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Scraps (September 2003)
September 30, 2003 "Hunt Watch" isn't an instant fisking service, but I've now waded through last Thursday's effusion from Mr. Hunt, in which he daydreams that the electorate is at last eager for higher taxes. [To comment, click here.]
September 30, 2003 The "Plame Affair" meshes beautifully with what has emerged as a prime Democratic strategy for 2004: to defeat George W. Bush by questioning his patriotism. The President's principal accuser, Valerie Plame's husband Joseph Wilson, vehemently pushes the line that the "real" motives for invading Iraq had nothing to do with U.S. national interests. In a speech to the pro-Saddam Education for Peace in Iraq Center last June (summary from the left-wing Utne Reader; audio download link on Little Green Footballs; transcribed excerpts in HobbsOnline), he declared that the "real agenda" for the war was "to redraw the map of the Middle East" for the benefit of Israel with the goal of "enabling the Israeli government to impose its conditions on the Palestinians". He also believes (he calls it "probably unavoidable") that the President will launch a new war next year simply for the sake of winning reelection, again with no concern for what is best for the country. Other Democrats invoke oil, Halliburton, neoconservative imperialism, the insidious influence of Leo Strauss — everything except an honest, whether or not mistaken, belief that deposing the Ba'athists was good for the United States (as well as for Iraq and the rest of the world). Adding insinuations of "treason" is a minor extension of what is already going on.
The claim that the disclosure of Mrs. Plame-Wilson's relationship to the Central Intelligence Agency jeopardizes national security is prima facie ridiculous. Her actual position is unclear, but, if she were a vital undercover operative, rather than some kind of middle level bureaucrat, the CIA would not itself have confirmed to Bob Novak that she did indeed work for it. (The standard agency response to inquiries about agents' identities is to deny everything.) Nor would her association have been widely known in Washington. (Vide Clifford D. May, "Spy Games".) One trusts that classified lists of operatives are not available to any government official who asks. If secrecy about Valerie Plame wasn't important a few months ago, it isn't important today. Breaching it may have been a crime, but it is closer to the level of jaywalking than treason.
The CIA does have a legitimate reason to make a big deal out of this incident, for it suggests that too many people, including some within the CIA, have too casual an attitude toward security. Valerie Plame's "outing" will probably inflict no worse harm than making her less welcome in her husband's far-left social circles, but concealing the identities of many other CIA employees is vital to their ability to perform their jobs, as well as to their personal safety. A high-profile reminder that agency ties are not proper fodder for gossip would be salutary. What isn't salutary is the absurd and poisonous charge that senior figures in the Administration are betraying their country. [To comment, click here.]
September 28, 2003 Today's Washington Post has one of those stories whose headline inadvertently reveals the desperation of the anti-war media. "House Probers Conclude Iraq War Data Was Weak" sounds like an exposé of weaknesses in the case for freeing Iraq from Saddam Hussein, and that is pretty obviously the message that reporter Dana Priest wishes to convey. The facts are rather less "sexy". The chairman and ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee have written to the CIA to complain that pre-war intelligence data about Iraq was "fragmentary" and "circumstantial". In particular, "The absence of proof that chemical and biological weapons and their related development programs had been destroyed was considered proof that they continued to exist."
I won't deny that, in an ordinary criminal trial, the evidence against Ba'athist Iraq would have been largely inconclusive and inadmissable, but international relations aren't bound by the constraints of due process. The reason why our government used fragmentary and circumstantial evidence was that nothing better could be obtained. It would be nice if we had numerous agents on the ground in Baghdad or if Saddam had allowed full access to his domain. As matters stood, though, we made decisions based on what we could figure out from the available scraps. Among those scraps was, of course, the Ba'athists' record of aggression, inhumanity and unrelenting hostility, which put on them, not us, the burden of demonstrating harmlessness. That Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons when it expelled U.N. inspectors in 1998 was undisputed; that it had not voluntarily and secretly gotten rid of them was not one of history's more daring inferences.
The Intelligence Committee's point, no doubt, is that we ought to have better espionage assets, and indeed we should, but anyone who believes that action against declared enemies can be justified only by perfect information is a dangerous fool. [To comment, click here.]
