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Ephemerides (June 2003)
June 29, 2003
Last Wednesday's Wall Street Journal contained a worried editorial [link probably accessible only by online WSJ subscribers] about the state of the usually obscure Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, with supplementary angst about the general financial condition of private U.S. pension plans. Pension funding has drawn unwonted attention lately, prompted by such developments as GM's announcement of a $13 billion bond issue to provide cash for contributions to its plan. A plausible estimate is that the S&P 500 will have to increase their pension contributions by an aggregate of $36 billion over the next year and a half in order to meet minimum funding requirements, potentially quite an impressive drag on economic recovery.
As it happens, I have some claim to minor league expertise about the PBGC, having spent three and half years long ago (1984-1987) as director of its Policy and Regulations Department. Thus I'm disappointed that even the free marketeers on the WSJ editorial page have missed the extent to which the current semi-crisis in pension funding is the product of foolish government regulation.
As a preliminary matter, let's be clear that any crisis is a crisis for employers, not plan participants. No significant pension plan is in imminent danger of running out of cash, and the PBGC, which picks up a major portion of the benefit liabilities of plans that terminate without being able to meet their commitments, has assets of over $25 billion. In FY2002, its benefit payments and administrative expenses, netted against premium income, were less than $800 million. On very-bad-case projections, it won't become insolvent for a couple of decades, and one would not have to be a cock-eyed optimist to project its continuing forever.
The immediate, visible problem for both employers and the PBGC is recent sharp increases in the value of pension liabilities. For employers, higher liabilities translate into higher contribution requirements, which are especially painful for companies whose plans were overfunded and in need of no contributions at all two or three years ago. The conventional formulation, repeated in the Journal, is that the stock market decline is equally at fault, but that is largely a misconception. The effect of the bear market has been to return the plans' stock portfolios (normally substantially less than all of their investments) to the same level as in 1998, as if for five years there had been no return on investment. For big plans that have been accumulating liabilities for decades, a five-year stretch of zero returns, while not pleasant, would be a relatively minor matter. What has dealt the real damage to their balance sheets is the decline in the yield on 30-year Treasury bonds, which (averaged over the preceding four years) fixes the range of interest rates that may be used to value plan liabilities. At the beginning of 1998, the four-year weighted average stood at 6.79 percent. By the beginning of 2003, it had fallen to 5.56 percent. As a rule of thumb, a one-quarter of one percent decline in a plan's interest rate assumption results in a 6 to 7 percent increase in liabilities, so that, speaking very broadly, a typical plan's liabilities would have grown by over 30 percent during the past five years without any new benefit accruals. That impact rather swamps what can be attributed to poor performance on the asset side.
The government is not wholly responsible for this state of affairs, unless one believes the superstition that the Fed really controls interest rates, but it has done much over the years to aggravate plans' funding problems and to increase risks to both employers and participants.
1. As the Journal points out, pension insurance creates a moral hazard. Knowing that the government will act as a payor of last resort, employers have less incentive to fund their plans soundly. The minimum funding standards are supposed to prevent deliberate underfunding, and to a large extent they do, but they don't work perfectly in all cases. The funding rules are based on traditional actuarial principles, which were devised to spread pension costs equitably over successive generations of workers and shareholders, not to ensure that the plan would be solvent at every point in time under all conceivable circumstances. While I was at the PBGC, we encountered plans that had continuously met or exceeded the minimum funding requirements yet were as little as three percent funded at termination.
In practice, the hazard is largely limited to plans that cover only blue collar employees, because PBGC insurance is capped at a moderate level (currently about $40,000 a year for a participant who begins receiving benefits at age 65, less at younger ages). The people who make funding decisions thus have a great deal of personal exposure, which tends to lead them to a more conservative view of their plan's funding needs. While I don't have any recent statistics, studies conducted in the 1980's showed a definite hierarchy of robust funding: plans for salaried employees first, then plans for nonunion hourly employees and, far in the rear, collectively bargained plans. Unions had no incentive to demand higher contributions to plans covering their members (and stoutly resisted legislative proposals to tighten the funding rules), because better funding provided no additional benefits and diverted cash that might have been used for higher pay or other benefits.
There is, unfortunately, little that can be done to deal with this problem, short of abolishing the PBGC or sharply reducing guarantee limits. That those measures would be effective is suggested by the fact that the funded status of multiemployer collectively bargained plans, which are covered by a separate, much less generous PBGC program, has improved markedly over the past two decades. Alas, no politician is going to draw the moral that less insurance means more benefit security.
2. The major reason why many large plans face funding shortfalls now is, paradoxically, that employers were not allowed access to the now-vanished surpluses that built up during the stock market boom. The sequence of roaring boom followed by mild recession is not unprecedented. The same thing happened under the Reagan and Bush I Administrations, without any noticeable pension funding crisis. The difference between that period and this is that, until 1986, an employer could recover pension plan assets that exceeded the plan's liabilities, provided that the plan settled the liability by purchasing insurance company annuity contracts. The majority of large, overfunded plans did that between 1982 and 1985. The effect was to eliminate the market risk relating to their past liabilities. Thanks to that reduced exposure, the big stock market drop in 1987 was a non-event in the pension world. In fact, a PBGC study found that, as late as 1996, only two out of approximately 300 plans from which employers had taken reversions in the early 1980's had fallen back into an underfunded state.
