued by visionary Renaissance men.

Finally, I read many comparisons of this film to the Indiana Jones films. Not an apt comparison other than the fact that treasure is frequently involved. Stakes are quite a bit lower here. Everybody is pretty much out to find a big treasure. In the Indy flicks, the treasures are sought to accomplish some much larger purpose, like to rule the world via some supernatural means. The bigger disconnect between this film and the Spielberg giganto-hits is ACTION. National Treasure is definitely lacking in really interesting, pulse-pounding action.

My advice. Skip it.

A Christmas Mystery

The UPN hourlong weekly drama show Veronica Mars, produced by Rob Thomas, is a good deal more than just another TV show featuring attractive young performers pretending to be teenagers of various levels of family wealth (though it is certainly that, too). The program has an interesting and fairly innovative mystery angle, with the show's title character solving crimes, usually falling far short of murder, both with and without her private-detective father. Her father, the PI, is a balding middle-aged man who, like Paul Drake in Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason novels, looks much more like an accountant than a detective.

Last night's episode, "An Echolls Family Christmas," presented two separate mysteries, one done in puzzle form and the other in private-eye style, plus references to an ongoing subplot regarding the murder of Veronica's best friend, some amusing satire of Hollywood, a pointed and fair look at class and race issues, and a Christmas background.

Mysteries and Advent are two things I greatly enjoy, though on different levels, of course, and this episode integrated them quite well. Veronica makes the point, early in the episode, that Christmas is supposed to be about the birth of Christ, and the show is wisely content to leave it at that. Point taken, and thank you very much for mentioning it.

Veronica's solution to the mystery is almost completely fair-played and was quite satisfying. (In mystery fiction, fair play means that the reader or viewer is given all the clues necessary to solve the puzzle, though in most cases one would have to be a genius to achieve it, especially if, as in last night's case, you are not expecting the producers to make it a fairplay puzzle and hence don't keep a sharp eye out for the clues).

The program is well worth a look, and I hope that it will last out the season so that we will be able to see the main plot elements resolved.

An Interview with a Visionary

I'm about to go interview Dr. Robert Sloan, President of Baylor University. He's busy transforming the institution and I'm writing a book chapter on his leadership. Here's a nice excerpt from an interview he did with World Magazine:

RELATED: Interview with Baylor president Robert Sloan WORLD interviewed university president Robert Sloan about the troubles at Baylor and his vision for a distinctly Christian university by The Editors

WORLD: What do you say to people who insist that the two goals of Baylor 2012—being a top-tier university and being a distinctly Christian university—are contradictory?

RS: I think they've bought into a false view of reality. There are many who think that Christianity has no intellectual content, that it is purely a matter of emotion or isolated spirituality. My initial response is to encourage people to look at great minds like Augustine, Martin Luther, John Milton, or a host of others. They made powerful contributions to the Western intellectual legacy by any standard. Some of the world's great thinkers have been both Christian and scientific in their approach to investigating the world: Pascal, Isaac Newton, Jonathan Edwards, John Polkinghorne.

WORLD: What progress have you made so far in being a distinctly Christian university?

RS: We've always been a Christian university, but the difference is that we are explicitly seeking to accomplish the integration of faith and scholarship. . . . I think that's why we've been able to attract some of the distinguished faculty who have come to Baylor. They want an undivided life. They can have it here.

WORLD: Why are you encountering so much opposition?

RS: At some point, the academy overreacted to Christian dominance in the universities and completely reversed course to view the faith as irrelevant to higher education and research. Thus, we have an artificial separation of faith and reason. There are plenty of Christians who accept that split and have been trained to do so. To them, when we talk about ideas like integrating faith and learning, we seem to be speaking an alien tongue.

WORLD: Is this purely a worldview conflict or are there other issues?

RS: No, there are definitely other issues. [One] issue has to do with Baylor's historic Baptist identity. When factions fought over the future of the Southern Baptist Convention some years ago, that fight left tremendous sensitivity to the issue of who qualifies as a faithful Christian and who is honoring Scripture, with many on our campus feeling that their faith has been impugned.

WORLD: Given the faculty resistance to your vision of Christian scholarship, can a student coming to Baylor today find the integration of faith and learning that you are envisioning?

