November 19, 2015

QotD: The Kinsley Gaffe

Filed under: Media, Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Michael Kinsley once famously defined a gaffe as when a politician says what he or she truly believes (i.e., “a gaffe occurs not when a politician lies, but when he tells the truth”), a formulation so iconic that it is now known in the trade as a “Kinsley Gaffe.” A special subcategory of Kinsley Gaffe is becoming more common in these days of ubiquitous personal electronics: “accidentally telling the truth without knowing a camera or a tape recorder was running.” This is the category where we’d put Obama’s remarks about “bitter” working-class voters who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” and Mitt Romney’s complaint about “the 47 percent.”

Megan McArdle, “Simple Policies Win Elections”, Bloomberg View, 2014-11-11.

October 17, 2015

QotD: Stephen Harper

Filed under: Cancon, Media, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

[Prime minister Stephen] Harper’s genius, as a power-seeking politician, is the opposite of Obama’s (the once popular USA president). He carries the “Conservative” label, of a party slightly to the right of the others in our Parliament. Therefore he has most of the liberal media machinery against him. Obama, as perhaps we all know, has enjoyed until recently a compliant and fawning media, that do not criticize their darling, nor hesitate to suppress news that would be unfavourable to him. Obama’s tactic has been to draw attention constantly to himself. He has something to say on every subject, empty of content, but dramatically insistent in its repetition of the first person singular. By contrast, Harper goes out of his way to distract attention from himself, and when he can’t, to avoid vehemence of any kind, or anything resembling drama.

This is not to say he isn’t ruthless, as a political operator, and backroom settler of scores. Anyone associated with Christian causes, such as the defence of human life, will know how he rules his pro-life backbenchers. His intention is to keep the party “on message,” with a message that will not excite media attention, so he can get on with normal administration. His strength is his reputation for management: he has not, like Obama, made a hash of everything he has touched. The Canadian budget is actually in surplus, and while our cumulative debt is substantial, and we face the same unfunded welfare liabilities to an aging population, we have not the bottomless debt and fiscal chaos into which Obama and other irresponsible politicians have delivered the United States. (Notwithstanding, when they crash, it will be right on top of us.)

But of course, this is a “democracy,” and the great majority of our population, as those in all other countries, are almost entirely ignorant of public affairs. Like children, they get bored with good government, but unlike children they have, collectively, the power to do something about it.

David Warren, “Ottawa in the news”, Essays in Idleness, 2014-10-23.

October 13, 2015

There “is no such thing as an American foreign policy”

Filed under: Government, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In the Wall Street Journal, Niall Ferguson describes the “Real Obama Doctrine” in US foreign policy:

Even before becoming Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger understood how hard it was to make foreign policy in Washington. There “is no such thing as an American foreign policy,” Mr. Kissinger wrote in 1968. There is only “a series of moves that have produced a certain result” that they “may not have been planned to produce.” It is “research and intelligence organizations,” he added, that “attempt to give a rationality and consistency” which “it simply does not have.”

Two distinctively American pathologies explained the fundamental absence of coherent strategic thinking. First, the person at the top was selected for other skills. “The typical political leader of the contemporary managerial society,” noted Mr. Kissinger, “is a man with a strong will, a high capacity to get himself elected, but no very great conception of what he is going to do when he gets into office.”

Second, the government was full of people trained as lawyers. In making foreign policy, Mr. Kissinger once remarked, “you have to know what history is relevant.” But lawyers were “the single most important group in Government,” he said, and their principal drawback was “a deficiency in history.” This was a long-standing prejudice of his. “The clever lawyers who run our government,” he thundered in a 1956 letter to a friend, have weakened the nation by instilling a “quest for minimum risk which is our most outstanding characteristic.”

Let’s see, now. A great campaigner. A bunch of lawyers. And a “quest for minimum risk.” What is it about this combination that sounds familiar?

I have spent much of the past seven years trying to work out what Barack Obama’s strategy for the United States truly is. For much of his presidency, as a distinguished general once remarked to me about the commander in chief’s strategy, “we had to infer it from speeches.”