September 27, 2003 Following up a tip, American troops today uncovered a weapons cache containing "23 Russian-made surface to air missiles, 1,000 pounds of plastic explosives, four rocket propelled grenade launchers and 115 rockets, a mortar and 40 mortar rounds, 1,300 blasting caps and 423 hand grenades" (Fox News). This not insubstantial arsenal had lain hidden for months "underneath a covering of reeds and straw". By anti-war logic, since it hadn't been found immediately, it must not have existed. Here is yet another reminder that Iraq is big (the size of California or France), replete with hiding places and impossible to search thoroughly for chemical and biological weapons during a short and busy period. [To comment, click here.]
September 26, 2003 Ah, yes, the United Nations wants us to rush to turn Iraq over to an indigenous government, regardless of the risks of civil war. So can we assume that Kofi Annan and his buddies have followed that policy in U.N.-run Kosovo? Right Wing News fills in the details. Suffice it to say that, after four years of international tutelage, Kosovo has no authority to enact laws on its own, economic development is nil, and there are no prospects for improvement. Iraq should be grateful that the U.N.-crats are scuttling out of their country rather than pouring in. [To comment, click here.]
September 26, 2003 The trait that most distinguishes liberals from conservatives is compassion, right? The Left favors the needs of the downtrodden over the luxuries of the rich, doesn't it? So let us peruse this sentiment from Democratic Congressman Rahm Emanuel, a former Clinton aide and purebleeding liberal, as quoted approvingly by the equally liberal columnist Al Hunt in yesterday's Wall Street Journal:
You go to any community and schools are shutting down, police are being laid off and community health centers cut back, and then people hear $87 billion for Iraq. Paul Bremer brags about opening up 100 hospitals and Ravenswood in my district is being closed.
I live in Rep. Emanuel's district, which lies along the lake front and is the wealthiest within the city limits of Chicago. At least three hospitals are a short walk from my front door. The contrast with Iraq, desperately impoverished after decades of Ba'athist tyranny, could scarcely be more stark. Yet my compassionate Congresscritter feels worse about the loss of one facility here than good about the gain of a hundred where they are far more badly needed. If a conservative said anything of that sort, what would he be called? [To comment, click here.]
September 26, 2003 To any Jewish readers of this site:  HAPPY NEW YEAR!
September 25, 2003 Not being an Espiscopalian, I haven't felt impelled to comment on the ECUSA General Convention's approval of homosexual bishops and same-sex marriages. For those who want a flavor of the debate, I recommend William Sulik's four-part report [(1), (2), (3), (4)] on a "community meeting" at which the modernist Bishop of Virginia confronted his flock — both contented sheep and angry lambs. His assistant bishop is quoted as saying, "Unity is more important than being right or wrong." Some will hear in that the archetypal Episcopalian sentiment. [To comment, click here.]
September 23, 2003 Some people might think that "We don't know X" and "We have no evidence of X" are pretty much the same statement. To the neomodern logicians of the news media, they are, James Bowman reports, in direct contradiction. Another sign of how demented the anti-Bush mentalité has become. [To comment, click here.]
September 23, 2003 John Couretas of the Acton Institute reports on the European Parliament's demand that women be admitted into the monastic enclave of Mt. Athos. This elevation of the rights of tourism over freedom of religion is, he believes, a symptom of a deeper EU hostility to Christianity and European traditions.
Simply put, the Church, its truths and traditions, represents a stumbling block to the EU’s growing ambitions for power. Against Judeo-Christian morality stands the EU’s doctrine of fundamental rights — a lengthy list of Euro-socialist pieties, covering everything from terrorism (solved by building a “genuinely multipolar world”) to legalized euthanasia (“an extremely delicate subject”). How will the EU superstate of the future exercise power in a way that is informed by its culture’s moral truths and traditions? EU statecrafters won’t have to; they will simply draw up more lists of rights and grievances.
In effect, the EU is censoring history to make it more pliable for its own ideological ends.
[To comment, click here.]