RS: Absolutely. . . . While it's perhaps true that we don't have the sort of unanimity of a college that requires faculty to sign faith statements, we still offer something very distinctive. Baylor students get the experience of coming to a major conference university where they can also find a Christian faculty. —•

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Another Left-Wing Dilemma: Scientific Selectivity

Reader Greg McConnell got right into the spirit of our little game. Check this out:

How about the fact that the same people who get so giddy about the earth being 4,500,000,000 years old and spread the "gospel" of evolution and science as being the key to understanding are the same people who warn about environmental doomsdays based on datapoints collected over the past decade relative to the past hundred years?

In other words, these people think they can"understand" the earth's weather patterns based on collecting data points for 0.00000022% of the earth's existence. Wouldn't that be like me turning to page 500 of a random, unknown novel, glancing at a single period, and then looking you straight in the face as I"explain" what's going to happen on page 501? I mean, heck, upon further review you might reply to me, "You dummy, that wasn't even a period. It's an ellipsis."Heheh... just a thought.

Keep the examples of left-wing doublethink coming. We might get an NRO or American Spectator column out of these. I promise to give credit to all who help. Just send email to me here.

Golden Globes Stiff "The Passion"

Mel Gibson's masterwork The Passion received no nominations for the Golden Globes. I'm retaliating by posting S.T. Karnick's review of the film in full from National Review Online:

Violence to Scripture?Viewing The Passion.

“He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried."

Those words from the Apostles' Creed are what Mel Gibson's new film, The Passion of the Christ, is all about. Especially the suffering. As such, it is an appalling and difficult film for many Christians to endure, and it must make unbelievers and those of other faiths very uncomfortable indeed. For the violence portrayed in this film is done toward a man whom Christians cannot but see as utterly innocent of any crime whatever, and whom unbelievers must just as surely view as innocent of any crime worth punishing. For what is the problem with a man claiming to be God if there is no God anyway, or if we are all gods, or if God is merely a distant presence who started the world up and subsequently left it to go its own way? No one deserves the kind of punishment meted out to this puzzling but quite obviously benevolent soul.

That, of course, is exactly the point Gibson is making. Moreover, and equally importantly, he makes it perfectly clear exactly who is responsible for this suffering. We are. All of us. Every human being who ever lived, Gibson's film maintains, is responsible for this suffering. Jesus Christ (portrayed impressively by Jim Caviezel) tells his disciples at the beginning of the film, in the Garden of Gethsemane, that they cannot go where he is about to go. He alone, we know, will step forward to pay the price for sin. He alone will suffer for the world's rejection of their Creator and of the Savior he sent. He alone qualifies, for he alone is without sin.

This is, however, by no means an ethereal story, in the hands of the passionate director of Braveheart and guiding force behind The Patriot. In dramatizing the last day of the earthly life of Jesus as a man, Gibson typically includes another major character in each important sequence, to establish a point of view for the audience. Often this is Mary, Jesus' mother, and Maia Morgenstern's depiction of her is duly sensitive, sophisticated, and compelling. The audience easily shares her sympathy for her son and her horror at what is done to him. Another character often included is Satan, evocatively portrayed by Rosalinda Celentano. The androgynous, seedy, rotting Adversary continues to tempt and taunt Jesus throughout the film.
These two females provide an evident, and perhaps too obvious, contrast of responses to the reality of the Christ. In doing so, they bring the matter back to the viewer, to the choice of how each of us will respond to the life and temporary death of Jesus. This makes the film much more than a simple theater of cruelty.

It is, in fact, the central point of the film. Audience members interviewed about this film have noted that the brutality toward Jesus rather stunned them, and most critics have felt compelled to stress their discomfort with the amount of violence in the film. Roger Ebert exemplified this opinion well in his Chicago Sun-Times review of the picture, characterizing The Passion of the Christ as the most violent film he had ever seen.

With all due respect to a daily critic's occasional need to resort to hyperbole, that is simply a ridiculous statement. I have seen plenty of films more violent than this one, and I'm certain that Ebert has also.

What I have not seen, however, is a motion picture in which the violence is shown so intimately and is so sympathetic toward the victim of the brutality.

Nor, of course, have I ever seen a film in which cruelty of this severity is inflicted on an individual who claims to be the only truly innocent person who ever walked the earth, and indeed one who openly stated that he was sent from God to teach us what our Creator expected of us not only in our actions but in the inmost recesses of our hearts, and who set out to practice exactly what he preached (which was clearly impossible for a mere human being, which, of course, he himself argued that he was not, being both man and God), and whose life and statements all indicate that he was exactly who and what he said he was. Nor have I seen a portrait of such incredible violence done to one who claimed, quite plausibly given the assumptions behind the character so depicted, that the suffering he would undergo was a direct result of the viewer's own obstinacy and selfishness.

