Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Specter delivers filibuster-proof majority.

Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter is now a Democrat. Democrats are as firmly in control of the Senate as they are of the House and the White House. The courts are next. America is a democracy, and now a democracy fully controlled by liberals. It hasn’t been this way since Vietnam quickly destroyed the liberal majority consensus that ruled my country in 1965. Obama only needs to work his personal charm on fellow Democrats. Republicans don't matter. My gosh.

Republicans thinking there is some silver lining ought to sober up by reading the analysis of Sean Trende, in “RealClearPolitics.”

Monday, April 27, 2009

Dog Bites Man: Media Loves Obama

Actually, the degree of bias is newsworthy. According to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, the nightly newscasts devoted nearly 28 hours to Obama's presidency in the first 50 days, versus 8 hours for Bush in his first 50. And 58% of the NBC, ABC, and CBS evaluations of Obama were positive, compared with just 33% for Bush. That means of the nearly 19 total positive hours of coverage given to either Obama or Bush, a whopping 86% covered Obama positively, with Bush getting just 14% of the combined total [chart]. And while network positives hit 58%, at the New York Times an even more one-sided 73% of the front-page assessments were positive.

“The Beijing Consensus”

Ariana Eunjung Cha, writing in the Washington Post, reports on economic policy’s emerging “Beijing Consensus.” British economist John Williamson 20 years ago coined the term "Washington Consensus": a standard set of policies including privatization of state enterprises, free trade, deregulation and restraint in public spending . The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the U.S. Treasury pushed the “Washington Consensus” on debt-ridden nations, espeicially in Latin America.

The current U.S.-origin economic disaster brings the “Washington Consensus” into question. With the help of Chinese academics such as Tsinghua University’s Cui Zhiyuan, who recently published a book on the “Beijing Consensus,” China’s leading economic role is now drawing increased attention. South Korea’s Ministry of Strategy and Finance, for example, just published a report warning of the dangers of Beijing’s “Consensus.”

Cheng Enfu, an economics researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, defines the “Beijing Consensus” as promotion of economies in which public ownership remains dominant; preferring gradual reform over "shock therapy"; being open to foreign trade but largely self-reliant; and pushing large-scale market reform first, political and cultural change later.

In other words, the “Washington Consensus” enforces a free market agenda on developing countries, while the “Beijing Consensus” leaves more power in the hands of the recipient nations, with China standing by as their champion.

In Cheng’s view, the global economic crisis "displays the advantages of the Chinese model" and has already expanded China's influence. "Some mainstream economists are saying that India should learn from China; Latin American countries are trying to learn from China. When foreign countries send delegations to China, they show interest in the Chinese way of developing.”

Barry Sautman of Hong Kong’s University of Science and Technology argues the “Beijing Consensus” takes seriously developing states’ aspirations “often ignored” by the West, such as "a more equitable international distribution of wealth and power."

The "Beijing Consensus"--another sign the current economic crisis will shift the global economic center from North America to Asia.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Value of Celebrity

Obama is purposely using his celebrity status to maintain high approval ratings that will help him push his legislative program through congress. So says political guru Stu Rothenberg in his “Political Report.” As Rothenberg writes,

In encouraging all of the celebrity coverage (journalists don't need much encouragement given the public's apparent unquenchable need for gossip), the White House surely is trying to keep Obama's appeal high among those Americans who really don't care a great deal about politics.

Being celebrities gives the Obamas a bigger audience, and probably deeper emotional commitments, than many politicians receive. Even if the economy doesn't recover completely and Obama's policy proposals stir up opposition, he could retain his popularity - and, with it, political clout on Capitol Hill - because of his (and his family's) celebrity coverage and appeal.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Education: Merit Pay for Teacher Teams

As I have written, D.C. school chief Michelle Rhee’s effort to reform the capital’s poor, largely black system is a real litmus test of Obama’s commitment to improving education. And we now know the Obama administration is letting D.C.’s successful school voucher program die, and also seems ready, in spite of campaign promises to the contrary, to weaken support for charter schools.

