Friday, May 26, 2006

Merry, But Quite Contrary

A conclusion is boring its way inexorably into my consciousness: namely, the people in Washington whom I write about think in lines that run opposite to mine. Perhaps I have become a true contrarian. (My definition of 'contrarian': a farmer who marries the traveling salesman's daughter.)

For example, I thought nothing of the fact that the FBI executed a search warrant in the Capitol building. That did not "chill me" in the least. There was a suspicion, a judge issued a warrant, everything was aboveboard.

But what chills the marrow in my bones is President Bush issuing an "order" to seal the evidence for 45 days. This was the calming move designed to defuse a constitutional crisis? An executive gives an order to a policing body not to examine the evidence that it has lawfully collected in an active investigation. Now, that is scary. Have you ever seen a mayor instruct a police commissioner in this manner? Or a governor instruct a state's attorney? Very unpleasantly autocratic in my book.

--------------------

As I have been remiss lately in linking my columns, here are two weeks worth.

1) Last Friday, at Spectator, my proposal to allow Mexico a role in jointly policing the border.
2) This Wednesday, at Spectator, my analysis of the difference between our inability to fight against evil purposes and our ability to fight against evil tactics.
3) Last Wednesday, at Human Events, my observation that the immigration situation yielded some good news for conservatives, in that they were able to push back and affect the orientation of the debate.
4) Yesterday, at Human Events, my comedy-laden attack on the habit of debating and voting on long bills that nobody has read but a few scheming aides.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

GDP Surprises

Real GDP has grown at a 4 percent annual rate ever since the second quarter of 2003, when marginal tax rates were reduced on dividends, capital gains and human capital (professional and managerial salaries). Real GDP from nonfarm businesses did even better – rising at an annual rate of 4.7 percent. Some call that a coincidence.

What has been most surprising is that the economy did so well despite the burden of increasingly expensive imported oil. Part of the answer is that U.S. exports have grown very rapidly -- particularly exports of manufactured and farm goods rather than services. Since the third quarter of 2003, real exports of goods have increased a 9.7 percent annual rate, while imports of goods (including oil, of course) increased at a 9.2 percent rate.

The GDP report contains a useful measure of inflation which minimizes the use of estimates and is instead “based on household expenditures for which there are observable price measures.” It is called Market-based PCE (personal consumption expenditures).

With energy and food included, the market-based PCE rose at 3.9 percent rate in the third quarter of 2005, 2.6 percent in fourth quarter and 1.7 percent in the first quarter of 2006. The “core” version, without food and energy, was 1.5 percent in 2004, 1.7 percent in 2005 and 1.6 percent in the most recent quarter. Food is essentially irrelevant -- energy alone is what creates the statistical illusion of inflation (such as that 3.9 percent annualized figure in the third quarter).

Aside from the relative price of energy, I have yet to see anyone present any evidence of higher inflation. I have seen many words about higher inflation, but no facts. The consumer price index less energy rose 2.2 percent in 2004 and 2005 and it also rose 2.2 percent for the 12 months ending in April. The April PPI was only 0.8 percent higher than a year before.

Rising energy costs do reduce real wage growth and squeeze profit margins in energy-gobbling industries. Yet U.S. business has been coping surprisingly well.

If it ain’t broke, don’t ask the Fed to fix it.

The Pedagogy of Transnationalism

Leave it to professional educators to come up with the next groundbreaking pedagogy that challenges U.S. uniqueness. Thomas Bender, an NYU historian, in his new book A Nation Among Nations: America’s Place In World History embodies this position.

In his words, national histories “are taught in schools and brought into public discourses to forge and sustain national identities, presenting the self contained nation as the natural carrier of history. That way of writing and teaching history has exhausted itself. In its place, I want to elaborate a new framing for U.S. history, one that rejects the terroritorial space of the nation as a sufficient context and argues for the transnational nature of national histories.”

Bender is not alone in this pursuit. Amy Guttman, president of the University of Pennsylvania, and Richard Sennett, a distinguished scholar at NYU, among others, share this transnational bias. There is a point to be made, albeit an obvious point: the history of one nation is related to events in other nations.

This obvious point aside, there is a philosophical assumption that underlies this transnational movement. It is a belief in internationalism as a form of cultural relativism. Whether that is the intent of these scholars is immaterial. The net result of this effort is to diminish American exceptionalism and emphasize the United States as having one history among others. Moreover, these scholars do not want what they would describe as an ethnocentric or an “exclusive” notion of citizenship, but rather a “cosmopolitan citizenship,” a citizen of the world.

Yet this view has poignant implications. What does it mean to be a citizen of the globe? How do you instill sentiments of national loyalty if you subordinate exceptional characteristics? And aren’t there exceptional characteristics in American history that should be emphasized?

Clearly the passions that undergird historical events may cross geographic lines, but does the history of Zimbabwe have anything in common with that of the United States?