October 4, 2015

The new new world order

Filed under: Middle East, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

David Warren gives us a handy run-down of the aspects of the “new” new world order (not that icky Bush NWO, but the shiny new Obama NWO):

The “neocons” are exaggerating when they say that Barack Obama has handed over all United States interests in the Middle East to Vladimir Putin. Only half of the region has been surrendered, so far. The rest he has merely abandoned.


What has suddenly emerged, or rather been confirmed, is a Russian/Iranian “axis” that extends from the domain of the Ayatollahs, across Iraq and Syria, to the Hezbollah domain in what was once Christian Lebanon. The murderous Assad regime now enjoys not passive but active and aggressive Russian support, and the Western powers are now outmanoeuvred in advance of any attempt to retrieve their interests in Iraq.

Those who believe Putin’s armed intervention will stop the Camp-of-Saints flow of “migrants” to Europe are extremely naive. This can only increase. From the outset, the targets for the Russian air strikes in Syria are the very territories that were free of the ministrations of both Assad, and the Daesh. By reconquering this essentially neutral territory for the Assad regime (Iranian troops are pouring in for this purpose), huge numbers with reason to fear retribution must certainly flee for their lives. Their route is through Turkey, which will happily assist their passage via dinghies to Greece, thus into the European Welfare Union.

Putin and company have no immediate interest in stifling the Daesh. Neither has Erdogan of Turkey, who uses the same ludicrously false claim to be bombing the Daesh, while directing Turkish strikes against Kurdish forces. The Daesh itself is useful to both. They serve as poison snakes within the Sunni Arab tent — masters in the spread of Islamist terrorism not only within the Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria, but of its export from Afghanistan right across North Africa. As the Sunni terrorist force of Hamas — supplied today mostly from Iran — they will prove an invaluable resource for destabilizing Iran’s Arab enemies. The case is complicated only by Putin’s interest in maintaining Iranian dependency on Russia.

September 10, 2015

Trump, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, and Michele Bachmann Rally Against the Iran Nuclear Deal

Filed under: Middle East, USA — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Published on 9 Sep 2015

Today’s big event in Washington, D.C. was a rally sponsored by the Tea Party Patriots against the Iran nuclear deal. The event drew several hundred people who showed equal amounts of contempt for the Islamic Republic of Iran, President Barack Obama — and the congressional leadership of the Republican Party.

There doesn’t seem to be a clear libertarian position on the Iran deal — some think it will open Iran up to moderating Western influence while others think it doesn’t do enough to keep the mullah’s nuclear ambitions at bay.

Reason TV caught up with Glenn Beck of The Blaze (2:18), radio host and best-seller Mark Levin (1:00), and former Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (5:10), all of whom ragged on establishment Republicans as much or more than they did on Harry Reid, Barack Obama, and Islamic clerics.

And we managed also to find out what Donald Trump — the big draw at today’s event — thinks about libertarians. (:51)

August 26, 2015

QotD: When “pragmatism” is far from pragmatic

Filed under: Media, Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Obama was alluding to FDR’s famous promise (at Oglethorpe University in 1932) to pursue “bold, persistent experimentation” to end the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s vow was itself a homage to the reigning philosophical pose of American liberalism at the time: pragmatism. Self-anointed champions of the “pragmatic method,” the progressives believed they were anti-ideologues, experts and technicians using the most scientifically advanced methods to replace the failed liberal-democratic capitalism of the 19th century. Words like “philosophy,” “dogma,” “principle,” and “ideology” were out, and terms like “progress,” “method,” “action,” “technique,” and “disinterestedness” were in. When Herbert Croly, founder of The New Republic and author of the progressive bible The Promise of American Life, was accused of violating liberal principles when he supported Italy’s great modernizer, Benito Mussolini, Croly replied that the flagship journal of American liberalism was in fact “not an exponent of liberal principles.” Indeed, “if there are any abstract liberal principles, we do not know how to formulate them. Nor if they are formulated by others do we recognize their authority. Liberalism, as we understand it, is an activity.”

