Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 11, 2013

The Misplaced Faith in Abbas

Ben Birnbaum’s thoughtful, well-reported piece on the Israeli peace process is one of those articles that can easily be interpreted as in accordance with anyone’s preexisting worldview: it’s a Rorschach. If you think Mahmoud Abbas is primarily responsible for the lack of peace, that will be confirmed by the description of Ehud Olmert practically begging him to take an incredibly generous deal and Abbas walking away. If you think Olmert is to blame for offering a peace plan on which he could not follow through simply to save his reputation as he prepared to leave office under a cloud of scandal and an approval rating close to zero, you will shake your head at the desperation he showed.

If you think Olmert and Abbas were peacemakers surrounded by petty schemers, you will not be convinced otherwise as you read of Tzipi Livni’s advisors telling Abbas not to take the deal so she could swoop in and claim the glory for herself, or by the same old mindless and manipulative game being played by “advisors” and “negotiators” on the Palestinian side who have been there forever and a day. (The Israeli names change over time, but the Palestinian names are always Mahmoud Abbas, Saeb Erekat, and Hanan Ashrawi.) So that’s the politicians; what about the people? In Israel, the people support peace, Birnbaum reports. The Palestinian people, however–that’s another story. Birnbaum chooses a delicate framing when he references a recent poll that “showed Palestinians preferred Hamas’s approach to ending the Israeli occupation over that of Abbas by a two-to-one margin.” I’m sure everyone can imagine what “Hamas’s approach” would mean, but for the record here’s the actual question from that poll (results, from left to right, are: total, in the West Bank, and in Gaza):

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Ben Birnbaum’s thoughtful, well-reported piece on the Israeli peace process is one of those articles that can easily be interpreted as in accordance with anyone’s preexisting worldview: it’s a Rorschach. If you think Mahmoud Abbas is primarily responsible for the lack of peace, that will be confirmed by the description of Ehud Olmert practically begging him to take an incredibly generous deal and Abbas walking away. If you think Olmert is to blame for offering a peace plan on which he could not follow through simply to save his reputation as he prepared to leave office under a cloud of scandal and an approval rating close to zero, you will shake your head at the desperation he showed.

If you think Olmert and Abbas were peacemakers surrounded by petty schemers, you will not be convinced otherwise as you read of Tzipi Livni’s advisors telling Abbas not to take the deal so she could swoop in and claim the glory for herself, or by the same old mindless and manipulative game being played by “advisors” and “negotiators” on the Palestinian side who have been there forever and a day. (The Israeli names change over time, but the Palestinian names are always Mahmoud Abbas, Saeb Erekat, and Hanan Ashrawi.) So that’s the politicians; what about the people? In Israel, the people support peace, Birnbaum reports. The Palestinian people, however–that’s another story. Birnbaum chooses a delicate framing when he references a recent poll that “showed Palestinians preferred Hamas’s approach to ending the Israeli occupation over that of Abbas by a two-to-one margin.” I’m sure everyone can imagine what “Hamas’s approach” would mean, but for the record here’s the actual question from that poll (results, from left to right, are: total, in the West Bank, and in Gaza):

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Given the success of Israel’s military counteroffensives against Hamas in Gaza, this is not simply a vote of no confidence. No confidence would be eight or nine steps up from where Abbas and negotiations currently rank among the Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza.

Though the article lays out the case that Abbas is the last chance for peace between the two peoples, it really ends up making a slightly different point: Arafat ruined his would-be country; Abbas is finishing it off for good. That’s because, as Jonathan Schanzer has reported and Birnbaum echoes here, Abbas has no successor. Hamas is waiting in the wings, which is why it may not even matter. Birnbaum went to Gaza, he said, to find the elusive moderate Hamasnik. Here is a quote from the single most moderate Hamas person he spoke to, Ahmed Yousef, when Birnbaum raised the issue of the Jews needing and deserving a safe haven:

“Go to Germany,” he replied curtly. “All the Jews of Europe should go back to their countries. Jews of the Arab world should go back to their towns and cities in the Arab world. We are ready to help them even, to prepare ships.”

Keep that in mind as we are told again and again that there are moderate, pragmatic Hamasniks who understand political reality and need only be given the chance to participate in the process. “Go to Germany” is the nicest thing Hamas has to say.

