Saturday, January 31, 2009

More About Torture

Yesterday, I wrote a post about the morality of torture, and the feasibility of prosecuting former Bush officials who may have tortured Al-Qaeda detainees. Any questions regarding torture are inevitably difficult, and the answer depends in large part on one’s personal moral views. So liberals and conservatives disagree on this issue, and while there is a right answer (unless you believe that morality is relative), there is no easy one.

Liberals (who usually believe that torture is always wrong) are actually closer to the truth on this issue (in my opinion) than conservatives (who typically think torture can be justified). They are quite correct in pointing out that the ends do not justify the means, and that torture is an immoral means. So the Left has it right on this issue, at least regarding the big picture.

It’s the Left’s application of this principle that is a little disturbing. In the eyes of many liberals, torture is perhaps the worst crime imaginable. Keith Olbermann has called on Barack Obama to prosecute Bush for torture, comparing the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh-Mohammed with slavery, Jim Crow, and McCarthyism. And while many people laugh at Keith Olbermann, it’s worth remembering that he is taken quite seriously in liberal circles.

The liberal megablog the Huffington Post has eighteen pages of posts tagged with the word “torture.” It has fourteen pages for “abortion”. “Rush Limbaugh” gets thirteen pages, while “stimulus” gets just four pages. Even “US economy” (which has got to be the broadest possible category) gets only twenty-four pages, just six more than “torture.” Most of what the stuff HuffPo’s writers have to say about torture (it’s horrible, we’re losing face with the rest of the world, Bush should be impeached/prosecuted) isn’t that remarkable—but they can’t stop writing about it.

It’s easy to find more examples of the Left’s fixation with torture—it’s one of the most commonly discussed topics on any liberal forum or blog. And this obsession is a bit perplexing.

Part of it, of course, stems from the natural desire to score political points. Torture is not something most people like to think about, and it represents an easy way to make George W. Bush look bad. And allegations that the Bush Administration violated the Geneva Conventions are embarrassing to Republicans, if untrue (whatever happened in Guantanamo Bay, it wasn’t a violation of the Geneva Conventions—Al-Qaeda detainees do not fulfill the criteria for prisoners of war). So some of the Democrat obsession with torture arises from simple partisan politics.

But a part, I think, comes from something a bit deeper. Liberals don’t like the idea of torturing radical Muslim terrorists, but they hate the idea as much because of the treatment of radical Muslims as for the moral dimension of torture. It would be a stretch to say that liberals (some, of course, not all) root for the terrorists—but then, it would be equally difficult to say that those liberals root for the U.S.

This moral ambivalence doesn’t come from hatred of America, but rather from guilt. These liberals have an intensely Amerocentric view of the world, in which everything that happens—good or bad—stems directly from U.S. action. So these people think that, if terrorism exists, the U.S. must some how be responsible. So in this view of torture, torturing Khalid Sheikh-Mohammed was, in effect, punishing someone else for our mistakes.

It’s this attitude towards America that explains why liberals see mistreating Khalid Sheikh-Mohammed as something unimaginably evil, while somehow managing to find room for understanding towards Hamas. In this view—not only is the United States to blame for any torture it commits, but also for the necessity of any torture it commits.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Some Questions About Torture

Since Barack Obama’s inauguration, many have wondered whether he will attempt to prosecute former Bush officials for human rights violation, and what his position on torture will be. Many liberals hope he will prosecute—they claim that only through vigorous investigation and prosecution can the country move on from the Bush Administration’s crimes. The Right disagrees—they claim that too aggressive investigations will hamper agents in the field, and that what the Bush Administration did was justified in order to save lives. Naturally, liberals accuse conservatives of being brutal fascists, while conservatives accuse liberals of being unconcerned with protecting Americans.

The debate comes down to two questions: a) should Obama investigate former Bush officials for human rights violations, and b) how far should interrogators go to extract information—in other words, is torture ever justified?

Answering the first question, I think that prosecuting ex-Bush officials would be a mistake. It’s hard to imagine the records of any interrogation—no matter how innocuous the methods used—could be released to the public, and presenting a case based on classified material would be almost unimaginably difficult.

Further, any prosecutions would be dangerously close to enforcing an ex post facto law. Waterboarding, for example, may be unethical (I’d guess that Obama thinks it is), but its legality was at worst debatable. If the United States was guilty of state-sanctioned torture under Bush, that torture was probably legally defensible. In fact, the real blame for any torture should lie with Congress for not restricting the practice more explicitly.

The answer to the second question (is torture ever justified) is a little more difficult. There’s a pretty sharp partisan divide here, with most conservatives in agreement that some forms of torture (e.g. waterboarding, if we consider waterboarding torture) are acceptable in some situations, while liberals are virtually unanimous that torture is never justified.

First, two misconceptions, one held by liberals and one by conservatives, should be cleared up. Many conservatives think that any torture would take place only in a 24-style ticking bomb scenario, where interrogators have a limited amount of time to extract the truth. This doesn’t happen, according to most experts. And if it did, torture wouldn’t work, since the person being tortured would only have to hold out a relatively short length of time before the “ticking bomb” exploded.

For the liberal’s part, there seems to be some idea that America’s alleged use of torture is a big selling point for Al-Qaeda’s recruiters. That idea isn’t very credible, at least not to me. Radical Muslims were killing American’s long before anyone in the West even suggested that the United States used torture. And anyhow, if torture is moral and effective (and that’s a hypothetical here, not a statement of fact), then should the U.S. stop using it because it provokes radical Muslims? So did the invasion of Afghanistan, and no one thinks that was a mistake.

But misconceptions aside, the question of whether or not torture can be justified is a complex one. Most would agree that torture is not justified as a punitive measure; the United States can’t waterboarding someone simply for being a member of Al-Qaeda. And for the purposes of this post, we’ll assume that torture is effective (many claim it is not), since presumably anyone engaging in torture would believe it is.

