The 20th century was one in which limits on state power were removed in order to let the intellectuals run with the ball, and they screwed everything up….We Americans are the only ones who didn’t get creamed at some point during all of this. We are free and prosperous because we have inherited political and value systems fabricated by a particular set of 18th century intellectuals who happened to get it right. But we have lost touch with those intellectuals.–Neal Stephenson in his book, In the Beginning Was the Command Line.
It’s really pretty simple–tell me your vision of the role of government and I will respond by pretty accurately estimating the degree of fiscal solvency or lack thereof over time. Tom Sowell wrote a great book 20+ years ago in which he outlines the essence of the problem in terms of its title–A Conflict of Visions. It’s the best book I have ever read on the conflicting worldviews that underlie almost every current policy debate. As I ponder the essential differences between the budget plans and implied social contract of the Obama administration and the plan advanced by Rep. Paul Ryan, this is the question–do we want to balance the federal budget at federal spending of 25% of GDP or limit it to 20% or less? This difference makes all the difference in our solvency over time, and it involves choices that are, at their core, moral choices. Dan Henninger boils it down to the questions, “who do you trust”? or “who is we”?
In a recent essay, Hadley Arkes understands the issue just as our founders did, that limits on government are essentially moral limits, and that the well-intended notions of the Tea Party and other patriots to return to constitutional enumerated powers, however meritorious, are futile without moral reasoning on the choices to be made. I know that I have visited this issue a number of times and that many readers are probably weary of it. The founders assumed that we would never be without this reasoning, but they didn’t count on a couple of generations of intellectuals who miserably failed us. And the truth is that there is no underlying principle, not even the well-founded principle of subsidiarity, which calls for government to be as close to the people as possible, that we can look to for the hard and fast limits on government intrusion, coercion, and dependency.
Again, it’s not a math problem; it’s about who we are.
It was, as has been described, Obama’s finest hour, and I won’t engage in any of the speculation about the details of the mission that resulted in Osama bin Laden’s death, nor any critique of the President’s role in it, except to congratulate him on his ultimate decisiveness and the outstanding execution of the mission by his team. However, three comments are in order: (1) Clearly, the much maligned security, surveillance, interrogation, and intelligence policies of the Bush administration were decisive and have been totally vindicated; in fact, it’s ironic that had President Obama’s avowed policies while campaigning been in effect, it appears very unlikely that such a mission would have been possible; (2) needless to say, our relationship with Pakistan is in need of serious reevaluation in light of a critical element of the Bush Doctrine–”you are either with us or you are with the terrorists”; and (3) as Yogi says, “it ain’t over ’til it’s over”, we’re still very deeply involved in a worldwide conflict with radical Islam, and any notion that this takedown of OBL represents an opening to imprudently disengage or roll back our defenses is irresponsible. In fact, in certain areas of the world, we should have been and/or should be more aggressively engaged; Syria, Iran, and Libya immediately come to mind, in each of which we owe their current regimes an ignominious exit.
No, I didn’t arise at 4AM to watch the live wedding performance, knowing full well that there would be hundreds of repeats over the subsequent week from which to choose, or not. But I am a fan of the British monarchy mainly because I believe that it represents the best of British tradition and identity, in spite of all recent threats of self-inflicted implosion. Bret Stephens probably said it best: “….royalty is the most venerable embodiment of British tradition, tradition is the lifeblood of identity, identity generates social cohesion without resort to force, and social cohesion is the sine qua non of a viable polity”.
Previously I have mentioned British Prime Minister David Cameron’s comments about the failure of multiculturalism in Britain, in which he championed a “muscular liberalism” that believes in certain values and vigorously supports them, including all of those that are important to the West. Meanwhile, it is well known that Prince Charles is on record with goofy comments wherein, if and when he ascends to the throne, he would change his title from “Defender of the Faith” to the more generalized “Defender of Faith”, a pretty conspicuous omission of the word “the”. Particularly in the context of Cameron’s comments, this is no small matter, because the place of Christianity in British heritage is paramount, not only in tradition and identity, but in its foundational role in the evolution of Western Civilization.
From all indications, Will and Kate are solid young people well prepared to assume their duties of maintaining this tradition and identity and, hopefully, Charles won’t have too much time to damage the continuity. Long live the Queen!