In 1986 Congress imposed an excise tax on pension reversions on top of the income tax to which they were already subject. Though the tax rate is normally not exorbitant (effectively 15 percent with proper planning, though it can run up to 50 percent in some cases), it has proven high enough to kill off reversions. Hence, plans did not have any reason to settle their liabilities when they were brimming with redundant assets. Instead, they remained invested heavily in stocks as the market declined.
3. Two other well-intentioned government actions have aggravated funding difficulties. Traditionally, short-term fluctuations in a pension plan's funded level did not matter a great deal, because its liabilities were long-term: annuities over the lifetimes of participants and their spouses. Nowadays, however, a large proportion of pensions are paid out as lump sums, greatly shortening the duration of the liabilities and making any funding weakness more acute.
Plans are not required to pay benefits in lump sum form, but, thanks to a 1984 change in the law (to which the PBGC, foreseeing the impact on funding, strenuously but futilely objected), once a lump sum option is made available, it cannot be rescinded, regardless of any change in conditions. [Note to pension-literate readers: Yes, the rules are more complicated than that - I've written a book that expatiates them at length - but "lump sum options can't be taken away" is an extremely close approximation of a more complex truth.] Moreover, the discount rate that must be used to compute the lump sum equivalent of a participant's accrued benefit is very conservative, so that a lump sum is almost invariably the most valuable benefit form available. (The IRS last year issued proposed rules to make sure that plan administrators alert participants to that fact.)
If plans could eliminate lump sum options or compute their amount in an economically realistic fashion, much of the concern about pension funding would be alleviated. A huge paper liability that stems from low interest rates (probably a temporary phenomenon, though we do have the example of Japan as a caution) and has to be paid only over a very long period is not very frightening.
If political realism were not an issue, it would not be difficult to mitigate the current "crisis" and minimize the risk of recurrence. Here are the essential steps:
To relieve the near-term financial burden on plan sponsors, repeal or greatly liberalize the "deficit reduction contribution" portion of the minimum funding standards, which requires accelerated contributions to plans that are less than 60 percent funded. (N.B.: Unless all of the other recommended steps are taken, this is a very bad idea.)
Reduce the PBGC's benefit guarantees to true "safety net" levels, on the order of half the current amounts.
Repeal the excise tax on pension reversions, without making any other changes to pertinent law. In particular, plan sponsors should not be permitted to withdraw surplus funds without settling the plan's liabilities in full.
Repeal the 1984 amendments to sections 204(g) of ERISA and 411(d)(6) of the Internal Revenue Code that made it practically impossible to eliminate lump sum options from pension plans.
Allow plans to discount lump sums at any non-absurd interest rate, so long at the economic value of the lump sum is accurately disclosed in relation to other benefit forms and the participant has the right to decline it. The rules governing mandatory lump sum cashouts (allowed under current law when the value of the benefit is $5,000 or less) need no change.
Any Karl Rove worth his salary will naturally veto a program of that sort. Happily, the bull market will someday return, interest rates will rise, and pension plan deficits will vanish. All will be right with the pension world, and The Wall Street Journal won't notice it again, until about a decade from now when the cycle recurs.
[To comment, click here.]
 
June 24, 2003
Whatever they really mean in the long run, yesterday's twin Supreme Court decisions on the University of Michigan's affirmative action programs are being greeted enthusiastically by the advocates of racial preferences. In fact, the psychological dimension seems to be a lot more important than the legal judgments set forth in the Court's opinions. The latter are not all that comforting to the principles of "Affirmative Action". Justice O'Connor's muddled majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger found no justification for taking race into account in law school admissions other than the supposedly compelling state interest in a vaguely formulated concept of "diversity" and advanced no rationale for "diversity" that extends beyond the context of higher education. Furthermore, the writer was just barely comfortable with allowing diversity to prevail over nondiscrimination. She resolved her internal conflict by stating that the use of race as a diversity consideration should not be allowed forever and went so far as to suggest a 25-year time limit, conveniently postponing justice until the next generation. (Imagine that the Court had declared in 1954 that school segregation had to be abolished not "with all deliberate speed" but "starting in 1979".)
