Ephemerides (December 2001)
December 31, 2001
The aftermath of September 11th has seen a revival of old-fashioned, "Our country right or wrong" patriotism, much of it in unexpected quarters. Baby boomers and thirty-somethings whose lives have been a haze of self-centeredness and self-indulgence, who used to find "duty, honor, country" giggle-provoking and who derided the notion of moral absolutes - these same folks now cheer on the American armed forces, urge expansion of the war against terrorism, have no trouble identifying and denouncing evildoers, and regard all criticism of their homeland as near to treason.
Recent converts tend to combine enthusiasm for their new faith with blindness to its faults, and many of the "warbloggers" are very recent converts to the pro-American cause. Without wishing to cast aspersions on their zeal, I think that it is prudent to sound a few notes of caution and warning.
Long wars are never easy, and America is not well prepared for a long war. So far an elite, highly trained, fully equipped slice of our military has taken on an extraordinarily weak and stupid foe. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are not, however, the other side's main line of resistance. As the war expands, we are going to have to fight stronger opponents in contests that risk exposing the deficiencies accumulated during the inept stewardship of the Clintonites (and some dating back to earlier periods). Our armed forces are smaller than they were a decade ago, with fewer men, ships, tanks and planes. Large segments are only marginally combat ready, and the force as a whole lacks depth. Recruitment and retention remain unsatisfactory, despite a post-9/11 uptick. Much attention has been diverted from training and readiness to semi-military peace keeping chores. Standards have been lowered in order to carry out the social goal of integrating women into a naturally masculine environment. Morale is only beginning to recover from eight years of incompetent, anti-military civilian leadership. Congress continues to regard defense spending as, first and foremost, a form of welfare for local economies. As the war grows tougher, these legacies of past neglect make it certain that we will suffer defeats and perhaps disasters. Already, there are reports of cruise missile shortages. Meanwhile, the B-52's that sortie over Afghanistan are not merely older than their pilots; they are older than their pilots' fathers. And other weapons that have proven invaluable are in short supply. The C-130A gunship did stellar duty on the Afghan front and is ideal as a quick substitute for artillery support. We have about twenty of them in our arsenal.
We cannot count on the enemy to be stupid. An effective follow-up to September 11th could well have left the United States reeling. Osama bin Laden evidently didn't plan one, or prompt action by such officials as the much-despised John Ashbrook may have thwarted his plans. In either case, while bin Laden has fumbled like a General Clouseau, it is dangerous to assume that radical Islam is incapable of throwing up a Napoleon. Even I can dream up terrorist tactics that would be a lot more damaging that sending noncommunicable diseases through the mails or hiding explosives in tennis shoes. Somewhere among the world's tens of millions of anti-American fanatics, there are plenty of men cleverer than me - and perhaps cleverer than the average American public official.
Not all of our future enemies will be blatantly evil. It is easy to rally public opinion against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, whose pseudo-medieval monstrosities offend every world view from the Christian Right through the sane portions of the Secular Left. Will support be as strong for actions against less abnormal figures and regimes? Many of the countries that furnish havens for terrorism are predominantly secular (Iraq, Syria, Libya, Lebanon, Algeria) or have "moderate" reputations (Egypt, Indonesia) or have been regarded as friends in the past (Saudi Arabia, Pakistan) or are so pitifully weak as to evoke sympathy (Somalia, some of the Gulf emirates). We may end up carrying the war onto their soil without their consent, even in the face of their active opposition, and the justification for doing so may not be blindingly obvious. We run two opposite but equal risks. First, the expansion of the war beyond Afghanistan may arouse divisions of the sort that plagued American efforts in Vietnam. Second, in an effort to head off those divisions, our leaders may succumb to the temptation to caricature all of our opponents as Islamofascists. That strategy may work in the short run, but it will ultimately lead to "credibility gaps" and will make it harder to sustain a long-term conflict. What our country needs - and may not have in abundant supply - is the sort of steady patriotism that accepts the rightness of acting simply in our own best interests, without regard to whether we are also waging war against incarnate evil.
Our weaknesses are not strengths. Newly minted patriots are loud in their praise of American society, but not very discriminate in that praise. Whatever one thinks of the moral aspects of divorce, promiscuity, child neglect, abortion and drug use, they do not point toward a widespread sense of duty or willingness to endure hardship. The United States is not, of course, prey to Fellini-like decadence, but the heroism of thousands may prove insufficient when we need the steadfastness of millions. The reason why policemen, firemen and soldiers risk their lives is not because America gives them unlimited access to pornography and easy ways to avoid or shed family responsibilities. It is because the old-fashioned values at which leftists and libertinarians (if I may coin a term) sneer still command respect and devotion. But if enough people sneer long enough and applaud the opposites of the difficult virtues, they someday won't be there.