This has been the primary disguise of liberalism ever since: “We’re not ideologues, we’re pragmatists! And if only you crazy ideologues” — “market fundamentalists,” “right-wingers,” “zealots,” “dogmatists,” etc. — “would just get out of the way and let us do what all smart people agree is the smart thing to do, we could fix all the problems facing us today.” It’s a variant of the old “scientific socialism” that exonerated the Left from the charge of ideological bias. “We’re not seizing the means of production and these great vacation homes because we want to — it’s science!” The subtext is always clear: People who disagree with liberalism do so because they are deranged, brainwashed, corrupt, selfish, or stupid. In his 1962 Yale commencement address, President Kennedy explained that “political labels and ideological approaches are irrelevant to the solution” of today’s challenges. At a press conference the previous March he had told the country, “Most of the problems … that we now face, are technical problems, are administrative problems.” And therefore we needed people like him and his Whiz Kids to “deal with questions which are now beyond the comprehension of most men.”

“Pragmatism” and “ideology” have themselves become clichés. Liberals are smart and realistic because they do smart and realistic things; smart and realistic things are the things liberals do. Conservatives, meanwhile, are ideologues who don’t live in the reality-based community; the things they do are by definition ideological, because conservatives do them.

Jonah Goldberg, excerpt from The Tyranny of Clichés, published by National Review, 2012-04-22.

August 17, 2015

QotD: Totalitarian movements as a substitute for religion

Filed under: History, Politics, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

If twentieth-century history teaches us anything, it’s that political religions spell trouble. Soviet Communism, Italian Fascism, and Nazism aren’t just called “political religions” by scholars today. In all three cases, observers at the time recognized and worried about the movements’ religious natures. Those natures were no accident; Mussolini, for instance, called his ideology “not only a faith, but a religion that is conquering the laboring masses of the Italian people.”

One reason that observers saw the great totalitarianisms as religious was that each had its idol: Mussolini in Italy, Hitler in Germany, and Lenin in Russia, followed by Stalin. Take Grigory Zinoviev’s description of Lenin: “He is really the chosen one of millions. He is the leader by the Grace of God. He is the authentic figure of a leader such as is born once in 500 years.” Stalin’s cult of personality was far more developed and sometimes explicitly idolatrous, as in the poem that addressed the despot as “O Thou mighty one, chief of the peoples, Who callest man to life, Who awakest the earth to fruitfulness.” And in Italy, writes the historian Michael Burleigh, “intellectual sycophants and propagandists characterised [Mussolini] as a prodigy of genius in terms that would not have embarrassed Stalin: messiah, saviour, man of destiny, latterday Caesar, Napoleon, and so forth.”

To point out these words’ uncomfortable similarity to the journalists’ praises of Obama is not to equate the throngs who bowed down to totalitarian dictators with even the most worshipful Obamaphiles. But the manner of worship is related, as perhaps it must be in any human society that chooses to adore a human being. The widespread renaming of villages, schools, and factories after Stalin, for example, finds its modern-day democratic parallel in a rash of schools that have already rechristened themselves after Obama, to say nothing of the hundreds of young sentimentalists who informally adopted the candidate’s middle name during the presidential race. Even the Obama campaign’s ubiquitous logo — the letter O framing a rising sun — would not have surprised the scholar Eric Voegelin. In The Political Religions (1938), Voegelin traced rulers who employed the image of the sun — a symbol of “the radiation of power along a hierarchy of rulers and offices that ranges from God at the top down to the subject at the bottom” — from the pharaoh Akhenaton to Louis XIV and eventually to Hitler.

Benjamin A. Plotinsky, “The Varieties of Liberal Enthusiasm: The Left’s political zealotry increasingly resembles religious experience”, City Journal, 2010-02-20.

August 11, 2015

QotD: The Environmentalist religion

Filed under: Environment, Media, Politics, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Environmentalism does indeed tell its adherents “what to eat” (pesticide-free organic food, preferably grown nearby to cut down on trucking) and “how to travel” (by public transportation or, better yet, bicycle). But it also lays down rules on nearly every aspect of life in a consumer economy: how to wash your clothes (seldom); how to wash yourself (take a shower, not a bath, and use a low-flow showerhead); how to light your house (with fluorescent bulbs); how to choose your TV (look for the Energy Star logo!); how to go to the bathroom (with high-efficiency toilets and recycled paper); how to invest, clean, sleep, and dress (in environmentally friendly companies, with nontoxic chemicals, on sheets made of “sustainable fibers,” and in clothes made of the same); and even how to procreate (Greenpeace has issued a guide to “environmentally friendly sex”).