The idea that one is a citizen of the world is compelling in the sense that people should be aware of and understand others. History, of course, has linkages across time and space. But Islam has not produced a Martin Luther. Iran has not had a George Washington or Alexander Hamilton. And our sense of the free market has been described by French “intellectuals" as “cowboy economics.”

Ultimately it is the differences that count. In fact, transnationalism as an idea is a distinctly American phenomenon. Would the Chinese consider this topic as a basis for study? Or the Saudis?

As I see it, the history of the United States is not but one history among many; it is a unique history that has produced the most free, open and prosperous society the world has known, despite its many flaws. To suggest that the history of exceptionalism is “exhausted” is to suggest the U.S. is exhausted, a point of view that is difficult to sustain even though many have tried to do so.

That transnationalism as an idea has gained ground is undeniable. The subject came up obliquely during the Congressional debate on immigration. Some liberal advocates of immigration reform even suggesting that national borders are meaningless since we are all citizens of the globe. It is instructive that some Mexicans who make this argument ignore the rigid restrictions that government imposes on its own immigrant population.

It is also the case that attempts to restrict membership in the U.N. Human Rights Commission to only those nations that uphold human rights was rejected with the claim all people have a stake in human rights. Alas, all people have a stake, but some nations intentionally deny these rights to their own people and yet have the ability to serve as a jury on violations elsewhere.

Karl Marx argued that the chains which bind men transcend national identification. But communism’s fall from grace occurred precisely because of national beliefs. The power of an ideology rarely dissipates national sentiment.

While transnationalism has traction at the moment, I hope it is a passing pedagogical fad, like the “new math” or “whole language” reading. Then again I always hope for the best.



Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of "Decade of Denial" (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2001) and maintains a Web site, www.herblondon.org.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Soulless University

A review of what looks to be an interesting book lamenting higher education's lack of concern for shaping moral beings. As much as I'm tempted to think that the thesis is right, I suspect that it's perhaps a bit off - universities are in the business of shaping souls, two different kinds of souls, in fact.

On one side, universities are busy trying to create "good citizens," by which they usually mean political progressives. Lots of schools now require as a matter of course "service learning" components, pushing students into "volunteer" work as a way of exposing them to the poorer parts of our society. Speech codes, conferences, orientation sessions, condemnation of "conservative" campus political activity, and so on are all designed to push students to the Left politically. (That such efforts often fail says more about competence than intention).

On the other side, universities are also busy trying to create productive workers. Universities seem almost obsessed these days with having big endowments and the way to get there is to have economically successful graduates. This dovetails nicely with the broadly held conception that college is all about getting "certified" for a lucrative career. (Go to most any website for a humanities department and almost inevitably you'll see a list of things one can "do" with that major). So universities inflate grades, ease requirements, beautify dorms (if you haven't seen renovated dorm life in the modern university, you'd be shocked to see how nicely many students now live), and do dozens of other things as a way of making sure that students "succeed" while they're there and can make it once they leave (and start receiving those solicitations for donations for the next capital campaign).

So the modern university isn't soulless at all - it's organized and oriented toward producing the postmodern man: lightly attached to "progressive" political causes and willing to do his part provided that it doesn't get too much in the way of the accumulation of riches and pleasures.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Buch Review

People of my age (48) were raised on the humor of Art Buchwald. Unlike Rocky Marciano, he did not retire undefeated, so most of us drifted away at some point.

Still, Buchwald, even in his dotage, even with a limb amputated, even staring death in the face, has retained a remarkable, dignified aplomb. It is well worth reading this article, which describes his soldiering on despite having been told six months ago that he had three weeks to live.

When he departs, we shall be the poorer.

Bentsen Burner

The passing of Lloyd Bentsen has elicited from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid the quasi-elegiac assessment that Mr. Bentsen was the best Senator ever from the great State of Texas.

In case you do not have the list of those Longhorn luminaries committed to memory, please follow this link.

You can't make sausage without breaking links, of course, but is it really necessary to put Uncle Lloyd ahead of Sam Houston and Lyndon Johnson to make the point that he was a fine, capable public servant?

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Lam Chopped

The State of California's Correction people are crowing over their big catch. They tracked down a prison escapee after 38 years. They found him living in a trailer park in Oklahoma, working the sort of odd jobs you can get without having proper ID.

Now this guy was no murderer or rapist, just a thief three years into a five year term. For the past thirty-eight years, he has never had a single run-in with the law that would have led to his being fingerprinted.

Do you think that a man like that needs to go back to jail to complete his sentence? Perhaps even have years tacked on for 'Escape'? I don't.

The part of prison that is punishment was certainly fulfilled by thirty-eight years of living hand-to-mouth, forced to skulk in the shadows. The part that is rehabilitation was certainly accomplished by keeping his nose clean this long.

If I was the judge at the hearing, I would release him for time served (and suspend the sentence for the 'Escape' charge). If I was the governor, I would commute the rest of the sentence.

A little common sense and a little heart would blend nicely at this juncture. The vast majority of today's prison inmates were not born when this guy escaped. Let's not, as a society, be so crass as to observe the letter of the law in this instance.