Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Celebrate Earth Day with Bjorn Lomberg

SWNIDish favorite Bjorn Lomberg is today featured in McNewspaper as a contrarian voice on Earth Day (motto: a Hallmark holiday for which Hallmark sells no cards). The piece is vintage Lomberg and includes some brief autobiographical notes explaining the circumstances that led to his leveraged dissent from the ecological mainstream.

For those who don't read enough of this blog or have short memories, the essence of Dr. Lomberg's thinking is that (a) the facts are that in many ways the environment is better off now than in recent history; (b) the environmental dangers that actually shorten people's lives are not on the environmentalist agenda; (c) economic development leads to generally better care of the environment.

So the obvious conclusion is that rich nations ought to focus their environmental efforts on improving the lot of people in poor nations so that all nations can be better stewards of this comfortable azure sphere. In the details, that actually means allowing growth in use of fossil fuel and agricultural chemicals and such.

Happy Earth Day, Bjorn! We think we'll fertilize our lawn tonight in your honor.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Political Rhetoric and Political Philosophy

In every Democrat's home is a fax machine that early each morning churns out the day's talking points.*

Lately the fax has said, "Republicans are destroying the effectiveness of government by undermining public trust in the effectiveness of government. And that's because Republicans want no government at all."

Certainly it's a stretch for most to connect the archetypical Republican with the archetypical anarchist. Libertarians make up a considerable segment of the GOP, but the traditional libertarian position loudly affirms the role of government in protecting the rule of law. A fellow of the leading libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute--one Gerald P. O'Driscoll--today reminds folks:

Classical liberals, whose modern counterparts are libertarians and small-government conservatives, believed that the state's duties should be limited (1) to provide for the national defense; (2) to protect persons and property against force and fraud; and (3) to provide public goods that markets cannot.

But the party of Jackson and Johnson these days tells the public that Republicans (all of them apparently, not just libertarians but also social conservatives and tories and pro-business types) want all government to fail.

The obvious and best explanation for this odd move is found in the polls. There's no bounce for Obama following the singular political achievement of ObamaCare. Public opinion now runs against government programs instead of in favor. Democrats are out to explain this political phenomenon as the consequence of Republican Evil rather than Democratic Incompetence (note well the tropes by which each party explains the other, though they frequently trade them).

Of course, the notion of limited government is pretty much the American political story, as is known well by those who have read Paine's Common Sense, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, the Federalist Papers, or any civics textbook that dates the founding of the Republic to the 18th century instead of the 20th. But these days, from Rahm Emanuel to James Fallows to Eleanor Clift, the real story is that Neoconservative Nattering Nabobs of Negativism are throwing bricks through the shiny plate-glass windows of governmental efficiency, simultaneously starving and slandering it.

Of course, Dubya is also to blame for runaway federal spending, but the incongruity is only apparent. Dubya cleverly intended to bankrupt government in order to destroy it, or he was simply stupid. Evil or incompetent: take your pick.

We say differently. In 2008 there arose an electorate that knew not the 1970s. Some young and others forgetful, without a functional narrative of governmental failure, exhausted after nearly three decades of accepting government's limitations (in which even a Democratic President famously announced, "The era of big government is over"), ready to place their "hope" in "change" that promised to deliver what previous, less blessed leaders had warned simply did not exist, the American electorate voted for something that runs counter to the prevailing political philosophy of its history.

Then roughly eighteen months later, it returned to its roots, as if awakening to a hangover and swearing off booze. And that is the fault of the party of Lincoln, Coolidge and Reagan.

We offer a brief reminder of history. This Republic's foundational legacy is the empirical philosophy of John Locke and the experience of the frontier, to which ambitious Europeans came to escape the failures of their history of feudalism and absolute monarchy. In Europe, where the long-term experience is feudalism and absolute monarchy through and through, the foundations are the French Revolution's romantic rationalism coupled with Bismark's attempt to transfer the loyalty of the monarch's subject peoples to a cradle-to-grave welfare state that dispenses favors. The one regards all people as endowed with inalienable rights. The other oddly affirms liberty, equality and fraternity while assuming that most benighted souls need someone from the elite to care for them. In sum, the New World seeks to have citizens while the Old World is content to have clients.

