Archive for February, 2008

Buckley’s Gone

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

Some people are bred to be Conservatives, with Conservatism in their mother’s milk. They are raised with Conservative sensibilities by Conservatives parents and friends. However, these are few in number. Given the fact that there has been a right-ward political shift in the latter half of the twentieth century, most contemporary Conservatives where not born Conservative, but had Conservatism intrude on them. Thus, most Conservatives have story about how they became Conservatives.

I would like to claim that my Conservatism came upon me as a bolt from heaven on the road to Damascus, but my intellectual journey was a little more prosaic. It was the consequence of two books read back-to-back during my junior year in high school: The New Industrial State by John Kenneth Galbraith, and Up From Liberalism by William F. Buckley, Jr.

Galbraith painted a picture of the world dominated by economic elites who controlled the majority of us who could not think clearly for ourselves and bought into the consumerism that kept the elites wealthy. My goodness Americans were foolish enough to by cars with aerodynamically useless tail fins. Americans were helpless or worse  a little dull unless properly supervised by a caring Liberal government, people like Galbraith, whom we could entrust to make decisions on our behalf.

By contrast, Buckley painted a picture of individual autonomy that presumed a self-capacity for decision that Galbraith did not admit. Moreover, Buckley passed along an essential Conservative intuition. In our daily lives, it is by use of the money that we earn that determines the breath of our choices. The more resources we individually control, the freer, in an important sense, we are. Hence, when we are taxed by the government, a that freedom is diminished. This is not to say that taxes are never justified, it is just that when they are applied, the benefit of the taxes must be measured against the constriction of freedom they entail.

Although Buckley’s work was infused with the ideas of Edmund Burke, our Founding Fathers, Alexis De Tocqueville, Frederick Hayek, and Milton Friedman, he himself was not a first-rank theoretician. He was, rather, the clever, erudite, iconoclastic proselytizer of Conservative ideas. In this role, he excelled, founding the National Review, hosting television’s Firing Line, and even running for Mayor of New York to exploit it as a forum for his Conservative ideas and to critique contemporary Liberalism.

On the occasion of Buckley’s death much will be written about his accomplishments and to this I can add little original. However, it is likely that my small experience with Buckley’s prose was duplicated by many in different circumstances with a different set of Buckley’s writings (He was enormously prolific) but ended in the same result: another Conservative. It is a measure of the power of his mind that he could, through the use of words, influence the thoughts of many he would never meet, but who would nonetheless become his intellectual and political progeny.

The NY Times and the Lack of Intellectual Diversity

Sunday, February 24th, 2008

Even with the best of intentions, it is difficult to humans to be dispassionate in the evaluation of evidence. We all have internal narratives of how the world works. When presented with evidence that buttresses our ideas, we tend to accept such evidence. When confronted with evidence that challenges or questions our notions, we try to find reasons to dismiss or discount that evidence. This is not necessarily an inherent character flaw. If we entirely bounced between different ideas as new evidence presented itself, we would be all sail and no rudder. Our world view should be responsive to new evidence, but there should be a measure of inertia that allows us to consider new contradictory information as provisional.

One important control on ideas is to have peers, particular with diverse ideas critically examine our conclusions. It is the lack of this intellectual diversity that cost Dan Rather his job at CBS over its story about President George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service. Rather’s  report was  in large measure based on documents that proved to be forgeries. These forgeries were so obvious that once the story ran on the 60 Minutes II news program, bloggers were able to quickly demonstrate that the fonts in the forgeries post-dated the time of the supposed documents, and could be easily re-created with Word and a copy machine. Rather and his compatriots at CBS did not start out to broadcast false information. However, the documents were so in keeping with their beliefs and their desires that normal journalistic skepticism was dispensed with. They just had to be true.

If the politics in the CBS newsroom were not a mono culture, the obvious flaws in the documents would have likely been discovered before CBS embarrassed itself and further diminished its already declining credibility.

One might have hoped that other organizations would have learned from this conspicuous and well-document error, but the NY Times apparently hasn’t.  On February 21, the paper published an article that  implied that Senator John McCain had a sexual relationship with a lobbyist and that this relationship resulted in special favors. A critical examination of the article reveals that no one said that they knew there was a romantic relationship and the principals deny it. Moreover, the most McCain apparently did for the telecommunications lobbyist’s company was to request that the government act on the company’s license application that had already taken twice as long as to consider as normal. Moreover, he explicitly wrote that he was not urging the government to make any particular decision only that it make whatever decision it needed to make in a timely manner. Hardly the stuff that scandals are made of.

Who knows? There may actually be a scandal somewhere in this or any candidate’s past, but if the NY Times had adult supervision it would have waited for more evidence before publishing this as a page 1 story. The story undercuts the NY Times credibility and partially immunizes McCain against similar charges in the future.