September 23, 2003 Wesley Clark's astonishing leap to Democratic front runner status is as startling as Howard Dean's previous occupancy of that niche. In Ephemerides, I offer my first reaction to the man who appears to be Bill Clinton's designated nominee. [To comment, click here.]
September 22, 2003 Whenever the compensation of a particular corporate executive attracts unfavorable publicity, people whose real quarrel is with free markets decry "capitalist greed", and some conservatives join in, worried about the unseemliness of grossly high pay for ordinary performance. Responding to a leftist analysis (from the customarily shrill pen of Al Hunt), I argue, in the first installment of the revived "Hunt Watch", that trends in executive pay are not particularly outrageous - certainly not to the point of being an embarrassment to the free enterprise system. [To comment, click here.]
September 18, 2003 Far be it from me to opine on whether the CEO of the New York Stock Exchange deserves to be as highly paid as a pretty good shortstop or minor rock star. Assuming arguendo that Richard Grasso's deferred compensation package was as egregious as the media assume, the lesson of his resignation is the opposite of what it ought to be. Can one really blame an executive for wanting as much pay as he can get? Even Dagwood Bumstead periodically steels his nerve to ask Mr. Dithers for a raise. In Dick Grasso's case, the NYSE compensation committee was supposed to play the Dithers role and turn down exorbitant demands. It didn't. So Mr. Grasso is fired to redress the committee's ineptitude - and the chairman of the committee becomes locum tenens, with lead responsibility for hiring the next CEO!
What moral will other companies' compensation committees draw from this drama? It can be difficult, I'm sure, to resist the importunities of an overbearing, but undeniably competent corporate chieftain. Saying "no" carries a cost. Saying "yes", the NYSE-Grasso episode teaches, is painless. If trouble erupts, it is the chieftain, not the Indians who were supposed to restrain him, who will get the gate.
I wait eagerly for the self-proclaimed advocates of good corporate governance to figure out this obvious truth. I suspect that I shall wait a long, long time. [To comment, click here.]
September 18, 2003 While spinning conspiracy theories founded on guest lists at Beltway parties, Wall Street Journal misreporters Ellen Schultz and Theo Francis don't bother tempering their jeremiads against cash balance pension plans with readily available data. Eric Lofgren of Watson Wyatt takes them to task. I'll quote one paragraph:
Most egregiously of all, the Journal states: “Employers have always known that cash balance plans violate age discrimination rules in pension law…” This raises the false specter of broad and purposeful age discrimination. Employers as a group firmly believe their plans are not age discriminatory, though they of course recognized the arguments and alternative interpretations of the law that the plaintiff’s bar might raise. Again, in the IBM decision the district court determined that a 16 percent compensation credit for a 65-year-old is worth less than a 7 percent credit at age 25. It is probably not only employers who disagree that this constitutes age discrimination. If someone polled the general populace, we are confident that older people would think it more than fair to them if they were given 16 percent of pay while younger workers were granted 7 percent.
As I've discussed elsewhere, the essence of the "age discrimination" case against cash balance plans is the notion that pension plans should be subject to harsher rules than any other form of compensation. The Schultz-Francis duo and their ilk do all that they can to keep that simple point wrapped in obscurity. [To comment, click here.]
September 18, 2003 A painstaking investigation by the U.S. Marines is piecing together the truth about the looting of the Baghdad Museum. Illustrating the real meaning of diversity, Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, who leads the effort, is a former homicide prosecutor with an M.A. in Classical Studies. His "Briefing on the Investigation of Antiquity Loss from the Baghdad Museum" confirms the views of blogosphere skeptics: The damage was much less serious than originally reported; American troops were prevented from protecting the building against looting, because it was being used as a Ba'athist redoubt; and insiders were responsible for many of the thefts that did occur. (On the last point, there is a smoking gun - or at least a scorched key.) He also reports that his team has made immense progress in recovering missing artifacts, particularly those of greatest value, such as the Sacred Vase of Warka. One obstacle that he notes is "the perception among the Iraqi people of the museum staff's identification and association with the former regime and the Ba'ath Party.  Time and time again when individuals would turn property over, they would make it clear that they were turning the property over to the U.S. forces for safekeeping until a lawful Iraqi government could be elected." Remember how credulously museum officials were quoted in the immediate aftermath of the "looting"?