There are, however, other paths to education reform, including merit pay for teachers—something to which Rhee gives her highest priority, and something else during the campaign Obama promised to support. Merit pay bothers me, because it does set one group of teachers against the probable majority, with the majority likely to prevail [cartoon]. Better, I think, to handle teacher bonuses in the manner the Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein recommends for the financial industry:

[Goldman Sachs Chairman Lloyd Blankfein] laid out a spot-on set of guidelines for industry bonuses that would give greater weight to the performance of the entire firm than just individual performance and reflect long-term risks as well as the short-term gains.

Rhee should provide bonuses to entire teacher teams in schools that work.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Education: Obama's First Crashing Pillar

Obama’s agenda is now labeled the “New Foundation.” "New" Deal, "New" Frontier, "New" Foundation, get it? Upon a new, rock foundation, Obama says he’ll build his economic house with “five pillars”, one of which is education. (Obama loves pillars; see here, and recall the columns that last summer festooned his Denver acceptance speech stage [picture].) But Obama’s education “pillar” increasingly looks anything but “new,” more like some cardboard prop left over from a teachers’ union convention. This is tragedy.

The Denver Post’s David Harsanyi is following the story. He writes that while Obama’s Education secretary Arne Duncan argues we have an obligation to disregard politics to do whatever is "good for the kids," his department has buried “a politically inconvenient study” that showed “unquestionable and pervasive improvement” among District of Columbia students who won vouchers, compared with the kids who didn't. The department not only disregarded the report but also “issued a gag order on any discussion about it.”

According to Harsanyi, Duncan's “feeble argument” against the D.C. voucher program he and congressional Democrats killed is that

because only 1% of children were able to "escape" (and boy, that's some admission) from D.C. public schools through this program, it was not worth saving. So, you may ask, why not allow the 1% to turn into 2% or 10% instead of scrapping the program? . . . Duncan can't be honest, of course. Not when it's about politics and payback to unions who are about as interested in reforming education as teenagers are in calculus. . . Democrats who killed this scholarship program, specifically designed for disadvantaged kids, are . . . deeply hypocritical and dishonest.

Now that the unions have killed D.C.’s voucher program, their next stop, according to University of Arkansas education professor Jay Greene, is charter schools. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Green notes

Many proponents of school choice, especially Democrats, have tried to appease teachers unions by limiting their support to charter schools while opposing private school vouchers. They hope that by sacrificing vouchers, the unions will spare charter schools from political destruction.

But these reformers are starting to learn that appeasement on vouchers only whets unions appetites for eliminating all meaningful types of choice. . . In New York, for example, the unions have backed a new budget that effectively cuts $51.5 million from charter-school funding, even as district-school spending can continue to increase . . .

New York charters already receive less money per pupil than [regular schools, and u]nions are also seeking to strangle charter schools with red tape. . .Eva Moskowitz, former chair of the New York City Council education committee and now a charter school operator, has characterized this new push against charters as a "backlash" led by "a union-political-educational complex that is trying to halt progress and put the interests of adults above the interests of children." She is right.

As with vouchers, the studies of charter schools, according to Greene, “have consistently shown that students learn more in charter schools.” In New York City, students accepted by lottery to charter schools were significantly outpacing the academic progress of their peers who lost the lottery and had to return to regular schools. And middle-school students at charters in Florida and Chicago who continued into charter high schools were significantly more likely to graduate and go on to college than those forced to return to regular high schools because charter high schools were unavailable.

Greene fears that “vouchers made the world safe for charters by drawing union fire. But now that the unions have the voucher threat under control, charters are in trouble.”

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Fox First

The “RealClearPolitics” sweep of April 16 political news carries Brent Bozell of “Townhall”’s posting, of the same date, decrying Newsweek’s Holy Week pronouncement that America is in a “post-Christian” era. Bozell counters that the real story is Newsweek’s own decline as a mass media publication. I took a similar approach, and made the same point last week, on April 10.