Whatever the silliness of the present political rhetoric, that distinction lies at the heart of most present debate on the preferred side of the Atlantic.

*Republicans accomplish the same with older technology: AM radio.

Monday, April 19, 2010

On the Motives of Tea Partiers

In the SWNIDish neighborhood, there are many pleasant, attractive, well maintained homes. One has always been a special object of SWNIDish admiration: a handsome Cape Cod, its brick painted a gleaming white, its roof and shutters providing contrasting black accents, its lawn thick and vigorous, its landscaping neat and attractive. Vehicles parked outside the house are clean and well maintained. The family has a mom, a dad, a couple of teens, and a couple of dogs. They are to all appearances moderately prosperous and immoderately happy, not to mention perfectly comfortable with neighbors of varying ethnicities, religions and economic statuses.

And as it happens, they're also the only folks in the neighborhood with a Tea Party sign in their front yard.

Such a collocation of comfortable prosperity and political dismay is impenetrable to Kate Zernike of the Gray Lady:

The Tea Party supporters now taking to the streets aren’t the ones feeling the pain.

In the results of the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, they are better educated and wealthier than the general public. They are just as likely to be employed, and more likely to describe their economic situation as very or fairly good.

Yet they are disproportionately pessimistic about the economy and the nation. A breathtaking 92 percent said the country is on the wrong track.

What accounts for this gap between how they are faring and how they feel the country is faring?

Her answer is supplied by author Rick Perlstein, who says that for conservatives, liberal government means that the country is being led by the wrong people, who send it off in the wrong, un-American direction.

Fair enough. But just maybe there's a reason why people who have made a good life for themselves resent what has become known as the liberal political agenda, that is, a reason other than resentment founded on self-centeredness. Perhaps the people Perlstein describes know that they have a pretty fine life, and they know what got them to that point. It wasn't luck or advantages but honest hard work, dedication to family, and a personal commitment to improving things around them. They'd like others to have the same opportunities, and they worry that such opportunities will be squandered by a government that creates disincentives for such behaviors through higher taxes and greater spending that seems to obviate individual virtue.

The notion of the "conservative" is one who recognizes the value of established ideals and institutions and so seeks to preserve and enhance those as times change. Seeking to conserve what has made a dignified, comfortable life possible is for folks like these Tea Partiers not a reactionary response to change but an honest, unselfish expression of concern for others. One can hardly condemn such people without first mischaracterizing who they are and what they believe.

To be honest, we've always wanted a house that looked as well-cared-for as the one up the street that now sports a Tea Party sign in the well-manicured lawn. We suspect that the folks who live there would like nothing more than for everyone to enjoy the kind of life that they have. That, we surmise, explains what others find mysterious.

The Futility of Trying to Repeat History

George Santayana said, "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

SWNID says, "Those who try to repeat history prove that they haven't learned it."

Put differently, the world is often run by people trying to solve past problems with past solutions. Those people mess up.

Some of these instances are so well known that they hardly bear repeating. For instance, the French "learned from history" that they faced invasion from aggressive Germans. So after the Great War they built the Maginot Line, a series of fixed fortifications designed to repel any German attack.

So the Germans attacked France by taking their new mechanized divisions quickly through the Low Countries, bypassing the Maginot defenses. We call that "World War II," and the French in that war were overrun, not just crippled as they had been in the previous episode.

That's a famous one, but no longer current. Here are some current ones:
  • An American President learns from FDR the importance of pushing through a far-reaching legislative agenda in the first 100 days of his first term.
  • An American President learns from FDR and LBJ the importance of changing the social and economic landscape with far-reaching social-economic programs that benefit the middle class.
  • An American President learns from JFK the importance of setting a far-reaching goal for space exploration, coupled with an ambitious deadline for completion of that goal.
  • An American President learns from Jimmy Carter the importance of major breakthrough agreements to securing peace in the Middle East.
Without pointing fingers, we note that such episodes of Presidential Leadership may not be all they seem.