How many other occupying powers, facing continued (albeit feeble) enemy resistance, would devote substantial resources to the recovery of archeological treasures? But, of course, that's what the world expects of America, and what we expect of ourselves. Praise would be as superfluous as it is unlikely. [To comment, click here.]
September 17, 2003 The bad buzz about voting machines, capped by the Ninth Circuit's declaration that they are, in effect, unconstitutional, has sparked a retro enthusiasm among blog pundits for paper ballots. Glenn Reynolds and Mickey Kaus, leaders of the blogosphere's Right and Center, respectively, are united in this cause. Far be it from me to douse any reactionary idea with lukewarm water, but let's recall some history. One of the last states to abandon paper ballots was Illinois. That was how I cast my own first vote, back in 1968. Did Illinois switch to voting machines out of simple enthusiasm for spending money on new technology? No: The abolition of paper ballots was a long-sought goal of good government types, who were appalled by the ways in which the Daley Machine in Chicago and its Republican imitators downstate manipulated ballots to steal elections. I remember spending a couple of days in high school civics class being instructed in the techniques (not encouraged to use them, mind you). There was the simple, reliable "shard of graphite under the fingernail", used to make disqualifying marks on opposition ballots; the premarked ballot (precinct captain steals and marks a ballot and slips it to bribed voter, who drops it into the box and returns his fresh ballot to the captain in exchange for a few bucks - repeat as needed); the pre-stuffed box; and much more. Machines make mistakes, but their errors are random and thus tend to cancel out, and they are a lot trickier to employ as instruments of fraud. The best proof of that is that liberal Democrats, whose attitude toward election fraud (and the secret ballot, too) is, shall we say "relaxed", earnestly want to be rid of them. [To comment, click here.]
September 15, 2003 That the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the most loosely attached piece of the American judicial system, would find a way to keep Gray Davis in office for a few more months was an all but foregone conclusion. Less certain, but likely, is that the Supreme Court will reverse, as it does on most occasions when it reviews cases from what could legitimately be called the "secessionist circuit".
The panel's opinion is a fairly plain misreading of Bush v. Gore, which held that it is unconstitutional to apply markedly different standards to the counting of votes cast under similar conditions. The Court did not hold that all parts of a state must utilize the same voting mechanism or that possible random differences in the accuracy of different types of voting devices, resulting from the neutral phenomenon of mechanical defects, rise to the level of Constitutional significance.
To a large extent, the Ninth Circuit's action is merely a continuation of the Left's grudge against the last Presidential election. It is written is a spirit of, "We'll show them that we can twist their words to get even." Not a judicious performance, but one expects no better from such a source. [To comment, click here.]
September 13, 2003 Not even Colin Powell asserts any longer that Yasser Arafat is a useful "partner for peace", yet the U.S. government deprecates the Israeli war cabinet's decision to force him into exile. Behind this tenderness toward a corrupt despot lies the fear that his ouster would lead to a huge Palestinian uprising. In Ephemerides I consider whether that worry is well grounded or just a delusion by which we paralyze ourselves and prolong the agony of ordinary Palestinians. [To comment, click here.]
September 11, 2003 The second anniversary. We all hoped two years ago that our country would fight this war united as in 1941, not divided as in 1968. That hope has been only partly realized. In Ephemerides I offer my thoughts on the conflict between the Americas of September 11th and September 10th. Their disagreement is not just about military strategy but also about the viability of American democracy. [To comment, click here.]
September 10, 2003 Paul Krugman isn't the only liberal with a peculiar view of the world. Wall Street Journal reporters (I barely resisted the temptation to put sneer quotes around "reporters") Ellen Schultz and Theo Francis, long-time crusaders against evil corporations, have a piece in today's WSJ entitled "Many Ties Link Pension Lobby to Regulators" [link furnished by Vermont's self-declared socialist Bernie Sanders], explaining what nefarious forces keep the IRS from outlawing cash balance pension plans. (I've described that controversy elsewhere.) The key evidence is the invitation list for a party thrown by Bill Sweetnam, the Treasury Department's benefits tax counsel, which included "a long list of lobbyists representing employers on pension and retirement matters" and none of "the few lawmakers and congressional staffers who have staked out strong positions against cash-balance plans". How can there be any doubt that Mr. Sweetnam is a mere puppet of the people whom he invites to his parties?