No, that is something I have not seen before; and that, I think, is what so profoundly disturbs both audiences and critics about The Passion of the Christ. We are implicated in the violence. We are not just viewers of this brutality; we are the very cause of it. Gibson makes this point cinematically by having the bloody, scourged, innocent Son of God often tumble toward the camera, lurching toward the viewer, bringing his agony directly to us.

Yes, the film is violent, terribly so. Pilate has Jesus caned, followed by an appalling scourging (which the script is careful to establish went far beyond the bounds of what the procurator intended). The scourging ends only when a Roman officer scolds the soldiers for their excessive brutality. The soldiers then take Jesus indoors and fashion a crown of thorns for him, which they crush down on his head forcefully, a moment of utterly astonishing cruelty and sadism which vividly and powerfully recreates the event the Gospels recount. The soldiers then continue whipping him while he sits in the dungeon, enjoying themselves immensely.

As Jesus subsequently stands with Pilate before the people, his body is covered with ghastly welts and open wounds inflicted by the vicious beatings. Blood drips from all over him. His condition is truly horrifying to see, and upon seeing him so mistreated, we cannot but feel some small portion of his misery. And Gibson refuses to cut away from him while others debate his fate, forcing us to confront the facts before us.

Nonetheless, rather less of the film is taken up with the violence and brutality toward the Christ than many critics are suggesting. During the atrocious flogging by the Roman guards, for example, the director cuts away from Jesus to Mary, and he follows her through the courtyard and concentrates on her reactions and experiences while we hear the lashes striking home in the background. He certainly leaves the scene of the beating not a moment too soon for most audience members, but he could, after all, have stayed to show the entire thing. Yet he did not. Moreover, during the scenes of torment he cuts away several times to flashbacks that connect aspects of Christ's suffering to moments of his life that once again draw the viewer to consider his own unrighteousness and consequent complicity in the suffering.

The same effect is created by the many shots in which Jesus is seen from the point of view of the mob. The viewer is part of that crowd, as responsible as they are. This aspect of the visualization, by the way, should be a more than sufficient response to those who have claimed that the film blames a particular group of people for the death of the Christ. It clearly establishes, in both dialogue and visuals, that we are all responsible for Christ's suffering and death.

The treatment of Simon the Cyrene also contributes to this effect. Simon goes from initially being concerned about his own reputation, as we would be and indeed almost always are, imploring the crowd to remember that he is innocent of any crime and is being forced to carry the cross. Soon, however, he becomes the only reasonably effective protector of Jesus, demanding that the guards stop whipping their prisoner or Simon will refuse to carry the cross any farther. They assent, to get the journey over with as quickly as possible. We would like to think that we would do the same.

All of these elements interrupt the viewer's witnessing of the violence toward Jesus, and all contribute to the film's effect of placing the responsibility for this suffering squarely on each member of the audience.

In addition, Jesus asks God the Father more than once to forgive his tormentors. If he can endure this unimaginable suffering and still not call down fire from Heaven, can we not at least be strong enough to watch it in a movie? The notion that we are too weak even to see a recreation of what Jesus managed actually to endure, and which he underwent without enmity toward his tormentors, is in fact utterly grotesque and fundamentally insulting in the lack of fortitude it assumes of us.

Hence, one could perhaps be forgiven for wondering about certain critics' likely motives in so "warning" potential audiences without sufficiently stressing the reason for this violence. Certainly they cannot wish to spare people the very experience of complicity in Christ's suffering that Gibson takes such pains to establish, can they? For that is the likely effect of their warnings — that some people will avoid the film as too intense. The Passion of the Christ is forceful indeed, and that power makes the film undeniably difficult to endure, but such intensity in films is precisely what these very same critics are usually most likely to praise.

The only potentially useful argument remaining against the aesthetic of this film, then, is that the violence simply does not fit the story. I should argue quite the contrary. The violence in The Passion of the Christ is entirely effective and perfectly appropriate. I shall never read or hear the Biblical passages regarding the scourging of Jesus without recalling these images which vividly show how truly horrendous it must have been.

As Gibson's dramatization makes clear, Pilate felt forced to make the scourging as dreadful as possible, because he wanted to spare the man's life while still satisfying the blood lust of the enormous, unruly mob of locals within his very gates who were baying for this enigmatic prophet's hide. This is a highly plausible interpretation of the scripture text. That the Roman soldiers who inflict the punishment go far beyond Pilate's orders in an orgy of sadistic joy is a consequence of the madness that has been set loose in the City of Peace, and it, too, is a reasonable inference from the scriptural account.