The question comes down to: to what extent do the ends (saving lives) justify the means? Would truly barbaric tortures, such as electrodes to the genitals or drilling through the kneecap, be justified in order to save lives? Given 24’s popularity, I suppose that many would say “yes”, but I believe that the correct answer is in the negative. All people, no matter how evil, still retain some rights, and I believe that torture is an intrinsically immoral act that is never justified. (That, I may add, also happens to be the teaching of the Catholic Church). Some good might come out of torture—but some good can out of almost any bad act. But good consequences do not diminish the immorality of a morally wrong act.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Unleashing Rush

If Rush Limbaugh thrives on criticism, this is one of his best weeks in months. First, President Barack Obama told Congressional Republicans that they’d have to stop listening to Rush Limbaugh for any sort of compromise to be reached. Then, the Democrat Congressional Campaign Committee launched an online petition condemning Rush for his now famous “I hope he fails” comments. (The DCCC, by the way, is an official Democratic party organization—Nancy Pelosi personally appoints the chairman of that committee). Finally, Republican Representative Phil Garney suggested that Limbaugh wasn’t aware of the burdens of leadership that people like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell labor under. (Actually, a somewhat fair point, except that it isn’t as if the GOP leadership has produced any results).

It’s hard to imagine what those Democrats who attacked Limbaugh were thinking. Obama seemed to equate “listening to Limbaugh” with “refusal to compromise,” and almost certainly didn’t mean his words to be the personal attack on Rush they turned out to be. The DCCC seems to think that Limbaugh’s “fail” comments were some awful gaffe that would shock the conscience of any reasonable voter, and so should be spread as far as possible. But whatever the intent behind them, both comments are terrible mistakes—and present an opportunity for Republicans.

Of all the Left’s broadcast antagonists, Rush Limbaugh has been around the longest and has the largest audience. It just doesn’t make sense (from a Democratic standpoint) to target him.

First, doing so makes Limbaugh relevant, or rather even more relevant than usual. The President of the United States is the most important political figure in the country. Any criticism of another public figure lowers him to that person’s level. That’s a no-win situation for Obama—if Limbaugh wins this PR war, he’ll be embarrassed, if Obama wins, well, most people expect the president of the United States to be able to hold his own against the media. This Limbaugh-Obama fight isn’t over—but Limbaugh won before it started.

But also, and perhaps more importantly, the Democratic attacks on Limbaugh give him status as the leader of the opposition. If Democrats take the trouble to attack Limbaugh, presumably they are paying attention to what he is saying, and think he is enough of a threat to try to marginalize as an unpatriotic hardliner.

That’s a good strategy, if it works, but Limbaugh’s following is large enough, and he has been through enough controversies, to ensure it won’t. But it does make Limbaugh the focus of the Republican opposition. And given that Rush is indisputably the most effective, successful voice in conservative media, that’s a mistake.

The Democratic party’s inadvertent promotion of Limbaugh represents an opportunity for the Republican party. Most Republican politicians, privately, probably agree with most of Rush says. But because of political concerns (one doesn’t want to seem too extreme, and voters want government money), they feel they can’t follow his advice in practice. However, since the Democrats seem to have him on their minds, and Republicans have their hands tied politically anyway, they can now point to Limbaugh’s prescriptions (which will always sound better than what Obama does; it’s is much easier to criticize than to do) as what they would like to do if the Democrats would just let them, without having to pay the political price of actually making them a reality.

(This, more or less, is what the Democrats did while out of power—they rallied the base by encouraging people like Kos and Michael Moore. Once in power, they didn’t do any of the things the far left wanted them to do, but Kos and company served as useful idiots to rally the Democratic base).

This opportunity is what makes comments like Phil Garney’s so baffling. Rush Limbaugh might be the best spokesman the Republicans have. The GOP should embrace him, not marginalize him.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Tax Cuts

Barack Obama’s proposed stimulus package puts lawmakers on both sides in a sticky position. Congressional Democrats really don’t need the Republicans to pass the package, unless the Republicans try to filibuster, and it’s hard to see them doing so. But the bill is so big (at least 800 billion dollars), and such a gamble (if it fails, Obama’s, and rest of the Democrat party’s, whole economic plan will be seen as a failure), that some Republican support is necessary, if only to share the blame if it fails. So the Republicans left in Congress have a disproportionate amount of influence on the direction of the stimulus bill.

Some Republicans, such as Mike Pence, claim that the best form of stimulus would be broad based tax cuts. Most Republicans agree. So do many Democrats (at least up to a point), including Obama—tax cuts are a major part of his plan. They aren’t the drastic cuts Pence and his allies want—but they are tax cuts (or more accurately in many cases, tax rebates).

This reliance on tax cuts is in line with standard Keynesian economics. Sort of. Keynesian economics decrees that during over prosperous times, when the economy is growing too fast, government should raise taxes and cut spending, while in leaner times, government should cut taxes and raise spending. (Can you see the flaw here?)

Unfortunately, there’s a catch. Any tax cuts need to be permanent (or at least must exist for the long-term). If they don’t, then people simply hoard the money and save it for a rainy day. According to Joe Biden, forty percent of Obama’s 800 billion dollar stimulus comes in the form of tax cuts. So that’s at least 320 billion dollars simply wasted.

So why not just pass some permanent tax cuts? That’s a popular conservative position—Rush Limbaugh pushes for such a plan nearly every day. Tax cuts are the heart and soul of supply side economics. Republicans don’t have much political capital, but they do have a little, so why not try to spend it on permanent tax cuts which would certainly (according to both supply-side and Keynesian economics) revitalize the economy?

Because an essential element of conservatism is fiscal responsibility. Yes, tax cuts are good things. But deficits are very bad things, and the country really can’t afford them. (It never could, really). And tax cuts, whatever conservatives might say, would mean higher deficits, especially in a poor economy.

The world is about tradeoffs, and the good that would come from tax cuts would be more than offset by the harm coming from high deficits. It’s become instinctive for conservatives to fight for higher taxes, and they are usually right in doing so—but not this time.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Looking For a Comeback

Rush Limbaugh caused some controversy (as per normal) with his declaration that he hoped Obama wouldn’t succeed. Granted, he qualified his statement by saying that he only wished Obama ill if his politics were liberal, but everyone knows they will be, and the point was clear—Rush Limbaugh is not rooting for Barack Obama.

