Archive for December, 2006

Honest and Decent

Saturday, December 30th, 2006

The adjectives “honest” and “decent” have been so repeatedly attached to the recently deceased 38th President of the United States, Gerald R. Ford, that they are rapidly becoming cliché. Nonetheless, these traditional mid-western virtues explain a considerable portion of both Ford’s success and failures as president.

Ford was the only un-elected president and openly acknowledged that fact. When he assumed the presidency after the resignation of President Richard Nixon on August 9, 2004, Ford explained, “I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your President by your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me as your President with your prayers.” The words are poetic and his intent genuine.

When President Nixon resigned the country was deeply divided, in the final years of a bitterly divisive war, and in economic distress (unemployment 6-9%;, inflation 10-12%). Perhaps there was not an adequate sacrifice offered to the gods of a harsh justice, but it was Ford’s inherent decency and longing to assuage the country’s pains that explain his decision to pardon President Nixon. Many at the time were frustrated of an opportunity to pursue Nixon further and the decision probably caused Ford the election in 1976 to President Jimmy Carter. Ford knew the likely consequences of his decision and put his vision of what the country needed over any political advantage.

In retrospect, the decision was probably a wise one. An indictment and trial probably would have lasted through his term and through the term of the next president. Any political energy required to deal with the nation’s problems would have been dissipated by such proceedings. The country would not have been able to begin to address any of the problems confronting it.

Ford’s conspicuous forthrightness and directness, perhaps unfairly associated with mental dullness, also helped heal a nation. After Nixon, the country needed a president that did not appear too clever or nefarious.

Ford’s decency also explains a good deal of his failures. Only a good man who mistakenly expects his own notions of good will and patriotism to be embraced by others and who came from the WWII generation would have believed that “Whip Inflation Now” program to exhort Americans to restrain their wage and price demands had any possibility of succeeding.

Only a person who spent his life in the House of Representatives and believes that all differences are splittable would have been so willing to overlook Soviet behavior and eagerly negotiate with them. This eagerness caused him to twist his normal good sense and argue that Poland was not dominated by the Soviet Union and to spurn Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn, fearing that the Soviets would break off the warm relations of detente.

It was in Ford’s good nature, when he defeated Ronald Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976, at the end of the Republican National Convention, to call down Ronald Reagan to the platform with him. It was Ford’s moment, yet he extended the olive branch to Reagan and simultaneously undercut his own chances of victory against Jimmy Carter in the fall. Reagan was reluctant to come to the platform. After all, he had just narrowly lost the nomination. However, once he did, Reagan gave an impromptu speech which charged the Republicans present and gave everyone there the palpable feeling that in nominating Ford, they had just sellected the wrong fellow.

Ford was a caretaker president filling in between two elected president. Despite his shortcomings, Ford was welcome relief from President Nixon’s mendacity. Moreover, he served his nation’s interest far better than his successor President Carter. At least, he never embarrassed himself during his post-presidential years, as has Carter,  in self-righteous dotage

“Are there no prisons?”

Sunday, December 24th, 2006

In the opening chapter of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is solicited for a private donation during the Christmas season to “make some slight provision for the poor the destitute” since “many thousands are in want of common necessities.” In one of literature’s most memorable exchanges, Scrooge asks, “Are there no prisons? … And the Union workhouses are they still in operation?” When assured that prisons and workhouses still are in operation, Scrooge dismisses any personal responsibilities by claiming that “I help to support the establishments I mentioned.” In other words the existence of large institutions for collective provision, Scrooge believed, relieved him of personal responsibility for the poor.

Unfortunately, one of the consequences of well-intentioned government provision is to attenuate the personal responsibility we all have with regard to the material needs of others. The empirical evidence suggests that those who most persuaded of the efficacy government provision are those who, as a rule, feel less personal responsibility. Arthur Brooks, in Who Really Cares, has thoroughly examined the statistics on charitable giving and has found that Conservatives, particularly religious Conservatives, are far more likely to donate to charities and in higher amounts than Liberals, particularly secular Liberals. Moreover, Conservatives are more likely to volunteer their time and even donate blood at a substantially higher rate.

These statistics represent a generalization. There are very many liberals who are quite generous with their time and money and their efforts should not be ignored or disparaged. However, Brooks does not allow us to escape the conclusion that Conservatives are more generous. It is not because Liberals are inherently less empathetic or compassionate, it is because the political ideology of collective provision saps the moral necessity for personal action.