Certainly the treatment of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ is almost unbearably brutal to watch, as it surely was in reality, but Gibson does not allow the depiction of it ever to decay to the level of mere spectacle. The joy that the Christ's tormentors take in inflicting pain on him is not something any reasonable human being can share, and is in fact a further indictment of the viewer: if we are responsible for his torment, we are guilty of all of it, for none of it was just. Not one bit.

There are, moreover, positive moments in the film. An important one is the portrayal of Jesus astounding willingness to forgive his enemies even on the point of death and after suffering stupendous agony he did not deserve in the slightest. In addition, some of the visuals are startling in their beauty, inspired by medieval paintings redolent of great piety and faith. The overhead shot of Jesus as he expires on the cross is achingly beautiful, surely as close as mere cinema can come to being appropriate to the moment.

There are other hauntingly lovely images. After Jesus dies, a single tear from Heaven, falling to earth, creates the upheaval that rends the temple veil in two. It is a beautiful and moving moment. Gibson then cuts to the temple, which the quake has rendered a jumble. Caiaphas looks horrified, and Gibson refrains from stating whether this is because of the damage to the temple, a fear that he will suffer injury in the earthquake, or a dawning awareness that he has led in the perpetration of a truly incomparable evil. One suspects that all three are true, which makes evident the complexity (and fairness) of Gibson's representation of Caiaphas.

Finally, Gibson shows Jesus in the tomb, sitting beside the slab on which his burial cloths rest, as the resurrected Lord then rises and walks out of sight. Here the director briefly depicts the events mentioned in the Apostles' Creed shortly after those that compose the bulk of the film: "On the third day, he rose again from the dead." The scene is inspiring and something of a relief, but it is quite brief.

Some critics and audience members have wondered why Gibson chose to give so little attention to this part of the story, but I think the answer should be perfectly obvious to anyone who wishes to see it. Certainly there is much more to say about the life of Christ than Gibson's film manages to express. And we are perfectly free to watch other movies that capture these matters with appropriate reverence and artistry. I should strongly recommend that we all do so, and I rather suspect that Mel Gibson would agree. And frankly, I have found many of these films to be much more enjoyable than the one currently under discussion.

But that kind of thing is not what Mel Gibson set out to create. His film is utterly single-minded and resolute.

It is dreadful. It is difficult to watch. We do not want to see it. We should not want to see it. We cannot want to see it. And that, again, is exactly Gibson's point. There is a reason that we do not want to see this. We do not want to accept our complicity in this horror. We do not want to accept responsibility for it. We just want to be left alone.

This film is meant to be like the spikes that are so vividly and horrifyingly driven into the Christ's hands and feet as he is fastened to the cross. As Gibson portrays the scene, blood spurts up horrifyingly from Jesus palms, just as it surely must have done two millennia ago. The Passion of the Christ is as pointed as those spikes. It does one thing. It implicates the viewer in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ nearly 2,000 years ago, and it does so with undeniable power.

Politicize Your Spending!

A rather funny article from today's Chicago Tribune notes that many angry Leftists (sorry: redundancy!) are looking to put their money where their politics are by patronizing retailers and services that support Left-wing causes, institutions, and politicians.

Organizations such as Choose the Blue and Buy Blue provide all the information you need in order to spend your blue-county cash on only the most lefward businesses—or to boycott them, for that matter. What a perfect combination of Baby Boomer obsessions: politics and consumerism!

As with wine, I'll buy red, thank you very much.

Party Wine

I mentioned UCLA law professor Steve Bainbridge earlier, but neglected to mention that he opines on wine -- a topic far more interesting than law ( If you visit his blog, tell Steve he owes us a visit too.

I recently regretted missing a Christmas Party, until I recalled that they usually put out big bottles of mediocre wine. They don’t even save money that way. I’m an aspiring wine snob too, but also a cheapskate. Fortunately, there are some good white wines available in the handy and cheaper 1.5 liter size.

People prefer white to red by about 3-to-1 in my experience, so the two-in-one 1.5 liter size makes sense for whites. Figure one of these big jugs serves four unless you’ve invited Bainbridge (who is too classy to drink this swill) or me (likely to guzzle more than my share).

The best 1.5 liter white is R.H. Phillips Sauvignon Blanc at about $13. Second best is Clos du Bois chardonnay -- about $16 at Costco or Total Wine. The best value is Alice White, a chard from Australia at $10 (and the house white at Morton’s steak house).