Most Republicans wouldn’t be caught dead saying that—the official line is that they really hope that Obama’s presidency is a success. And perhaps that’s true in theory. Most conservatives would rather see the country in better shape at the end of Obama’s first term than at the beginning, and hope that his policies will help the nation. (And in fairness, I must confess that most of his cabinet choices have been much better than conservatives could have expected). But most conservatives are certain that Obama’s policies won’t work (and they haven’t shown much promise so far; stimulus packages, which are the centerpiece of Obama’s policy, no matter how big, rarely if ever work), and career Republicans hope Obama fails because otherwise they’ll be out of a job.

These hopes are tempered by the fact that pretty much everyone hates the Republican party right now. Even Republicans. Many political strategists and pundits (on both sides) think that the GOP is in for a long rebuilding period, which will fundamentally transform the party.

Not necessarily. There is ample reason to look for a Republican revival, or more accurately a Democratic failure. This, of course, was the strategy Democrats used in 2006 and 2008—the Republicans made themselves unpopular, and the Democrats cleaned up. Democrats didn’t win those years by reminding people they were Democrats; they won (in large part, at any rate) by telling people they weren’t Republicans. When the Republicans get back into power (and they will, eventually), that is almost certainly how they’ll do it. And there are quite a few chinks in the Democrat armor to exploit.

First, there are the numerous corruption scandals. When Republicans controlled the country, it seemed like every other Republican politician was engaged in scandal. But since most of the most obviously corrupt Republicans were voted out, and there are now many more Democrat leaders, the situation is reversed—now it’s the Democrats who face embarrassing stories of corruption.

Governor Rod Blagovich is the best example, because of his Obama connection and nigh-delusional arrogance. And Charlie Rangel, Chris Dodd, and Barney Frank all have ethical issues of their own, which can be exploited by Republican challengers. Of course, Hillary Clinton, as always, is in a class by herself—the shady dealings of the Clinton Foundation are prime political ammunition.

And now that the Democrat party is firmly entrenched, Republicans have something to fight against. It was always extremely hard for conservative Republicans to argue their case as long as fellow Republican George Bush was in the White House. (And if Bush was no conservative, it is equally true he wasn’t a liberal). Now, if (when) things go bad, Republicans can place the blame squarely on someone else’s shoulders.

And finally, Barack Obama himself, depending on how he governs, is either the Republicans strongest card or greatest threat. If he governs well (or seems to, which is much more important), then Republicans thinking of running for public office might want to think about waiting for 2014. But if not, then his performance will be an invaluable argument for Republicans.

It is far, far to early to even make an early judgment as to the effectiveness of Obama’s administration. One thing is for certain, though—there won’t be a honeymoon period. Obama is expected to start on his economic plan immediately, which represents a very difficult task, and has already blown off the Politico and (accidentally) insulted Rush Limbaugh. Nobody really cares about either mistake (and the Politico incident, while Obama doubtless wishes it hadn’t happened, wasn’t anything Obama could have predicted), but it does remind some of the fact that when off script, Obama can deliver gaffes as devastating as anything Joe Biden can come up with.

I hope that Obama leaves the nation in better shape than it was when he found it. I’m almost certain he won’t, and would much rather have a Republican government in 2012. And while things do look bad for the Republican party right now, a quick comeback is well within the realm of possibility.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Brief Assessment of the Bush Presidency

Yesterday, George W. Bush ended his term as president. He left under a cloud—by the end, his own party had little use for him and his final Gallup approval rating put him at thirty-four percent approval. Many believe that he is one of the worst presidents ever; few see him as anything above average.

As with all presidents, it will be decades before one will be able to get a clear-sighted assessment of Bush’s presidency. And any analysis will show he made some awful mistakes—Katrina, federal spending, the Harriet Myers nomination. But the memory of those mistakes will fade with time—nobody remembers whether or not Bill Clinton’s response to the 1993 Mississippi River flood was good or not, and the failed Bork nomination has done little to dim the luster of Reagan’s presidency. Mistakes that loom large now will be forgotten in a few years.

Bush’s record on the economy, for good or ill, won’t be forgotten so quickly. Under his watch, banks and corporations amassed huge quantities of debt. Bush did nothing. Even after it was obvious that the market couldn’t take much more debt, Bush and Treasury Secretary Paulson failed to act till it was too late. And the hastily passed 700 billion dollar bailout did little to pour oil on troubled financial waters.

And yet, perhaps there was little Bush could do. The entire economy of Iceland (which was based on banking) has collapsed due the credit crunch, and it is not inconceivable that England could follow. The leaders of neither country did anything to head off collapse. If Bush failed to prevent the credit crisis, so did virtually ever other world leader.

And in any case, Bush hardly shares all the blame for the state of the U.S. banking system. Congressional Democrats encouraged risky lending for years before the crash.

But the economy won’t, in all probability, be Bush’s most lasting legacy. His response to 9/11 will be. And his record there is mixed—and depends a great deal on what happens in the future.

The War in Afghanistan was, by all accounts, reasonably well fought, though the situation there could be (and must become) much better. But the initial invasion was handled well, and Al-Qaeda of Afghanistan was crippled (though not destroyed, since much of its leadership simply moved next door to Pakistan).

However, Bush’s legacy will be decided, in large part, on how future generations view Iraq. It is possible that they will view it as a rousing success, or as a forgettable little war, or as a dismal failure.

If the war is remembered as a success, then Bush’s legacy will look fairly good, and he will be remembered as a brave president who fought an unpopular but necessary war against all odds. If the war is seen as a failure, Bush will too. And if the war is forgotten, and eclipsed by other, more important events, Bush will be remembered as a relatively unimportant president whose main claim to fame was fighting a minor war. (The last is probably the most likely scenario).

But no matter how Iraq turns out, Bush deserves credit for preventing Al-Qaeda from attacking the nation again after 9/11. It’s not clear now how difficult that was (we know little about Al-Qaeda’s effectiveness as a terrorist organization), but we do know that virtually all terrorism experts agreed that America would be hit again sooner or later. But seven years on, there has not been a major attack.

That is impressive, and future events will determine exactly how impressive that is. (If Al-Qaeda were to strike again on Obama’s watch, that would represent a horribly costly endorsement of the effectiveness of the Bush Administration’s anti-terror policy). George Bush has made his share of mistakes, and some of them have been very costly. But on the issue that mattered most to him (preventing another 9/11), he succeeded, though at a very great cost. It will be up to future generations to decide whether or not the cost was worthwhile.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Some Thoughts About Obama's Election

Today, Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. Perhaps no president in recent memory has started his term with greater expectations—many, perhaps most, of his supporters believe that his election is more than an election, but rather an Event of great historical importance. Even his opponents are a bit relieved to see a new face sworn in—President George W. Bush spent the last two years of the his term as a lame duck executive, and hasn’t seemed to be really in control of his own administration, much less the country.