Anyone who has ever attended a Beltway soirée knows how little the guest lists have to do with genuine social relationships, but let that pass. What is truly cockeyed about the story's insinuations of vaguely defined misconduct is that it pays no attention to the actual regulatory climate in the employee benefits area, which is dismal for employers. The Schultz-Francis duo is upset because the Treasury and IRS haven't acquiesced in their crackpot theory that pension plans are subject to more stringent age discrimination laws than any other form of employee compensation. They don't mention the many areas in which the government, even under the supposedly pro-business Bush Administration, has acted against companies' employee benefits interests. For example, Mr. Sweetnam and his colleagues firmly support the cash balance "whipsaw" (described elsewhere), which is loathed by cash balance plan sponsors and applauded by Schultz-Francis. Other recent government actions include steady tightening of rules to limit pension and profit sharing plan benefits for highly compensated employees, elimination of the use of stock options as a compensation technique by tax-exempt organizations, proposals to impose severe restrictions on split-dollar life insurance (a popular form of executive compensation) and the effective shutdown of arrangements that let companies sidestep limits on deductible contributions to welfare plans by enrolling in "10-or-more employer plans".  On those issues and many others, the Treasury/IRS positions run counter to the interests of 90 percent of the lobbyists whom Mr. Sweetnam entertained.
Ellen Schultz and Theo Francis have never shown much interest in accuracy (see my exposés of their misrepresentations concerning the termination of Enron's pay and pension plans [1/24/02 and 2/27/02]), so it isn't surprising to see them busy at well poisoning. Since most readers don't really care a lot about pension policy, the poison may not be particularly venomous, but every dram of eale hurts. [To comment, click here.]
September 8, 2003 I've had occasion before to take note of former economist Paul Krugman's sense of persecution and eagerness to stifle the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. Prof. Krugman has now taken a leave of absence from his teaching post at Princeton to devote himself to full-time plugging of his new book. (His readers' loss is his students' gain.) In a kick-off interview with Tim Russert (acidly summarized by Don Luskin of the "Krugman Truth Squad"), this once reputable figure shows further signs of his descent into paranoid fantasy. Mr. Russert asked for a reaction to the Truth Squad's charge that Prof. Krugman "no longer is just an economist. He's an ideologue, and he just is trying to twist facts in order to prove a political point." The reply:
They would say that, wouldn't they? Um, no, I mean it's, it's, [sigh] I'm subject to a level of scrutiny I don't think anyone else in, in journalism is. . . . It's, it's not fun. It's more, part of the reason why few, not very many people do the kind of thing I'm doing. If you take on our current leadership, um [deep breath], you will be pursued, you will be stalked. So far, so far just stalked, uh, intellectually, but it's, it's pretty scary sometimes. [emphasis added]
"Scary"? Surely a veteran academic isn't scared by disagreement with his opinions. Our campuses aren't quite that monolithic. It looks like the timorous professor fears for his personal safety. In his version of the world, "our current leadership" "stalks" its adversaries and puts them, evidently, in a state of apprehension concerning life and limb.
Four decades ago, mainstream conservatives firmly repudiated rightist idiots who claimed to live in mortal fear of the communists who secretly controlled the U.S. government. It helped, of course, that the media harped on the irrationality of Liberty Lobby, the John Birch Society and their ilk. Its eyes are generally closed to left-wing irrationality, so sane liberals lack a vital incentive to clean house. But ordinary people see the Krugmans for themselves, and liberalism may one day regret the impression thus produced. [To comment, click here.]