Reds are trickier. There are decent big bottles of shiraz from Australia, merlot/cab blends from Concha y Toro, and even generic Beaujolais. Aside from Beaujolais and Pinot Noir, however, we don’t keep reds in the fridge. As a result, opened bottles of red go bad in a few days -- even if you pump the air out with a $25 electric gadget from Hammacher Schlemer (sold out for Christmas). So I usually buy reds only in a regular size. Here too, there is at least one big bargain.

A regular-sized bottle of Delicato shiraz sells for five or six bucks and gets an amazing 90-point rating from Wine Spectator. It’s a very good drop, almost a “wow” wine. If you are lucky enough to live near Trader Joe, their Purple Moon shiraz is the same thing for $3.99, though I wonder if the family keeps the best stuff for their label. Their family name is Indelicato, actually, but that would sound too much like an “indelicate” wine.

If you’re not immediately impressed with any of these, keep drinking. The wine at the bottom of a bottle always tastes better than the wine at the top.

Tax Exemption vs. Tax Deduction

A Dec.14 Wall Street Journal editorial “Free Speech vs. Tax Code” is understandably worried that some 60 nonprofits are under investigation for political advocacy, with the implicit threat of losing their tax-exempt status. “We’re not convinced that prohibitions are needed,” says the editorial, “or that a tax exemption for a charity constitutes a subsidy.” Having started down the road of regulating political debate after the Nixon era, under the guise of “campaign reform,” the anti-democratic impulses are indeed becoming rather frightening. But I want to make a different point.

What is truly important to genuinely charitable organization is not tax exemption per se, but the ability to receive tax deductible contributions. This is a relatively unique instance in which a deductible expense for the person writing the check is not treated as taxable income for the organization receiving the check. This is a violation of tax symmetry – normally a sound principal of good taxation.

No genuinely charitable organization has any profits to tax, so tax exemption does not matter a bit. All income is devoted to the charitable purpose, either immediately or through an endowment. A nonprofit has no profits.

Problems arise, however, where an organization is engaged in a mix of charitable and commercial activities. The AARP sells financial services in competition with taxable firms, the YMCA sells health club services in competition with taxable firms, and not-for-profit hospitals and colleges compete with taxable hospitals and colleges.

If the Journal editorial had said, “We’re not convinced that a tax deduction for charity constitutes a subsidy” -- rather than a “tax exemption” – then they would be on firmer ground. If Smith gives away half his income to Jones, then Smith no longer has that income to tax. Jones has it. What is a deductible cost to Smith should normally be taxable income to Jones, even if Jones is really a charity (in which case it won’t matter).

To exempt earnings from the sale of services from taxation simply because an organization is “doing well by doing good” is an open invitation to tax avoidance. To allow the government to censor political critics by changing their tax status is an open invitation to political abuse. Those are two big issues, but it is best to keep the distinction clear.

Many self-styled tax reformers are curiously eager to limit or end any deduction for charitable contributions. Yet they rarely tackle less-defensible business tax exemptions for many large service providers simply because the capital of those tax-exempt enterprises was financed by gifts and debt rather than equity.

Monday, December 13, 2004

S.T. Branching Out . . .

This website's founding member, one S.T. Karnick, has written for just about every conservative magazine there ever was. Lately, he's begun to spread out into the Christian market in a big way. Here's his second piece for Books and Culture in just the last couple of months. He reviews the latest Tom Wolfe blockbuster act of socio-journalistic novel writing. Yes, it's I Am Charlotte Simmons.

More Liberal Dilemmas

1. Should the porcine prince of propaganda be required to pay a fat tax on junk food?

2. What if a gay gene is discovered and abortions are performed when parents find out their child will be gay? Should those abortions be outlawed?

3. If the majority of Americans qualify for some sort of affirmative action benefits as females or minorities, do white males become a discriminated-against minority?

Sunday, December 12, 2004

The Karnickian Riff

The multicultural relativism argument took a giant hit in the late nineties when the practice of female genital mutilation/circumcision began to be publicized. I remember innocently observing to a super liberal law professor that arguments for relativism began to look like pretty pale beer against such suffering. He clinched up a bit and ended the conversation rather quickly. This highlights left-wing dilemmas that someone should be documenting somewhere. I can think of a few.

1. Should you side with the non-western, third world practitioners of female circumcision or the feminists who condemn them?

2. Would you have supported the expansive reading of the Interstate Commerce Clause of the Constitution adopted by FDR if the president had instead been a Ronald Reagan type itching to reform the economy through free-market measures?