All such nuances, along with the antidiscrimination companion decision in Gratz v. Bollinger and the tenuous nature of the Grutter majority (which included the Court's oldest Justice (Stevens) and the one most widely tipped for imminent retirement (O'Connor herself)), are of minor importance to giddy liberals. They have escaped what they most feared: an unequivocal declaration that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits state institutions from making race an advantage or disadvantage in access to public education. It is clear that they would have defied any such ruling. Justice Ginsburg's dissent in Gratz openly says as much, arguing that the educational establishment is so firmly in favor of preferences that outlawing them will be futile:
One can reasonably anticipate, therefore, that colleges and universities will seek to maintain their minority enrollment--and the networks and opportunities thereby opened to minority graduates--whether or not they can do so in full candor through adoption of affirmative action plans of the kind here at issue. Without recourse to such plans, institutions of higher education may resort to camouflage. . . . If honesty is the best policy, surely Michigan's accurately described, fully disclosed College affirmative action program is preferable to achieving similar numbers through winks, nods, and disguises.
She is undoubtedly right. One obvious motive for enshrining Grutter as a total affirmative action victory while dismissing Gratz as a minor setback based on a technicality is to lay the groundwork for what can only be called "massive resistance" to the latter, coupled with the expansion of the former's diversity rationale to every area of life. Grutter will, for instance, be cited as decisive support for employment policies that discriminate against Asians and non-Hispanic whites, despite the fact that there is nothing in the decision that so much as vaguely hints that "diversity" is an exception to the Civil Rights laws or a compelling basis for private economic discrimination. Let's suppose for a moment that the alleged "business case" for diversity is factually correct (though it probably isn't [Fay Hansen, "Diversity's Business Case Doesn't Add Up" (warning: intrusive registration required)] and that companies will be more profitable if they skew their hiring in favor of blacks and Hispanics. Believe it or not, the prospect of making more money is not regarded by the law as an acceptable reason for racial discrimination. Grutter does not alter that principle but will be widely treated as if it did.
The proponents of affirmative action do not, of course, think of their cause as racism. As Justice Ginsburg's dissent spells out, their view is that racial distinctions that "promote equality" are both constitutional and benign, in contrast to the invidious discrimination of the Southern segregationists of yore. That self-perception of pure motives propels their defiance of the plain meaning of the Supreme Court's jurisprudence.
But are the motives here beyond suspicion? The institutions and individuals that most vigorously endorse Affirmative Action are also those that most vehemently denounce the current state of American politics and ascribe its loathsome features to the reactionary ethos of the White Male. And it just so happens that, whoever benefits from racial preferences, white males assuredly are harmed. Is that just a coincidence, or is punishing the class that the Left holds responsible for Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush and similar horrors one of the preference system's attractions?
I can't read anyone's mind, but asseverations that "diversity" is vital to higher education would sound more convincing if they did not come from educators who overtly hold extremely low opinions of the kind of people who have to pay the price of diversity-driven admissions bias. When segregationists argued that separate schooling was beneficial to blacks, no one gave much credence to their empirical claims, because they were tainted by insincerity. A similar taint infects the supposedly dispassionate conclusions of university administrators' evaluations of the consequences of Affirmative Action.
What the average left-wing intellectual on a college campus believes about white, middle class Americans is very nearly as prejudiced, stereotyped and absurd as what the average 1940's Southern racist believed about blacks. Just as our country finally chose not to continue accommodating public policy to the earlier species of bigotry, we ought to reject the new one. It's a pity that the courts are not leading the way. Still, the worst that Grutter does is leave racial preferences on the table as an option. It isn't an option that we have to pick up.
Further reading: Shelby Steele, "A Victory for White Guilt"; Peter Kirsanow, "Michigan Impossible"; Jeff Jacoby, "The 'Benefits' of Race-Based Admissions"; Thomas Sowell, "Saving Quotas"
[To comment, click here.]
 
June 23, 2003
"Gay marriage" isn't a natural topic for a middle-aged, never married heterosexual, and I would pass over it in silence, except that it is obviously destined to eclipse the hardy perennials of abortion, cloning and gun control (and perhaps even affirmative action, though today's waffling Supreme Court decisions should rekindle the fires there) as next season's burning social issue. Now that the Canadian courts have decreed that human rights demand identical treatment for same-sex as for opposite-sex relationships, and the Supreme Court of Massachusetts is about to do the same, we must volens nolens debate whether to retain the traditional concept of matrimony or to extend it to any union that consists of two (or more?) partners who engage in sexual relations, share a household and demand legal recognition as one another's spouses.
Public opinion on this question does not seem much in doubt. Voters in Hawaii, the nation's most socially liberal state, rejected same-sex marriage by two-to-one in 1998. In another liberal state, Vermont, judicial and legislative approval of same-sex "civil unions" led to conservative Republican takeovers of both houses of the legislature. The likelihood that popularly elected lawmakers anywhere, left to their own judgement, will legitimize "marriage" between man and man or woman and woman within the envisionable future is a close approximation of nil.
This is not an area, however, where public opinion reigns supreme. Judges lean as strongly in favor of same-sex marriage as voters do against. After this summer's all-but-inevitable Massachusetts decision, we can expect other state courts to hold, with few dissents, that current limitations on the right to marry are not justified by any compelling state interest and thus violate state constitutional protections. The trend may not touch the more conservative federal courts, but marriage is a state matter. The only federal question is the extent to which the U.S. Constitution's Full Faith and Credit Clause requires one state to recognize another's definition of "marriage". No matter what the decision on that point, within a few years male and female couples will be able to call themselves "legally married" in a large number of states, though other states and the federal government may give no effect to that purported status.