Bill Keller, the executive editor of the NY Times and the person who had to give the final OK for publication in the wake of the controversy conceded: “I was surprised by how lopsided the opinion was against our decision [to publish] with readers who described themselves as independents and Democrats joining Republicans in defending Mr. McCain from what they saw as a cheap shot.” This suggests the the NY Times newsroom does not even have sufficient population of moderate Democrats and independents to bring intellectual diversity. The “Gray Lady” is apparently not meeting enough people with a variety of ideas and growing a little senile and tone deaf in the process.

Schechter Poultry

Sunday, February 17th, 2008

“ We are beginning to wipe out the line that divides the practical from the ideal; and in so doing we are fashioning an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a morally better world.” — Franklin D. Roosevelt, Second Inaugural Address, January 20, 1937.

There is a real human story behind the 1935 case of A. L. A. Schechter Poultry v. United States. The United States was in the grips of the Great Depression that despite, and perhaps because of, the active efforts of government refused to yield its grip. The story of the Schechter family is one symbolic part of a re-examination of the history of the Great Depression as told in The Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes. Her thesis is that despite some salutary economic changes, the Depression lasted far longer than it needed to. Indeed, the Great Depression did not end until the economic stimulus of World War II. Human suffering of these “forgotten men” was the price paid for by the well-intentioned arrogance of those who believed they could manage the economy better from Washington.

The National Recovery Administration was a Depression Era agency that grew out of a conviction that the free markets were the cause of, or at least could not relieve the Great Depression. The NRA set prices and rules that dictated the detailed functioning of the economy. There was an earnest belief that private decisions had caused the Depression and it would require the economic supervision of wise men in the government to reverse it. Nothing empowers low-level administrative functionaries inclined to bullying more than self-righteousness and Schechter family was the unfortunate target.

Three Schechter brothers ran a kosher butcher shop counter to NRA regulations. Historically, the quality of poultry in many kosher butcher shops was ensured by the fact that customers could choose the chickens they wanted slaughtered, and customers invariably tried to select the healthiest and most robust chickens. The NRA wanted to end this practice to create greater uniformity in the poultry industry. However, without this and other more personal services, the Schechters could not compete against larger butcher shops.

The refusal of the Schechter brothers to conform brought the legal weight of the Federal government on the Brooklyn residents and the Schechters took their case to the courts. The case threatened to undermine the Constitutionality of a key symbol of government economic supervision and was taken seriously. The case quickly gained notoriety and the journalistic guns of the New Deal did not hesitate to train their formidable fire on the Schechters. Drew Pearson and Robert Allen were not above exploiting anti-Semitism in criticizing “Joseph [Schechter] and his Brethren” for the refusal to modify their traditional practices to conform to the NRA.

In a landmark case, the Supreme Court ultimately ruled against the government. In the Court’s view the legislature had unconstitutionality ceded its power to the executive branch. Further, the regulation of poultry practices in Brooklyn did not amount to the regulation of interstate commerce and was therefore not part of the enumerated powers granted the Federak government. Rulings like this were part of the reason that Roosevelt unsuccessfully tried to circumvent the Supreme Court by expanding its membership to allow him to select more justices.

It would be convenient if the message of the case is that the small guy can triumph in the courts even against the Federal government. This message is lost in a dangerous irony. Even after defeating the Roosevelt Administration and his intrusive minions who had attempted to regulate the Schechters out of business, the Schechter brothers continued to faithfully vote for Roosevelt. The Schechters did not link the actions of the NRA to Roosevelt himself. It seems that the sympathy engendered by Roosevelt’s fireside chats trumped even their family’s interest. Roosevelt successfully continued to blame private wealthy individuals for his failure to reverse the country’s economic fortunes.

Thoughts on the Candidates as the Field Narrows

Sunday, February 10th, 2008

Democrats have recently been much more aggressive in punishing apostasy on the part of its adherents. Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey was not permitted to speak at the 1992 Democratic National Convention because he planned to deliver a pro-life message. In 2000, Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut was sufficiently main stream among Democrats that he was their nominee for vice-president. However, because of his continued support of American efforts in Iraq, the wing of the party made sure he was not re-nominated as a Democratic Senator of Connecticut. Lieberman was returned to the Senate on the strength of his popularity among independents and Republicans. Lieberman is not now permitted to be Democratic superdelegate because of his endorsement of  Senator John McCain for president.

On the Republican side of the aisle, Republicans are on the verge of nominating Senator John McCain who has angered many Republicans for his apostasy on immigration issues, campaign finance restrictions, and lack of support for Bush tax cuts. McCain has moved towards back towards conventional Republican virtues on these issues, save perhaps campaign finance. On the war, McCain support of the war and his critique on strategy now seem prescient. Why is there residual anger among some Conservative Republicans?