Abbas’s health is failing, Birnbaum reports, though it’s unclear how quickly. And Fatah is a mess. And Hamas is willing to let the Jews live on the condition they go back to Germany. And yet it is unclear why this is such a compelling case to sign a deal with Abbas. He appears to represent virtually no one, which means there is no one to uphold any deal after Abbas. What could such an agreement be worth, even if miraculously signed?

In fact, for those who said Olmert couldn’t possibly muster the political capital to follow through on his deal–and rightly so–what’s the argument that Abbas could follow through on his end? Sharon at least had Olmert, who tried to keep making concessions. And Olmert had Livni, who tried foolishly to oust Olmert when his back was turned but at least was willing to pick up the peacemaking mantle she attempted to pry from his hands.

Arafat could enforce an agreement, though he’d never sign one. Abbas can’t do either. Birnbaum’s piece makes clear Abbas is avoiding negotiations with Netanyahu, who American advisors told Birnbaum is much more willing to make peace than his critics say. But we already knew that. Abbas has no desire for a true, lasting peace. But we already knew that too.

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Soda Ban and the Government Leviathan

In recent decades, the judiciary has been at the forefront of efforts to expand the power of government and to restrict the rights of the individual citizen. But today at least one judge has struck a blow against the nanny state and its billionaire advocate. Justice Milton A. Tingling of the New York State Supreme Court handed down a ruling today that prevents the city of New York from putting into effect Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s law banning the sale of certain sizes of sugared drinks. While Bloomberg’s administration plans to appeal the decision, for now the effort to prevent New Yorkers from making a choice about what kind and what amounts of drinks to consume has been shelved.

Tingling rightly blasted the law as “arbitrary and capricious” since the text of the law was a confused mess. Only some types of sugared drinks were targeted for the new rules and the sales would only be restricted in some types of establishments. The legislation seemed designed to mandate “uneven enforcement even within a particular city block, much less the city as a whole.” Moreover, the loopholes within the rule effectively defeated the purpose of the entire endeavor.

But Tingling’s critique was not merely about the poor drafting of the law. Far more important was the city’s decision to give itself far-ranging power to act in the name of public health. By saying it had the right to tell people how much soda they could drink in this manner it was establishing a government monster “that would leave its authority to define, create, mandate and enforce limited only by its own imagination.” The result would be to “create an administrative Leviathan.” In doing so, the judge highlighted the fact that this controversy isn’t about whether sugared drinks are healthy but whether the impulse to do good gives Bloomberg, New York or any legislature or government bureaucrat unlimited power to restrict individual rights.

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In recent decades, the judiciary has been at the forefront of efforts to expand the power of government and to restrict the rights of the individual citizen. But today at least one judge has struck a blow against the nanny state and its billionaire advocate. Justice Milton A. Tingling of the New York State Supreme Court handed down a ruling today that prevents the city of New York from putting into effect Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s law banning the sale of certain sizes of sugared drinks. While Bloomberg’s administration plans to appeal the decision, for now the effort to prevent New Yorkers from making a choice about what kind and what amounts of drinks to consume has been shelved.

Tingling rightly blasted the law as “arbitrary and capricious” since the text of the law was a confused mess. Only some types of sugared drinks were targeted for the new rules and the sales would only be restricted in some types of establishments. The legislation seemed designed to mandate “uneven enforcement even within a particular city block, much less the city as a whole.” Moreover, the loopholes within the rule effectively defeated the purpose of the entire endeavor.

But Tingling’s critique was not merely about the poor drafting of the law. Far more important was the city’s decision to give itself far-ranging power to act in the name of public health. By saying it had the right to tell people how much soda they could drink in this manner it was establishing a government monster “that would leave its authority to define, create, mandate and enforce limited only by its own imagination.” The result would be to “create an administrative Leviathan.” In doing so, the judge highlighted the fact that this controversy isn’t about whether sugared drinks are healthy but whether the impulse to do good gives Bloomberg, New York or any legislature or government bureaucrat unlimited power to restrict individual rights.