Our strengths are not weaknesses. Since our enemies profess a puritanical form of religion, it is easy for those who generally find religious faith distasteful to seize on religion and puritanism as the essence of what we are fighting against. Hence, the Taliban is equated with the "religious right", and commentators insinuate that conspicuously Christian public officials - John Ashbrook is the favorite target, but George W. Bush shares the same unapologetic piety - are not much different ideologically from Osama bin Laden. The facile conclusion is that secularism protects us against terror and that we would be better off with less religiosity. To see how absurd that analysis is, one need look no further than thoroughly secular Europe, against which terrorism has proven to be a stunningly effective tactic. If America did not exist, can anyone doubt that the European Union would right now be handing al-Qaeda everything that it has asked for in the Middle East? Not since the end of World War II has European hostility toward Israel in particular and Judaism in general been more vicious and pervasive, nor has Islamic radicalism ever before received such a sympathetic hearing. Only unsubtle U.S. pressure keeps the EU on the anti-radical side. The test posed to the world's largest secular power hasn't been very difficult, yet the Europeans have failed it with drooping colors. Those who believe in goods beyond their own safety and comfort almost always beat those who don't. That fact is not an adequate reason for anyone who doesn't believe in God to pretend to adopt a religion, but it might be a pretty good one not to exclude Christianity completely from the public square.
Now is not the moment to bewail our country's flaws or launch divisive internal crusades against deviations from traditional morality (as Pat Robertson and the like are trying to do). But it is also not the moment to forget that we, too, are weak and mortal. Winning the next "long, twilight struggle" requires us to be frank among ourselves, to recognize where we are vulnerable and to work diligently to repair the gaps in our moral as well as our physical defenses. If we succumb to the temptation to thoughtless triumphalism, the day will come when the sunshine patriots will drift away, today's triumphs will turn to ashes and the long night will fall.
December 30, 2001
Australian news sources say that eight arrests have now been made in connection with the Sydney bush fires. I have found no information about the arrestees, either because the police have released nothing or because their backgrounds aren't important to Australia's largely fact-free press.
December 27, 2001
Australian blogger Tim Blair (obviously no relation to Tony), who has been offering lively antipodean commentary on the war, lives in Sydney and thus has more than a passing interest in the fires that have been raging around that metropolis since Christmas Eve. It is, of course, summer in Australia, and fires are no more unexpected than in Southern California during the corresponding season, nor is their deliberate setting unheard-of. (Anthony Trollope's Harry Heathcote of Gangoil centers on Christmas Eve arson.) Still, these particular outbreaks are extraordinarily fierce, and Mr. Blair (12/27/01, 3:49 p.m.) points to factors that arouse suspicion:
Could these fires be linked in any way to terrorism?
My first impulse was to say no. These sorts of outbreaks are relatively common in Australia, and we have enough crazy fire-loons to guarantee at least a few deliberately-lit bushfires every year.
But … the fires were apparently lit on Christmas Eve, which might be powerfully symbolic for anyone fighting a Religious War.
Also, there seems to have been a coordinated attempt to light fires in a circle surrounding Sydney. In the SMH article linked above, the Rural Fire Service says it is helping police identify people following reports of suspicious behaviour in the lower Blue Mountains, Cessnock, Luddenham, Liverpool, Camden, Campbelltown and Appin.
Is that too much "suspicious behaviour" to reconcile with random individual attacks? At this stage, who knows? Meanwhile, it’s a miracle – and a testament to the firefighters’ work – that nobody has been killed.
There is further circumstantial evidence: The Australian government has been a stauch supporter of the U.S. war effort and was the only nation to join the U.S. in opposing the disgraceful condemnation of Israel by the signatories to the Geneva Convention on Human Rights. (See December 5th and 7th infra.) The modus operandi, too, shows the same combination of imagination and ineffectualness as anthrax-by-mail and shoe bombs.
Odds are that the fires are just an unhappy coincidence, but I wouldn't give real long odds.
December 26, 2001
Today is both Boxing Day and the First Day of Kwanzaa. The origins of the former are obscure. A popular explanation is that it was the day on which folks whose leases would expire at year-end began boxing up their possessions in preparation for a move, which does not rank high on the plausibility meter. But the not-at-all obscure origins of Kwanzaa are far stranger. It was invented out of whole cloth (kente cloth, to be sure) 35 years ago by a young black nationalist who had given himself the name "Maulana Karenga", which he modestly translated as "Master Teacher of the Tradition". The "Master Teacher" conceived this new, blacks-only holiday as a kind of anti-Christmas. Peace on Earth and good will toward men were to be replaced by racial solidarity and hostility toward the Americans of the wrong colors. The inventor was also, as it happened, a slapdash amateur historian who gullibly accepted an imaginary picture of precolonial Africa as united by a common, highly advanced culture. The themes and ceremonies of Kwanzaa were supposedly borrowed from this pan-African civilization, but their actual sources are less exotic. The festival's "seven principles" are a simplified mishmash of Karl Marx, Franz Fanon and Jules Nyrere (the Tanzanian dictator whose philosophy of ujima - a Kwanzaa watchword - gave his country the world's highest rate of negative economic growth), while its rituals are a city dweller's construct of a harvest festival. In line with the cloudy notion that Africa is all pretty much the same, all of the terminology derives from Swahili, an East African language (originally a lingua franca for slave traders) far removed from the tongues spoken by the ancestors of the vast majority of Americans of African descent.
Kwanzaa has, it should be noted, evolved away from its militant origins. Its official Web site (can you imagine an official Christmas or Passover Web site?) plays down black separatism and instead emphasizes "rootedness in African culture". Which would all be very well if (i) what goes on during Kwanzaa had any real connection with Africa and (ii) African culture had any living connection with persons whose remote ancestors were born in Africa but whose families have lived in the New World for a dozen generations or longer. The plain fact is that the culture of African-Americans is just as overwhelmingly European in origin as that of English-Americans or French-Americans or Italian-Americans, and the ancestral lines of most black Americans go back further in this country than those of most whites.
