Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 15, 2008

Fixing Europe: God or Free Markets?

In an interview with Peter Robinson at NRO’s Corner, classicist Bruce Thornton explains why Europe’s fate is sealed by its demographic decline:

“[c]hildren are expensive. They require you to sacrifice your time and your interests and your own comfort. If your highest good is pleasure, if your highest good is a sophisticated life, then children
get in the way. Why would you spend so much money and so much energy on children if your highest good is simply material well-being? That’s sort of the spiritual dimension of the problem.”

Robinson elaborates: “There are so few children in Europe, in other words, because there are so few believers.” Well, possibly. These two factors are regularly mentioned as reasons: We Europeans are hedonistic, self-indulgent and pampered creatures. Having lost our faith in God, we seek instant gratification in the materialistic pleasures of a consumerist existence. We are thus unwilling to make sacrifices to raise children. Few would dispute that career, standards of living, high levels of education, women emancipation and the sexual revolution – some of the results of secularization – have led over the last three decades to a situation where youngsters tend to marry much later in life and have less children. And this, no doubt, largely applies to the urban, upper-middle-class segment in Europe—post-national, secular, globalized, trendy, and well-paid.

But there are other reasons, which came painfully to the fore in Italy’s electoral campaign this week, during a television blunder by center-right leader and prime minister-hopeful, Silvio Berlusconi. During a talk show, Berlusconi was asked by a young woman how young couples can hope to build a family given the precarious nature of their job situation. Berlusconi, jokingly, recommended that she should marry his son or someone from the same high income category.

Berlusconi’s suggestion to marry a millionaire might sound like Marie Antoinette suggesting that if French people had no bread they should eat brioche. To be fair, Berlusconi was joking – he went on to elaborate in much more serious ways.

Here is the problem: Given Europe’s labor markets, the nature and costs of Europe’s welfare systems and the standard cost of living in European countries, young people cannot afford to marry until much later in their adult life. If you are a European in your 20′s, it will be hard to find steady employment with reasonable pay. Due to high employer costs resulting from welfare legislation and labor laws (once hired on a regular contract, it is hard and costly to fire you), you are not likely to get anything but underpaid, short-term contracts. Read More

In an interview with Peter Robinson at NRO’s Corner, classicist Bruce Thornton explains why Europe’s fate is sealed by its demographic decline:

“[c]hildren are expensive. They require you to sacrifice your time and your interests and your own comfort. If your highest good is pleasure, if your highest good is a sophisticated life, then children
get in the way. Why would you spend so much money and so much energy on children if your highest good is simply material well-being? That’s sort of the spiritual dimension of the problem.”

Robinson elaborates: “There are so few children in Europe, in other words, because there are so few believers.” Well, possibly. These two factors are regularly mentioned as reasons: We Europeans are hedonistic, self-indulgent and pampered creatures. Having lost our faith in God, we seek instant gratification in the materialistic pleasures of a consumerist existence. We are thus unwilling to make sacrifices to raise children. Few would dispute that career, standards of living, high levels of education, women emancipation and the sexual revolution – some of the results of secularization – have led over the last three decades to a situation where youngsters tend to marry much later in life and have less children. And this, no doubt, largely applies to the urban, upper-middle-class segment in Europe—post-national, secular, globalized, trendy, and well-paid.

But there are other reasons, which came painfully to the fore in Italy’s electoral campaign this week, during a television blunder by center-right leader and prime minister-hopeful, Silvio Berlusconi. During a talk show, Berlusconi was asked by a young woman how young couples can hope to build a family given the precarious nature of their job situation. Berlusconi, jokingly, recommended that she should marry his son or someone from the same high income category.

Berlusconi’s suggestion to marry a millionaire might sound like Marie Antoinette suggesting that if French people had no bread they should eat brioche. To be fair, Berlusconi was joking – he went on to elaborate in much more serious ways.