First, not all of these initiatives were unqualified successes. FDR's actions in the Depression have been cogently argued to have prolonged it (see Amity Schlaes). However popular Social Security and Medicare may seem to be, the truth is that they are popular largely because the public fears that it will get a worse deal than the present bad deal if these soon-to-be-insolvent programs are altered. Were we starting afresh, we create something very different from these programs, as we've moved away from defined-benefit pensions to individual retirement plans in the private sector.

Second, to the degree that these initiatives were successful, they were well suited to their times. Here we note especially the aptness of Kennedy's challenge to go to the moon, as compared to the endemic listlessness of the American space program since then. Going to the moon was in the 1960s a singularly powerful initiative because it brought together a fast-developing cluster of technologies (rocket and computer sciences) with an achievable objective (going to the moon, a trip of about a week) that served a powerful strategic purpose at the time (a major Cold War propaganda victory over the Soviet Union). Really none of those conditions apply today: the technologies are mature, the remaining goals are fabulously farther away (the nearest that Mars comes to Earth is 140 times farther than the average distance of the Moon to the Earth), and there's little to be gained for American prestige in such an effort. In fact, it could well be argued that if another nation announced a program to take people to Mars, our Republic would be best served in global opinion by offering itself in a cooperative venture.

In a different direction, leaders of Christian institutions of higher education are often cautioned not to repeat the mistakes of those leaders who let famous institutions drift from their original faith-based missions and become secularized or liberal. Forgotten in that history are two factors. First, not all institutions that lost their way did so by secularizing or liberalizing. Most lost their way and slipped out of existence because they lost relevance. Second, the fundamentalist-modernist controversy that roiled theological institutions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries has been over for awhile. Theological "liberalism" still exists, but compared to its strength a century ago is hardly influential enough to entice the faithful. From either angle, seeing "liberalism" as the major threat to a Christian IHE seriously overlooks the differences between then and now--and threatens to seriously distract the IHE from the real and present dangers.

So we (vainly) ask for politicians in government and in the church to find ways to justify their actions that offers something other than "history teaches" as its preface. A good reading of history teaches as much.

Postscript: President Bill Clinton opines on this fifteenth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing: "As we exercise the right to advocate our views, and as we animate our supporters, we must all assume responsibility for our words and actions before they enter a vast echo chamber and reach those both serious and delirious, connected and unhinged." For Clinton, those who criticize government may unwittingly unleash the forces of kookdom on the innocent, just as someone unmentioned by Mr. Clinton unleashed Timothy McVeigh.

While this clever turn of political rhetoric did not prompt our post, it does illustrate it with disturbing aptness.

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Federal Spending Snapshot

There are those who say that we need more government, not less.

There are those who say that federal spending is high, but the other party spends too much too, so what's the difference.

Well, get your mind around this. The Heritage Foundation's Brian Reidl notes that this year's federal largess comes to $31,406 per household. Adjusted for inflation, that's the highest ever.

Taxes are $18,276 per household. The difference of $13,130 is borrowing, of course, and that's also the highest ever, of course.

Don't believe that it's previous deficits that create this one, either. Interest on debt is presently $1585 per household, around 5% of total spending.

Read for yourself where the money is going, and feel free to decide what gets too much and what gets too little. Remember that we add the bills for ObamaCare next year, starting four years of tax prepayment to get that little matter started so that it can add even more to the spending and the deficits and the borrowing.

Remember also that the party of Jackson made last year's "emergency" spending the budgetary baseline for this and all subsequent years.

When your children's children are pushing wheelbarrows full of gazillion-dollar notes to the Piggly Wiggly to buy a loaf of stale, organic whole wheat bread, you'll know who to blame.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Global Warming You Can Believe In

Arctic Sea ice is set to return to the "normal" standard as defined by the National Snow and Ice Data Center, for the first time since 2001.

Meanwhile, temperatures in the SWNIDish locale may reach a record high tomorrow.

It appears that we are now on a planet where the hot side stays hot and the cold side stays cold, the McDLT world!