3. Would you back the radically pro-choice president or the victims of his sexually harassing behavior?

There are more, I am sure. If you have ideas, email me here.

Can YOU Condemn THIS?

A fascinating, heartbreaking story from the Chicago Tribune, available here, details the prevalence of child marriages in so-called developing countries such as Ethiopia. Girls as young as seven years of age are promised to much-older men as brides.

Beyond the simple tragic nature of the situation, to those of us in the civilized nations of the West, two things are particularly interesting about this.

One: the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has not only condoned the custom but encouraged it. This is another vivid example of how Christian churches corrupt themselves by attempting to accommodate customs and traditions that are utterly antithetical to Christian principles. This is simply a disgrace, and no excuses are acceptable.

Two: this practice is another thumb in the eye of multiculturalist relativism, the popular but now declining philosophy of the West for the past half-century. The father of a seven-year-old Ethiopian girl about to be married to a much older man is quoted as saying, "I know some people say this is uncivilized. But they don't live here. So how can they judge?"

A more perfect summation of the Western argument for multiculturalism and ethical relativism could hardly be imagined.

The Inevitable Distortions of the Press

G. K. Chesterton noted that the press inevitably present a distorted picture of things because commercial considerations, and simple human curiosity, cause them to write about murders and corruption rather than happy homes and honesty. The latter are not news, after all, because they are so ordinary. But the fact that they are both ordinary and not news means that the news inherently creates a deceptive picture of society.

This has become something of a truism since Chesterton first said it, but it is always important to bear this fact in mind when evaluating the news of the day. For example, the recent talk about sports scandals, such as the NBA players-fans fight in Detroit and the baseball steroid revelations, should not be allowed to distort our evaluation of the moral condition of today's professional athletes. Here, too, though there are many, many problems, there is much good. Consider, for example, this article from the Chicago suburban newspaper the Daily Southtown.

Friday, December 10, 2004

We're Waiting . . .

It's been about a week since incoming Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada referred to Justice Clarence Thomas as "an embarrassment." Since Tim Russert failed to ask the rather obvious follow-up to determine which opinions provide evidence of incompetence, we've been left hanging. Somewhere, there's got to be a reporter willing to ask Reid to further explain his remarks. The intrepid reporter will have to immediately give up Washington reporting for another line of work, so we may be waiting for a long time.

Death of the Dimebag

The HairBands and MetalBoys were hot during my adolescence in the 80's. Accordingly, an old friend wrote to ask why I hadn't blogged about the death of metal guitar legend "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott of Pantera. The reason is simple. I was never a great metal aficionado. I pretty much zoomed from top 40 pop to heavy cool college stuff like REM and The Smiths. These days I enjoy a very eclectic mix of music with special affinity for electronica. What I recall about the old friend (and roommate) is that he was a big fan of the band W.A.S.P. and often had one of their albums, featuring a cover of a codpiece with a buzzsaw emerging from it, laying about the dorm room. I recall the name of the album, but it is unfortunately unsuitable for the blog's audience.

Lileks book

Hunter says, "The Lileks book is a gift for Christmas."

Thanks, Hunter! How did you know I wanted it?—STK

The Book Exhibitionist

My wife doesn't want to talk about it at home, so I'll share my bibliophilia with you on a slow posting Friday. Here's the substance of my latest Amazon order:

Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture (Religion and American Culture) [Paperback] By: Barry Hankins

Interior Desecrations : Hideous Homes from the Horrible '70s [Hardcover] By: JAMES LILEKS

The New Crusades, the New Holy Land: Conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention, 1969-1991 [Paperback] By: David T. Morgan

Fundamentalism and American Culture [Paperback] By: George Marsden

The Kingdom of God in America [Paperback] By: H. Richard Niebuhr

The Lileks book is a gift. The rest are for me.

The Rudy Question

I thought Rudy Giuliani was the strongest speaker at the Republican National Convention. He followed McCain and made everyone forget about him. To me, he looked like Teddy Roosevelt declaiming from the stage. Impressive stuff. Hi-ever (as a southern military man I knew used to say), I don’t think he can win the nomination without seriously revisiting his stances on the social issues.

He doesn’t necessarily have to change, but he does need to be very careful in his framing. My suggestion would be to focus hard on security and economics and basically give uninteresting answers to questions about everything else. On the other hand, he could argue, for instance, in favor of a renewed commitment to federalism in which the states would be free to embrace their own moral frameworks and prove to the world what works. Remember Tommy Thompson and John Engler on welfare reform?