The same “RealClearPolitics” sweep picked up Atlantic’s Ross Douthat commentary on yesterday’s nationwide tea party protests against raising taxes [picture]. Douthat’s article in turn links to one by ex-Clinton White House official Matt Miller that flatly says Obama and his advisors plan broad tax increases, “presumably in a second term.” According to Miller, “The math simply doesn’t work at current levels of taxation. . . But the one hard truth Barack Obama won’t utter is that all Americans will have to pay higher taxes before long.”

A day earlier, Canadian journalist John Ibbitson made the same point, writing “tax hikes are coming.” But in this blog, nearly three weeks before Miller or Ibbitson, I said on March 27 Obama is “just holding back part of the truth. . . We need higher taxes.”

On two separate issues, you saw it first here.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Partisan Road to Power

America, as I have said for some time, is deeply divided politically because the two parties have become so efficient at gathering up their supporters.

"RealClearPolitics’" Jay Cost has assembled strong evidence of this trend, including the increased gap (now at an all-time high) between Democratic and GOP support for presidents early in their (first) term, the rising number of states that voted strongly for one party over the other in presidential elections, the shrinking number of members of one party voting for the other party’s presidential candidate, growing negative feelings of members of one party for the other party, and the increasing ideology displayed by U.S. House members in their voting—Democrats voting liberal, Republicans voting conservative.

Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, after noting this trend, takes on Obama for advancing a heavily liberal agenda that forces Republicans into strident opposition (his debt-exploding budget bill passed both houses of congress without a single Republican supporter). Hadn't Obama run a campaign to end partisan divisions? The problem is, as Gerson himself says,

Roosevelt and Reagan, in their time, were polarizing presidents precisely because they were ambitious presidents. They believed that some national goals were worth the sacrifice of amity. A decisive leader is sometimes a divisive leader.

Obama is happy to be in the Roosevelt-Reagan mold—personally affable and disarming as he pushes his partisan agenda. Campaign promises of something different? So yesterday.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Post-Christian America

“One of the great strengths of the United States is . . . we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation. . .”

--Barack Obama, 4.6.09

It is common for the media to use Christmas or Easter to run attacks on religion (examples from TIME: “Is God Dead?,” Easter 1966, “Is the Bible Fiction?,” Christmas 1995, “Does Heaven Exist?,” Easter 1997). Newsweek editor Jon Meacham is in that same tradition with his current cover article, “The End of Christian America.” (Judging from Obama's April 6 statement, he must have at least looked at Newsweek’s cover.) “Christian America” is finished, Meacham says, because according to the American Religious Identification Survey, the percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen since 1990 from 86 to 76%. Oh.

Meacham’s article is confused. In one place he writes, “while the percentage of Christians may be shrinking, [b]eing less Christian does not necessarily mean that America is post-Christian." Yet he’s writing in an issue whose cover proclaims, “The Decline and Fall [emphasis added] of Christian America” that carries another article entitled, “A Post-Christian Nation,” and with Meacham’s own piece saying, two paragraphs later, “Many conservative Christians believe they have lost the battles over issues such as abortion, school prayer and even same-sex marriage, and that the country has now entered a post-Christian [emphasis added] phase.”

For sure, Meacham believes in and is delighted with “post-Christian” America. But there is something else going on. The Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism’s annual report on the state of the media found American weekly newsmagazines, including Newsweek, are the “bleakest” part of media’s declining audience, with their advertising and readership falling even faster than newspapers, as circulation dropped 4.8% last year alone. U.S. News has now ceased to be a weekly, and Newsweek, in a move to staunch losses, is giving up the mass market and trying to emulate the niche, elite model of the Economist.

So Meacham, who calls himself “an observant (if deeply flawed) Episcopalian,” therefore needs to set Newsweek apart from the Economist. And we now see he is doing so by having Newsweek take issue with the views of the Economist on religion's current strength. If you believe religion, including Christianity, is surprisingly healthy, think Economist. And Meacham, looking for circulation and advertising from the American elite, is saying, if you think Christianity is dying in America, think Newsweek.