Let’s specify that drinking large amounts of sugared drinks is unhealthy and that obesity has become a serious health problem in the United States. The government’s duty to protect public health does give it the right to ban certain types of dangerous substances. But even if the consumption of large amounts of sugar is bad for us, that doesn’t mean New York City, or any municipality that wants to turn itself into a nanny state, should have the ability to tell citizens how much of a legal substance they can or cannot eat or drink so long as doing so does not create an imminent danger to public safety–as with alcohol.

The soda ban was poorly drafted and created an inconsistent and hypocritical set of rules that wouldn’t have done much, if anything, to make anyone healthier. But the issue here is whether the desire to improve our health is sufficient to justify the abrogation of individual rights. The point is not so much the right to imbibe 32-ounce drinks at the movies as it is whether there is anything the government may not regulate in its zeal to become the food police.

The context for this battle is the shift in opinion in which health has replaced, or rather now serves as a substitute for, virtue in our public square. Smoking is a vile, anti-social habit that poisons the air we breath as well as the lungs of nicotine addicts. But it has now assumed an evil status that was once reserved for ethical or moral transgressions about which a culture of moral relativism now informs us we must be nonjudgmental. But anything that can be branded as unhealthy bears with it the mark of Cain today.

If we are now a nation that treats the fad of organic food as a religious obligation and worships health the way we once celebrated moral behavior or piety, so be it. But if we are to translate these beliefs into law then the same danger applies to other attempts to legislate certain types of morality.

A government that can tell citizens what to eat or drink or how much can be legally consumed is one in which individual liberty is now considered a less important value than the dictates of dieticians. Neither the obesity epidemic nor any other health issue based in individual choice can give New York City, or any other government, such power. We can only hope that Judge Tingling’s ruling stands and prevents further attacks on liberty in New York and any other place where politicians seek to use public health as a lever to abrogate individual rights.

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The Mensches of Baseball

The lead story today at Jewish Ideas Daily is “Covering the Bases,” by Michael Arkush–a report on the February 27 “Night of Jewish Baseball” at the American Jewish Historical Society. At the event, Jane Leavy, author of the highly acclaimed biography of Sandy Koufax, spoke about Koufax as a player and a person, calling him “not just the greatest left-handed pitcher I ever saw” but “the greatest mensch I’ve ever met in my life.” Arkush noted that:

[T]here is no doubt his decision not to pitch in the opening game of the 1965 World Series against the Minnesota Twins because it fell on Yom Kippur has had a profound, and lasting, impact on Jews in this country. “It was OK to stand up and say, ‘I am a Jew,’ and Jews don’t work on Yom Kippur,” Leavy said.

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The lead story today at Jewish Ideas Daily is “Covering the Bases,” by Michael Arkush–a report on the February 27 “Night of Jewish Baseball” at the American Jewish Historical Society. At the event, Jane Leavy, author of the highly acclaimed biography of Sandy Koufax, spoke about Koufax as a player and a person, calling him “not just the greatest left-handed pitcher I ever saw” but “the greatest mensch I’ve ever met in my life.” Arkush noted that:

[T]here is no doubt his decision not to pitch in the opening game of the 1965 World Series against the Minnesota Twins because it fell on Yom Kippur has had a profound, and lasting, impact on Jews in this country. “It was OK to stand up and say, ‘I am a Jew,’ and Jews don’t work on Yom Kippur,” Leavy said.

Because the pennant races and High Holidays frequently occur during the World Series, the Series have not infrequently presented moral dilemmas for the star Jewish players involved in them. See Baseball and Redemption for the stories involving Hank Greenberg (the Detroit Tigers slugger who sat out Yom Kippur in 1934 during their pennant race), Ron Blomberg (The Sundown Kid), and Shawn Green (who faced the dilemma three times). In the case of Koufax, it is less remembered what happened after he decided not to play in the first game:

Koufax attended synagogue in Minnesota instead of pitching in Game 1 of the ‘65 Series against the Twins. Don Drysdale pitched that day and gave up seven runs in 2 2-3 innings. When manager Walter Alston came out to pull him from the game, Drysdale cracked, “I bet right now you wish I was Jewish, too.”