My own preference for 2008? Gimme Jeb. I think he’s actually the most talented Bush progeny and would make a superb President.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Famous Atheist Changes His Mind

The venerable British philosopher Antony Flew, long a prominent champion of atheism, has decided that an intelligent God of some sort does indeed exist, in fact must exist. Flew hastens to point out that he does not see this God as being in the Christian or Muslim mold, as an "Oriental potentate," as he describes the notion, nor does he believe in an afterlife. Nonetheless, Flew, now 81 years old, has decided that the arguments of the Intelligent Design theorists are in fact correct, that his famous "Presumption of Atheism" thesis has in fact been overcome.

According to AP, Flew says, in a new video called Has Science Discovered God?, that biologists' investigation of DNA "has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved." This is a fascinating event which will engender much discussion. Read the AP story about it here.

The Book on Bonds and Steroids

I’m tired of hearing that steroids may have helped Barry Bonds mount an assault on Hank Aaron’s home run record, but that they don’t account for his high batting average. After all, they say, bigger muscles don’t help you hit a major league fastball. This kind of flimsy logic is pretty typical of sports reporting and comment and it just ain’t true. If steroids can help turn doubles and long fly balls into home runs, then it stands to reason that they can also make a line drive leave the infield a little faster and make a grounder hotter. In other words, more bat speed will make a difference on both the chance to make contact and how hard the ball will be hit, both major factors in the ability to make base hits instead of easy outs. If steroids are responsible for Bonds’ rise from a superb player to the best of all time, then the whole record is corrupted, not just the home runs.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Hamburger's Masterpiece

No, I'm not talking about the latest culinary offering by Hardee's. My review of the paperback edition of Philip Hamburger's defining history of church-state separation in America is out in the Autumn issue of the Journal of Church and State. The issue isn't on the web, yet, so here it is reproduced with only slight variations from the final text:

Separation of Church and State. By Philip Hamburger. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004. 528 pp. $19.95.

The U.S. Supreme Court has often been accused of engaging in historical scholarship without a license. For that reason, Philip Hamburger has performed a great service by delivering a well-researched political history of church-state separation as it has evolved in the United States. The result is thought-provoking and challenging to the exalted place separation now holds in the American polity.

In Hamburger’s telling, Jefferson gains significance in the annals of separation for more than his wall metaphor. In response to preaching by Federalist clergy in New England against their man during the election of 1800, Jefferson’s Republicans began to demand separation of religion and government over and above mere anti-establishmentarianism. The account undercuts the status of separation as an American piety because it demonstrates how the principle was employed early on for a political purpose. In this case, advocates of separation sought to shield Jefferson from the attacks of those who labeled him an “infidel.”

The political uses of separation of church and state are a recurring motif throughout the book. Hamburger pays close attention to the call for separation as a method for marginalizing the political aspirations of Catholic immigrants. Through careful documentation of the various strains of American Protestant nativism, one obtains a clear picture of what separation of church and state meant to many citizen groups. For them, the term “separation” carried much of its identity as juxtaposed against Catholic predispositions toward theocracy. So, public schools could have Bible readings, prayer, and any other element of Protestant hegemony as long as no particular denomination (or “Catholic sect”) held a dominant position. Protestantism was seen as synonymous with freedom, while Catholicism carried the burden of holding its adherents in thrall. Along with a determined group of secularists (who had a more consistent approach to separation), many nativist groups sought to use the “wall of separation” as a hedge against feared papal influence.

Perhaps more interestingly as a matter of constitutional interpretation, both groups felt they needed to amend the Constitution to bring about their desired version of separation. Protestants pursued the Blaine amendment that failed at the federal level, but is now in place in several states. Secularists had their own proposed federal amendment that was unable to garner necessary support. Only after fruitlessly seeking amendment did advocates of separation begin to claim that the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses already provided for the political and social outcomes they sought. As we now know, the strategy of interpretation proved successful as the Supreme Court sought to apply the First Amendment to the states.

Hamburger’s critical history of American church-state separation raises important questions the author chooses not to answer in any detail. If not separation, then what? Is true anti-establishmentarianism adequate? Having undercut the position of separation in the American decalog, one would like to see a more legal and policy oriented book from the author as a follow-up.

The Decline of Sportsmanship

Reid Collins has written the best analysis I have yet read of what was behind the recent brawl at an NBA game between the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons, for the American Spectator online. Collins points out the general decline of sportsmanship in American life during the past few decades, and identifies a concurrent deification of athletes. It is an excellent reminder of how much our society has changed in the past half-century. Read it here.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Books that Are Worth Reading . . .