For myself, it is encouraging to see that America has moved past its old prejudices to the point where a black (or really biracial, since Obama is half white) man can be elected president. On the other hand, considering that America is still de facto segregated and black communities are mostly among the nation’s poorest and nobody really cares, Obama’s success should serve as a reminder that while tremendous progress has been made in leveling racial inequality over the last half century, there is still a long way to go.

Inspiring as Obama’s election might be, it is hardly the “historical” event that many of his supporters think it is. In the grand scheme of things, American racism just isn’t that important, and it was quite benign compared to discrimination faced by minorities in other parts of the West. (And while slavery was a horrible evil, it paled in comparison to the colonialism practiced in other parts of the Western world during the same period). Calling Obama’s inauguration “historic” might salve the consciences of guilty (God knows why) white people, but in reality is only shameless hyperbole. (To his credit, Obama himself has mostly shied away from touting himself as “historic”; during the campaign, he mostly campaigned on his ideas and rhetoric).

If Obama’s election isn’t “historic”, it is at least important, since Obama faces challenges equal in magnitude to what the country faced after 9/11. Obama must deal with a collapsing world economy, an economy that is contracting after decades of irresponsible, credit-fueled growth. The philosophy that led to the worldwide recession were held nearly universally—there were very, very few people anywhere who foresaw the credit crisis. Obama will not only have to deal with the recession, he will also be forced to leave behind the ideas that laid the foundation for it.

Will Obama be able to solve this and other problems? His supporters think he can, even if they don’t quite understand the problems themselves. In reality, he probably won’t—an 875 billion dollar stimulus package probably wouldn’t work any better than the 700 billion dollars spent so far, and that sadly seems to be the centerpiece of Obama’s plan.

But to Obama’s supporters, that is beside the point. This important thing is that a liberal, black man has been sworn into office. The Republicans have lost, and George Bush (who they hate for reasons that really don’t hold up to careful scrutiny) is going home, and it will be a while (at least two years) before the Republicans have a chance to get any measure of power back. For many (most?) of Obama’s supporters, Obama’s election is analogous to having one’s football team win the Super Bowl—people care immensely, and have a vague feeling that a win would be a great thing, but if pressed couldn’t really say exactly why or how a win would really make things any better.

Of course, Republicans are no different. Many of them will repair to the citadels of conservative rhetoric, and quickly return with some interesting if irrelevant (and often stupid) attacks on Obama to sustain them while they get ready for next year, or rather the year after next. Whatever Obama does, it will ipso facto be a mistake in the eyes of many (most?) Republicans.

But for all the hyperbole and us/them pettiness, this is still a day to celebrate America. Every American can take pride in the fact that Obama won an election that was, for the most part, clean fought, and that a black man has become president less than forty years after the civil rights movement ended, and that America’s new President is a good and honorable man (albeit one with whom I often disagree). I have my doubts about Obama’s ability to solve our country’s problems—but I hope he will be able to.

Monday, January 19, 2009

What's a "Fair Share" of Taxes?

One of the key tenets of the Democrat party, and liberalism in general, is the belief that the wealthy should pay their “fair share” of taxes. It has become something of an all purpose defense of liberal tax policy—supply-side economics is a bad idea because the rich don’t pay their fair share of taxes, tax increases are a good idea because they will force the rich to pay their fair share of taxes, in essence, any tax increase can be justified by the statement that it will make the tax system more fair across class lines.

Certainly, the rich should pay their fair share of taxes—that would be an obvious component of any just society. Deciding what a fair share of taxes is is a much more difficult matter.

Any state requires some taxation. And in any society, the wealthiest will be forced to bear the greatest part of the burden of government, even if tax rates don’t vary by income. And few would argue that it is unjust to require the rich to give a higher than normal percentage of their income to the state—after all, the state needs money (even in the most libertarian countries, the state is responsible for transportation routes and defense, among other things), and it is sensible in most cases to raise rates on the people most able to afford them.

These rates can vary—at times, the needs of the government will require a great deal of money (i.e., during a war), while at other times the government’s needs will be much less (i.e., never, because government expenditures always grow). So there is no set rate with which fairness can be measured—on one side, a fair tax rate, on the other, an unjust one. The parameters of “fair” are always changing.

Some libertarians argue that any tax rate other than a flat tax is inherently unjust. That is, I think, incorrect. It is merely inequitable. It would be better, when necessary, to tax a rich man at a fifty percent rate and a poor man at a fifteen percent rate than to tax both at fifty percent. It is not unjust (by most moral standards) to expect those who can pay more to do so.

The best evaluation of a fair tax rate would be an examination of where the tax dollars spent are going. For example, it is pretty much universally agreed upon that tax dollars spent on national defense are justified—all countries need an army, and it is only just to expect citizens to pay for it, and those that can pay more should. Transportation, too, is a legitimate government responsibility. And welfare, to some extent, is a duty of government—it is an obligation of a just society to help those incapable of helping themselves.

But there are some uses of government money that are very difficult to defend as just. Take universal healthcare, for instance. Leaving aside the open question of whether or not it works, it’s proponents say, basically, that it is a duty of the affluent to pay the health bills of the poor (or irresponsible). Or take foreign aid—does the state have the right to force taxpayers to give money to people in foreign countries, no matter how needy or deserving?

It seems to me that the best measure of a “fair share” of taxes is the way in which the money spent is being used, not the raw numbers involved. If the money being taken is spent justly, then the tax rate is probably fair. (“Probably” because other factors must be taken into account—for example, funding an otherwise just war by taxing only widows and orphans would hardy satisfy “fair share of taxes” requirements). If it isn’t, then the tax rate is certainly not just.

(A note on usage: the concept of “justice” will inevitably vary from person to person. A conservative’s idea of a just government would be a minimalist, libertarian microgovernment, while a liberal’s idea of a just government would be a welfare state.)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

George W. Bush: Worst President Ever?