Think about the life that a truly conscientious environmentalist must lead! Compared with it, the devout Muslim’s five daily prayers and the pious Jew’s carefully regulated diet are a cakewalk. What the British historian Alfred Cobban wrote about totalitarianism — that it “takes the spiritual discipline of a religious order and imposes it on forty or sixty or a hundred million people” — applies perfectly to environmentalism, except for the part about imposition. And there, one might give Jonah Goldberg’s answer in Liberal Fascism: “You may trust that environmentalists have no desire to translate these voluntary suggestions into law, but I have no such confidence given the track record of similar campaigns in the past.” Recycling mandates come to mind, as does the federal law that will impose silly-looking spiral lightbulbs on us all by 2014.

There’s also a close resemblance between the environmental and biblical views of history, as the late novelist Michael Crichton pointed out in a widely reprinted speech. “Environmentalism is in fact a perfect twenty-first-century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths,” Crichton said. “There’s an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there’s a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all.” That judgment day currently assumes the form of various global-warming disasters that will happen unless we immediately perform still more rituals. Never mind that the science so urgently instructing us to reduce carbon emissions — thus hobbling economic growth and prosperity around the world — is so young, and so poorly understood, that it can’t explain why global warming seems to have stalled over the last decade. Far more persuasive is the argument from faith: we’d better repent, because the End is nigh.

Barack Obama doubtless tapped into environmentalists’ spiritual longings when he accepted the Democratic presidential nomination. “Generations from now,” he proclaimed, “we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.” Italics mine; grandiloquent prophecy his.

Benjamin A. Plotinsky, “The Varieties of Liberal Enthusiasm: The Left’s political zealotry increasingly resembles religious experience”, City Journal, 2010-02-20.

June 23, 2015

Obama needs to convey a sense of urgency over the OPM hack

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Megan McArdle on what she characterizes as possibly “the worst cyber-breach the U.S. has ever experienced”:

And yet, neither the government nor the public seems to be taking it all that seriously. It’s been getting considerably less play than the Snowden affair did, or the administration’s other massively public IT failure: the meltdown of the Obamacare exchanges. For that matter, Google News returns more hits on a papal encyclical about climate change that will have no obvious impact on anything than it does for a major security breach in the U.S. government. The administration certainly doesn’t seem that concerned. Yesterday, the White House told Reuters that President Obama “continues to have confidence in Office of Personnel Management Director Katherine Archuleta.”

I’m tempted to suggest that the confidence our president expresses in people who preside over these cyber-disasters, and the remarkable string of said cyber-disasters that have occurred under his presidency, might actually be connected. So tempted that I actually am suggesting it. President Obama’s administration has been marked by titanic serial IT disasters, and no one seems to feel any particular urgency about preventing the next one. By now, that’s hardly surprising. Kathleen Sebelius was eased out months after the Department of Health and Human Services botched the one absolutely crucial element of the Obamacare rollout. The NSA director’s offer to resign over the Snowden leak was politely declined. And now, apparently, Obama has full faith and confidence in the folks at OPM. Why shouldn’t he? Voters have never held Obama responsible for his administration’s appalling IT record, so why should he demand accountability from those below him?

Yes, yes, I know. You can’t say this is all Obama’s fault. Government IT is almost doomed to be terrible; the public sector can’t pay salaries that are competitive with the private sector, they’re hampered by government contracting rules, and their bureaucratic procedures make it hard to build good systems. And that’s all true. Yet note this: When the exchanges crashed on their maiden flight, the government managed to build a crudely functioning website in, basically, a month, a task they’d been systematically failing at for the previous three years. What was the difference? Urgency. When Obama understood that his presidency was on the line, he made sure it got done.

Update: It’s now asserted that the OPM hack exposed more than four times as many people’s personal data than the agency had previously admitted.

The personal data of an estimated 18 million current, former and prospective federal employees were affected by a cyber breach at the Office of Personnel Management – more than four times the 4.2 million the agency has publicly acknowledged. The number is expected to grow, according to U.S. officials briefed on the investigation.

FBI Director James Comey gave the 18 million estimate in a closed-door briefing to Senators in recent weeks, using the OPM’s own internal data, according to U.S. officials briefed on the matter. Those affected could include people who applied for government jobs, but never actually ended up working for the government.