Found in my rumbles through used bookstore stacks, a perfect trifecta of highbrow conservative cultural criticism:

1. Roger Kimball's The Long March
2. Hilton Kramer's The Twilight of the Intellectuals
3. Norman Podhoretz's Ex-Friends

These three are fun reads, particularly if you like seeing liberal (or according to Mr. Karnick, illiberal) icons receive their comeuppance. Norman Mailer comes in for particularly brutal treatment, as I recall. Podhoretz's is the most interesting because his book gets into the substance of his personal relationships with many of the figures he analyzes.

Books Books Books

I have come to the sad conclusion that sometime near the beginning of the millennium we reached the point where there are now more books than readers in the world. As publishing becomes more economically efficient and intellectually deficient, each year there are tens of thousands of new books, and only a tiny, tiny minority are worth anything at all. Joseph Bottum's annual Year in Review essay for the Weekly Standard documents this trend superbly, and this year's installment indicates that the ratio of worthy books to dreck is probably lower than ever. Favorite line: "In mysteries and thrillers, there were a few hints this year that the serial-killer subgenre may actually come to end within our lifetime. (And some people think that God doesn't exist.)"

Read it and weep, and laugh if you can.

A Fine Line of Film Criticism

In his most recent Weekly Standard film review, Jonathan Last's description of the new Mike Nichols movie Closer is a classic:

"Not since American Beauty has a film wanted to dive so deep into so shallow a pool."

That is one great sentence. Very insightful review, too, as usual.

Eliot Spitzer: Power Corrupts

UCLA law professor Stephen Bainbridge is nearly as critical of New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer as I am, as can be seen by typing “Spitzer” in the search box on his excellent blog, Steve recently uncovered the following gem about New York prosecutor Eliot Spitzer at yet another interesting blog,

There is an interesting letter to the editor from a former insurance industry executive published in the November 29 issue of Business Insurance (OK, I know I'm a geek for reading letters to the editor of Business Insurance -- it was an accident, alright?). The author, one Tom Harvey, who is identified as the former CEO of an insurance brokerage firm, thinks that Spitzer needs to pay more attention to the appearance of impropriety:

“Most of us associated with this industry are appalled by apparent bid rigging. But we view contingent commissions differently than Mr. Spitzer....

But without due process Mr. Spitzer has turned this industry on its head. There have been no court hearings, no testimony in front of appropriate agencies, yet market values of public brokers have plummeted, and thousands will likely lose their jobs. All due to the ‘appearance of impropriety.’

Speaking of ‘appearances,’ how about Mr. Spitzer's tennis pal, campaign contributor and former boss securing a 19% sweeter, all-cash deal for his company from Marsh & McLennan Cos. Inc., after Mr. Spitzer hit Marsh with a tsunami of subpoenas. Then, Mr. Spitzer's tennis buddy ends up as CEO after Mr. Spitzer says he "can't deal" with the current Marsh CEO. Later, Mr. Spitzer says it's OK for his tennis pal, now Marsh's CEO, to pay any potential fines from their contingent commissions, which Mr. Spitzer earlier alleged were ill gotten. Isn't this like the DA indicting someone for burglary and saying they can use the proceeds to cover any fines? Yeah, ‘appearances’ do matter, Eliot, and this does not look good.”

By contrast, Peter Elkind’s article about Spitzer the “crusader” was typical of the way the mainstream media argues that Spitzer’s ends justify any means:
“Why, critics ask, should the attorney general of New York State be allowed to interfere in longstanding insurance practices (or to use earlier examples, demand lower mutual fund fees, or change the structure of Wall Street research, or force drug companies to open up their clinical trials to public scrutiny)? If you define his mission traditionally, perhaps he should not. After the Marsh suit was filed, the Wall Street Journal editorial page pronounced itself troubled "about a public official unilaterally deciding that an industry's business model must change" and harrumphed that Spitzer "increasingly views himself as all three branches of government-- legislator, regulator, and judge." But as Spitzer pursues his prey, there's a rough-justice quality about what he accomplishes . . . and the businesses he targets are in no position to argue. It's indisputable that his method works.”

Such “rough justice” -- replacing the rule of law with trial by press release -- raises a vital question. How does Mr. Elkind’s rationale for Spitzer’s method differ from the infamous claim ( that Benito Mussolini’s rough justice was likewise acceptable because he made the trains run on time?

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."