Next Tuesday, Barack Obama will replace George Bush as president of the United States. Not surprisingly, given Bush’s approval ratings and Obama’s pop culture status, there is a lot of anticipation for the inauguration.

Many people are as eager to see Bush out as they are to see Obama in. Bush is not very popular, and has made his share of serious mistakes. And he’s not a very good communicator. Still, the hatred and disgust directed towards him by so many people is baffling. Bush might not have been a great president—but he is nowhere near the worst president in American history, as many firmly believe. (At least, so far. It takes at least two decades, and probably more, to get the full measure of a presidency).

Bush’s greatest failure is perceived to be the Iraq War. The wisdom of going into Iraq is certainly debatable—Saddam Hussein didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, and even if he had he simply wasn’t a real threat to America. And Bush mishandled the war—he stuck to his original strategy long after it was clear to nearly everyone else that is wasn’t working. The Iraq War, even if our present success in Iraq continues, will probably be seen as a mistake by future generations.

But not that big a mistake; certainly not large enough to tar a president with the “worst ever” label. The truth is that the Iraq War simply wasn’t that big or important a war. Four thousand American troops have died over nearly seven years. During the Vietnam War, that many men could be lost in a month. And had Bush not embraced the surge and America was forced to withdraw in defeat, the consequences would have been unpleasant (it would have emboldened Muslims around the world), but not that unpleasant—the vast majority of Americans would never have been touched by them. The Iraq War was, perhaps, a mistake—but a relatively minor one.

Another criticism of Bush that is supposed to relegate him to lower echelon of presidents is the alleged loss of U.S. standing around the globe. (Obama is supposed to be the cure for this). It’s true; the U.S. has lost prestige—except in France, which now has a pro-American Prime Minister, and England, whose Prime Minister supported (and supports) the Iraq War (and while Gordon Brown is unpopular, David Cameron, who is probably be the next PM, also supports the Iraq War), and Germany, with pro-American Angela Merkel, and Israel, Kuwait, and Albania, where they love Bush and America, and…really, most of the world doesn’t seem to have much animosity towards America. That seems to be one of those memes which occasionally rise without any real backing in truth.

If one is looking for the worst presidents in American history, it would be wise to look at other presidents than Bush. James Buchanan, for example, did nothing as the Confederate states seceded from the Union, making Abraham Lincoln’s task of fighting the Civil War much harder. Ulysses S. Grant’s Administration was plagued with corruption, and mishandled Reconstruction far worse than Bush mishandled the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussien. Warren Harding’s administration was woefully corrupt, and Harding was dreadfully incompetent. Franklin Roosevelt’s policies may have (actually, it would probably be safe to assert they did) lengthen the Great Depression, and it was only the fortuitous (at least for Roosevelt’s legacy) outbreak of World War II that saved him from being remembered as a disaster. Lyndon Johnson escalated the Vietnam War and bore responsibility for tens of thousands of American dead. Richard Nixon was a lying crook. Jimmy Carter’s domestic and foreign policies were failures. But since George Bush botched some insignificant (relatively) war in the Middle East, he’s one of our worst presidents? To say so is simply politically and historically illiterate.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Liberal versus Conservative Stupidity

Sarah Palin is firmly fixed in the minds of millions of Americans as a mindless bimbo. George Bush is supposed to be a helpless idiot. Dick Cheney is Darth Vader; John McCain a dangerous hyperconservative. Republican voters are supposed to be either mouthbreathing, probably racist rednecks or wealthy plutocrats.

These images are so prevalent mostly because of pop culture—Sarah Palin’s “bimbo” status was confirmed by Tina Fey’s Saturday Night Live impressions, Jon Stewart and Bill Maher push the “Bush is an idiot” meme, and Hollywood almost invariably portrays conservatives unfavorably, while portraying liberals as intelligent and good.

Many, perhaps most, of our opinionmakers see the world the way Hollywood, SNL, et al. see it—conservatives are unsophisticated philistines, while liberals are cultured, with-it bright lights. And this meme spreads—around the globe, and throughout much of America, liberals are considered the good, smart guys, while conservatives are greedy, dumb yokels. It is difficult for many to even imagine that it could be the other way around.

Actually, the liberal view of conservatives is correct, or largely correct. Palin may not be a “bimbo”, but she certainly wasn’t ready (or didn’t appear ready, and appearances were all we had to go on) for the vice presidency. Bush might not be an idiot; Cheney might not be an evil overlord—but they seem to do their best to perpetuate those impressions. And many, many Republicans are mouthbreathing philistines, who are suspicious of learning, join stupid causes, and have little interest in anything that seems to challenge their beliefs.

So liberals are right about conservatives, or at least a fair proportion of them. But they overlook another point—liberals are, as a group, every bit as closed-minded, gullible, and in their own way, provincial as conservatives are.

Most conservatives don’t believe in evolution. Stupid. But most (or at least very many) liberals are firmly convinced that socialism (real socialism, not the watered down kind they have in Europe) has something to teach us; many look at Fidel Castro’s Cuba as something of a noble experiment. Many even have mixed feelings about the Soviet Union—it is difficult to find a liberal who is willing to admit that it was an evil, expansionist empire that threatened Western civilization.

Or to take another example: white guilt. In spite of the fact that institutionalized racism has been dead for nearly half a century, and that millions of welfare dollars have been spent on improving black communities (money, by the way, that I would not grudge, except that it has been mostly ineffective), and that any black who feels discriminated against can sue, virtually all liberals carry a crushing burden of guilt for crimes that they did not commit, and that ended a long time ago. In fact, I’ve had a professor explain that she didn’t identify as white because of white oppression of African-Americans. (Which is, when you think about it, a bit hard on whites with ancestry different from Angelo-Saxon. Polish-Americans, for example, weren’t into racism much).

Between these two ideas (and many others), I think that it is fair to say that liberals display critical thinking skills as poor as those found in any conservative. The Left is just as stupid as the Right—just in a different way.

Liberals pride themselves on their sophistication compared to conservatives. They shouldn’t. Jon Stewart’s job isn’t any different that Rush Limbaugh’s, and his methods aren’t any more cultured. (In fact, I think it safe to say that his act is a bit more juvenile than that found on conservative talk radio). Stewart is considered a Swiftian satirist because he is on the Left; were he a conservative, he would be a racist rabblerouser. Keith Olbermann and Michael Moore and Rachel Maddow aren’t any more intelligent or balanced than their conservative counterparts—liberals only think so because they happen to be liberal. (Of course, the opposite phenomenon can be seen in conservatives; for them, Rush is genius, Olbermann an idiot).