There's no harm, of course, in taking an interest in where one's ancestors, however remote, came from. The place of origin should, however, be a real place, not an historical and ideological fantasy.
December 23, 2001
I do not wish to sound churlish or to deny Rudolph Giuliani credit for his dignified and reassuring conduct during New York City's dark days. Still, Time's decision to name him "Person of the Year" - and its amazing admission that Osama bin Laden was the runner-up - is a minor injustice, as well as a sign of what a tough time the media are having in coming to terms with George W. Bush.
Mayor Giuliani carried out a grueling round of tasks: scores of physically tiring events, hundreds of morally exhausting encounters with the victims' grieving loved ones, speech after speech in which he surmounted the intellectual challenge of saying appropriate words, without repetitions that would instantly be noted down and derided. The quantity of work was enormous, but it did not require many hard decisions. Everyone knows what a civic leader ought to do in the wake of an enemy attack, though few of us have the grace and stamina to do it.
President Bush had to work just as hard as Mayor Giuliani, but he also had to devise a response to an unprecedented assault by a shadowy enemy. He received lots of contradictory advice. It was up to him alone to sort it out and choose a course of action. The choices that he made were most certainly not those that were highest on the list of options at Time magazine. If the Time editors had been in charge of U.S. strategy, we would still be drafting indictments for presentation to the World Court, and al-Qaeda would still be tyrannizing Afghanistan. In fact, so far as I can tell, George W. Bush is the only strategist in America who has been right about every significant question to face us up to this point in the war. Luckily, he is also the one who was making the decisions. If that isn't enough for "Man of the Year" honors, what is?
For the media, though, praise of President Bush beyond the necessary minimum is an embarrassment. Before September 11th, the line on his foreign policy was monotously negative: He was stumbling around in areas that he didn't understand, alienating our allies, undermining our interests and undoing all of Bill Clinton's good work. It isn't likely that he went from stumblebum to faultless performer overnight. To admit the latter calls into question the accuracy of the former characterization. Rather than do that and be forced to think again about issues like the Kyoto Treaty and missile defense, Time and its peers lapse into silence. Their lips will remain sealed, no doubt, until something goes wrong and they can again indulge in sarcasm at "Dubya's" expense.
December 19, 2001
Polemics between "libertarians" and "traditionalists" used to be a fixture of right wing intellectual life. Back in the days when liberals ignored everything that we said, the only way that conservatives could engage in two-sided debates was to argue among ourselves. Hence, publications like National Review, Modern Age, Triumph and The Freeman featured a steady back-and-forth on the theme of "Freedom or Virtue?" (the title of an NR series from c. 1965).
Increasing political visibility didn't still internecine warfare on the Right but did shift it to less high-toned and abstract issues, from "Freedom or Virtue" to "open borders or immigration reform", "nation building or realpolitik", "drug legalization or prohibition", etc. Now National Review Online's enfant terrible Jonah Goldberg has revived the old debates with a pair of provocatively titled essays, "Freedom Kills" and "The Libertarian Lie". I feel tinges of nostalgia but cannot help noticing how much the terms of the debate have changed since my youth.
Young Jonah's pieces are more provocative in title than in content. A Brent Bozell or Russell Kirk would have regarded them as pretty mealy-mouthed expositions of the traditionalist point of view, while a Frank S. Meyer or William Rickenbacker would have found little with which to disagree. Contemporary soi disant libertarians have reacted more fiercely, as a look at the comments on their Web sites quickly reveals.
What I find most interesting is two respects in which the current libertarian counterarguments differ from what libertarians used to say. First, the contending parties are now cast as "conservative" vs. "libertarian". In the old days, the libertarians, much as many of them would have liked to reclaim the term "liberal", staunchly denied that their traditionalist adversaries had a valid claim to the "conservative" mantle. The trads were Europeanized innovators, trying to introduce concepts of hierarchy, privilege and theocracy that had no place in American institutions. Libertarians were the conservators of the principles that had made our country great.
Second, and more fundamentally, libertarians denied the dichotomy between Freedom and Virtue. To their minds, Virtue could develop only in a free society, because a coerced appearance of virtue was not Virtue at all. Contrariwise, Virtue was a necessary condition to the perpetuation of Freedom.
A telling libertarian point was that tradition is, in and of itself, morally neutral. Customary practices can promote vice as well as Virtue. The standard traditionalist response, that a functioning society is preferable to an unattainable ideal and one must temper the wind to the shorn lamb, was dismissed as smacking of moral relativism.
The old libertarians took it as a premise, then, that Virtue was real, knowable and universal. One of their conclusions was that it is safest in the hands of Freedom.
A few of the new libertarians, in their responses to Mr. Goldberg, say the same thing, but they are very few. The sentiment of the overwhelming majority is that we should support Freedom because Virtue doesn't really exist. There are no universal standards for judging conduct, no higher goals that all should strive to attain. Instead, whatever makes an individual happy is right for him, and no one, including but not limited to the government, should interfere with the pursuit of that self-defined happiness.
Denying the reality of Virtue is a suicidal way to argue for Freedom. If Virtue is self-defined, why should someone with power refrain from exercising it for his own benefit? And why shouldn't anyone without power toady to its possessors, so long as they will reward him for his subservience? A Bill Clinton or, for that matter, an Osama bin Laden can rest content with himself, confident that he has acted virtuously by his own lights.