Last month I mentioned the current debate mainly centered on the respective values of research vs. teaching in our flagship universities sparked by my friend Jeff Sandefer’s “seven breakthrough solutions” to higher education reform and their possible implementation at The University of Texas and Texas A&M. Never did I suspect that the issue would have such “legs” and I have been surprised at how this dialogue has spun into such a media firestorm, with plenty of histrionics across the board. UT Board Chairman Gene Powell seems to be almost thinking out loud with many of his reform ideas, some of which are suspect at best. On the other hand, this quote from the UT System Faculty Advisory Council Chairman, apparently typical of the outlook of many in our leading universities, is equally off base: “You can’t really assign a dollar value to what a faculty member does”. Obviously, we do this every time we sign a faculty paycheck and there must be accountability for the value so assigned; the question that higher education must begin to ask in earnest is, what should be the weighting of the value criteria? And the transparency and introspection involved in gathering and analyzing the relevant information should not be resisted or considered such a foreboding exercise, however the process might have been mishandled in this case.
Although I don’t agree with all of them as presented, I find the “seven breakthrough solutions” generally reasonable reform ideas for serious discussion, albeit in need of fleshing out in terms of proposed implementation. Certainly they are not as totally outlandish as they have been characterized by many in the education establishment. Likewise, I believe that the dialogue on higher education accountability that resulted from the recent national higher education commission chaired by Charles Miller deserves more serious discussion than it has received.
On one key point that surfaces in all of this dialogue I think we all should agree, and that is that we must move to a new and much more productive delivery system for higher education as well as elementary and secondary education, and that the underlying economics will drive the outcome whether we embrace it or not. I hope this media-frenzied dialogue and paranoia don’t abort productive discussion about how we get there.
Our Federal Reserve has reached the point of almost complete dereliction of duty. With its reckless monetary policy, it has flooded the world with dollars and liquidity, undermined the world’s reserve currency, driven investment off America’s shores, misallocated enormous flows of capital to commodity speculation, and will ultimately be the leading culprit in defrauding dollar denominated bondholders on a worldwide basis. This is a moral threat to property rights of enormous proportions. The world is not stupid. Investors are moving to protect themselves and possibly to free themselves from the weakening dollar standard.
Meanwhile, “experts” such as President Obama and Bill O’Reily blame speculators for the inflation of oil prices. If they knew what they are talking about they should place the blame where it belongs–with the misguided policies of our Federal Reserve and Treasury, which have provided enormous incentives to hedge against the weak dollar. Just one example: The University of Texas endowment has recently moved $1 billion into gold bullion, a pretty big bet against the U. S. dollar.
Another looming problem: the average maturity of U. S. debt is just over three years, down from six years about 20 years ago. And this while we are printing money and issuing new debt like crazy. This is long-term financial mismanagement and will come back to haunt us when the artificial suppression of rates ends and we must refinance at much higher rates.
And now Congressman Barney Frank wants to eliminate the independence of the Federal Reserve, remove the policy involvement of its regional banks, and “democratize” its open market operations. Fed governance is bad enough already; can you imagine a bigger disaster than having Congress dictate monetary policy?
For the Soul of France, by Frederick Brown
The subtitle of this book is Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus, and it is a fascinating history of the wrenching issues that roiled France in the period between the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the beginning of World War I. This period bordered on civil war throughout as France was deeply split between cultural factions that ranged from those that embraced modernity and those that favored a restoration of throne and altar. Running through it all was the current of anti-Semitism that seemingly poisoned every issue. The author effectively uses the development of monuments such as the Sacre-Coeur and the Eiffel Tower to illustrate the polarization, along with the failure of an investment bank sponsored by Catholic interests, the collapse of the Panama Canal Company, and the sensational and fraudulent charge of treason against a Jewish officer, Albert Dreyfus. The dynamics of these events help to illustrate the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism in 20th century Europe, which created deep divisions that ultimately led to France’s surrender to Hitler in 1940. A brilliant study of a period not often covered.
The Shield of Achilles, by Philip Bobbitt
This is a massive work of over 800 pages covering five centuries of the evolution of the state through its worldwide cycles of war and peace. It was written in 2002 and includes an epilogue by the author for comments on the immediate post-9/11 world. It begins with a history of warfare and the development of the modern state over the period since the 15th century, then provides an in-depth examination of the dynamics of war, peace, and the international order leading to what the author calls “the long war” of 1914-1990, a period during which the world basically fought a number of wars to determine what kind of state would supersede the imperial states of Europe that emerged in the 19th century after the wars of the French Revolution. As told by Bobbitt, essentially what was at stake were three concepts of governance–Fascism, Communism, and Parliamentarianism. It is a bold treatment full of brilliant scholarship, and reaches some very perceptive conclusions about the characteristics of the “market-state’, which Bobbitt believes is the 21st century successor to the nation-state of the 20th century. This is an extremely detailed book, but rich in scholarship and very rewarding.