The problem is that the same stubbornness that led McCain to say he would rather lose an election than a war and to stay in the race last summer when his candidacy seemed doomed, aggravated fellow Conservatives when they disagreed with McCain. McCain seemed to bask a little too comfortably in the glow of a fawning press who are always happy to devote attention to a Republican in conflict with his party. It is one thing to reluctantly disagree with other Conservatives on the basis of your best judgment and quite another to revel in and nurture a reputation as a maverick at the expense of other Conservatives.

McCain just gave a talk of reconciliation at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference trying to mend differences and he  seems to be slowly gaining more Conservative support. McCain, however, needs more than acquiescence, he needs political energy to win in November. In realty, McCain has for a long time remained true to Conservative principles while in the Senate. When Conservatives compare McCain to the ideal Conservative candidate they may see two lights that are far separated. However, as one moves further to the Left away from these lights toward the darkness occupied by Senators Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama, the difference between the two lights disappears and we can perceive only one guiding light in the distance.

One the Democratic side, at this point it seems that both Clinton and Obama have about an equal chance of securing a nomination, though political futures at this point slightly favor Obama. This poses an interesting question about how Republicans should review the race. As the National Review has opined, “say a prayer for Hillary if you want a Republican in the White House, that is.” Her very presence would energize Republicans in opposition. Indeed, it would be tactically best for Republicans if Clinton and Obama competed all the way the the convention. It would be a Republican political wet dream if Obama entered the convention with a majority of elected delegates and if Clinton managed to garner the nomination by using superdelegates, the elected Democratic establishment. This would send a wounded Clinton to the election with half the party angered at what would appear as anti-democratic means used to secure the nomination.

As pleasant as this vision is, for the good of the Republic, even if Obama would be a more formidable candidate, we should pray for his nomination. The policy differences between Obama and Clinton are narrow, but Obama would at least enter office with the good will of most Americans. Clinton would prove to be divisive from the beginning and the country would likely become partisan. This partisanship would not be of the principled kind, but grow out of avid struggle for raw political power.

A Chance for Democrats to Rid Themselves of the Clintons

Sunday, February 3rd, 2008

By the time President Bill Clinton left office in January 2001, the whole country and Democrats, in particular, were exhausted and not just a little relieved. On one hand, President Clinton had managed to win two terms as President, something that no Democrat had achieved since President Franklin Roosevelt had managed it. On the other hand, President’s personal behavior and loose political ethics left many Democrats curled up in the showered trying to wash away the stench of the previous Administration.

Moreover, eight years of President Clinton triangulating between himself and Democrats and Republicans in Congress ushered in the first Republican Congress in a generation. In addition, Clinton tacked hard right passing the North American Free Trade Agreement and welfare reform with help of a Republican Congress over the objections of Democrats. It was President Clinton who conceded that the“era of big government is over.”

With peace and prosperity, President Clinton’s Democratic successor, Vice-President Al Gore, should have sailed in the presidency. Instead, anchored with Clintonian embarrassments, Gore lost to then Governor George W. Bush in a squeaker. President Clinton had secured his political success partially at the cost of his party.

Freed from the necessity of schilling for the Clintons after his term ended, many were liberated from internal partisan shackles to speak out against Clinton. On February 26, 2001, Bob Herbert, a Liberal pundit for the New York Times, wrote:

“Bill Clinton has been a disaster for the Democratic Party. Send him packing… You can’t lead a nation if you are ashamed of the leadership of your party. The Clintons are a terminally unethical and vulgar couple, and they have betrayed everyone who has ever believed in them.”

It has now been eight years since a Democratic president, and Democrats are hungry for another victory. With Republican weakness born of the Iraq War, Democrats smell victory. This explains the Faustian bargain entered by Democrats who are willing to settle for Senator Hillary Clinton because the Clintons have proven themselves winners in the past and wield an aura of invincibility. Many have made this choice despite the fact that even Democrats recognize her flaws. She has all the ambition of her husband, with little of the charm. Moreover, if elected she is likely to prove a divisive leader.

However, the entrance of Senator Barrak Obama in the race has offered a third choice. Although Obama is relatively inexperienced on the national scene, he has a charismatic appeal with a compelling life story. With Senator Obama, some Democrats have decided that there is someone else that can bring them to electoral victory; someone that Democrats do not have to be embarrassed about.

The choice for Democratic nominee in 2008 has not yet been made and Senator Clinton, backed by the Clinton political machine, remains the probable nominee. Nonetheless, Senator Obama’s popularity, particularly among young people, reveals a distaste for the Clintons usually concealed out of political necessity.