John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, editor in chief and Washington bureau chief respectively of the Economist, have a new book out entitiled, God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World. In the Wall Street Journal, they “pick up the gauntlet” and directly challenge Meacham’s perspective, adding that anyway, Meacham’s unbelieving friends on the left “are less worried about religion per se as about the fusion of religion and political power in the form of the new right.”

And in fact, that’s the truth. Meacham himself quotes the Bible in his wishful effort to march conservative Christians out of American politics:

there is much New Testament evidence to support a vision of faith and politics in which the church is truest to its core mission when it is the farthest from the entanglements of power.

But wishing won’t make it so. The sharp, partisan battle for control of America goes on. Millions of believers, in large part nonwhite, voted for Obama. Meacham and his elite friends know that if Republicans can rid themselves of their party’s racist past and successfully cobble together a coalition of all races that believes the fight for God over Mammon must begin on Sunday and continue throughout the week, Obama’s majority disappears.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

“Blame it on George.”

What’s with Obama’s “apologizing” overseas for Bush’s “mistakes”? It bothers me a lot. National Review's Rich Lowrey gets a piece of what’s happening in criticizing Obama for an ineffective foreign policy:

Barack Obama added a line at the last minute that wasn’t in the prepared text of his nuclear-disarmament speech in Prague: “I’m not naïve.” He needed the disclaimer because, nearly simultaneously with his speech embracing the goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons, Kim Jong Il launched a three-stage rocket over Japan. Coincidence?

. . . The nuclear gambit is emblematic of Obama’s “excuse me” — or excuse my predecessor and my country — diplomacy. He played to the European crowd by chastising Bush and his countrymen for their arrogance. He took responsibility for starting the financial crisis. He noted his country’s diminished power, with evident satisfaction. All of this can be justified as winning over Europe with a soft sell, if it weren’t that he got nothing for it.

Obama pleaded for more troops in Afghanistan. . . Sarkozy responded with no additional troops, [but] pronounced himself greatly pleased to be working “with a U.S. president who . . . understands that the world does not boil down to simply American frontiers and borders.”

I see it differently. Like Nixon, who had an “enemies list” that began with CBS News and the New York Times, Obama’s war is at home. His enemies are Republicans: Bush, and whatever Republican takes Bush’s place. Overseas, he searches for allies who agree with him that “bad America” (as opposed to Obamamerica) is the real enemy of the world’s people. Therefore, Obama’s war against Republicans is the right war.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

First the G-20, Next the UN Security Council

Any ongoing G-20 success will prepare the ground for UN Security Council reform. To push UN reform toward reality, the G-20 first needs regular summits every six months. Second, and urgently, the G-20 should fix its membership further away from Euro-centered powers (no EU Council presidency voting member, Italy out, rotating representation from three remaining EU slots, Australia out) and toward large, economically and politically, non-European nations (Pakistan, Nigeria, Thailand), while also correcting the error of passing over Iran in favor of Saudi Arabia. And third, the G-20 needs a permanent staff.

A working G-20, with semi-annual summits and a staff, will sooner or later threaten the UN and its large bureaucracy. Put simply, the UN doesn’t work because its Security Council doesn’t represent today’s world. And the G-20, particularly revised as I have suggested, does. The UN members talk endlessly about the need for Security Council reform and how to do it. A working G-20 may finally spur the UN’s needed reform.

My suggested Security Council reform would 1) expand permanent membership from five to eight, change Britain and France to two rotating EU slots that would also include Germany, and add Japan, India, and Brazil; 2) modify the veto so that two negative permanent member votes would be required to block a resolution; 3) add seven other members based largely upon the size of their population and economy, and; 4) allow for membership changes based upon revisions in national economic and political power. This new Security Council would be truly representative, accounting for 70% of the world’s people and four-fifths of the world economy [statistics here]. It would be a Security Council that could work.

