Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Say again?

So last night's speech on the state of the economy. First impression: We're going to do everything at once: recover from this downturn while simultaneously hitting every item on our wish list! And how will we pay for it? Well, defense will be cut a lot, and the rich people will pay for the rest. After all, they have an endless supply of money, so taking more from them in taxes won't in any way affect their expenditures elsewhere. (There's a little straw in my restatement, for the sake of illustration, but show me where else we were told the money's supposed to come from. When the President said that he and his advisors had already started going through the budget "line by line" and had found places to cut $2 trillion over the next ten years - by the way, always extend your time horizon too far to be checked, and don't say whether your cuts are cuts or simple lower increases than currently planned - the only places he mentioned were defense and "big agribusiness," if memory serves.)

In other words, typical (post-Cold War) Democrat.

But then Pres. Obama reached the part where he "challenged" every American to commit to at least one year of higher education, and I was brought up short. Who the bleeping bleep does he think he is, telling me I should seek more education?

It so happens that I want more education. But I want it for me, not to fulfill some putative "duty to my country," as an earlier generation's or a different nation's politicians might have told me it was my duty to produce more children.

If this nation was founded on anything at all, it was founded on the right of individuals to chart the course of their lives. My high school government teacher, the gifted and beloved Mr. Grover, may he rest in peace, illustrated it in time-tested fashion by swinging his arm and walking toward a student - demonstrating his right to swing his arm until the point where it intersected with the student's nose. Of course, the principle he was demonstrating was the limit of an individual's rights, but whether he intended it or not, he was also demonstrating the right to do something other people consider silly or stupid.

Unfortunately for interlocuters who might insist that education is an unalloyed good or that its lack is costly to society, Heinlein, in his late work Friday, posits an independent California in which the government has noted that college grads make a premium over non-college grads. The inequity is quickly corrected by awarding everyone a bachelor's degree, and there's great rejoicing. Except that now, it's being observed that people with master's degrees are making more than those with mere bachelor's degrees, so there's a ballot initiative in process to upgrade everybody to a master's, backdated some years. What's the purpose of "challenging" everyone to seek more education than they have at present? If they're adequately educated to do their current jobs, what's the plan? The newly unemployed aren't lacking education; they're lacking jobs because the jobs aren't there at present. Prior to this downturn, unemployment was below the level considered to be "full employment"; education doesn't seem to be the problem. So this "challenge" does nothing except up the ante for what's required for a given job. Why? To provide more jobs for teachers? Are they pounding the pavement in disproportionate numbers?

In other words, from both a practical and a philosophical standpoint, it's a stupid idea. Encouraging education - sure, why not? While we're at it, let's encourage fewer abortions and more fruits and vegetables in the diet. But either to mandate these things (which Obama stopped short of doing) or to present them as a "duty" (which he did imply) is overstepping government's proper bounds.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

I agree with everything but the last bit

Here, Charles Krauthammer discusses the recent (stunning, wondrous) provincial elections in Iraq. A summary:

There was no Election Day violence. Security was handled by Iraqi forces with little U.S. involvement. A fabulous bazaar of 14,400 candidates representing 400 parties participated, yielding results highly favorable to both Iraq and the United States.

Iraq moved away from religious sectarianism toward more secular nationalism. "All the parties that had the words 'Islamic' or 'Arab' in their names lost," noted Middle East expert Amir Taheri. "By contrast, all those that had the words 'Iraq' or 'Iraqi' gained."

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki went from leader of a small Islamic party to leader of the "State of Law Party," campaigning on security and secular nationalism. He won a smashing victory. His chief rival, a more sectarian and pro-Iranian Shiite religious party, was devastated. Another major Islamic party, the pro-Iranian Sadr faction, went from 11 percent of the vote to 3 percent, losing badly in its stronghold of Baghdad. The Islamic Fadhila party that had dominated Basra was almost wiped out.

The once-dominant Sunni party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and the erstwhile insurgency was badly set back. New grass-roots tribal ("Awakening") and secular Sunni leaders emerged.

In other words, the garden we planted back in 2003, beset in times and places with marauding insects, hailstorms, thieves and ill-wishers, appears to be taking root. Krauthammer notes that - as always in the Middle East - Iraq is not out of danger; he points to three possible threats: military coup a la too much of the post-colonial world, strongman a la Chavez, and collapse due to a premature withdrawal of U.S. support. Iraqis, he reminds us, are responsible for ensuring that neither of the first two occurs; but we are responsible for ensuring that the third doesn't. Rather, President Obama, the will-o-the-wisp, the weathervane, is. Hurry up, Iraqis; you may not have much time to adjust to our absence.