Why is there such a sharp split between popular and judicial opinion? The key reason is that judges tend to hold a severely reductionist view of marriage. To a lawyer's mind, matrimony is a contract rather than a sacrament, and what is important about being married is the impact on inheritance, taxes and creditors' rights. For the law to tell a man that he cannot enter into this contract with another man is as aberrant as to let him sell house only to a woman.
The flaw in the reductionist analysis is its disregard of the fact that marriage is not a creation of positive law. It is a ubiquitous institution that arose independently of the state and that commands greater loyalty than any government. There may have been a time in distant prehistory when human societies organized themselves differently, when the sexual communism of utopians' dreams or the sexual hierarchy of the wolf pack reigned, but, from the first moment that we can dimly perceive, monogamous, lifelong, heterosexual marriage has been the normal condition of adult men and women, which governments have been compelled to accommodate. The rare exceptions have been either experiments that were swiftly given up as hopeless (Russia immediately after the Red Revolution and the early Israel kibbutzim) or malfunctioning backwaters like the American inner city underclass, where the breakdown of marriage accompanies breakdowns of many other kinds.
Legislation concerning marriage historically has two purposes: to adjust legal rules so as to be congruent with the social facts incident to marriage (e. g., by acknowledging the right of each spouse to bind the other in dealings with third parties and by treating married couples generally as a single unit for tax purposes) and to protect each spouse from the other's breach of the expectations that arise from wedlock (e. g., by compelling husbands to make post mortem provision for their wives and regulating the dissolution of the relationship). Thus, on the one hand, the law smooths the friction engendered by incomplete merging of two individuals into a single social person, and, on the other, it limits the ability of powerful or unscrupulous spouses (usually men) to take the benefits of marriage without the burdens.
One can rationally argue (though wrongly, I believe) that, in the contemporary Western world, this government attentiveness to marriage is obsolete. A wealthy society with a highly refined and flexible law of contracts and near-equality between the sexes has less need than its predecessors for special laws governing the rights and responsibilities of the married state. If the government stopped paying attention to whether people were married, how much real difference would it make? After all, we get along perfectly well without the government's recording who are our friends or legislating about the rights and duties of amicitia, and marriage could be viewed as simply an especially close, intense variety of friendship.
What is not rational is to take legal rules designed for an ancient, widespread form of relationship and to apply them tout court to one with entirely distinct qualities. Heterosexual marriage has grown up of its own accord everywhere on earth from the earliest known times. Homosexual marriage has never emerged anywhere. The normal homosexual state is either promiscuity or pederasty. The idea of emulating marriage is extremely recent and quite incomplete: a would-be "married" homosexual like Andrew Sullivan has no compunction about advertising for sex outside of his "permanent" relationship - not exactly "for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, till death do us part".
Not even those governments least intolerant of homosexual practices ever had a need to formulate a law of homosexual union. It is conceivable that the day will come - sometime, somewhere - when officially ignoring homosexual unions will be as inconvenient as ignoring heterosexual ones, but that is manifestly not the case yesterday, today, tomorrow or the next several days after.
Once one realizes that the special legal status of marriage is the state's way of coping with an independent phenomenon rather than of conferring rights on a favored relationship, the reductionist argument for homosexual marriage runs aground. At most, it can demonstrate that marriage ought to be deleted from the list of legal categories, not that there is not a reasonable basis for the way in which the category is currently defined.
If the category is going to be expanded, there are far more rational accretions. A homosexual couple's claim to a "right to marry" rests on their mutual sexual relations, their cohabitation in a single household and their intention to remain as cohabitants for an indefinite period. The last two features are shared by many other, non-homosexual households; for instance, by unmarried individuals who are caring for enfeebled relatives and by long-term roommates who have no sexual relationship but find sharing a household economically convenient. These partnerships would certainly benefit if the government would give them the opportunity to be treated like marriages. Their claim in inferior to the homosexual couples only in that the parties aren't sleeping together. Is sexual activity really a valid reason to grant or withhold government largess?
Let's look at a concrete, and not unrealistic, pair of examples: (i) Alfred and Bruce are homosexual lovers in a "committed" relationship. Alfred contracts AIDS. Bruce lives with him and nurses him. Alfred and Bruce lament the disadvantages that they suffer when compared to married couples: Bruce can cover Alfred under his employer's health insurance plan, thanks to its provision for "domestic partners", but he can't exclude the value of the coverage from his taxable income. The two of them cannot file a joint tax return, which means that Bruce's income taxes are higher than those of a working and a nonworking spouse with the same income. Alfred can name Bruce as the beneficiary of his will but cannot avail himself of the estate and gift tax exemptions for property transferred to a spouse.