If conservatives are closed-minded idiots, liberals are too—only in a different way. Both sides are rife with stupid theories, appalling gullibility, and absolute closed-mindedness. It simply takes different forms in the competing ideologies.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Conservative Economic Silliness

The economic crisis has brought out the worst in quite a lot of pundits, both Left and Right. Many liberals think that the country needs a two trillion dollar plus bailout, and that Wall Street is fundamentally evil and to blame for this whole mess. Some, such as Michael Moore, even go so far as to advocate full-blown socialism.

Unfortunately, conservatives are not in a position to criticize, as some of their ideas are every bit as nutty as the very stupidest things the liberals can come up with.

In a December 14 column, Jeff Jacoby proposed completely eliminating all federal taxes for two months—Social Security taxes, income taxes, everything. This scheme caught on—Sean Hannity, Next Gingrich, and Mike Pence, among others, all immediately jumped on board. This plan has become very popular among conservatives.

That’s too bad, because it wouldn’t work. First, the economic irresponsibly of this plan is incredible. The federal budget’s deficit for 2008 is already well over a trillion dollars. Can the government afford to lose a whole sixth of its annual income? Unless the government cuts spending by a sixth (it won’t), the cost of this proposal will only be put off till later. And even if we assume that the plan would stimulate the economy in the short term, it would mean a much higher price in the long run.

Republicans claim to be about fiscal responsibility. Losing a sixth of the nation’s budget (when it is already hard up for money) does not fit that definition.

Anyway, a tax holiday wouldn’t work anyway, for the same reason that stimulus checks don’t. People don’t base their spending habits on the money they have—they base them on the money they are likely to have in the future. So even if Washington did declare a tax holiday, it wouldn’t result in a cornucopia of private spending; instead, consumers would just hoard money for hard times.

Conservatives often complain about unfavorable media coverage portraying them as stupid and economically illiterate. Here’s a suggestion—maybe conservatives should look and see if the media is right. Much of the conservative movement favors an economic plan that is stupid and impractical and wouldn’t work. That doesn’t inspire confidence.

True, the ideas liberals have for the economy aren’t much better. But then, “our ideas might be bad but their plan is even worse” isn’t much of an economic policy.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Atlas Shrugged?

Stephen Moore recently wrote a Wall Street Journal column comparing our current economic situation to the one described in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. Moore writes that “[t]he current economic strategy is right out of "Atlas Shrugged… [A]s "Atlas" grimly foretold, we now treat the incompetent who wreck their companies as victims, while those resourceful business owners who manage to make a profit are portrayed as recipients of illegitimate "windfalls." This article was quite popular in the conservative blogosphere, and echoed what many conservatives feel about the economic condition.

My feelings about Atlas Shrugged are mixed—I hate the book, and consider it a literary enormity advocating an evil and stupid philosophy. Frankly, I can’t imagine how anyone could admire, or even finish, the book. But evidently there are people who can do both, and many people I admire, such as Rush Limbaugh, Charles Murray, and Clarence Thomas, are among then. So, evidently, the book has some value, though I can’t see it.

But whether or not Atlas Shrugged is worth reading, it is not a fifty-year-old prophecy for the present day. What is happening now is not very desirable—but it’s not socialism either. It is something quite different.

Actually, anyone who seriously thinks that what the federal government is doing right now is really socialism shows how little they understand of socialism. According to Wikipedia, socialism is “a set of economic theories advocating state or collective ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods, and an egalitarian society characterized by equal opportunities for all individuals and a fair or egalitarian distribution of wealth.” The federal government is not guilty of any of these things.

There is no government takeover of production, nor of distribution. There is no “egalitarian distribution of wealth” (or at least no more than usual); on the contrary, President-elect Obama is pushing for tax cuts. So most of the conditions for socialism aren’t even close to being met here.

And more importantly, true socialism can be (very) broadly defined as government taking over business. But here, it’s the opposite (or at least very close to it)—business is taking over government.

For years, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac operated under the certain assumption that the federal government would bail them out if necessary, and they were right. All the banks and insurance companies that were bailed out simply asked Washington for the cash—there were few conditions placed upon the money. Even when the federal government partially nationalized nine of the country’s largest banks, the “nationalization” took the form of a massive cash infusion, more a gift than a seizure of assets.

When GM and Chrysler needed money, they jumped aboard the bailout gravy train. Did the government take over these corporations? Did it give them money with strings attached? Did it set rules for the companies to follow? No, it did none of these things. Instead, it forked over thirteen billion dollars essentially unconditionally, even though neither company changed its business habits in the least.

The federal government isn’t taking over private enterprise—if anything, the opposite is true. Big business is taking over, or at least looting, government. The federal government has spent around eight trillion on various bailouts, most of which inject money directly into failing companies. That isn’t socialism.

Of course, just because it isn’t socialism doesn’t mean that it’s desirable. The merger of government and corporations is usually called fascism, but true fascism usually gives the state more influence. (It’s hard to imagine Mussolini, or Franco, simply giving half of their countries GDP to corporations. They would almost certainly demand something in return). A better name, perhaps, would be corporatism, where the government is influenced by large interest groups.

In Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas represents business, and the book revolves around the ways that business leaders fight against socialism. (If that makes the book sound interesting, it isn’t). But in America in 2009, Atlas isn’t shrugging off socialism’s chains—on the contrary, he’s using them to help support his burden.

Corporatism is no better than socialism, but it is different. (Biggest difference: socialism tries to bolster equality, corporatism tries to help the rich). It might not be much comfort to know that the federal government is embracing corporatism instead of socialism—but it is, I think, important to know the difference.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The End of White America

Demographic experts predict that by 2043, white people will no longer be a majority in America. (Although they will still be the largest racial segment of the population). The reaction to that fact depends, as with most things, on who you talk to—some, (though not all) conservatives seem to feel as though this is a bad thing, while many (though not all) liberals think that, if anything, this is a positive development, with lots of opportunities for diversity.