The Dodgers had won the National League pennant by one game, with a 12-game winning streak at the end of the season, during which Koufax pitched five times in 15 days. He had won four times (with three shutouts), including 13 strikeouts in the pennant-winning game. After he sat out the first game of the 1965 World Series, the Dodgers lost it 8-2. Koufax returned and pitched Game 2–and lost. Then he won Game 5, and then he returned for the deciding Game 7–and pitched a three-hit shutout, giving the Dodgers the Series.

The list of baseball mensches would be incomplete without a lesser-known player: Adam Greenberg, 5’ 9”, who grew up in a religious family and went to the University of North Carolina to play baseball. After three years in the minors, he became the lead-off hitter for the Chicago Cubs. In 2005, in his first major league at-bat, on the first pitch–with his parents and family watching proudly in the stands–he was hit in the head by a fastball traveling more than 90 miles an hour. He crumpled at the plate in front of the stunned crowd. His season was over, and he never returned to the Cubs.

His next major league at-bat did not occur until seven years later. The story of his return is told in this remarkable short video; if you watch it, you will understand why he belongs on the mensch list with the above baseball greats.

As we approach another baseball season–the season of new beginnings and second chances, leading eventually to the challenges of the fall–it is good to be reminded of the stories of baseball players who taught us lessons only mensches can teach, by example.

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The French Face of Palestinian Propaganda

Israelis are repeatedly being told that their policies of self-defense against Palestinian terrorists and West Bank settlements have soured the world on them. According to this train of thought, Israel is unpopular because of what it does, not because of its existence. But the hatred for the Jewish state, particularly in what many of still think of as the enlightened continent of Europe, has gotten to the point where even the U.S. State Department has pronounced it as part of the engine of a “rising tide of anti-Semitism.” A prime example of how this works comes from the Paris suburb of Bezons where the ability of Palestinian propaganda to demonize Israel has sunk to new depths.

Bezons, which is not far from the city of light, is not exactly a tourist attraction. But it has now garnered some international attention due to an event held at the municipality last month that honored and granted honorary citizenship to Majdi Rimawi, a Palestinian who is currently imprisoned in Israel. According to Bezons Mayor Dominique Lesparre, a member of the French Communist Party, Rimawi’s only crime is to resist Israeli oppression. However, the ceremony omitted the salient fact that Rimawi was jailed for his role in planning the assassination of Rehavam Ze’evi, Israel’s Minister of Tourism in 2001. Ze’evi was just one of more than 1,000 Israeli Jews who were murdered by Palestinian terrorists during the second intifada but the praise showered on his killers by even an insignificant French town speaks volumes about the way Europeans have embraced the false Palestinian narrative about the Middle East conflict.

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Israelis are repeatedly being told that their policies of self-defense against Palestinian terrorists and West Bank settlements have soured the world on them. According to this train of thought, Israel is unpopular because of what it does, not because of its existence. But the hatred for the Jewish state, particularly in what many of still think of as the enlightened continent of Europe, has gotten to the point where even the U.S. State Department has pronounced it as part of the engine of a “rising tide of anti-Semitism.” A prime example of how this works comes from the Paris suburb of Bezons where the ability of Palestinian propaganda to demonize Israel has sunk to new depths.

Bezons, which is not far from the city of light, is not exactly a tourist attraction. But it has now garnered some international attention due to an event held at the municipality last month that honored and granted honorary citizenship to Majdi Rimawi, a Palestinian who is currently imprisoned in Israel. According to Bezons Mayor Dominique Lesparre, a member of the French Communist Party, Rimawi’s only crime is to resist Israeli oppression. However, the ceremony omitted the salient fact that Rimawi was jailed for his role in planning the assassination of Rehavam Ze’evi, Israel’s Minister of Tourism in 2001. Ze’evi was just one of more than 1,000 Israeli Jews who were murdered by Palestinian terrorists during the second intifada but the praise showered on his killers by even an insignificant French town speaks volumes about the way Europeans have embraced the false Palestinian narrative about the Middle East conflict.

That many people around the world sympathize with the plight of Palestinian Arabs who have suffered during the decades of conflict in the Middle East is understandable. But the kind of thinking that leads people to honor a terrorist murderer or to support economic warfare against Israel is rooted in something very different. In order to think that Rimawi, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, is a victim, you have to believe that his group’s efforts to bring about Israel’s destruction via the slaughter of its people is justified. Doing so is not a function of legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies or a critique of specific measures but in a conviction that the Jewish state ought to be eradicated and that those who seek that end are in the right.