(ii) Charles is an unmarried man who contracts multiple sclerosis. His unmarried niece Debbie moves in with him and nurses him. Debbie and Charles labor under the same disadvantages as Bruce and Alfred (in fact, somewhat worse, because no corporate health plan will let Debbie enroll Charles as her dependent, except in the unlikely event that she provides more than half of his financial support and can claim him as a dependent on her income tax return).
In both of these cases, it seems inequitable to impose a higher tax burden than a married couple would pay, but the elements that attract our sympathy have nothing to do with the sexual activities of the people involved. Essentially, they are instances in which two individuals' finances are heavily interdependent and entangled but are treated by the government as if they were wholly separate. The moral that I draw is that the tax law does an imperfect job of making comparable rules for all economically comparable situations (and, realistically, it cannot do so, though that is an issue for another day). Allowing Alfred and Bruce to "marry" would not alter that fact, nor even mitigate it a great deal. For every Alfred and Bruce, there is a much larger number of homosexual pairs in which both partners work full time, neither is dependent upon the other, and the economic gains from "marriage" would be trivial. Among married heterosexuals, it is commonplace for the spouses to have widely disparate earning power; while I have no statistics at hand, I'd be very surprised if the same were true of homosexual households.
Ultimately, no one seriously asserts that homosexuals undergo significant economic loss as a result of their unmarriageable state. The fundamental reason for seeking "the right to marry" is to obtain a stamp of approval for homosexual liaisons. The expectation is that, through a kind of innocence by association, giving the name of "marriage" to such relationships will make them socially respectable.
That expectation is almost certain to be disappointed. The distaste that most heterosexuals feel for homosexual conduct is not caused by the absence of legal recognition for same-sex unions and therefore cannot be dissipated by changing the law. The government might as well try to increase the consumption of liver by mandating that grocery stores must label it "filet mignon".
Also foredoomed is the hopeful prediction that the availability of "marriage" will reduce homosexual promiscuity. Those who make this assertion most confidently seldom entertain any personal moral objections to either homosexuality or promiscuity, so one suspects that they have devised this argument merely as a sop to traditionalist opinion. I'm sure that they would not be pleased if recognition of homosexual marriages were accompanied by, say, criminal penalties for adultery and strong impediments to divorce. Whatever their motives, their thesis is implausible. The principal reason why marriage between men and women reduces (though it obviously does not eliminate) heterosexual male promiscuity is that heterosexual marriage brings with it millennia of cultural expectations, which don't exist for homosexual unions and cannot be created artificially in a mere century or two, much less by government fiat.
In short, no good will come of redefining the term "marriage". Maybe little harm will come either. The most certain consequence is that legal "marriage" will make homosexuality more visible than it is today and will emphasize the wide gap between elite and ordinary opinion in matters pertaining to sex. Familiarity may breed content, or it may alienate the rank-and-file of the polity. Neither is a particularly appealing prospect.
The general acceptance of homosexuality as "just another option" might be a gain for the spirit of tolerance, but it is an unnecessary gain. It is already generally agreed throughout the West that homosexuals ought not to be punished for their condition and that the law should take as little notice of it as possible. The most that traditionalists ask is that people who regard homosexual conduct as repugnant be allowed freedom of speech and freedom of association (or, in this case, non-association), rights that are rapidly being undermined by "hate speech" and "antidiscrimination" laws.
The tolerance for which pro-homosexual activists yearn amounts to the suppression of all adverse opinion and an end to social pressure to conform to the heterosexual pattern. The First Amendment is sufficiently robust that the former is unlikely in this country (but I'll be very surprised if "homophobic" speech is legal in Canada and the European Union five years from now). The latter is, however, at least partially attainable, and the legal equation of same-sex with opposite-sex unions will certainly help it along.
Giving human beings a "free choice" of sexual orientation will be an enormous and unprecedented experiment. The danger in it is that the choice will be made by adolescents, who lack the maturity, self-awareness and knowledge to judge sensibly in matters related to sex. Left to form their sexual habits in a milieu without norms, they will be very lucky to avoid laying up large stores of future misery. The human race may have figured sex out less than perfectly, but teenagers starting each generation with a tabula rasa are not likely to do better.
Same-sex "marriage" is, in fact, an attempt to treat all of mankind's experience of sexuality as an irrelevancy and to reconstruct a major area of behavior anew on the basis of rationalistic assumptions and good intentions. The 20th Century endured quite enough crusades, all equally benign in their declared purposes, to remake human nature in a utopian image. Would it be too much to ask the 21st to leave such folly behind?
[To comment, click here.]
June 19, 2003
No sane person seriously doubts that the overwhelming majority of American Moslems are loyal to their country. We have nothing vaguely comparable to Western Europe's alienated Islamic underclass. In the aftermath of 9/11, there was no cheering in Arab neighborhoods, and quite a few Moslems are serving with the American armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Unhappily, an overwhelming majority isn't the same as unanimity. From the outset of the War on Terror, a cadre of Moslem extremists has been working to stir up suspicion, fear and subversion among their co-religionists. There are signs that they are succeeding, not indeed in gathering a mass movement but in motivating a small one.