The chasm between the new libertarianism and the old gapes wide, but the path between them is not hard to discern. The old libertarians said, "The state should not forbid X, even though X is wrong." That is a hard saying. How much easier to declaim, "X is not wrong at all, so it is tyrannous to forbid it." The rising tide of libertinism made it easy to scoff at more and more traditional moral precepts and thus enlarge the apparent scope of Freedom, though the real enlargement was only of indifference.
At the same time, many conservatives - libertarians and traditionalists both - were caught up in the popular libertinism. They used drugs or cheated on their spouses or had abortions or turned their children over to "caregivers" or filled their speech with vulgarities or otherwise drifted away from the moral norms of previous generations. For traditionalists, who believed in Original Sin and the usefulness of mild compulsion as an aid to forming right habits, personal failure was no shock and did not undermine their political philosophy. In their repentant moments, they could think of themselves, as Jonah Goldberg evidently does, as examples of how frail individual virtue is in the maelstrom of social vice.
Libertarians, on the other hand, had always contended that Freedom strengthened Virtue. It was uncomfortable to be a personal counter-example, pleasant and expedient to conclude that Virtue was just a mirage and that one's drug-taking or infidelity or child neglect was a "valid lifestyle choice" just as good as any other.
The old libertarians still exist here and there, but the only vocal ones are fringe sectaries like the followers of Ayn Rand. The new libertarians do useful work on a practical level, demonstrating that much government regulation is futile, misguided or counterproductive. They thus provide evidence for those who would defend liberty, but their own defenses are fatal to their cause.
December 17, 2001
Alan Dershowitz, whose pronouncements over the past couple of years have grown stranger and stranger, has published his reaction to the now-famous Osama bin Laden videotape. It tells us much more about the state of mind of frantic civil libertarians than about the evidentiary value of the tape (which has been conveniently translated by the Daily Telegraph). Professor Dershowitz begins with the not unreasonable observation that nothing that bin Laden says on the tape discloses secrets that only the perpetrator of the September 11th atrocities could have known. Therefore, "it is entirely possible bin Laden is boasting and claiming credit for a "success" for which he had little personal responsibility and no advance knowledge". The professor concludes, "We're still waiting for the self-proving evidence that does not rely on believing bin Laden is telling the truth."
As commentary on who was responsible for the atrocities, such views are not very interesting and are, of course, far less absurd than Arab claims that the video was faked by the U.S. government. What is interesting is this distinguished law professor's notion of what evidence is needed to prove a case. It is possible that bin Laden's circumstantial statements about how the attack was planned and how he and his associates reacted to news of its success are "merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing" boast. But does that possibility approach within leagues of "reasonable doubt"?
The same mindset was evident when Professor Dershowitz and others of his tendency insisted that Bill Clinton could not be guilty of perjury in the Paula Jones case so long as any construction of his words, however far-fetched, was consistent with the truth.
Today's edition of Best of the Web mischievously suggests that, by arguing that the bin Laden tape wouldn't be convincing in an ordinary court, Professor Dershowitz was making a subtle case for trial by military tribunal. The true explanation, unfortunately, is that he and other commentators have grown so tender toward the accused that no evidence can prove to them that anyone ever did anything criminal.
December 15, 2001
While Bill Clinton and Al Hunt insinuate that conservatives are traitors, liberal opinion in general is picking up the theme that religion and terrorism are twin phenomena. Osama bin Laden and the Taliban are "fundamentalists", so the syllogism runs; fundamentalists are religious believers; therefore, religious belief is the source of terrorism. The implication of ideological links between the "religious Right" (an expansive term applied indiscriminately to practically all church going Republicans except John McCain) and Islamic extremism is scarcely veiled when Newsweek calls Attorney General Ashcroft a "holy warrior".
The assumption that al-Qaeda's terrorist methods have roots in its religiosity is not, however, a self-evident truth. Let's compare and contrast a pair of belief systems:
Values are personal to each individual, and no one's values can be judged by others.
Right and wrong are the same for everyone and are in principle knowable.
The only punishment for crime is that inflicted by other men. There's no punishment at all if you aren't caught.
All crimes are inevitably found out and punished by an absolutely just and omniscient judge.
Human beings are animals whose importance derives from the value assigned to them by others.
Human life is infinitely precious and can rightfully be taken only under limited circumstances by proper authorities.
Since values are personal, there are no universal commandments.
Everyone is bound by such commandments as "Be merciful as your Father is merciful", "Thou shalt not commit murder" and "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you".
The fate of large collective entities is more significant than that of individuals.
Human beings live forever, while nations come and go, so that individual sin is not justified by general good.
Who - Believer A or Believer B - is more likely, other things being equal, to conclude that it is justifiable to murder human beings in order to advance a cause dear to his values?
Empirically, if one looks back further than three months, the answer is pretty clear. The murder of civilians as a political tactic was invented by 19th Century socialist and anarchist extremists and has been a staple of practically every subsequent left-wing revolutionary movement.
By striking contrast, Christian terrorist movements, though not unheard-of, are rare, feeble and invariably condemned by their co-religionists. The list is short: the minuscule fringe of anti-abortion bombers, the Irish Republican Army (anti-clerical, dedicated to secular goals and long at odds with the Church), the Basque ETA (ditto) and the "militia movements" (primarily non- or anti-religious).