The honoring of Rimawi stems from the fact that his wife is a former mayor of the West Bank village of Qarawat Bani Zeid that has a sister city agreement with Bezons. It may be that many in France believe the story about the terrorist told in a pamphlet published by the municipality:

Majdi Rimawi has been imprisoned for over a decade by his Israeli jailers. His only crime is defending his city and homeland, and demanding adherence to international law and recognition of Palestine within the 1967 borders. For this he was sentenced to more than 80 years!

One could easily dismiss this as merely another big lie that no serious person could take at face value. But the problem with big lies is that they are, as history instructs us, often more easily believed than the truth. Like other Palestinian terror groups, the PFLP isn’t interested in the 1967 borders, let alone international law. But somehow the intifada, which followed Israeli offers of peace and statehood that were rejected by the Palestinians, has been transfigured into a struggle against Zionist tyranny.

People believe these lies because they have allowed themselves to be persuaded that Israel’s existence is itself an act of oppression though ought to be reversed. The notion that Israel is a product of European imperialism rather than the work of the national liberation movement of the Jews is risible, but in a Europe where colonialism is still thought of as a form of original sin, it is saleable.

But the bottom line here is that the information war being waged against Israel is one based on lies. As is the case with the actions of the Palestinian Authority and its media, honoring killers of Jews as heroes of the Palestinian people is inextricably linked to a belief that the Jews have no right to live. Anyone with even a minimal knowledge of European history knows that there is a long, dishonorable tradition of scapegoating Jews and marking them for death. Once it was justified in the name of religion or race. Now it is justified in the name of anti-imperialism or whatever ideological cover the left is now giving to the Palestinians.

The honoring of Rimawi is not just an isolated publicity stunt. It’s part of an effort to convince the world Israel’s efforts to defend its citizens, whether by active counter-terrorism activities, strikes on missile launches or even passive measures like building a security fence, are unjustified. Those who take such positions and support boycotts of Israel because of them need to understand that there is no difference between what they are doing and pinning a medal on a killer. Delegitimizing Zionism inevitably leads to legitimizing murder.

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Selective Memory on Democrats and Foreign Affairs

Political myths often persist not only in the face of revisionist history but also despite relying on a logically unsustainable contradiction to begin with. This is certainly the case with regard to the modern left’s exhortations for President Obama to run against the “do-nothing Republican Congress” in the model of Harry Truman, while also castigating Republicans for abandoning the halcyon era of bipartisanship and allowing politics to stop at the water’s edge, personified by Arthur Vandenberg. It is never quite explained how the Vandenberg-led congressional Republicans could give Truman massive assistance in essentially constructing the post-war American state—an accomplishment on which Truman heavily based his reelection campaign—while also being “do-nothing” and uncooperative to a fault.

Bloomberg’s Al Hunt is the latest to build his judgment of the current era on this shaky foundation. He laments in his latest column the fall of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by the Democrat Bob Menendez. Menendez is embroiled in a political scandal in which he is accused of corruption, and the allegations alone, Hunt says, will hurt the committee’s credibility and influence on the administration and the broader public. The Foreign Relations Committee, Hunt writes, has a storied history of shaping bipartisan American foreign policy and also providing oversight to keep the president in check. Hunt writes:

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Political myths often persist not only in the face of revisionist history but also despite relying on a logically unsustainable contradiction to begin with. This is certainly the case with regard to the modern left’s exhortations for President Obama to run against the “do-nothing Republican Congress” in the model of Harry Truman, while also castigating Republicans for abandoning the halcyon era of bipartisanship and allowing politics to stop at the water’s edge, personified by Arthur Vandenberg. It is never quite explained how the Vandenberg-led congressional Republicans could give Truman massive assistance in essentially constructing the post-war American state—an accomplishment on which Truman heavily based his reelection campaign—while also being “do-nothing” and uncooperative to a fault.