A minor but telling incident is recounted today on National Review Online by former California Republican Party chairman Shawn Steel. In a speech a few weeks ago to college Republicans, Mr. Steel declared, "The Islamic community has a cancer growing within it, which hates Jews, hates freedom, and hates Western society...the disease within Islam must be rectified." The campus newspaper misquoted that as "The disease of Islam must be rectified" (an error since corrected), and the Council of American-Islamic Relations soon weighed in. Mr. Steel's e-mail inbox has since been bulging with CAIR-inspired denunciations.
What is most interesting here is not CAIR's conduct, which may have begun as an honest mistake. (Its web site no longer mentions the alleged statement; neither, on the other hand, does it retract the misquotation that appeared in its original press release, and its failure to seek clarification from the speaker, who had made strenuous efforts during his chairmanship to reach out to the Moslem community, is not impressive evidence of good faith.) The disturbing part of the story is the tenor of the messages composed by CAIR's partisans. According to Mr. Steel, not a single one argued that only a tiny minority of Moslems sympathize with terrorism or that the typical Moslem in America loves God, country and family as fervently as any of his fellow citizens.
Of the hundreds of messages I've received as a result of this CAIR-organized e-mail bombardment, not one has contained a good word for the president. None expressed any support for our troops or for the liberation of their fellow Muslims in Iraq from the tyrannical yoke of radical secularist Saddam Hussein. The incessant refrain was I was hateful for warning against a poisoned element of contemporary Islam, or simply spiteful broadsides against Israel.
The examples that Mr. Steel quotes bristle with anti-American venom, unbalanced by a dram of disrespect for Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein or the Palestinian suicide-murderers. The writers' attitude cannot reasonably be characterized as anything but outright enmity toward the United States.
While the e-mailers number only a few hundred in this case, it is safe to assume that they represent a considerably larger (if not objectively very large) body of opinion. Only one or two percent of the people who believe in a particular political position ever do anything so expressive as write and send an e-mail. A hundred poisonous screeds is evidence that five or ten thousand others share the same sentiments. And, of course, it isn't likely that a very large fraction of the Islamofascist public saw CAIR's press release or has ever heard of Shawn Steel. If they all had, he might have received thousands rather than hundreds of missives.
Suppose that these CAIRriers of hate represent a constituency of only ten thousand. That would be a fine pool from which to draw the few hundred terrorists needed to disrupt American life in a serious way. In normal times, these proto-terrorists would be so diluted as not to matter. As isolated malcontents, they are a trivial threat. Under the present circumstances, however, they have motive and opportunity to find each other, to give mutual encouragement, to begin to forge links and image nightmares.
It would be comforting to think that efficient police work can cope with a nascent Fifth Column, but no police work that Americans will tolerate is likely to be 100 percent successful, particularly not if the War on Terror drags on and on and on. That is why speed and decisiveness in fighting terrorism are important not just for Americans' physical safety but for the preservation of our liberties. Once al-Qa'eda, Hamas, Hezbollah and the rest are defunct, the vermin who harass Shawn Steel will sink back into their prewar lethargy and will pose as little danger as their counterparts on the extreme Right. The longer that day is delayed, the greater the risk that Salus populi suprema lex esto - "the cry of tyrants, the creed of slaves" - will eventually triumph.
[To comment, click here.]
June 16, 2003
Many other people have already given voice (or pixel) to my sentiments about the "road map to peace". In fact, Irving Kristol presciently summed the matter up fourteen years ago: "Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad. Whom the gods would make mad, they first inflame with the ambition to bring peace to the Middle East."
I could more or less understand how this madness inflicted a Tony Blair, whose mentalité remains that of socialist utopianism, to which "Why can't we all just get along?" sounds like a sensible question. And no explanation is needed for the State Department's enthusiasm. In the world of high level diplomacy, no strategy is considered respectable until its inefficacy has been demonstrated six or eight times. But why did George W. Bush, hitherto a sure-footed leader quite willing to disregard conventional wisdom and the advice of his aides, join in? It was as if the President had realized that his one weakness as a strategist-in-chief is his habitual caution and had unfortunately decided to compensate by putting his entire stake on double zero.
The slim hope for the road map was that the Arab despots had been so "shocked and awed" by the swift Anglo-American victory in Iraq that they would now be willing to make their financial and political support of the Palestinian Authority conditional upon an end to terrorism. If that happened, and if the European Union didn't step in to bail out Arafatistan, then the PA would have a strong motive to crack down on Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and the rest. We would at that point be left with the questions of whether the motive was strong enough and, if it were, whether a PA converted to peacemaking possessed the means to impose its will on the terrorist factions.