The perils of a non white majority America are overblown—Irish, Italians, and Chinese are quite different racially and culturally from the Anglo-Saxon men who originally settled America, but they assimilated, and with the possible (and unfair) exception of the Chinese, now make up a great deal of American culture. In fact, of all the immigrant groups to have come to America, African-Americans are the only one not to have assimilated fully into mainstream culture, and it is possible, even probable, that they would have had it not been for Reconstruction.

Irish and Italians (and others) were, when they first emigrated from the Old World, considered not quite equal to the good patriotic WASPs—after all, they had a different religion, and different language, and different customs. The fear that they wouldn’t assimilate with mainstream America and form their own country within a country was very real.

But, of course, it didn’t happen. All the immigrant groups who have come to the United States so far have assimilated quite well. There is no reason to think that it will be different for immigrants who come here today.

In fact, given the ubiquity of American pop culture around the world, assimilating is even easier. In times past, first-generation immigrants were utterly ignorant of America culture. Now, rice farmers from Thailand idolize Britney Spears. In the past, people came to America ignorant of the culture but wanting the economic opportunity. Now they come for both the culture and the money.

What would a non-white majority America look like? Probably not much different from the way it does now. Hispanics and Indians would probably have become more or less accepted as white, pop culture will probably look much the same, but with a some Mexican and Asian influences, and our Judeo-Christian value system will probably look pretty similar to what we have today. (In fact, it would probably be more conservative if anything, given Mexico’s Catholicism).

The liberal view of immigration, simplified, suggests that immigrants shouldn’t try to assimilate and should keep their original national identity and culture. That hasn’t seemed to have caught on very well among most immigrants—it’s all very well to have an unsullied culture, but it’s not (unless you happen to own an ethnic restaurant) very lucrative. It is mostly white intellectuals who seem to favor this strategy (as opposed to actual immigrants) and it’s hard to see it catching on.

Liberals might mean well, but the one way to guarantee complete white control over America is to discard the melting pot. Even if non-whites outnumber whites, that would only mean a nation in which a large, wealthy elite race controls the government and businesses, while the other races get the scraps. If the liberal vision of a “diverse” America ever comes to pass, it won’t be what they expect it to be.

But in the mean time, there is little to worry about. Our current immigration wave will assimilate, our culture will remain intact (if subtly altered), and our society will look much the same. And when (and if, considering the inherent unreliability of demographic predictions) America no longer has a white majority, America will still be America, and stronger for the new blood.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

My Top Blog Picks

The voting for the annual Weblog Awards started yesterday, and I always like voting and seeing the results. There are some good blogs that deserve some votes, so if you get the chance go vote for Ace (Best Conservative Blog), IMAO (Best Humor Blog), Gay Patriot (Best LGBT Blog), Instapundit (Best Major Blog), Ross Douthat (Best Very Large Blog), and Woman Honor Thyself (Best Small Blog).

To mark this occasion, I made a list of my top twenty favorite blogs. Here they are, in somewhat particular order--I wrote them down as I though of them, but I did save my favorites for the top spots.

20. Cracked.com

Maybe not strictly a blog, but it's close enough, and it's funny and surprisingly informative.

19. The Straight Dope

Again, maybe not a blog, but informative. Full of interesting trivia.

18. The Other McCain

Really good analysis and coverage here, and R.S. McCain happens to be the only major blogger who has ever linked one of my posts. (It was the one telling of my experience at a McCain rally). Even when he's not linking to me, he's really good.

17. Daily Dollop

Plebian doesn't update this blog as much as he should, but he gets away with it because he's so hilarious. His political humor is just so-so--his posts about his life are incredibly hilarious. Makes me laugh out loud as much as anyone on the Internet

16. Stuff White People Like

Christian Lander has upper class white culture nailed. Not updated very often, but hilarious when it is.

15. Slate

Not a blog at all, but since it's content is all online I think it's close enough. It's the online version of Time or Newsweek, except more topical and timely, and it more or less admits its bias.

14. IMAO

Would be higher, but Frank J. has really cut down on posting in the last year. Still funny though.

13. NRO's Media Blog

National Review Online has lots of great blogs, and this one keeps up with the media pretty well.

12. 5'3''

Maybe I'm biased since Beth is my oldest blogging friend, but I really enjoy reading her commentary on current events.

11. Science, Pseudoscience, and Irrationalism

Nobody's heard of this blog (or website, if you prefer), but it's the best I've found for debunking pseudoscience and lazy thinking. And the author is a college professor, which proves that not all professors are liberals.

10. Ann Althouse

It seems like Instapundit links to every one of her posts, and I can see why--she's prolific, fun to read, and smart.

9. Doubleplusundead

Sort of an Ace of Spades spinoff, but there's nothing wrong with that, at least when you do it as well as doubleplusundead does. Great lineup of cobloggers.

8. Instapundit

The patriarch of the blogosphere. Best collection of links anywhere.

7. The Next Right

I blog here too, and it's a good site, even if it's maybe a bit "inside baseball" sometimes (I mean, do we need to know every wrinkle of the RNC chairman race). Lots of good ideas here.

6. Hot Air

Great collection of links; great analysis from Allahpundit and Ed Morrisey. One of my favorite sites

5. Iowahawk

The funniest person on the Internet. Every one of his posts makes me laugh out loud. Literally incredibly funny. You have to experience him to appreciate him.

4. National Review Online (main site)

Fantastic collection of columns from the best writers conservatism has. Pretty much the first site I go to.

3. Campaign Spot

Terrific coverage of every bit of campaign news. In the last two months before the election, I don't think I missed a post here--it's that good.

2. Ace of Spades HQ

Funny, sarcastic, insightful--Ace is probably my favorite single blogger. And he has a fantastic group of cobloggers to complement him. Just a wonderful blog.

1. The Corner

About twenty of the best minds conservatism has, blogging on the same blog? It really can't get any better than that.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Disproportionate?

Right now, Israel is sending ground forces into Gaza in an attempt to root out Hamas. It probably won’t—Hamas is fairly popular in Palestine, and any Israeli collateral damage will serve as a Hamas recruiting tool. (Hamas deserves the blame for the collateral damage—they deliberately position key military centers near civilians, but I doubt that many Palestinians will bother to work that out). But it could cripple Hamas’ guerrilla capabilities, and will ensure that Hamas and Hezbollah realize that they cannot attack Israel without some very unpleasant reprisals. So it’s a good plan.