Christian terrorism does not appear even under conditions where "root causes" abound. In Egypt, a sizeable Christian minority is subjected to steadily increasing government discrimination and private harassment. It responds by lowering its visibility, appealing to the mercy of the government and very tentatively trying to call the world's attention to its plight - not by hurling grenades into shopping malls. The same peaceableness reigns and is considered unremarkable everywhere else that Christians are oppressed, from Zimbabwe to Indonesia to the former Soviet republics.
Whatever the reasons for Islamic fundamentalism's ready employment of terrorism, they evidently lie within Islam. Neither in principle nor in practice does religious belief per se encourage the adoption of terror as a weapon.
December 12, 2001
Speaking through the mouth of left-wing unfunnyman Al Franken (for whom "Rush Limbaugh is a big fat idiot" is a side-splitting line), Bill Clinton has picked up Al Hunt's theme (vide Ephemerides 11/29/01) that, if Al Gore had been elected last November, conservatives would now be actively hindering the war effort. The washed-up politician, who loudly praises Hunt's hate piece, is even more apocalyptic than the phony pundit. He imagines that President Gore would now be threatened with impeachment for his efforts to defend the nation. How does the Big He know what might have been? Well, conservatives disagreed with his foreign policy and tried to impeach him. Hence, they would do the same to any Democrat President, regardless of what policies he followed under what circumstances.
The not-so-hidden premise is that conservative opposition to Clinton elevated political partisanship above the best interests of America. In other words, Messrs. Clinton and Hunt contend that conservatives are fundamentally disloyal. They casually equate dissent with treason, just as some conservatives used to do during the Cold War.
Liberals screamed loudly when Attorney General Ashbrook issued a mild warning against "divisive" attacks on Presidential policies. Will any of those same critics repudiate the Clinton-Hunt line of argument? Or will this counterfactual slur seep into their analyses, as they blame conservatives for what they didn't do in a situation that didn't arise?
While we await (without much suspense) the answers to those questions, perhaps it is time to reflect on how much difference the Presidential election made. We can't know how President Gore would have handled September 11th and its aftermath. What we do know is that President Bush made a series of decisions that ran counter to "sensible", "sophisticated", "expert", "moderate" opinion. He was warned that he should publicly present overwhelming evidence of guilt before pursuing al-Qaeda, that he should avoid declaring a generalized war on terrorism, that he should not put too much pressure on the fragile Pakistani government, that he shouldn't commit U.S. forces to the quagmire of Afghanistan, that he should appease Islamic opinion with a bombing halt during Ramadan, that he should shun the aid of the Northern Alliance, that massive air strikes would only strengthen the Taliban's grip, and on and on. It is hard to believe that anyone else would, at every step along the way, have had the judgement and fortitude to consistently choose the right course of action. It is no insult to Al Gore to doubt that he could have done the same.
The President's sure touch extends, incidentally, to the home front, where the critics are as noisy as they used to be about the conduct of the campaign in Afghanistan. Their carping here doesn't look as silly as it did there, because the victories at home have so far been negative ones. Al-Qaeda, which has ample manpower, talent and funds and was able to start the war with four coordinated atrocities, has done little or nothing on U.S. soil for the past three months. That happy fact may be due to sheer luck or to Osama bin Laden's ineptitude. But maybe it is not unconnected with the Administration's much-denounced detentions, profiling and surveillance. In his post-attack address, President Bush pointed out that, in a shadowy war of this kind, many successes will remain unpublicized. Would more hesitant measures, shaped to be acceptable to ACLU sensibilities, have brought the same results? We will never know. I'm just as glad not to have found out.
December 10, 2001
The Presidential Commission on Social Security has yet to release its official report, but the unofficial harbingers have been enough to draw not-unmerited criticism from conservatives. Candidate Bush was, it seems, much bolder than the men whom he appointed to put flesh on the principle of individual responsibility for retirement planning.
The commissioners' apparent failure of nerve is certainly disappointing. Still, the timid options in their report are a beginning - and are, to give them their due, far beyond what was regarded as possible just a few years ago. Each of the Commission's three proposals would make traditional Social Security coverage to some extent voluntary. When Barry Goldwater suggested such a thing, he was denounced as an extremist. Now Daniel Patrick Moynihan, co-chairman of the Commission, accepts such "extremism" in principle.
Perhaps that initial concession to common sense will lead further. If one may be permitted to dream, here are premises for genuine Social Security reform:
First, we should recognize that the Social Security System's impending financial difficulties are not an open-ended budgetary drain but a predictable imbalance between contributions and benefits that, at its worst point, will be tolerable by a vibrant economy. The real reason for fundamental reform is not to cope with a looming crisis but to phase out a welfare scheme thinly disguised as a pension system. The current structure depends inherently on income transfers rather than savings as the major component of most Americans' retirement income, thus creating a serious potential for intergenerational conflict, discouraging private savings and turning what should be personal economic decisions into political footballs. (For further discussion, see "The Only Two Ways to Fix Social Security".
Second, a shift from promising fixed benefits to letting individuals accumulate funds in personal investment accounts will, as the Commission recognizes, alleviate most of the vices of the present system. Opponents complain that senior citizens will be left at the mercy of the stock market, but their fear mongering is groundless. Retirement income is not spent in a lump sum. Hence, where the market happens to be at a particular moment is not crucial. What would pose a problem would be a prolonged stagnation. The existing system is not, however, any better prepared to meet that contingency. If the U.S. economy were to cease growing, Social Security liabilities really would become intolerable, at which point seniors might discover that younger people outnumber them and cannot be compelled to fulfill the promises that the last generation made to itself. Since I'll be one of those seniors, I worry about that prospect more than I do about a prolonged stock market bust.