The answers came almost instantly. Nobody can convict the Islamofascists of the sin of sloth! Their spokesmen denounced the road map; PA "prime minister" Mahmoud Abbas declared that he would not use force against them; and there were more mass murders in Israel. Per the road map, Palestinian terrorism was supposed to have come to an end by May 31, 2003. Perhaps Hamas et al. read that as 2003 A.H. rather than A.D.
I was initially as indignant as anyone at this act of folly. Further reflection, however, leads me to wonder whether the President wasn't being just a trifle devious. No doubt he was willing to try the one-in-a-thousand chance that the road map would lead to its ostensible destination, but maybe he was also ready for the paxmobile to careen off course.
As I have argued before, an essential next step in the War on Terror, now that we have established a strategic base in Iraq, is to mount a concerted, overwhelming attack on the bases, physical assets and personnel of the major terrorist groups, much like Pompey's successful offensive against Mediterranean piracy 2,000 years ago. The most serious practical objection to that strategy - one that ivory tower generals like me can disregard but real-world leaders can't - is the instant opposition that it would face at home, not just from Democratic Presidential hopefuls but from the large corps of respectable, establishment opinionmongers who reluctantly supported military action in Iraq but won't quickly be moved to endorse any kind of follow-up. A campaign that ignored their sentiments would run the risk of a swift collapse, as bipartisan Congressional opposition emerged, the talk shows went into a frenzy, newspaper columns overflowed with indignation and Colin Powell resigned in protest.
The Palestinians' shredding of the road map, leading to a de facto declaration of war between Israel and Hamas, devastates the humane, comfortable assumptions that have underpinned U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East for the past couple of decades. A sign that the establishment has finally gotten the message came on one of the Sunday talk shows, where Senator Richard Lugar, a man who has never let an uncertified thought enter his brain, opined that the time may be coming when American troops will have to intervene directly against Hamas. Once that idea has had time to percolate - and Senator Lugar is surely not the only one to whom it has occurred - the President will be "led" to do what he all along saw was necessary. In that event, the road map will indeed prove to have been a step toward Middle East peace, albeit not precisely the step that its naive advocates envisioned.
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June 8, 2003
"If Hitler invaded Hell, I would at least make a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons." The anti-war Left nowadays seems to apply that Churchillian sentiment to George W. Bush.
Beyond all disputing, Saddam Hussein's Iraq was a simulacrum of Hell. Yet the tyrant's brutalities attract scarcely a scintilla of notice from left-wing columnists and commentators. The discovery of a mass grave in which a couple of hundred children, many clutching their teddy bears, were buried alive is a transient story. The discovery of a Pentagon intelligence report expressing doubt that the Iraqi military had chemical weapons ready for deployment was shouted in headlines. The proverbial observer from Mars, if he read only The New York Times and listened only to television network news, would think that there was nothing especially wrong with the Ba'athist regime except for its alleged possession of "weapons of mass destruction" and that, should that allegation prove false, the American-led invasion will stand exposed as an arbitrary act of aggression. Utterly absent from bien pensant discourse is any concept that the United States might be a generally peaceful, benign, democratic nation that goes to war only reluctantly. One would think that Norway and Belgium have as much reason to tremble as the Ba'athists ever did!
The WMD hysteria (for the latest developments on that front, take a look at Instapundit's roundup and a new interview with Colin Powell) is only one clue to the post-war left-wing mindset. There has been, since the fighting wound down, a torrent of anti-Bush Administration abuse that is remarkable even by the robust standards of American political discourse. Most eye-catching is the parade of doctored or distorted quotations: Maureen Dowd's famous elision; the bogus claims that Paul Wolfowitz had "admitted" that Iraq's weaponry was only a pretext for war and that the real motive was oil; a Financial Times story misrepresenting a Treasury study of the long-term cost of Social Security and Medicare as suppressed evidence that tax cuts are a mistake; the current wave of out-of-context quotes from a pre-war Defense Intelligence Agency study concluding that it was unclear whether Saddam's chemical arsenal was ready for use in conventional warfare (but not showing any doubt that it existed and would be useful to terrorists).
Coupled with these misstatements of fact are super-heated charges that the President and his aides are habitual liars, distinguishable from Bill Clinton only in the subject matter of their falsehoods. The specifics invariably turn out to be trivial. For example, a recent New Republic column purports to unearth "stories of Bush administration dishonesty and abuse [that] have not been denied in the conservative press as much as they have been ignored". The list consists of six items, of which two are ordinary partisan political disputes (reapportionment of the Texas legislature and proposals to eliminate Senate filibusters) about which the Republican position may be wrong but (i) involves the Administration only tangentially and (ii) cannot reasonably be called dishonest or abusive, unless all actions that don't meet with the approval of the Democratic Party merit those epithets. The remaining four include one instance in which the Administration was misled by a forged document (neither the writer nor anyone else says that it participated in the forgery, and the mistake was acknowledged as soon as it was discovered); another in which a dispute exists over whether certain high-strength aluminum tubes purchased by Iraq were suitable for nuclear weapons production; the fact that the Administration did not publicize North Korea's nuclear weapons program before the Congressional vote on authorizing the use of force against Saddam Hussein (the writer seems to think that Congress might have chosen to go to war with Pyongyang rather than Baghdad); and, finally, a statement made by the President last October: "Iraq is exploring ways of using these UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] for missions targeting the United States." Ah, ha! "That was a functional lie. Iraq's drones, the Bush administration later admitted, had a maximum range of several hundred miles." Perhaps that is why Mr. Bush said "is exploring ways of using" rather than "has the ability to use". In any case, UAV's have been about as important to the debate over Iraq as the color of the mole under Saddam Hussein's right eye. (Best of the Web has further specimens of the "Bush is a liar because he disagrees with me" mode of argumentation.)