The same hackers who accessed OPM’s data are believed to have last year breached an OPM contractor, KeyPoint Government Solutions, U.S. officials said. When the OPM breach was discovered in April, investigators found that KeyPoint security credentials were used to breach the OPM system.

Some investigators believe that after that intrusion last year, OPM officials should have blocked all access from KeyPoint, and that doing so could have prevented more serious damage. But a person briefed on the investigation says OPM officials don’t believe such a move would have made a difference. That’s because the OPM breach is believed to have pre-dated the KeyPoint breach. Hackers are also believed to have built their own backdoor access to the OPM system, armed with high-level system administrator access to the system. One official called it the “keys to the kingdom.” KeyPoint did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

U.S. investigators believe the Chinese government is behind the cyber intrusion, which are considered the worst ever against the U.S. government.

March 22, 2015

National Review columnist says Obama is right and his critics are wrong … about the TPP negotiations

Filed under: Business, Economics, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

I’m a very strong free-trader, but what I’ve heard about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations makes me feel that it’s less to do with any kind of free trade and much more to do with “managed” trade, where favoured companies get sweetheart deals and cronies get their cut of the action. In spite of that, National Review‘s Kevin Williamson says we should all hold our noses and follow behind President Obama and sign the TPP so we can find out what’s in it, so everyone can get their free unicorn … or something:

If there were $3 trillion sitting on the sidewalk, would you stoop to pick it up? That is the main question facing advocates of the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a proposed treaty to liberalize trade and investment among a dozen nations including the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, and Japan — and the trade-and-investment accord’s antagonists, too.

“The first thing you need to know is that almost everyone exaggerates the importance of trade policy,” writes TPP critic Paul Krugman in the New York Times. That may seem a strange sentiment for a man who won the Nobel Prize in economics (*) for his work on trade — perhaps the Sveriges Riksbank exaggerated the importance of trade economics? — but Professor Krugman has a point. The effects of large-scale international accords in trade and other economic areas are difficult to forecast, and such deals interact with other economic realities in ways that are not always entirely obvious. When NAFTA was under consideration, we were warned about that infamous “giant sucking sound” by Ross Perot and other protectionists, while the free-traders predicted that the accord would prove a massive boon to the U.S. economy, as well as to those of Mexico and Canada. The reality, as measured by the Congressional Budget Office and others, is that NAFTA has had a small positive effect on U.S. economic growth. Human progress is made up mostly of small positive effects. Beware policymakers offering dramatic promises: As Daniel Hannan points out, those advocating the adoption of the euro promised that it would add 1 percent GDP growth to each participating nation in perpetuity and that it would also provide a check on political extremism — wrong and wrong.

The dispute over TPP finds Barack Obama at odds both with congressional Democrats and with progressive activists, and making uncomfortably common cause with the most reliable partisans of free trade: most everybody who hates his guts.

Some Republicans have reservations about investing the president with “fast track” authority — meaning that he would be empowered to negotiate a deal that would then get a simple yes/no vote in Congress, which turns out to have a say in international affairs after all — because they are mindful of this imperial president’s habitual infliction of violence on the Constitution and of his seething contempt of the legislative branch in which he served for approximately eleven minutes. But it is unlikely that Republicans will in the end say no to a trade deal.

Professor Krugman’s case against TPP is, in brief, “meh.” He offers very little in the way of substantive criticism of the proposed accord, instead pooh-poohing it as modest, something that might add no more than 0.5 percent, and probably not even that, to the incomes of the participating nations. Those nations represent more than one third of the world’s economic output, though. Brad DeLong of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth addresses Professor Krugman’s sniffing directly: What if the additional growth were only half that 0.5 percent number? “In a Pacific region whose GDP is now approaching $30 trillion/year,” he writes, “that is $75 billion/year. Capitalize that at 4 percent/year and we get a net addition to world wealth of $3 trillion. That is indeed a very small number relative to the wealth of the world both now and discounted into the future. But that is a rather large number compared to other things the U.S. government might do this year. So why not grab for it?”

February 14, 2015


Filed under: History, Politics, Religion, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

At Strategy Page, Austin Bay talks about the unexpected modern-day relevance of distant historical events:

President Barack Obama didn’t intend to make the Battle of Yarmuk (636 A.D.) a 2015 news item.