Here is the problem: Given Europe’s labor markets, the nature and costs of Europe’s welfare systems and the standard cost of living in European countries, young people cannot afford to marry until much later in their adult life. If you are a European in your 20′s, it will be hard to find steady employment with reasonable pay. Due to high employer costs resulting from welfare legislation and labor laws (once hired on a regular contract, it is hard and costly to fire you), you are not likely to get anything but underpaid, short-term contracts.

The lack of economic stability for young adults has to do with the bias of a heavily regulated market, where legislation provides entrenched privileges for those who are already in but penalizes those newcomers who are still out. Without a reasonably paid job, you have little chance of getting a decent mortgage to buy a house, you will have no money to pay for much over and above rent and bills, and therefore there is little likelihood to get married and have those expensive kids. The aggregate burden of welfare impacts all sectors and the overall cost of living: Many European singles still live with their parents, and in some countries, like Italy, companies offer lower salaries precisely on the assumption that for a long time their employees will live at home with their parents and therefore minimize their costs. It’s less about God, then, and more about labor laws.

When Berlusconi tried to reform the labor market in Italy during his previous stint as Prime minister, the main author of the reform was gunned down by Red Brigades assassins – a painful reminder of the challenges a free-market economy still faces in Europe. No serious reform was eventually passed.

Adverse labor legislation prevents young couples from bringing children into the world – with or without a God – because though they may want to, they cannot afford it. It is not that young Europeans spend too much in the pursuit of pleasure. Rather, they cannot pay for the high costs of raising a family in Europe until much later in life. Bringing God back to Europe might contribute to a shift in those demographic trends – no doubt, Islamists would concur in principle even if they differ on which god to restore – but it seems just as effective to advocate a liberalization of the labor market. After all, it is simpler to legislate liberalization than to legislate faith. Allowing Europeans in their 20′s and just out of college to enter the job market more easily and with better rewards – even as they do so with more risks – would be more effective than relying on a return of God to Europe.

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Huh?

Today, in a damage-control speech about unity and tolerance, Barack Obama said this:

Most recently, you heard some statements from my former pastor that were incendiary and that I completely reject, although I knew him and know him as somebody in my church who talked to me about Jesus and family and friendships, but clearly had — but if all I knew was those statements that I saw on television, I would be shocked.

When syntax is that bad usually the speaker, especially an ordinarily articulate one, is trying to hide the ball.

Let’s unpack it. First, it is clear that Obama is not sticking to his initial story that this toxic rhetoric is all new to him. He begins to say that had he only known about the comments (“but clearly had”) . . . and then veers off. Why? Because he has admitted that he did know of some of these comments. Second, he acknowledges that he “knew” Reverend Wright, but of course does not offer any explanation for how his mentor for decades could have so cleverly concealed his views and rhetoric from the unwary Obama. Then, comes the really strange part: “if all I knew was those statements I saw on television, I would be shocked.” That’s awfully puzzling, no? Is this a confession that since he knew more, the comments aren’t so shocking? Or is he saying we shouldn’t be shocked because we have an incomplete picture of the great Rev. Wright. (You get a few “damn America” and “the U.S. caused AIDS” comments for free if you’ve talked about brotherly love?) It is all terribly, and purposefully, unclear.

You think those superdelegates are getting nervous yet?

Today, in a damage-control speech about unity and tolerance, Barack Obama said this:

Most recently, you heard some statements from my former pastor that were incendiary and that I completely reject, although I knew him and know him as somebody in my church who talked to me about Jesus and family and friendships, but clearly had — but if all I knew was those statements that I saw on television, I would be shocked.

When syntax is that bad usually the speaker, especially an ordinarily articulate one, is trying to hide the ball.