Representation by continent (exceeds 15 because of overlap): Europe (3), North America (3), South Asia (3), Latin America (2), East Asia (2), Middle East (2), Southeast Asia (1), Africa (1).

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The New, Improved G-20

After further reflection, I’m reducing the differences between my suggested G-20 and the current membership list. I would remove the European Union as a voting member, and make it ex-offico as the IMF, the World Bank and others are already. I would then reduce the current G-20 membership of EU nations Germany, Great Britain, France, and Italy from 4 to 3, letting the four sort out who occupies the three seats, presumably with some sort of rotation. I would still remove Saudi Arabia and Australia (how could you take Italy off and leave Australia on?). The G-20 could then add Iran, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Thailand, with the understanding that membership is subject to change, based upon population and economic clout.

Counting the three EU members as representing the entire EU, the new G-20 [statistics here--hit on chart] would represent 6% more of the world’s people—for a total of 72%, nearly three-quarters of the planet—and 1% more of world wealth (83% total). As an even more representative group, it would have an even better chance of acting on behalf of the entire earth. That’s something the UN is increasingly unable to do. The case for international cooperation is especially strong in the economic area, so the G-20 can become the forum where the world works out a global path to prosperity.

Below, the “new, improved” G-20:

Ex-offico: EU Council presidency and the European Central Bank, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the President of the World Bank, plus chairs of the International Monetary and Financial Committee and Development Committee of the IMF and World Bank.

Representation by continent (exceeds 20 because of overlap): Europe (5), East Asia (3), North America (3), Latin America (3), Middle East (3), Africa (2), South Asia (2), Southeast Asia ( 2).

* = Not on “new, improved UN Security Council.” (See next item.)

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Getting the G-20 right.

It’s welcome news that the G-7 club of Europe, North America, and Japan (the G-8 with Russia included) has evolved into the more representative G-20, now having just concluded its second summit in six months. While the UN has kicked around—with zero progress—Security Council reform for decades, we suddenly have an extra-UN group of nations slightly larger than the Security Council that pretty fairly represents world economic and political power.

I wrote yesterday that the G-20 is over-weighted in favor of nations bordering the Atlantic, giving 5 seats to EU members, and three dominated by the European descendants still running the U.S., Canada, and Australia. It's a great improvement to add the BRIC nations of Brazil, Russia, India, and China to Japan, the only non-white G-7 member [click on chart to enlarge]. These nations represent 44% of the world’s people (against the Euro-based 8’s 13%), yet also have 28% of the world’s wealth.

In rounding out the G-20, organizers went down the list of largest economies, while wisely leaving out additional European members. As I noted earlier, the G-20 bosses, deliberately I presume, passed over Iran in favor of Saudi Arabia. Iran has twice as many people and a larger economy than Saudi Arabia, and I would switch the two. Still, it’s great to have countries such as Indonesia, South Korea, Mexico, and Turkey finally brought into the world’s continuing leadership group.

The more important the G-20 becomes, the more important it is to do membership correctly. We’ve taken a big step to get this far—a fairly representative group just small enough to get things done. Before membership is set in stone, the G-20 should end Europe’s continued over-representation, and place non-European nations with large populations and economies into three of the five seats currently filled by EU members.

The EU should sort out for itself how it fills its two seats. Currently, Thailand (with one of the 20 largest economies), Pakistan, and Nigeria seem the best candidates for the three extra seats the EU still holds. Finally, Australia is too small to be in the G-20 even with its nice-sized economy. Bangladesh, with over 7 times as many people, should take Australia’s place. Big countries, more than big economies, need to be at the table discussing economic problems on behalf of the world’s people.

One hopes G-20 membership stays flexible, free to change as countries gain in relative political and economic strength.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

G-20: Rejecting “the Pond”

“The Pond” is an expression suggesting “no distance between the U.S. and Europe.” I wish it would go away. Perhaps, it was an innocent-enough exaggeration when the two continents were coming together in the 1970s, with the introduction of Concorde New York-London flights of 3-1/2 hours. But after 27 years of never really catching on, the Concorde ceased service in 2003. The distance then grew greater, not ever shorter as we once had expected. But “the Pond” phrase lives on.