On top of all this are piled insinuations that the Administration is not merely dishonest but enmeshed in devious plots. George W. Bush may talk about "compassionate conservatism" and may have done almost nothing to reduce federal domestic spending, but his real agenda, readers of the Nation learned last month, is nothing less than "to roll back the twentieth century, quite literally. That is, defenestrate the federal government and reduce its scale and powers to a level well below what it was before the New Deal's centralization. With that accomplished, movement conservatives envision a restored society in which the prevailing values and power relationships resemble the America that existed around 1900, when William McKinley was President." Far be it from me to blink at the prospect of reducing federal spending to the 1900 level of 2.8 percent of the GDP, but that doesn't sound like the covert goal of a President who at this moment is earnestly negotiating the addition to prescription drug benefits to Medicare.
The Nation, a publication of the loony left, may not be typical of liberalism, but Charles Rangel is the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee. In a letter to The New York Times last week, he wrote, regarding the President's tax reductions, "The Social Security and Medicare trust funds financed through the payroll tax on workers are being rapidly funneled out to 'give the money back' to wealthy taxpayers. This lays the groundwork for the end of those two programs not reform, end because the money will simply not be there." In other words, tax cuts are designed to bring about the abolition of Social Security and Medicare.
This belief in the secret radical libertarianism of the Bush Administration fits nicely with the notion, circulated in mainstream liberal media like the Times, that U.S. foreign policy is under the control of a cabal of neoconservatives, who in turn are disciples of Leo Strauss, in whose dense studies of Socrates, Machiavelli, Hobbes and Spinoza fantasy finds the roots of American imperialism.
Piecing the clues together, the leftist image of the Bush regime comes into focus: The government is in thrall to a secretive, duplicitous conspiracy, sinister in its ambitions and unrestrained in its use of power. Is it any wonder that those who see such banshee-like shadows are more frightened of George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and Paul Wolfowitz than of Saddam Hussein?
To compound the horror, the avatars of wickedness are popular with the American people, just as Adolf Hitler was once popular in Germany. Which is sad but unsurprising; in liberals' perceptions, the great majority of their fellow citizens are incorrigibly shallow, if not hopelessly stupid. Rep. Rangel's letter is a fine instance of this attitude. Mr. Rangel knows perfectly well how Social Security and Medicare financing operate (a subject that I have discussed in more detail elsewhere). He is aware that reducing the government's tax intake has no effect whatsoever on the size or composition of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds. He also knows that whether "the money will . . . be there" depends solely upon whether future generations of workers are willing to pay taxes to fund the benefits that then come due; no assets are being accumulated (or, realistically, could be accumulated) for that purpose. Knowing those facts, the Congressman addresses newpaper readers with alarmist falsehoods. Why, except that he is confident that they will be too muddled to distinguish fact from fancy?
Such, let us note, is a liberal legislator's opinion of the readership of an elite newspaper in a liberal state. What must he think of folk from Alabama? Naturally there is no point in trying to frame intelligent arguments. One might as well argue with a rabid dog. All that is possible is to throw stones in hopes that the creature can be terrified into submission.
The view just described is manifestly delusional. I won't join David Frum's lament, "Sometimes I think contemporary liberalism has to be understood not as a type of politics but as a species of mental illness." After all, most mentally ill people are not to blame for their afflictions and should not have to suffer from association with self-made lunatics. On the other hand, there comes a time when trying to argue with the holders of seriously aberrant world views ceases to be either profitable or fun. Therefore, out of consideration for my own mental health, I have decided, for a while at least, to abandon the effort and to pay greater attention to finding fault with the opinions of my fellow right-wingers (construing the "right" very broadly here and including within it those liberals who are free of paranoia). Therefore, this Web site is hereby declared to be, until further notice, a sanctuary from Hillary Rodham Clinton and Paul Krugman and Chris Patten and Jacques Chirac and the whole array of idiotarian zealots and fellow travelers. (Al Hunt is still in committee; I shall probably restart "Hunt Watch" just to keep my hand in.) I hope that others will find the prospect as pleasing as do I.
Further reading: Robert L. Bartley, "Joining LaRouche in the Fever Swamps"
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