Krauthammer ends his piece thus:

When you become president of the United States you inherit its history, even the parts you would have done differently. Obama might argue that American sacrifices in Iraq were not worth what we achieved. But for the purposes of current and future policy, that is entirely moot. Despite Obama's opposition, America went on to create a small miracle in the heart of the Arab Middle East. President Obama is now the custodian of that miracle. It is his duty as leader of the nation that gave birth to this fledgling democracy to ensure that he does nothing to undermine it.

The only part I take issue with is the "small miracle." American policy under Bush appears to have brought about an unprecedented miracle in Iraq, and in record time. I only hope that when the President is alone, he's both humble and sensible enough to realize the magnitude of what's happening there, and - his short public statement about the elections, "[Iraqis] should continue the process of Iraqis taking responsibility for their future," which Krauthammer correctly calls "ungenerous," notwithstanding - appreciates and accepts his responsibility for this child he didn't father.

Yes, I know I've grossly mixed my metaphors. Sue me.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Well, it's "change" at any rate...

What's this about the census?

As required by the Constitution, every ten years the federal government undertakes a massive effort to count and gather information about Americans. The information impacts hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions about federal funding and policy. But most importantly, it will be the basis for the redistricting which determines Congressional representation.

The White House has proposed that the director of the Census, a Commerce Department employee, report to the White House. The White House contends this is no big deal.

"No big deal": the decision about whether to perform an actual count or use a sampling method, for instance. Mmm-hmm.

On the topic of sampling methods, I'm sure we're all familiar with the Lancet's excess-deaths study from 2006, now quite thoroughly discredited. This is the result of improper application of statistics, and particularly agenda-driven improper application of statistics. There are situations wherein it's impossible to perform an actual count of something or someones; where that's true (and I believe it was indeed true in Iraq), those hoping for true answers ought to be especially cautious in their methods, since the factors that make a real count impossible can also contribute to out-of-whack sampling error (as in the Lancet study - and this is giving them a lot of benefit of the doubt, as it seems that the misstatements in that report are all in support of the principal author's personal views).

This is the census. The basis for allocation of Congress representation. Should it be contained in the White House? Would Bush have been applauded for making this move - or vilified (more)?

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Of means and ends

I'm far from the first to suggest that the American Left takes a page from Marx. (Far from the first.) I do try to avoid histrionics about "Democrat==Commie" and so forth, but when evidence like this presents itself:

The health care crisis means we must have Daschle and make an exception to the new raised ethics bar. The financial meltdown means that we must have Geithner and make an exception to the new raised ethics bar. The war in Afghanistan and the comfortability level of Secretary Gates means we must make an exception to the new raised ethics bar and have Deputy Secretary Lynn. The vital need to restore the Constitution (Whoops! Renditions, FISA, the Patriot Act, and maybe Guantanmo are, well, still here.) means we must make an exception to the new raised ethics bar and have Attorney General Holder. So what happened to Bill Richardson? His value to the nation in times of crisis did not justify an exception?

Now, this is Victor Davis Hanson's interpretation of events in the Obama Administration, and so we can infer partisanship. But what reasonable interpretations are possible? Occam's Razor gives us, I think, two: that President Obama called on these people because he thought they were best for the jobs and was willing to overlook their ethics issues as long as they didn't reach the public eye, or that President Obama owed or felt he owed some plum positions to these people (and was willing to overlook their ethics issues as long as they didn't reach the public eye). Neither one is very admirable.

And then we have The New Editor's Tom Elia, who sums it all up thusly:

At the dawn of the Obama Administration we have witnessed: four high-level appointees blow up over various issues, tax and otherwise (Richardson, Daschel, and Killefer get axed; Geitner stays); the appointment of at least 12 lobbyists to positions in the Administration -- in direct contradiction of campaign promises; a pork-laden economic stimulus bill without precedent in US history; and the reversal of campaign positions concerning controversial policies like rendition.

Let me say that I don't believe President Obama and Congressional Democrats are the only guilty parties with regard to the ridiculous "stimulus" situation. Congressional Republicans should be ashamed of themselves for going along to get along.