Obama has jumped “the Pond” to London for the latest G-20 meeting. The G-20, as its own website says,

brings together important industrial and emerging-market countries from all regions of the world. Together, member countries represent around 90 per cent of global gross national product, 80 per cent of world trade (including EU intra-trade) as well as two-thirds of the world's population. The G-20's economic weight and broad membership gives it a high degree of legitimacy and influence over the management of the global economy and financial system.

The G-20’s impressive statistics combine numbers from all of Europe, something the G-20 gets away with because one of the G-20 members represents the entire “European Union,” even though EU members Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy are also G-20 members. Add the U.S. and Canada, and 7 of the G-20’s members are of “the Pond.”

The term “the Pond” especially bothers me because it re-enforces the East Coast-based American elite’s obvious admiration for Europe at a time when, under Obama, we are drawing closer to European-style democratic socialism—government control of industry, high taxes, powerful unions, government-financed underclass, nanny-state regulations, national health insurance. Our elite loves Europe.

Conservative scholar Charles Murray recently laid out his case against Europe and for continued American exceptionalism. Murray said in Stockholm, Amsterdam, London, Paris, “the people don’t seem to be groaning under the yoke of an evil system. Quite the contrary. There’s a lot to like—a lot to love—about day-to-day life in Europe.” But he also suggested, “the European model can’t continue to work much longer. Europe’s catastrophically low birth rates and soaring immigration from cultures with alien values will see to that.”

Here’s the heart of Murray’s case against Europe (my summary):

“A life well-lived” has meaning. It brings “deep satisfactions”— what we look back upon when we reach old age. Such a human activity has to have been important; to have required a lot of effort (hence the cliché “nothing worth having comes easily”), and; you have to have been responsible for the consequences.

Few activities can satisfy those requirements. If we ask what are the institutions through which human beings achieve deep satisfactions in life, the answer is that there are just four: family, community, vocation, and faith. Nobody has to make use of all four institutions, but the stuff of life—the elemental events surrounding birth, death, raising children, fulfilling one’s personal potential, dealing with adversity, intimate relationships—coping with life as it exists around us in all its richness—occurs within those four institutions.

The goal of social policy should be to ensure that those institutions are robust and vital. And that’s what’s wrong with the European model. It doesn’t do that. It enfeebles every single one of them.

Almost anything that government does in social policy can be characterized as taking some of the trouble out of things.
The problem is that every time the government takes trouble out of performing the functions of family, community, vocation, and faith, it strips those institutions of their vitality.

Families are not vital because raising children and being a good spouse are fun, but because the family has responsibility for doing important things that won’t get done unless the family does them. Communities are not vital because it’s so much fun to respond to our neighbors’ needs, but because the community does important things that won’t get done otherwise. When the government says it will take the trouble out of doing the things that families and communities evolved to do, it takes action away from families and communities, and the web frays, and eventually disintegrates.

When the government takes the trouble out of being a spouse and parent, it doesn’t affect the sources of deep satisfaction for the CEO. Rather, it makes life difficult for the janitor. A man who is holding down a menial job and thereby supporting a wife and children is doing something authentically important with his life. He can take deep satisfaction from that, and be praised for doing so. If that same man lives under a system that says that the children of the woman he sleeps with will be taken care of whether or not he contributes, then that status goes away.

“The Europe syndrome” goes something like this: Human beings are a collection of chemicals that activate and, after a period of time, deactivate. The purpose of life is to while away the intervening time as pleasantly as possible. Work is not a vocation, but something that interferes with leisure. Why have a child, when children are so much trouble—and, after all, what good are they, really? Why spend time worrying about neighbors? What could possibly be the attraction of a religion that says otherwise?

Murray hopes America will have “a Great Awakening” that will take our elite away from modern day Europe and back to our roots in family, community, vocation, and faith.