The best I can gather from the spin coming out of the recent climate change talks is a vow by world leaders “to use markets to achieve cost-effective [carbon] mitigation actions.” Translated, this no doubt means the imposition by governments of a heavy burden on productive societies for their carbon-generating activities, whether or not there is anything remotely to be called a scientific consensus, and in spite of the obvious ideological bias of the radical environmentalists revealed by the outrageous e-mail scandal in the climate research community that makes the 17th century suppression of Galileo look tame. And the Obama crowd seems not only happy with this successor to the failed Kyoto Protocol, but is ready to pony up our share of the shakedown. The shortest and best I have read lately on all of this is “Climate Change is Nature’s Way”, by Howard Bloom. One excerpt will suffice: “Weather changes and the occasional meteor have tossed this planet through approximately142 mass extinctions……an average of about one every 26.5 million years……There were no human capitalists , industrialists, or culture of consumerism to blame…….We have to realize that Mother Nature is not nice.” How true. And for all our battles with her over the years, this is one debate I hope she wins.
Get ready for this—in spite of the fact that the U. S. is not a signatory, the International Criminal Court is claiming jurisdiction over American soldiers in Afghanistan and intends to “end impunity for the perpetrators of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community”, according to the ICC web site. Of course, don’t hold your breath waiting for prosecutions of atrocities in places like Darfur or, perish the thought, acts of terror perpetrated by Islamic jihadists around the world. But strikes by American unmanned drones against terrorist leaders? You can probably count on it; after all, isn’t there moral equivalence with Darfur? And waterboarding? No comment so far. Suffice to say that this initiative has already had significant impact on our rules of military engagement, as American officers and troops have already been fully briefed and cautioned. Secretary of State Clinton recently expressed regret that the U. S. is not a signatory to the ICC, and we have George W. Bush to thank for “unsigning” it, fearing just the scenario that is now in play.
We just thought we had buried forever with the Carter presidency the notion of “industrial policy”, a kind of Japanese MITI-like concept of government direction of major elements of the economy, with various aspects of “investment” in favored industries and the selection of winners to receive subsidies and targeted tax incentives. Well, guess again. The concept is not only resurrected, it is even more grandiose than could have ever been imagined by Carter’s economic team. Of course, its centerpiece will be ObamaCare in whatever form it is finally adopted, but that’s only the big tipping point, for to follow will be a long list of attempted intrusions into markets and private contract relationships that should keep the Supreme Court busy for many years to come. And in the face of all this, at his recent jobs summit Obama asked a room full of CEOs, “I want to hear from you, what is holding back our business investment?” Can he really be serious? And the answer is that this is what passes for economic development thinking in an administration that has no idea how jobs are created, how capital is formed, and how it is nurtured, because no one in a key policy role has ever done any of these things. How much of this can we stand? Rich Karlgaard makes the insightful point that the salvation of the 1970’s was entrepreneurship and innovation, featuring many startups that are driving job growth to this day. And it’s happening again. The difference is that much of it is happening offshore, and the worry is that with the anti-capital policies now being initiated in Washington, the U. S. will miss the current entrepreneurial boom.
Victor Davis Hanson has written a brilliant essay in the November 2009 issue of Imprimis, in which he discusses what he calls the Western way of war, how it developed over the history of Western Civilization, its current configuration, and its prognosis. The sum of its evolution to date is that it has been without a doubt the most successful war methodology in world history essentially because of the moral and political systems which have sustained and organized it. Hanson’s disturbing message is the prognosis for its future, because all of the limiting factors on the tradition and current application of the Western way of war—its growing bureaucratization, the existence of world markets for weapons, the growth of the anti-war movement in the West, and, most seriously, the asymmetry of contemporary warfare—are magnified in our time. And his most disturbing point is this: “We who created the Western way of war are very reluctant to resort to it due to post-modern cynicism, while those who didn’t create it are very eager to apply it due to pre-modern zealotry, and that’s a very lethal combination”.