Let’s unpack it. First, it is clear that Obama is not sticking to his initial story that this toxic rhetoric is all new to him. He begins to say that had he only known about the comments (“but clearly had”) . . . and then veers off. Why? Because he has admitted that he did know of some of these comments. Second, he acknowledges that he “knew” Reverend Wright, but of course does not offer any explanation for how his mentor for decades could have so cleverly concealed his views and rhetoric from the unwary Obama. Then, comes the really strange part: “if all I knew was those statements I saw on television, I would be shocked.” That’s awfully puzzling, no? Is this a confession that since he knew more, the comments aren’t so shocking? Or is he saying we shouldn’t be shocked because we have an incomplete picture of the great Rev. Wright. (You get a few “damn America” and “the U.S. caused AIDS” comments for free if you’ve talked about brotherly love?) It is all terribly, and purposefully, unclear.

You think those superdelegates are getting nervous yet?

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Puncturing the Obama Balloon

Today, in the Weekly Standard, Andrew Ferguson has produced one of the landmark pieces of political portraiture of our time. It’s called “The Wit and Wisdom of Barack Obama,” and it is so rich in detail about the sources of Obama’s rhetoric and the fanciful nature of those who believe he is offering anything genuinely new. Ferguson is one of the best writers in America, and this may be the best article he has ever written. Just one taste for you:

He lives in an era when the public memory has shrunk to a length of days or weeks. Especially in American politics, policed by a posse of commentators and reporters who crave novelty above all, the past is a blank; every day is Groundhog Day, bringing shocking discoveries of things that have happened over and over again. No politician has benefited from this amnesia as much as Obama. He is credited with revelatory eloquence for using phrases that have been in circulation for years. “Politics is broken,” he says in his stump speech, and his audience of starry-eyed college students swoons and the thirtysomething reporters jot excitedly in their notebooks. The rest of us are left to wonder if he’s tipping his hat to Bill Bradley, who left the Senate in 1996 because, Bradley said, “politics is broken,” or if he’s stealing from George W. Bush, who announced in his own stump speech in 2000 that “politics is broken.” Obama could be flattering us or snowing us.

There’s so, so much more. Read the whole thing. Twice.

Today, in the Weekly Standard, Andrew Ferguson has produced one of the landmark pieces of political portraiture of our time. It’s called “The Wit and Wisdom of Barack Obama,” and it is so rich in detail about the sources of Obama’s rhetoric and the fanciful nature of those who believe he is offering anything genuinely new. Ferguson is one of the best writers in America, and this may be the best article he has ever written. Just one taste for you:

He lives in an era when the public memory has shrunk to a length of days or weeks. Especially in American politics, policed by a posse of commentators and reporters who crave novelty above all, the past is a blank; every day is Groundhog Day, bringing shocking discoveries of things that have happened over and over again. No politician has benefited from this amnesia as much as Obama. He is credited with revelatory eloquence for using phrases that have been in circulation for years. “Politics is broken,” he says in his stump speech, and his audience of starry-eyed college students swoons and the thirtysomething reporters jot excitedly in their notebooks. The rest of us are left to wonder if he’s tipping his hat to Bill Bradley, who left the Senate in 1996 because, Bradley said, “politics is broken,” or if he’s stealing from George W. Bush, who announced in his own stump speech in 2000 that “politics is broken.” Obama could be flattering us or snowing us.

There’s so, so much more. Read the whole thing. Twice.

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The Pride After The Fall

This past week I went to a debate organized by Intelligence Squared U.S. on America’s use of tough interrogation in the war on terror. Before the debate, an audience vote showed that most attendees were in favor of the U.S.’ use of tough techniques. A post-debate vote revealed the balance to have shifted in favor of the anti-tough interrogation stance.

