The most instructive thing to me about the captured Osama Bin Laden video was the response by the “fellow travelers” in the Arab Muslim world. There is convincing evidence here of a society totally in denial and incapable of introspection, a characteristic of a culture that denies philosophy and is not worthy of inclusion in the civilized world. There will always be those societies, and they will ultimately fail, but they should be ostracized and eliminated where possible, and any nation-state that harbors such a society should not be included in the world council of nations. An additional point: this cancerous growth is not about fundamentalist religion; it’s not about religion at all. It’s all about power, and it is a direct descendant of the ideas of the post-World War II European leftist intellectuals, apologists for Stalinism, who spawned Pol Pot, Ho Chi Minh, and other notables who want to repeal modernity in the name of “blood and soil” collectivism.
Clearly, there are critical lessons to be learned from the Enron debacle—about transparency in reporting, improper capital structures for derivative and commodity trading, and management hubris—all of which, and more, will be paraded before us as the regulatory and judicial process unfolds. From my perspective, one very significant lesson, or reminder, may be that there is a reason that most successful hedge funds (which, after all, is what Enron was) are not publicly owned: they are almost impossible for any but the most sophisticated investors to understand. In all that we will learn from this, however, we should keep in mind that the market worked, and this should be reported as a success. As important, we should strongly resist the tendency on the part of many to use this experience to roll back or impede de-regulation and privatization initiatives. For example, the failures at Enron are not an excuse to re-regulate the energy and electric utility markets; they are not a warning not to privatize Social Security; and they are not a message for tighter controls on defined contribution (401k, etc.) plans.
Incredibly, the Board of Regents at Texas A&M University seems determined to “gerrymander” its definition of diversity in admissions, despite the Hopwood decision and clear evidence that preferential race-based admissions and lowered standards are the wrong approaches. What else can explain the recent approval of a plan to expand the top 10% automatic admission rule to the top 20% in schools with a high percentage of minority students? The Wall Street Journal wonders, as do I, how far Texas is willing to lower academic standards “to produce the desired color scheme. If 20% doesn’t work, will we go to 30%?” Or maybe we will follow the proposed plan at the University of California and drop all SAT requirements for admissions! Thankfully, a number of national civil rights leaders have followed the lead of the Young Conservatives of Texas in opposition to the plan and have asked Attorney General John Cornyn to rule against it. Where are our state political and business leaders? As I have argued before (April 2000), admissions parity for economically and socially disadvantaged students will come only when these students are much better prepared for higher education by our public school system. When will we learn?
Let me be clear: war is never a positive good. However, a just war can produce useful by-products, and this one is no exception. For instance, I have no doubt that this country is in the midst of a soul-searching experience and dialogue like no other in at least a century, if not since the Civil War. In coffee breaks, chat rooms, talk shows, churches, schools, boardrooms, and on op/ed pages, we are re-examining the American idea and the sources of moral authority in ways that will produce renewed purpose in our society. For “wonks” like me, this is great, and I particularly like the fact that, for a change, we’re being forced into serious national debates about our convictions in matters other than material progress or the size of our 401k’s.
When we begin again to think in these terms there follows a re-evaluation of our priorities in life and the grounding of our values. I am reminded of a remark by Lynne Cheney, whom George Will has called our “secretary of domestic defense”: “A people cannot be expected to defend what they do not understand.” This is a direct reference to our higher education system and the degree to which it has distanced itself from grounding in our founding ideas. In many instances, this has been manifest in anti-Americanism, pure and simple. A reversal of this trend would be another useful by-product as well as a beneficial restoration of the mission of higher education in the transmission of our cultural heritage.
The dialogue on religion has been instructive, and I hope that another by-product will be to dispel this notion of equivalence between Islamic fanaticism and Christian fundamentalism (see “The Bin Laden Tapes” above). Bill Moyers, in his recent Middleton Lectures address, seems to think that religion will be this century’s biggest problem and that we should put our “faith” in democracy, which he feels is threatened by religious believers. In fact, democracy, properly understood, doesn’t stand a chance outside a moral order and the rule of law, which are well informed by the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Finally, as I have mentioned previously, another useful result of the war would be a transformation of the Arab world to a secular governing paradigm based on consent of the governed and the rule of law. This will no doubt be impossible without an Islamic “Reformation”, and will truly be a battle of ideas and theology that may have more to do with the shape of the world in this century than any other conflict. We in the West can not be a direct participant, but we can encourage it by facing up to the duplicity of these regimes and our complicity with them, and by forcing states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia to make choices. It will not be pretty, but the battle should be fought to a conclusion because there is no room for the “Islamism” that preaches nihilism in the name of Allah. There are many cultures, but only one civilization, and the leaders of responsible Islam must decide whether or not they want their people to join it. This will be the most significant by-product of all.
Texas has been hailed as a beacon state for public school accountability, and rightfully so. It is far ahead of most states in the rigor of student testing and holding school administrators accountable for results. The primary testing vehicle, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), although roundly criticized, was a major enhancement and a good start. It will be replaced by a new assessment test next year, the TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills). As this transition is implemented, it behooves us to ensure that the new test is even more rigorous and demanding. Why? Because, in spite of recent improvement, Texas students still lag behind national norms. In addition, there is considerable evidence of a disconnect between TAAS scores and scores on national norm-referenced tests. For example, based on my analysis of the data, the reading scores for many elementary schools in Houston as measured by national norm-referenced tests do not at all correlate with the TAAS reading scores for the same groups of students. In other words, many schools whose third-graders scored well on the TAAS reading test are well below national average in vocabulary and comprehension. And, according to a study by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the same is true for Texas eighth-graders on the science test. The point here is that success on the TAAS does not necessarily equate to the success we want and deserve for our children. The new TAKS test has been touted as a significant improvement. Let’s hope so. The nation will be watching.
The debate over the economic “stimulus” bill reached silliness pretty quickly and I for one am pleased it went down. To split hairs over relative degrees of Keynesianism is not my idea of enlightened policy discussion. The whole idea was misguided from the outset. The Wall Street Journal sees the “ghost” of Dick Darman’s 1990 budget deal in Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill’s approach to tax policy and it’s difficult to argue. The Republicans refuse to lead with the growth policies that won them a majority. President Bush could have done worse (and probably did) than appoint Steve Forbes as Secretary of the Treasury or Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors. He has been preaching growth policies for years as an unabashed supply-sider and has also been warning of deflationary Federal Reserve policy. Others, including George Gilder, have recently picked up the deflationary argument. They make the strong case that productivity growth can be resumed only by urgent action to increase monetary liquidity, cut taxes on new plant and equipment and on investment generally, and reduce the drag of over-regulation, particularly on broadband expansion. One of the real tragedies of the 1990’s is that the Republicans allowed the pro-growth Reagan supply-side success story to be perverted and discredited. I believe that George W. Bush has the pro-growth, supply-side convictions that his father never had. And he has plenty of political capital. He urgently needs to use them both.