However, his bizarrely incomplete sketch of the Crusades, delivered last week at a national prayer breakfast, did just that.

The president’s media defenders contend he intended to make a justifiable point: Throughout history, people have corrupted religious faith to self-serving, murderous ends.

That, however, is an oft-repeated truth — something everyone already knows.

But our president, while repeating something we already know, equated medieval Christian crusaders with 21st-century Islamic State terrorists. See, man? They both committed atrocities.

Obama started solid, dubbing the Islamic State “a vicious death cult.” Yes, sir. IS burns alive Jordanian Muslim pilots. But “Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition,” Obama said, his solemn, deploring tone reminiscent of a preacher instructing benighted fools in the pews, “people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”

Obama then added that Christianity was used to justify slavery and segregation. While verifiably true, if you indict cross-burning Southern bigots, Mr. President, why neglect to mention that the 18th- and 19th-century worldwide anti-slavery movement was driven by Gospel-guided Christian abolitionists?

Christian abolitionists condemned slavery as evil and waged relentless political war on the slave trade. This inspired activism had policy effects and poetic drama (for example, the hymn “Amazing Grace”). Royal Navy anti-slaving patrols had global punch. The Jack Tars couldn’t shut down every Persian Gulf Islamic slave market, but they certainly deterred slavers operating in the Atlantic.

If only for the sake of fairness, Obama should have mentioned this Christian-led liberation instead of going knee-jerk and playing his worn-out leftist academic multiculturalist racism guilt-trip card.

I briefly considered putting up a poll for the readers that went something like this:

  • Who was President of the United States at the time of the First Crusade? (Washington, Madison, Lincoln, FDR)
  • Trick question, as everyone knows it must have been George W. Bush, right? Right?

  • Which American forces participated in the First Crusade? (US Army, US Navy, US Marine Corps, US Air Force)
  • Trick question, as the USAF wasn’t a separate service until after World War II.

December 26, 2014

Normalizing US relations with Cuba

Filed under: Americas, Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

The United States has been in a Cold War state of tension with one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere for half a century. The benefits of this strategy are hard to find (and harder to justify), but the drawbacks are pretty stark. The recent move by the Obama administration to move to more normal diplomatic and economic relations with Cuba may be driven by short-term petty political considerations, but the move is correct and rational on the larger scale. In The Federalist, Tom Nichols tries to talk the conservative base in off the window ledge by pointing out that there’s a strong conservative case as well:

Okay, everyone. Calm down.

There are a lot of reasons to be worried about the president’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba. Not least among them is that this is the least-adept foreign policy team in post-Cold War history (yes, I include the Carter and Bush 43 White Houses in that evaluation), and after six years of being taken to the cleaners by bad regimes, it feels like it’s happening again. It also looks too much like a quid pro quo for the release of an imprisoned American. And it’s being rationalized by the president himself in terms that show little understanding of the origins of the entire policy he’s about to overturn.

With all of that said, it’s still the right thing to do, and conservatives oppose it at their political peril.

Before we go any farther, however, what exactly are we actually talking about? To judge from the reaction of some conservatives, President Obama just proposed to send Fidel Castro a personal masseuse in a bikini stuffed with hundred-dollar bills. The fact of the matter is, we don’t know what will come from this, other than “normalization:” that is, the ability to establish an embassy, carry on diplomatic relations, and negotiate over trade. Congress — dominated by Republicans for the next two years — will have a large say in how all of that proceeds. So it’s important to maintain some perspective here, especially since there is only so much the president can do by fiat.


First and foremost, conservatives need to think carefully about the argument that Cuba is simply too evil a country to have a relationship with us. There is a moral “whataboutism” trap in that position, and liberals will gladly (and rightly) spring it. Many of the people thundering that we cannot even think of dealing with the Castros are the same conservatives who celebrate our massive, and utterly immoral, trade relations with China, a nominally Communist giant whose human rights abuses and mischief in the world dwarf Cuba’s.

Is our indulgence on China only because China is huge? Very well: I also note no similar outrage over our healthy relationship with much smaller Vietnam, a country in which American boys were killed and tortured, often with Chinese weapons and Chinese assistance. Other examples abound.