I’d have to attribute this shift to the successful blurring of the concepts of tough interrogation (the matter at hand) and torture (the headline-grabbing distortion) effected by the side that won. This team consisted of Reed College political science chair Darius Rejali, former Navy Judge Advocate General John D. Hutson, and FBI veteran Jack Cloonan. The Weekly Standard’s Jaime Sneider was in attendance and he gives Hutson the “most loopy” award, but for my money the chutzpah prize has to go to Jack Cloonan. Consider what he said to a New York audience:

I was charged in 1996 to eliminate bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and others as a threat to US national security. And I found myself in the enviable position of having to travel around the world, and find members of al Qaeda, and gain their cooperation. And I can assure you as I sit here tonight, being very proud of what the end result of that was, that I did not engage in any harsh interrogation techniques.

“[V]ery proud of what the end result of that was”? The end result of the efforts of al Qaeda during that period was 9/11. What exactly is Jack Cloonan crowing about? Furthermore, his isn’t the best argument against tough techniques. Nevertheless, Cloonan insisted that “rapport building” is always the best approach to terrorist interrogation.

Later on, he mentioned that when he started his job there were only 75 members of al Qaeda. Well, during his tenure of “rapport building,” that elusive 75 swelled into a deadly global force that threatens the stability of every populated continent. Someone needs to interrogate Jack Cloonan about what went wrong on his watch.

This past week I went to a debate organized by Intelligence Squared U.S. on America’s use of tough interrogation in the war on terror. Before the debate, an audience vote showed that most attendees were in favor of the U.S.’ use of tough techniques. A post-debate vote revealed the balance to have shifted in favor of the anti-tough interrogation stance.

I’d have to attribute this shift to the successful blurring of the concepts of tough interrogation (the matter at hand) and torture (the headline-grabbing distortion) effected by the side that won. This team consisted of Reed College political science chair Darius Rejali, former Navy Judge Advocate General John D. Hutson, and FBI veteran Jack Cloonan. The Weekly Standard’s Jaime Sneider was in attendance and he gives Hutson the “most loopy” award, but for my money the chutzpah prize has to go to Jack Cloonan. Consider what he said to a New York audience:

I was charged in 1996 to eliminate bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and others as a threat to US national security. And I found myself in the enviable position of having to travel around the world, and find members of al Qaeda, and gain their cooperation. And I can assure you as I sit here tonight, being very proud of what the end result of that was, that I did not engage in any harsh interrogation techniques.

“[V]ery proud of what the end result of that was”? The end result of the efforts of al Qaeda during that period was 9/11. What exactly is Jack Cloonan crowing about? Furthermore, his isn’t the best argument against tough techniques. Nevertheless, Cloonan insisted that “rapport building” is always the best approach to terrorist interrogation.

Later on, he mentioned that when he started his job there were only 75 members of al Qaeda. Well, during his tenure of “rapport building,” that elusive 75 swelled into a deadly global force that threatens the stability of every populated continent. Someone needs to interrogate Jack Cloonan about what went wrong on his watch.

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Who Is This Man?

In an interview with Major Garrett Friday night on Fox News, a clearly uncomfortable Barack Obama acknowledges that he regularly attended and contributed to Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity Church of Christ. Garrett gets him to acknowledge that at the start of his presidential campaign he was aware of “one or two” of the objectionable comments (it would be nice to know which ones, and why those were insufficient to alert him to Rev. Wright’s noxious views), yet still put Wright on his religious leadership committee. Obama admits after a follow up question that if he heard the statements “repeated” at the time he would have left the church. (Again, he would have needed lots of these comments to convince him that something was askew?) Indeed, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Obama was aware of Wright’s controversial views.

Some may think this is all a right-wing feeding frenzy, but it is worth noting that ABC news started the news cycle with the clips of the Wright sermons and that Obama spent his Friday night on no less than three cable news network shows. It is foolish to think this is a story that won’t live on for awhile. If you think liberals are concerned, you are right, as the comment sections on a number of blogs confirm.

All of this leaves one wondering. Was Obama really clueless about the septic nature of the man he knew, his mentor, for thirty years? (If so, you have to wonder about those touted people skills.) Or, more likely, was this someone trying to have it both ways- ingratiating himself with Chicago’s African American community and now squeamish about being tagged with the views of one of its most famous preachers?