Hold the thoughts of Victor Davis Hanson in mind while contemplating the Obama war (or “unwar”) strategy. In Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, he at least acknowledged that “evil exists in the world” and that there is such a thing as just war, a major concession for him to the obvious consternation of his Norwegian hosts and his base on the left. In announcing the Afghanistan troop increase at West Point, he made a point to emphasize freedom and human rights as universal birthrights, a page out of George Bush’s doctrine. Good for him. But can someone please explain his detached demeanor and absence of outrage, moral clarity, and resolve at the continuing Islamic jihad against America as manifest in the terrorist attacks at Fort Hood and the commercial airline flight to Detroit, and most egregiously, the continuing acts of war perpetrated by the regime in Iran? Everyone with any common sense understands that these are not isolated “criminal” events subject to Constitutional rights and presumption of innocence and that we continue to be engaged in a multi-front war against various elements of radical Islam. Why has this escaped an administration that seems oblivious to the threat to Americans and our allies worldwide and refuses to even use the correct terminology? When will we get serious about profiling the Islamic jihadist terrorist threats that make a mockery of homeland security? And why can’t Obama bring himself to express unconditional support to the now certainly genuine Iranian democratic revolution, a move which could tip in our favor the most transformational event possible in the Middle East—regime change in Iran? I’ll attempt some answers later.
Not much more to say about what remains the worst bill ever, even without the public insurance option or public funding of abortions, at least until whatever health care reform passes from the Senate/House conference and is signed into law, but I cannot pass commentary on the travesty of the process by which the Democrats reached 60 votes to pass the bill in the Senate. Nothing I have observed in over 40 years comes close to the duplicity and bad faith that was in evidence here on the part of Harry Reid and the Democratic leadership, not to mention every one of the 60 who participated, not one of whom had the courage of conviction to enforce any semblance of integrity in “the world’s greatest deliberative body”. No less a Great Society liberal as David Broder was appalled and wrote: “Reid does what he usually does. He reduced the negotiations to his own level of transactional morality. Incapable of summoning his colleagues to statesmanship, he made the deals look as crass and parochial as many of them were—encasing a historic achievement in a wrapping of payoff and patronage”. This was not “business as usual”. Clay, Webster, Calhoun, even LBJ, would have been ashamed, and all honest observers should be as well. It is being hailed in many quarters as “historic”, but the only think about it that is historic is the arrogance of the majority party. One of our worst hours.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has recently released two reports, Protecting the Free Exchange of Ideas and What Will They Learn? The former identifies concrete measures recommended by ACTA and taken by 40 universities to ensure that students are learning how to think and not what to think. The latter demonstrates that our institutions of higher education are doing a poor job preparing the next generation for citizenship and the global marketplace. It also explains why a core curriculum is so important, what a good core curriculum should include, and why so many of our universities are deficient in this regard. The following quote from former Harvard College Dean Harry R. Lewis cuts to the heart of the issue: “At its best, general education is about the unity of knowledge, not about distributed knowledge. Not about spreading courses around, but about making connections between different ideas. Not about the freedom to combine random ingredients, but about joining an ancient lineage of the learned and wise. And it has a goal, too: producing an enlightened, self-reliant citizenry, pluralistic and diverse but united by democratic values.” In a closely related effort, I am proud to be part of a movement in Texas called the Coalition of American Traditions and Ethics, which is strongly advocating for core content in Western Civilization and American traditions in state supported colleges and universities, and I am pleased that we have been successful in the approval of an interim study of the issue by the Higher Education Committee of the Texas House of Representatives. I believe that the future of our country may very well depend on the restoration of the core liberal education, and it will almost certainly be necessary for the revival of conservatism, properly understood as classical liberalism. Stay tuned.