Yet we normalized relations with both nations. How many of us are wearing clothing with a “made in Vietnam” label right now? (I still can’t get used to that.) Think of it this way: all that cheap junk at your local department store eventually funds nuclear missiles aimed directly at the United States. Are we all ready for a China boycott and closing our Beijing embassy, or is moral outrage reserved only for small nations too broke to buy their way out of our condemnation, however justifiable?

November 20, 2014

QotD: Obama’s negotiation skills

Filed under: Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

[President Obama] said he would take executive action on immigration by year’s end unless Republicans passed a bill. It’s certainly a bold negotiating tactic: You can do what I want, or I’ll go ahead and do what I want anyway. This is how you “negotiate” with a seven-year old, not a Senate Majority Leader.

I’m not sure that isn’t what Obama thinks he’s doing, and I’m sure many of my left-leaning readers are chuckling right now at the comparison. But Mitch McConnell is not a seven year old; he’s an adult, and he just won an election in which voters repudiated Obama and his party. (Temporarily, I am sure, but just the same: As someone once said, “Elections have consequences.”) McConnell is not the proverbial Tea Party extremist who won’t negotiate; he’s an establishment guy, known as a strategist and a tactician, not an ideologue (which is why the Tea Party isn’t that fond of him). In short, he’s someone who can make deals. Responding to McConnell’s rather gracious remarks about finding common goals by announcing that you know what the American public wants, and you’re going to give it to them no matter what their elected representatives say, seems curiously brash. It might chill the atmosphere today when he sits down with congressional leaders.

I wonder if Obama even knows how to negotiate with Republicans. It’s not as if he has a long, distinguished record of passing legislation in a mixed environment. His later years in the Illinois State Senate enjoyed a solid Democratic majority, and he jumped into the U.S. Senate at a propitious time. Soon after he arrived came the wave of 2006, when Democrats controlled both houses of congress by comfortable margins, and Senator Obama was far too junior to be negotiating with the White House. Then came the financial crisis, and another wave, and Obama spent the first two years of his presidency in a happy situation where he could get things done without needing the support of the opposition. He didn’t even negotiate with his own party; the Senate negotiated his health care bill, and Nancy Pelosi whipped it through the House.

Post 2010, of course, he also hasn’t had much practice negotiating. I’m not interested in another tedious argument about who did what to whom; whatever the cause and whoever’s fault it may be, the fact remains that the president has spent the last four years in a stalemate: Neither party can leave, and neither party can win.

It’s a little late in the president’s career to learn the fine art of making deals with people who fundamentally disagree with you, but might be willing to work on whatever small goals you might share. I suspect it feels more comfortable to go along with the strategy that has worked decently well over the last four years: hold your ground, complain about Republican intransigence, and hope that Republican legislators give you another opportunity to play long-suffering adult in the room.

Megan McArdle, “Does Obama Even Know How to Negotiate?”, Bloomberg View, 2014-11-07.

November 19, 2014

Net Neutrality is a good thing, right?

Net Neutrality is back in the news thanks to President Obama making a PR push to the regulators who may (or may not) be crafting regulations to bring the internet under government supervision:

Because this issue is still in the FCC’s hands, no one can know for sure what rules the agency will adopt. One important question, though, is: will neutrality apply to wireless services or only to cable-based ISPs, such as Comcast, Time Warner, and AT&T? In addition, will failure to preserve the status quo slow down the speed at which Internet connections and broadband capacity expand (because ISPs won’t be able to shift more of the expansion costs onto the “hogs”)? And what exactly is wrong with ISPs wanting to charge content providers higher prices for more bandwidth and faster, more reliable downloads?

More certain, however, is that regulations requiring “net neutrality” will end up benefiting the large, established ISPs. Incumbent firms have gained from “common carrier” regulation throughout U.S. history. As a matter of fact, the FCC predictably will be captured (if it has not already been) by the very companies President Obama wants to regulate “in the public interest.”

The president’s call to action sounds eerily similar to demands for federal railroad regulation that ultimately led to the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887. Until it was put out of business in the early 1980s by President Jimmy Carter, the ICC allowed the railroads and, later, motor carriers and pipelines to charge prices exceeding competitive levels, thereby trying its best to protect the carriers’ profits at consumers’ expense.