As if that were not enough, part of Obama’s Friday night “bad news dump” included an extensive interview with the Chicago Tribune in which he revealed that Tony Rezko has raised a quarter of a million dollars for him during his political career. Once again he pleads a mistake in judgment. He says, “The mistake, by the way, was not just engaging in a transaction with Tony because he was having legal problems. The mistake was because he was a contributor and somebody who was involved in politics.”As for the land deal (in which Rezko bought an adjoining lot next to the home Obama purchased), Obama denies in the interview that there was a connection between the two transactions, but then allows “perhaps [Rezko] thought this would strengthen our relationship, that he was doing me a favor.” Yeah, perhaps. (Obama also concedes there was yet another lapse in judgment when he wanted a fence to be erected between his house and the lot, and Rezko paid the cost.)

If nothing else, all of this confirms the Clinton team line: maybe we don’t know Obama so well after all. Is he really the racial healer he makes himself out to be? (As Rod Dreher put it, “Obama’s deep personal connection to the Rev. Wright challenges that assumption, and makes people wonder who Obama really is, and what he really believes in — and whether or not he can stand up to racialist demagogues and special-pleaders.”) Or, maybe the real issue is that he is hopelessly naïve and cannot assess the character and motives of even those closest to him.

In an interview with Major Garrett Friday night on Fox News, a clearly uncomfortable Barack Obama acknowledges that he regularly attended and contributed to Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity Church of Christ. Garrett gets him to acknowledge that at the start of his presidential campaign he was aware of “one or two” of the objectionable comments (it would be nice to know which ones, and why those were insufficient to alert him to Rev. Wright’s noxious views), yet still put Wright on his religious leadership committee. Obama admits after a follow up question that if he heard the statements “repeated” at the time he would have left the church. (Again, he would have needed lots of these comments to convince him that something was askew?) Indeed, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Obama was aware of Wright’s controversial views.

Some may think this is all a right-wing feeding frenzy, but it is worth noting that ABC news started the news cycle with the clips of the Wright sermons and that Obama spent his Friday night on no less than three cable news network shows. It is foolish to think this is a story that won’t live on for awhile. If you think liberals are concerned, you are right, as the comment sections on a number of blogs confirm.

All of this leaves one wondering. Was Obama really clueless about the septic nature of the man he knew, his mentor, for thirty years? (If so, you have to wonder about those touted people skills.) Or, more likely, was this someone trying to have it both ways- ingratiating himself with Chicago’s African American community and now squeamish about being tagged with the views of one of its most famous preachers?

As if that were not enough, part of Obama’s Friday night “bad news dump” included an extensive interview with the Chicago Tribune in which he revealed that Tony Rezko has raised a quarter of a million dollars for him during his political career. Once again he pleads a mistake in judgment. He says, “The mistake, by the way, was not just engaging in a transaction with Tony because he was having legal problems. The mistake was because he was a contributor and somebody who was involved in politics.”As for the land deal (in which Rezko bought an adjoining lot next to the home Obama purchased), Obama denies in the interview that there was a connection between the two transactions, but then allows “perhaps [Rezko] thought this would strengthen our relationship, that he was doing me a favor.” Yeah, perhaps. (Obama also concedes there was yet another lapse in judgment when he wanted a fence to be erected between his house and the lot, and Rezko paid the cost.)

If nothing else, all of this confirms the Clinton team line: maybe we don’t know Obama so well after all. Is he really the racial healer he makes himself out to be? (As Rod Dreher put it, “Obama’s deep personal connection to the Rev. Wright challenges that assumption, and makes people wonder who Obama really is, and what he really believes in — and whether or not he can stand up to racialist demagogues and special-pleaders.”) Or, maybe the real issue is that he is hopelessly naïve and cannot assess the character and motives of even those closest to him.

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