This fact mirrors itself in national differences with respect to European countries who have bought into the socialized world view. The United States provides a large amount of direct foreign aid, but other industrialized countries provide more relative to their Gross National Product (GDP). However, much of the assistance to foreign countries from the US come through private donations to private non-governmental organizations. Indeed, private assistance dwarfs US official development assistance by a factor of three and few doubt that such private aid is more efficiently dispensed. When all these sources are taken together, the US ranks among the highest in generosity relative to its wealth.

When the ghost of Jacob Marley visits Scrooge, Scrooge wonders why Marley is so burdened in death since he was such a good businessman. Marley’s Ghost shouts, “ Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings ofmy trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean ofmy business! [emphasis added]” This observation is consistent with the Conservative intuition. A Liberal version of Marley’s lament would have substituted “our” for “my” and therein lies the difference between Conservatives and Liberals.

Mendacity: The Key to Evil

Sunday, December 17th, 2006

It is hard to imagine two more important and fundamental freedoms than the freedom of speech and the freedom to pursue scholarly inquiry. One price that we often must pay for adherence to these values is the endurance of their exploitation in the service of evil.

This last week, Iran hosted a conference in Tehran on the Holocaust: the deliberate and systematic killing millions of Jews by Nazi Germany during World War II. The conference was given the benign-sounding title “the International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust.” Now intellectually honest scholars can argue the details about the specifics of the Holocaust, but the fact that it occurred is as well-documented as things get in history. The only sorry fact is that the eyewitnesses to this terrible event of 60 years ago are dying off. In not too many years, the event will pass out of living memory into our collective history where it might be more vulnerable to manipulation.

The goal of the conference in Tehran was not scholarly inquiry but a deliberate effort to undermine the legitimacy of Israel. After the Holocaust, the world was anxious to find a place where Jews might live in peace. The Middle East near Jerusalem already had a significant Jewish population, the Jews had a historic tie to the area, and many Jews more were immigrating there to escape Europe. In 1947, the United Nations divided the Palestinian Mandate into a Jewish area which became Israel and an Arab area which became Jordan.

The presence of Israel embarrasses some of the Islamic states surrounding it for several reasons. First, after Israel declared itself a state, all the countries surrounding waged war in the mistaken belief that they would quickly overwhelm the fledging nation. Instead, these largely Arab countries were militarily crushed in wars in1948, in 1956, and in 1968. In 1972, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack that initially reeled Israel back on its feet, but by the time a cessation of hostilities was agree to Israeli forces were threatening to march into Cairo.

The second source of embarrassment is that Israel has managed in the midst of war and constant threat to its survival to build a modern, democratic, prosperous, and educated state out of what was once a poor Middle Eastern backwater. The success was an indirect rebuke of the political leadership of other Arabic and Muslim countries whose only wealth was the accident of oil reserves that could only be exploited with the help of Western technology.

The Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has declared the Holocaust a “myth” and called for the elimination of Israel sponsored this Holocaust denial conference. This event reminds us that mendacity is the surest means to detect evil.

ISG Lost Opportunity

Saturday, December 9th, 2006

“A committee can make a decision that is dumber than any of its members.” — David Coblitz

Committee: a group of men who individually can do nothing but as a group decide that nothing can be done” — Fred Allen.

Before a work is published in a respected journal it is usually vetted for correctness and originality by either an editor or other experts. One famous dismissal of a poor manuscript, attributed to Samuel Johnson, was, “Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.” This assessment can aptly be applied to the recently released report by the Iraq Study Group (ISG), headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Representative Lee Hamilton, who served on the House Intelligence Committee.

After nine months of study, the group issued 79 recommendations for dealing with rising level of insurgency violence in Iraq. Most of these recommendations are either obvious, relatively minor, or already being partially implemented. For example, recommendation 23 reads, “The President should restate that the United States does not seek to control Iraq’s oil.”

There is certainly no harm in re-iterating this statement, but the United States has not sought to exploit Iraqi oil since the liberation of Iraq and surely this action speaks more persuasively than repeated statements by the President. Did it really take an august panel to come up with this recommendation? Frankly, if the US wanted Iraqi oil it would have been far easier and less expensive to allow international sanctions atrophy and simply purchase the oil. Moreover, if this question remains a key sticking point, the ISG should urge that the Left-wing in the United States cease continually suggesting that the goal of the liberation of Iraq was really seizure of the oil resources.