Third, moderation is in this case not a virtue. The proponents of the status quo reject any taint of privatization and will be just as fierce against small measures as against great ones. So why not advance proposals that will make a real difference? If they fail, we may still end up with a compromise that improves the situation, and even total defeat won't be a catastrophe. The present system can limp along without destroying our country.
Here, then, are the outlines of what the Commission ought to recommend: (i) Let all workers divert all or any part of their FICA contributions (both employer and employee portions) to private accounts that could be invested in U.S. government bonds or any U.S. mutual fund. Income earned by accounts and distribution from them would be tax-free, but, because they are intended to fund a stream of retirement income, withdrawals would be permitted only after permanent cessation of employment and then only at a limited rate based on life expectancy. (ii) For workers who choose investment in private accounts, benefits under the present system would be reduced. This reduction should be somewhat less than the actuarial equivalent of the diverted contributions, perhaps along the lines of 75 percent of actuarial equivalency for persons currently age 55 or older, with the percentage increasing for younger workers. (iii) For employees below a specified age (say, 40), contributions to private accounts would be mandatory in whole or in part, with the mandatory percentage depending on age when the new program is instituted. A 40-year-old might, for instance, be required to place half of his contributions in a private account, and the figure would rise to 100 percent for new entrants into the work force, for whom Social Security would become a fully privatized system with no government-guaranteed entitlements. The transition between the old and the new systems would take time (a necessity, because people who have made financial decisions on the basis of the old rules cannot adapt instantly to new ones) and cost money (a lot of money but much less than we can afford), but the end product would be a permanently workable way to maximize the likelihood that as many retirees as possible will be self-sufficient.
The Social Security System was established at the worst possible moment, when America was a second tier nation mired in an endless recession. The decisions made then were, in retrospect (here I differ from most of my fellow conservatives), good ones for the time and circumstances, but it is absurd to think of them as eternally valid. Today we happen to be a very good moment for reform. Despite a temporary lull, the economy is as healthy as it has ever been and can reasonably be expected to produce the revenues needed to deal with transition costs. There will never be a better time to act in our and our children's self-interest.
December 7, 2001
What can one make of the complete absence of reaction to the action discussed immediately below? So far as I can tell by searchng Nexis, not a single news story or editorial about Geneva signatories' one-sided denunciation of Israel has appeared in any U.S. newspaper. The AP reported the event on its wire; no editor seems to have found it interesting. Nor did any American politician comment favorably or unfavorably. (In Canada, by contrast, the government was sharply criticized for voting in favor of the measure.)
I imagine that the absence of American interest shows that we have become accustomed to hearing ourselves and our allies condemned by international gatherings and no longer pay much attention. Meanwhile, foreign governments know that attacking us keeps their local leftists and anti-Americans happy and has no consequences whatsoever.
In peace time, this game would be all right, but we are at war now and ought to be less tolerant of governments - particularly friendly governments - that give this kind of aid and comfort to our enemies. Ignoring assaults on Israeli civilians and labeling Israel's response a "human rights violation" helps make terrorism a respectable tactic and encourages the suicide bombers and their sponsors to keep at it - not just in the Middle East but everywhere else. We need to let the world know that the time for thoughtless words is over. If 114 nations truly believe that Hamas is morally superior to Israel, let them openly declare that they approve of terror and are not on our side in the present conflict. If, contrariwise, they don't mean what they say in places like Geneva, let them stop saying it.
December 5, 2001
It is hard not to be reduced to incoherent outrage by the news, reported in The Daily Telegraph, that 114 signatories to the Geneva Convention on Human Rights have gathered, in the wake of a series of attacks that left dozens of Israeli civilians dead and hundreds injured, to condemn - Israel. And Israel alone; not even perfunctory criticism of the Hamas terrorists. The United States and Australia boycotted the session. Scores of nations that purport to condemn terrorism, including even Britain, did not. This is the first time since 1949 that the convention signatories have issued such a condemnation.
Morally, there is not a scintilla of difference between denouncing Israel for retaliating against self-proclaimed enemies who target civilians and condemning the United States for its campaign against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The nations - rather, the low-level national functionaries - who do the former but not the latter are exposed as morally worthless. They either hate Israel so strongly as to deny it any right of self-defense, or they express solidarity with the United States only because America is overwhelmingly powerful.
If the declaration of the Geneva signatories really reflects "international opinion", America is 100 percent right to be arrogant and unilateralist, just as an honest woman is right to be arrogantly scornful of a house full of whores.
December 4, 2001
When Bismarck compared the making of laws and sausages, he at least had in mind tasty, nourishing German bratwurst. Looking at Congress these days, one is more inclined to think of the fare sold on the streets of Ankh-Morpork by Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler. Unappetizing even by CMOT's standards is the "stimulus package" now wafting from the legislative halls. The most that anyone says in praise of the slew of pork barrel spending, temporary tax breaks and short-term gimmicks passed by the House is that negotiations with the Senate will certainly make it worse.