William Shugart follows up on his original post:

The source of today’s online bottleneck can be traced back to local and regional government authorities, who quickly recognized the benefits (to them personally) of creating and granting exclusive franchises to one ISP that would, for the term of the contract, be a monopolist. (Government officials can extract more rents if they negotiate with only a handful of contestants.) Given that only one ISP would “win” the right to provide online content to local customers, the local monopolists also recognized a benefit of exclusive franchises: They would have the freedom to discriminate against some content suppliers by adding extra fees for privileged access.

So, a simple solution to the absence of net neutrality is readily available: Foster competition between ISPs.

Some people might raise the objection that, in this realm, robust competition for consumer dollars is unlikely because the suppliers of connections to the Internet are “natural monopolists”. In fact, ISPs are not “natural monopolists” as some commentators would have us believe. They are local government-granted monopolies. (Even Frederic Scherer, the author of the influential textbook Industrial Market Structure and Economic Performance, wrote that such claims of “natural monopoly” are “trumped up.”) Competition between ISPs nowadays is a contest for the favors of mayors and city councils who ultimately will determine who will win the exclusive franchise; it is not competition for the business of paying customers.

November 8, 2014

The “Johnny Bravo” of American politics

Filed under: Humour, Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:48

From this week’s Goldberg File email newsletter [Update: it’s now online]:

In Men in Dark Times Hannah Arendt says, “Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it … it brings about consent and reconciliation with things as they really are.”

This, naturally, brings to mind that great episode of the Brady BunchAdios, Johnny Bravo.” This YouTube video summarizes the tale expertly, but since you might be at work and are reluctant to get caught watching Brady Bunch videos (again) at the office, I will summarize. Greg Brady, scion of House Brady, is offered a contract from a record label. At first he is reluctant to sign on because he’s a loyal member of his family band. But the record producers convince him that he owes it to himself to be all he can be. They want him to become the new smash-hit sensation “Johnny Bravo.”

The role of Johnny Bravo comes complete with a sensational matador-themed costume and a rented gaggle of winsome young ladies ready to tear it off on command (very much like the job of senior editor here at National Review). The producers promise that he won’t simply be in the Top 20, he’ll be the Top 20. “Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride,” they tell him. It would be a tempting offer for any young man.

After much soul-searching, Greg agrees to become Johnny Bravo. That is, until he finds out that the producers don’t much care about his musical talent. Through the wizardry of music production — long before the advent of AutoTune — they twist his vocal stylings to what the market wants, not what Greg’s muse has on offer. “That’s not the way I sound!” Greg protests.

The producer retorts, “You? Now c’mon baby, don’t get caught up on an ego trip. I mean who cares how you sound? We’re after the sound.”

If you don’t care about my sound, what do you need me for? Greg asks.

“Because you fit the suit,” another producer responds.

Putting the O in BravO

Forgive me for committing the error of defining my meaning. But Barack Obama fits the suit.

In my USA Today column this week, I argued that Barack Obama is indisputably good at one thing: Getting elected president of the United States.

That’s it. He’s not good at being president of the United States. He’s not good at being the head of his party. He’s not good at diplomacy or public policy or managing large bureaucracies. He has no new ideas. But man did he fit the suit, metaphorically speaking.


I realize this runs against the grain of a lot of right-wing thinking — that Obama is really a secret Muslim-Marxist radical biding his time to seize the means of production and impose sharia. Well, the clock is running out on that theory.

I have no doubt that Obama’s more left-wing in his heart than he is in his speeches and public priorities. But my basic point is that Obama doesn’t realize that his electoral success was a function of the media age we are in. He fit the part. He said the right words. He was an anti-George W. Bush when lots of people desperately wanted an anti-George W. Bush. He was black, cool, and eggheady in just the right way. Voting for Obama made lots of people feel good about themselves — which is a terrible reason to vote for anybody. Media elites and average Americans alike were seduced because they wanted to be seduced.

They — starting with Obama himself — believed the hype. And he still does.

He’s like modern-day Johnny Bravo lip-synching an auto-tuned song about “keeping it real” and he thinks he’s actually keeping it real. He goes around talking about how much he hates talking points and sound-bites, how much he loathes cynicism and ideology. And yet, he does all this in talking points and sound-bites packed like verbal clown cars with ideology and cynicism.

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