Recommendation 36 reads in part, “The United States should encourage dialogue between sectarian communities…” Gee, what an imaginative idea. Why had no one thought of that before? There may be no harm in the re-statement of the obvious, but one might have expected greater insight from a presumably thorough re-examination of the Iraq situation.

The recommendations that are not mundane, prosaic, or simple extensions of current efforts in Iraq represent such a fundamental misunderstanding of the Middle East that they are, to steal the words of Wolfgang Pauli, “not even wrong.” The ISG recommends that the United States, “actively engage Iran and Syria in its diplomatic dialogue, without preconditions.”

Iran and Syria are the problems. Without the continual support by Iraq and Syria of internal Iraq insurgent groups Iraq, would be a far less violent place. The only thing the US could offer in exchange for less Syrian and Iranian involvement in Iraq would be to sell out a fledging democracy in Lebanon to Syria and to allow the Iranians to pursue nuclear weapons without international protest.

This foolish recommendation is a direct outgrowth of a fundamentally incorrect assumption on the part of the ISG that both countries have an “interest in avoiding chaos in Iraq.” Precisely, the opposite is true. A free, democratic, and stable Iraq represents an implicit repudiation of Syria and Iran and, hence, a threat. Chaos is what these countries are trying to sow.

The ISG has done a disservice to the President, and to Congress and to the American people. They could have offered new and effective ideas. Instead, their recommendations are either obvious extensions of current policies or poorly-disguised recipes graceful retreat.

Perhaps, it is too much to expect any committee to provide recommendations for victory. Frederick the Great counseled “Audacity, audacity — always audacity,” and audacity is not typically a committee commodity. Is it possible to even name a war won on the counsels of a committee? One could tell that the report would represent plan for retreat when the co-authors explained in their introduction that they sought “a responsible conclusion” for the Iraq and not victory.

Reducing Income Inequality

Sunday, December 3rd, 2006

The Gini Index is a conventional measure of income distribution equality. A Gini index of 0 corresponds to every household having the same income, while an index of 100 corresponds to one person earning all the income. The Gini index in the United States tends to be a higher than in Western European countries. The US Gini index is about 45, while most European countries have Gini indices in the 30’s. However, this comparison can be misleading, since European countries individually tend to be more culturally and socially homogeneous than a large continental nation like the US. The more proper comparison is between the US and the entire EU. The total US population is comparable to that of EU and there are significant income disparities from country to country within EU that broaden the net EU income disparity. The per capita gross national product (GDP) in Denmark is $34,800 as compared to Poland who’s per capita GDP is about $13,100. Hence, income inequality for the EU as a whole can be substantially larger than that for any single European country. (See the CIA World Factbook for these figures)

There can be little statistical doubt that there has been a gradual increase in US household income inequality since 1980, with a particularly large jump in the early to mid 1990s. There are many causes for this increase. There has been a long-term change in the labor market valuing skilled as opposed to unskilled labor increasing the relative income of highly trained individuals. Households have changed, with more single-parent households which traditionally have had lower incomes. Even for a couple where both people earn a good income, divorce will drive down relative household income and putting them at a relative economic disadvantage. The rise in two-income families has widened household income disparity. Two people can generally earn more income than one person working outside the home. Moreover, high income individuals tend to marry other high-income people further exacerbating household income disparity.

There are two important values that seem to be at odds here. It is important for countries to maintain a sense of community identity and common purpose. This affinity can be attenuated with high levels of income disparity. On the other hand, we value meritocracy where earnings and achieve are not artificially limited by forced equality of outcomes. The more severe the meritocracy is, the greater the income disparity is likely to be. A common example of this effect can be found in professional sports where even members of the same team can earn radically different salaries based on their perceived contribution to the team.

It seems that dealing with widening income distribution with punitive tax policies is counterproductive. It reduces growth, which hurts the poor the most, and sets one income class against another income class. An alternate solution is to maximize social mobility in a couple of ways.

First, schools, particularly those for the poor, are largely a failure. The differences between public schools in affluent neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods will tend to broaden income distributions in the following generations. The introduction of vouchers for educational choice will broaden the range of educational options for poor children. It would also likely improve public schools in those very same poor neighborhoods.

Second, the collapse of families is correlated with all sorts of pathologies that curb the prospects of child in such families. As a culture we should encourage the maintenance of stable two-parent families and not pretend that all familial configurations are just as likely to produce successful and happy children. The government can help by easing the economic pressure on young families. One method to do this is to increase the dependent deduction, particularly for young children.

One thing is clear, unless changes are made on the front end of life, there will be little can be done on the back end to reduce the consequences.