Of all the misguided initiatives to revive “industrial policy” currently underway, none is more foolhardy and risky than the massive intrusion into the financial markets under the guise of the rollback of the financial deregulation that has been officially designated the leading culprit in the meltdown of the past two years. It will lead to massive domination by government and increasing distortion of the capital markets as a result. And all of it could be avoided by looking at history, using common sense about what has truly been successful, and getting serious about our role as the keeper of the world’s reserve currency. We could start by reading a great book, Econoclasts, by Brian Domitrovic, which outlines the formulation, rationale, and history of the application of supply-side economic theory, with emphasis on the people who sparked the supply-side revolution beginning in the early 1970s. Essentially, the story is about monetary policy at least as much as about tax and fiscal policy, because the policy mistakes there have been the primary culprit in most of the crises of the past century, including this one. The most recent irony here is that the world’s champion of capitalism is now being lectured on monetary policy by a communist country that happens to be its leading creditor. The Chinese are not stupid—they hold $1.3 trillion of our debt and they know that the only way we can repay it is to inflate our way out of the problem and defraud the bondholders. Again, as the keeper of the world’s reserve currency, we have a higher obligation.
“What of the ‘why’ of the world? Of course the question has no scientific answer. It is the question beyond science, the question left over when all of science has been written down. It is a philosophical question.”—Roger Scruton, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy.
Recently I have been exploring the phenomenon of “scientism”, a concept suggested by the quote above. There are several suitable definitions, but one by Kierkegaard is about as short and precise as it gets: “the inability of the mind in its thinking to rise above the absolute reality of time and space”. Two books have greatly expanded the issue for me. One is Toward a More Natural Science: Biology and Human Affairs, by Leon Kass, who served as George W. Bush’s Chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, and the other is The Restitution of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism, by Michael D. Aeschliman.
President Obama has said that he wants to “restore science to its rightful place”. We should agree that science certainly has a rightful place, although I am not sure that he and I would agree on exactly what that role should be. These two books explore that role, how it has been distorted by scientism, how it should relate to its counterpart in human knowledge, which Lewis calls sapientia, or metaphysical wisdom, and how to achieve a restoration of proper balance between science and philosophy.
I don’t often disagree with George Will, but I must take issue with parts of his recent essay (“Unlike China, U. S. has a future rooted in the past”) that closes with the following: “While China increasingly invests in its future, America increasingly invests in its past, the elderly…………America’s destiny is demographic, and therefore is inexorable and predictable, which makes the nation’s fiscal mismanagement, by both parties, especially shocking”.
I certainly don’t disagree with the remark about our fiscal mismanagement, the current manifestation of which was begun by a Republican administration and greatly expanded by the current Democratic one. And I find the current distribution of health care costs badly skewed toward the later stages of life, although I don’t have a solution, short of government mandated care and price controls, which are anathema to most Americans. But I refuse to believe that demographics is destiny, because I continue to have confidence that the American tradition of common sense will ultimately prevail in the policy arena. One might say this is naive. Maybe, but it’s not cynical.
Will notes the enormous investment that China is making in education. Well, no nation spends more on public education than the United States, over $10,000 per student annually. We may complain about the results, and no one does more of that publicly than I do, but these resources are allocated based on the consent of a free people expressed through their chosen representatives, an important point. I have been to China, have had dialogue with some of its top leaders, and read extensively of their thoughts and strategies. They are scrambling fast to maintain control and deliver success to their people, mostly because it’s the right thing to do, but also because they know that theirs is essentially an illegitimate regime that must produce results at almost any cost. The Chinese also know that, ultimately, to produce the kind of results they need, they must adapt the success factors of the West to their culture, keeping the ideas that are useful while rejecting the ones that are subversive to their control (witness the current conflict with Google). In the long run, this is a losing battle and I believe they also know that.
Contra to Will, Joel Kotkin writes that demographics is actually an advantage to America, particularly given the differing demographic trajectories of the U. S. compared to the Western European countries and Russia. As for China, he suggests that their xenophobia is so embedded in their worldview that demographics can be a disadvantage in their ability to function successfully as a world and economic power.
In the end, America remains the only nation that, as Chesterton said, is “founded on a creed”. I am evidently somewhat more confident than George Will that the next generation can sustain that exceptionalism and all that it means for our world economic leadership, while not abandoning us in our advancing years.