The debate, such as is, illustrates how superficial, even crude, American political discourse has become over the past decade. It wasn't so long ago that politicians argued about the causes of economic malaise and borrowed ideas from real economists. Now we hear only slogans. Liberals no longer trumpet Keynes' theory that public spending is more efficacious than tax cuts in promoting economic activity. Instead, they attack all tax reductions as "unfair", because the affluent bear the overwhelming bulk of the tax burden and therefore receive the greatest relief, and lament the failure of the federal government to run a massive budget surplus in a recession. On the right side of the spectrum, too, there is only confusion and muddle. When did you last hear a Republican office holder invoke supply side economics or call attention to the success of the Reagan tax cuts in bringing an end to what seemed like permanent stagflation?
Maybe it is unfair to blame Bill Clinton for this intellectual coarsening (though not as unfair as to blame President Bush for a recession that began less than two months after he took office and was widely foreseen over a year ago), but he unquestionably promoted slogans as a substitute for thought. The underlying concept is that voters are fools who will believe whatever is shouted at them loudest and longest. Thus we hear the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee yelling, "Bottom line: It's Bush's recession!" Why Bush's, when the big stock market collapse occurred under Clinton? When business journals were asking 18 months ago whether the economy's landing would be "hard" or "soft", not whether there would be a landing? The Democrats not only can't answer such questions; they can't understand why anyone would feel a need to try.
Still, rather than complain at length, I want to comment on one "stimulus" proposal that is popular on both sides of the aisle and has a kernel of good sense, albeit the kernel is shrouded in a thick husk: a month-long Social Security tax holiday. In that bald form, it is not a particularly good idea. Preparing payroll systems for the change would take months, and a one-month spurt in consumer spending (if that is what happened) would do the economy no long-term good. No businessman hires workers, makes capital investments or formulates plans on the basis of a surge in sales that he knows will be temporary. The tax holiday suffers from the same defect as this year's tax rebates.
On the other hand, now that the doorway has been opened to lowering payroll taxes without attracting absurb accusations of "undermining" Social Security, is it not time to consider a permanent reduction in the FICA tax rate? A half percentage point cut in the rates for employees and employers (down to 5.7 percent each from the current 6.2 percent) would cost the government no more than a one-month holiday and would represent a marginal rate cut for all workers, including the large number with no income tax liability. (Most Americans, by the way, pay more in payroll taxes than income tax.) As conservatives used to say, marginal tax rate cuts are the best incentive for economic growth, and this cut can't rationally be labeled a giveway to "the rich". (Not that the Left won't trot out that canard if the idea gains any momentum. Already, a left-wing don't-think tank, The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, has leveled exactly that charge against the holiday proposal.)
Social Security, meanwhile, would be unaffected. Because FICA taxes in excess of current benefit payments are not (and, as a practical matter, cannot be) invested to meet future obligations, the future health of Social Security will be exactly the same regardless of how much money is collected under its aegis this year or next. What current taxes can affect is the future health of the economy. A reduction in this universal levy will do more to enable our country to meet tomorrow's obligations than will any combination of poll-tested panaceas.
December 3, 2001
The headline of the New York Times’s obituary of Mary Whitehouse today reads as follows: “Mary Whitehouse, a Foe of Sexuality, Dies at 91.” Those who, like me, were living in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s well remember Mrs Whitehouse as an anti-pornography campaigner who was — like all the anti-pornography campaigners of America and Western Europe in the last 40 years — a failure. Yet perhaps it should be regarded as a kind of success that she managed to make herself so much a target of hatred and ridicule among “progressive”-minded people. You know: the ones who advocate “tolerance” and “diversity” and who so often find themselves writing for the New York Times.
If so, she must have been one of the most successful of her kind. Even today, long after she ceased to be an active public figure and even longer after the BBC started routinely screening soft porn she is remembered by people who never knew who she was. For web-surfers in search of official government information have to be careful lest they stumble onto one of the “whitehouse” websites, named for her by her enemies, that contain (I’m told) raw pornography.
It is perhaps typical of the progressive mentality that it would describe this opponent of smut as a “foe of sexuality” — as if the public display of what for thousands of years mainstream culture has regarded as essentially private acts was synonymous with sexuality itself! Naturally, Mrs. Whitehouse would have argued that she was a friend, not a foe of sexuality. And indeed she was if you believe — as some people, I believe, still do — that dragging it out of the decent obscurity of private life and into the public forum is a debasement and not an exaltation of sex.
-- James Bowman
December 2, 2001
As Daniel Pipes points out in his book on Middle Eastern conspiracy theories (Conspiracy (1997)), an informative but wretchedly edited work), Arab extremists, including many of those whom we mislabel "moderates", really do think that "the Jews" control the United States. Hence, when their backs are to the wall, they imagine that they can injure America by striking at Israel. When Saddam Hussein realized that his army was collapsing during the Gulf War, he fired Scud missiles at Tel-Aviv. Should we be surprised that the rout of the Taliban has been followed by a wave of coordinated terror bombings throughout Israel? If Hamas, which admits to setting the blasts, does not regard itself as an ally of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, it has failed to demonstrate its neutrality. In line with President Bush's declaration that he who is not with us is against us, it seems to have volunteered to be our next target.
Ideologically, Hamas is a blood brother with al-Qaeda. Among the principles set forth in its charter are (as summarized by the Encyclopédie des Terrorismes) "refusal to accept any Western presence in Moslem lands" and "opposition to the secularisation and Westernization of Arab society". Its substantial "above ground" assets, including leaders, military units, training camps and pseud-charities, are vulnerable to U.S. attack. In fact, they are easier to reach than al-Qaeda's, because Hamas has not migrated to a remote corner of the world like Afghanistan. Its main bases are in Iran, Lebanon, the Sudan and the territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority. The last three are weak and readily accessible to U.S. power. Iran is more formidable but appears to be on the verge of an anti-fundamentalist revolution, given great impetus by the fall of the Taliban.