Except in the minds of most liberals. For some inexplicable reason, nearly all of the Left is solidly opposed to any attempt by Israel to defend itself. The Left doesn’t like war, but this is ridiculous. It’s hard to find another conflict with such black and white, good versus evil opponents. Yet liberals almost universally oppose Israel’s war.

First, it is worth pointing out that Israel rightfully belongs to the Israelis. Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire; when it broke up, Great Britain took over. In 1922, the League of Nations gave Britain a mandate to “secure the establishment of the Jewish national home” in Palestine. Securing the establishment took a while, what with conflicts with Arab natives of Palestine, and Israel was not created until 1948 with the expiration of the British Mandate. But the land comprising Israel was the property of the Ottomans, then the British—it is not as if conniving Jews stole the land from innocent indigenous Arabs.

So if Israel has a right to exist, and is a sovereign country, why isn’t its offensive against Hamas acceptable due to its right to defend itself? Because Israel’s response to savage, unjustified Palestinian terrorism is “disproportionate.”

“Disproportionate,” in this context, can mean anything. It isn’t possible to set a value on human life, and calculating the number of Palestinians Israelis are allowed to kill in retaliation for Islamic terrorism is just stupid. But that doesn’t stop liberals from trying—they reason that since about 500 residents of Gaza have died in the fighting, then Israel (which has lost a measly nine people to Hamas) is acting inappropriately.

Okay, 500 to 9 does look a bit uneven. But when one considers that Hamas’ kills are due to deliberate targeting of civilians, and that it would be much higher (Hamas has fired over 500 rockets into Israel over the last two years) if Hamas wasn’t so bad at fighting, and that all of Israel’s collateral damage is unintentional and it attacks only military targets, that number doesn’t look quite so lopsided.

And when one considers that Hamas positions military targets among civilians, Israel’s response starts to look downright restrained. Some collateral damage is inevitable in a war, no matter how well planned. Hamas’ human shield strategy is designed to maximize civilian deaths—for every military base hit, Hamas gets a PR coup. In order to protect itself, Israel must kill innocent civilians put in its way by Hamas. But the moral responsibly for those deaths should go to Hamas, not Israel.

What is really disproportionate is the response to Israel’s war against terror. According to Wikipedia (which may not be totally accurate but is probably in the right ballpark) over 4200 Palestinians were killed during the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from 2000 to 2006. Over seven thousand people died last year in a civil war in Somalia no one cares about.

Even if we assume that Israel’s strikes against Hamas represents a totally unjustifiable, wholly disproportionate response to years of attacks, aren’t there more pressing issues in the world? In addition to Somalia’s neglected civil war, there are the massacres in Darfur, China’s routine human rights abuses, and the rampant caste discrimination in India, all of which touch far more innocent people than the squabbles over the Holy Land ever could. Worrying about Israel’s use of force is unnecessary (since Israel is justified in attacking Palestine), and stupid, since there are so many other places that could actually use the concern.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Cold War is Over

The Berlin Wall came down in 1989. The USSR broke up in 1991. The Cold War has been over for seventeen years. The US military no longer sees Russia as its chief enemy; the concept of the Second World (the Soviet bloc) is obsolete, and the old diplomacy is dead. The Cold War is over for everyone—except the Democrat and Republican parties.

Both parties foreign policies were forged in the heat of the Cold War, and both made their differing foreign policies the centerpieces of their respective platforms. Then the Cold War ended. But both parties liked their platforms the way there were, and didn’t see any need to change. So now both parties feature foreign policy philosophies that are outdated and a bit ridiculous.

The Right was always implacably opposed to Communism, and recognized it as a existential threat to Liberalism (capital L, of course; the Liberalism of the Enlightenment). They favored an aggressive treatment in an attempt to stamp out Communism wherever it was found; hence an aggressive foreign policy against any nation that looked likely to turn Communist.

When the Cold War ended, conservatives still felt hawkish but didn’t know whom to be hawkish towards. And they started seeing any foreign adversary of America, no matter how insignificant, as a deadly threat to the American way of life.

This is how Saddam Hussein, who in retrospect seems a relatively harmless (at least to us) tyrant, became a frightening menace to America, and why conservatives seek to paint Islamic extremists as a truly existential threat to the West. In reality, Islam is no match for the West, even if it gave them a free hand—Osama bin Laden is the only Islamic leader to have actually done any significant damage, and suicide bombings are simply not an effective way of gaining power. Neither are protests—Europe might give in for a while—but once Muslims start demanding things Europeans want for themselves, suddenly their protests won’t be as effective. It’s almost impossible to see a plausible way that Islam could topple Western culture, and impossible to imagine it defeating the United States.

The Right is probably guilty of creating a paper tiger of Islamic fundamentalism. The Left is guilty of doing its best to make that paper tiger real.

During the Cold War, the Left saw Communism as something of a kindred ideology; far too extreme, but still something that could be reasoned with. That is one reason the Left opposed Vietnam—not so much because it was an unnecessary and strategically stupid war poorly handled (though that was a reason, and perhaps a good one), but because any war against Communism was ipso facto a bad idea. It would be unfair to say that liberals wanted the Communists to win—but they didn’t much want them to lose either.

And when the Cold War ended, they brought that same pacifistic fervor to the post-War world. For liberals, there were very few good reasons to fight a war, and advancing American foreign policy wasn’t one of them (on most occasions). They viewed every foreign conflict with deep suspicion, even though the U.S. was usually (it may even be safe to say always) fighting dangerous dictators who were, apart from any threat they may have presented to the U.S., had it coming.

So now the Left tries to excuse any crimes committed by radical Muslims, and opposes harsh confrontations with Islamic nations. Liberalism (small l) and radical Islam have nothing in common, leaving liberals defending an ideology that they can’t rationally defend. Most of the Left’s sympathy for radical Islam, I suggest, is borne out of an instinctive sympathy for those on the receiving end of American power.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

R.I.P. Donald Westlake

One of my favorite authors, Donald E. Westlake, passed away today. I enjoy mystery novels a great deal; Westlake's very funny Dortmunder series was one of the first mystery series I read. I'll miss him.

I'd recommend all his books, both those in his own name and in his pen name Richard Stark.