Saturday, December 04, 2004

Bush's Cabinet Choices

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

Friday, December 03, 2004

More Book Plugging . . .

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

Some Holiday Cheer

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

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

Trailing Edge Film Review: Luther

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

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

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

Thursday, December 02, 2004

A More Complex Look at Dan Rather

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

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

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

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

More Karl Rove Brilliance . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

A Rare Bit of Harmless Gay Marriage Humor

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

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


It Ain't Obama . . .

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

End of Year Book Recommendations

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Chesterton on Morality in Art

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

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

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

A Different Angle on Creation

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

David Brooks Straightens Things Out . . .

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

Learning from Lewis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unsophisticated, Left-Wing Whispering . . .

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

Monday, November 29, 2004

Reader Alert!

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

More Economic "Analysis" from the 1980s

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

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

The Many Magnificent Wonders of the Current Account Deficit

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

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

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

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

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

A Reason to be Thankful!

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

Trailing Edge Film Review: THE INCREDIBLES

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

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

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

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