The only drawback to going after Hamas is that we might have to postpone settling accounts with Saddam Hussein. Oh, well, tomorrow is another day.
December 1, 2001
In the First Century B.C., the Roman Republic, which had recently become the superpower of the Mediterranean world, faced a severe and growing problem of piracy. Operating from bases on Crete and the southern coast of Asia Minor, corsairs terrorized seaborne commerce and even raided inland; Roman aristocrats were seized within sight of the city walls and held for ransom. (The young Julius Caesar was among the victims.)
It was doubtless obvious to all Roman policy wonks that piracy was not amenable to easy, military solutions, that it would have to be addressed over a long period of time by discovering and dealing with its root causes, such as political instability and economic depression in the Near East, religious turmoil, and native discontent with Roman imperialism. One can almost hear Guglielmus Clintonus Buffoonissimus proclaiming, "We are still paying a price for the mistreatment of Carthage."
In 67 B.C. the situation became critical. The threat of piracy had sharply reduced grain imports from Egypt, without which the city of Rome could not feed itself. In response, the Roman Assembly enacted laws creating an unprecedented "command against the pirates", assigning it to the controversial young politician Gnaeus Pompeius, and authorizing him to raise whatever forces he felt were needed (within extremely broad limits) for the effort. Pompey's enemies objected strenuously, making what we would today call "civil libertarian" arguments against concentrating such authority and resources in military hands. Popular opinion ignored such cavils, and we may be sure that many a politically correct Roman pundit lamented plebeian overreaction.
The command was supposed to last for three years. One can almost hear mutterings of "palus" ("quagmire"). In fact, Pompey needed only three months. He overawed the weak governments that had allowed pirates bands to establish bases within their territories, seized the pirates' principal strongholds and routed their fleets. By the end of the year, organized piracy in the Mediterranean had ceased. For the next three centuries, brigandage at sea would be a minor police problem rather than a danger to civilized society.
With due allowance for the differences between terrorism today and piracy two thousand years ago, Pompey's campaign is a hopeful precedent. First, it puts the lie to the fast-rising left-wing cliché that "you can't make war on abstract nouns". Piracy, like terrorism, had a concrete embodiment that could be attacked. Perusal of a reference work like Jacque Baud's Encyclopédie des Terrorismes (Paris: Charles-Lavauzelle, 1999) shows that the major terrorist groups are large, visible enterprises, with tables of organization, training and operational facilities, recruitment networks, financial investments and government protectors. They need that infrastructure in order to be effective, but all of it is vulnerable to American action.
Second, Pompey, like President Bush, faced a distant, decentralized, technologically inferior enemy. In the eyes of "sophisticated" thinkers, he was thus at a grave disadvantage (palus, palus, palus). Unaware, however, of theories of "asymmetrical warfare", the Romans employed their tactical superiority (not nearly so overwhelming as American superiority over any conceivable jihadist gang) to force the pirates into a grim dilemma: either go to ground and be rooted out individually or band together, seek a climactic battle and be destroyed. The United States can impose the same choice on its enemies.
Third, the Roman victory over the pirates did not address the "root causes" of piracy. Instead, it changed the pirates' minds about the risks and rewards of their profession. Thousands were delighted to move inland and take up life as farmers, a career that they would surely have despised a few months earlier. When it becomes clear that terrorist activity is futile as well as dangerous, angry Arab radicals are likely to grow either less angry or less radical.
Fourth and finally, Pompey's success shows that lasting victory is possible. Once the foundations of piracy were shattered, ordinary policing was sufficient to keep them from being rebuilt. Similarly, terrorism can be reduced to lone madmen planting bombs and sending germs through the mail - unpleasant but well within the resources of regular law enforcement (except, perhaps, in ACLU-compliant Oregon, but that is another issue).
* * * *
The Los Angeles Times has more to report about the refusal of the Portland, Oregon, police department to assist the FBI's quest for information about al-Qaeda. The police chief had been quoted earlier (see Ephemerides, 11/21/01) as claiming that Oregon law bars questioning anyone who isn't suspected of a crime. Maybe he was misquoted and did not mean to say anything quite so ridiculous. His story now is that asking questions of non-suspects is acceptable but that the questions that the Justice Department wants answered "abut [sic] the law" and are "illegally intrusive". The state attorney general has rejected that argument, but the police chief and the Portland city attorney know better.
The city has received a stream of hostile e-mails since its recalcitrance was first publicized. The chief's response sounds just like a Bill Clinton wannabe: "I'm surprised by the reaction . . . and, to some extent, I feel I've been vilified. I must say, it has been discouraging to hear the level of uninformed criticism and the lack of knowledge of all the work that we have done and are continuing to do to investigate terrorism." Sure, sure, and you'll share all that work with the rest of us as soon as the ACLU gives its okay.
To be fair to Portland, it is not the only city in Oregon that has stiff-armed the federal government, and its officials have at least tried to cover themselves with a fig leaf of concern for civil liberties. The police chief of Corvallis, one Pam Roskowski, "said she had no legal objections to the questioning, but that her college town of 50,000 would be better served if police focused on active criminal investigations." I guess that that little dustup in New York doesn't qualify as "criminal" in progressive Oregon.