But there are two points I want to make about these observations. First, the subtext Hanson sees is obvious: if so many Obama appointees have ethical "challenges," shall we say, then how many whose lives aren't in the spotlight must have them? And second, and this harks back to my post on functionalism, when one openly allows the end to justify the means by making decisions that clearly place ends ahead of all other considerations (this is giving President Obama the benefit of the doubt by assuming that he really did believe he was choosing the best people for these positions), one runs the risk of being reasonably accused of ruthless Marxist-like pragmatism.

(The difference I see between these appointee missteps and the Bush Administration's Patriot Act, or better I should say Democrat pundits' response to the Patriot Act - that it was stomping all over our civil liberties, etc., etc., using fear as a motivator to convince everybody that we needed to allow the end to justify the means - is that objectively, the Patriot Act hasn't actually stomped all over our civil liberties, whereas admitted tax cheats really have stomped all over the US Tax Code. For instance.)

UPDATE: But wait - there's more! From the LA Times (to my surprise): "In Washington's culture, unlike the lives of most normal obviously naive Americans, that's [that is, questions of right and wrong] hardly ever the issue. It's about what works. It's all about strategy."

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Where is the whirlwind?

This week is the seventh anniversary of Daniel Pearl's murder. (via Instapundit)

Do you remember when it happened? I should say, "when he was slowly beheaded on video," just in case the name rings a bell but the details escape you? I do. I felt suddenly numb; I said to my husband, "They've sown the wind now." As Mr. Pearl's father says in the Wall Street Journal editorial I'm linking,

Those around the world who mourned for Danny in 2002 genuinely hoped that Danny's murder would be a turning point in the history of man's inhumanity to man, and that the targeting of innocents to transmit political messages would quickly become, like slavery and human sacrifice, an embarrassing relic of a bygone era.

And yet even in the immediate aftermath, the signs were all there that there would be no lasting outrage, no repudiation of the fundamental error of placing Pearl's killers and, oh, let's just say Israel, or possibly Bush's America, on the same moral footing. The moral-equivalency trap. No sense that being poor and downtrodden was not an excuse for being terrorists. No acknowledgement that being Palestinian, for instance, doesn't afford tacit permission for a person to strap on a vest full of C4 and walk into a bus station. No whirlwind.

Instead, we got a little horror - how not? - followed by a lot of explanation and excuse: what other choice did Pearl's killers have, after all? They needed their message to be heard, and no one was listening, so in a sense Pearl is a martyr not for civilized humanity but to the inexplicable vagaries and far-too-explicable injustices of the global information marketplace. He died so that they could be heard. Terribly sad, but in this unbalanced world...

No. He died because we silly Westerners believe that really, down deep, everybody's basically nice; some people are "driven" to "acts" of evil, but to call the people evil is un-nuanced, simplistic, plebeian. My parents took this tack when I was a kid; even right before the spanking, the line was, "I love you but I dislike your behavior right now."

That hair-splitting was absolutely true when my parents used it. And parenting is perhaps a good place for it. In geopolitics - do we really have to mind the tender sensibilities of those bent on our destruction, either retail (like Pearl, one at a time) or wholesale (via violent jihad, as its proponents understand it)? Is it not appropriate, and a whole lot less patronizing, to assume that our enemies are grownups, capable of hearing and understanding our outrage, and then to evaluate their response at face value - that is, as if they are capable of saying what they mean and doing what they say? Is diplomacy always a game of metaphor and hyperbole?

We all know it isn't. But they, whoever they are in whatever era, know that we prefer to think that "We will bury you!" doesn't mean, "We want and intend to destroy you!" but rather, "We have chosen a different path and think yours is lame!" And they, whoever they are, have learned that they can use this sweet propensity of ours against us, by using the metaphor and the hyperbole to soften us up so that we won't react, or won't react in time, when they actually do what they say they're going to.

In other words, global diplomacy is a lot more complicated than the Left seems to think, because sometimes - not every time, but sometimes - there really is an enemy, there really is no common cause to which to appeal - or at least not without a cost too high to pay, there really is the will to do evil. And no amount of negotiation, no matter how "high-level," can change these facts. Daniel Pearl didn't "pay with his life" to bring this lesson home; his life was not what he was offering, so we could say he "paid" only in the sense that the victim of a robbery "pays" the robber. Daniel Pearl died, innocent and out of his time, and from his death we should have learned about enemies and evil. Did we?

New template - someday I'll customize!

It's funny; I've built (let's see now) somewhere around a dozen websites for one organization or another, never using Frontpage or any other spawn of Satan like that... yet I just blindly accept Blogspot's templates. The fast food of layout.

Sigh. Someday I'll have time to dink around with it.