September 6, 2003 Three interesting stories from the U.K.: (i) A new study shows that British "[p]atients who have major operations on the National Health Service are four times more likely to die than Americans undergoing such surgery" [emphasis added]. What's that we keep hearing about the decrepitude of American medicine? (ii) "Alastair Campbell will be cleared this week by Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee of the BBC's allegation that he 'sexed up' the Government dossier on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction." So predicts The Daily Telegraph. If its inside information is correct, that will be one more piece of evidence that most of the "sexing up" was done by the BBC. (iii) And another glimpse of what Tony Blair has to endure from his own political party: Michael Meacher, who was environmental minister until last June and has served in many Labour governments, has embraced the theory that 9/11 was a neoconservative plot to create "a convenient pretext for wars on Afghanistan and Iraq in which the real purpose was to secure oil supplies for America". [To comment, click here.]
September 6, 2003 More of my comments on this year's World Science Fiction Convention have been added to Quark Watch. [To comment, click here.]
September 4, 2003 There are times when I yearn to spend a few relaxing moments in the alternate reality that so many leftists seem to inhabit. Today, as I was heading home from the office, I passed a scaggle of protesters (about 15 in all) surrounding Jack Brickhouse's statue on Michigan Avenue. They had placarded the great announcer with the slogan "Democracy Needs Media Diversity". The code word "diversity" was a tip-off that these folks hadn't read Bernard Goldberg and weren't demanding that more newspapers carry Jonah Goldberg's syndicated column. No, these were leftish conspiracy theorists who profess to believe that the VRWC keeps both print and broadcast journalism under its iron heel. As I passed, the speaker - a washed out blonde woman - was declaiming that "89 percent of the political news stories on CNN mention only Republicans - that's nine out of ten!" Since I would never accuse a member of the fair sex of deliberately telling an untruth, I can only assume that she is revealing the facts as they exist in some parallel universe.
I've grown rather fond of listening to the increasing tide of such paranoid, reality-challenged utterances. It's like a story that I once heard about two Jews sitting in a café in inter-War Vienna. Moshe notices that Joachim is reading Völkische Beobachter and is naturally shocked. "How can you even touch that garbage?" he asks indignantly.
To which Joachim responds, "In the papers you read, all the stories are about how Jews are helpless and oppressed. According to this one, we are rich, rule the world and seduce all the most beautiful women. What's not to like?" [To comment, click here.]
September 3, 2003 Fr. Ken Joseph, Jr., an Assyrian Christian priest whose grandparents fled persecution in Iraq, writes a letter from Baghdad, noting that life for "the regular people" has improved vastly since liberation. He worries not that pinprick terrorist attacks will restore the Ba'athist tyranny but that American administrators will abet the establishment of a radical Islamic state. I discuss his concerns in In hac lacrimarum valle. [To comment, click here.]
September 3, 2003 An Instapundit reader offers a fascinating, albeit depressing, statistical analysis of U.S. casualties from the start of the Iraqi campaign through now, concluding that "a young black male soldier from Washington DC would have been 36% more likely to die by staying at home than by serving in active duty in the Iraq war, and almost twice as likely to be murdered at home than to be killed in combat. Yes, that's horribly sad, but it puts a few things in perspective."  [To comment, click here.]
September 3, 2003 Perhaps I've dismissed the U.N. too hastily. The Daily Telegraph reports that ambassadors and employees are defying Michael "Nurse" Bloomberg and his inevitable ally Kofi Annan by refusing to obey a ukase forbidding smoking anywhere in the organization's New York City headquarters. "The Russian ambassador, Sergey Lavrov, seen marching to the delegates' lounge for a smoke, said Mr Annan 'doesn't own this building'." Who knows? Perhaps this revulsion against petty tyranny will one day extend to the larger tyrannies of the Islamofascists. [To comment, click here.]
September 3, 2003 Quote of the Day:
I don't particularly care that Johnny Depp has unkind things to say about America or the Bush Administration. To date, not a single thoughtful person in Christendom has found it necessary to consult his views before making an informed decision. That said, what I do find hilarious is that all of the Europeans do care. I mean, these are the same folks who say that American culture is leading to the cretinization of the world and that Hollywood values are shallow, low-brow and materialistic. And yet, the second an American movie star opens his mouth on politics these people applaud.
-- Jonah Goldberg
[To comment, click here.]
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