Bloomberg’s Al Hunt is the latest to build his judgment of the current era on this shaky foundation. He laments in his latest column the fall of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by the Democrat Bob Menendez. Menendez is embroiled in a political scandal in which he is accused of corruption, and the allegations alone, Hunt says, will hurt the committee’s credibility and influence on the administration and the broader public. The Foreign Relations Committee, Hunt writes, has a storied history of shaping bipartisan American foreign policy and also providing oversight to keep the president in check. Hunt writes:

At times, the Foreign Relations Committee has played a pivotal role in U.S. policy. Negatively, it was a Republican chairman, Henry Cabot Lodge, who scuttled President Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations after World War I. After World War II, another Republican chairman, Arthur Vandenberg, fashioned a bipartisan foreign policy with the Harry Truman administration.

Almost a half century ago, Chairman J. William Fulbright, in a remarkable series of hearings, questioned the underlying rationale and wisdom of the war in Vietnam, which he had initially supported. The Fulbright sessions opened the door to a national dialogue and debate that ultimately led to the U.S. withdrawal.

This is, of course, the classic pattern of the media’s conventional wisdom: Democrats who challenge the administration are speaking truth to power; Republicans who do so are political saboteurs. Hunt doesn’t remind readers that Vandenberg’s cooperation—which was wise, since Truman’s policy objectives were also wise—was rewarded by the White House with a brutally mendacious campaign that put at risk their own policy simply to beat Republicans. Princeton’s Julian Zelizer recalls the poisonous partisanship:

Dean Acheson told the president that he should be ashamed of his rhetoric since, in foreign policy, the 80th Congress was the best the nation had ever seen. Acheson would later admit that bipartisanship was a “magnificent fraud” and that the way to build support for executive-branch policies had been to run around saying that “politics stops at the seaboard, and anybody who denies that postulate is ‘a son of a bitch and a crook and not a true patriot.’ Now, if people will swallow that, then you’re off to the races.” Acheson recalled Vandenberg asking him whether the administration would really support him in a tough re-election race and tell voters about all of the work he had done in foreign policy. No, said Vandenberg, answering his own question, because realistically the president would support a Democratic isolationist rather than a Republican internationalist if the Democrat stood a chance of winning.

Hunt also makes it clear he isn’t looking for too much oversight of President Obama’s administration: “Although no administration believes it, it’s healthy when Congress keeps its feet to the fire, not with cheap shots — as with the Benghazi imbroglio — but in a serious fashion, by broadening the discussion about major geopolitical concerns, certainly war and peace.” The suggestion that the Benghazi attack–which happened in the wake of a war in which we took part and because of a series of decisions made by the administration and then subject to the administration’s clumsy attempts to mislead the public about it–is neither a serious geopolitical concern nor a matter of war and peace is laughable on its face.

Republicans on the Foreign Relations Committee include John McCain, who is known for his bipartisanship; Marco Rubio, known for his studiousness; and Rand Paul, known for his ability to highlight foreign policy issues and force the administration to explain itself–sometimes called “oversight.” It isn’t the committee itself that is weak and inconsequential, merely that the Democrats on the committee have abandoned its traditions and refused to be anything but a quiet tool in the White House’s policymaking box. That’s not a surprise: the ranks of Democratic seniority on the committee have been recently depleted with the departures of the three men who are now president, vice president, and secretary of state (if you can say that any committee no longer burdened by Joe Biden or John Kerry is “depleted”).

Hunt is right to want the Foreign Relations Committee to do its job. The Republican side of the committee already is—though perhaps that is what’s truly bothering him.

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The Strike of Capital

In the 1930s an economic phenomenon known as a “strike of capital” helped prolong the Great Depression. A strike of capital occurs when companies, banks, and individuals with capital to invest or money to loan decline to do so for fear that the investments might not prove profitable due to business conditions or government action.

A strike of capital would seem to be what is going on now. As the New York Times noted in an editorial yesterday, American corporations are sitting on vast piles of cash. Apple Corporation alone has about $140 billion in the bank. Altogether publicly-listed corporations in the United States are holding about $4.75 trillion in cash, not far short of one-third of annual GDP. In 1995, they held only about $1.2 trillion in cash, and cash has about doubled as a percentage of corporate assets since that time, to 12 percent.

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In the 1930s an economic phenomenon known as a “strike of capital” helped prolong the Great Depression. A strike of capital occurs when companies, banks, and individuals with capital to invest or money to loan decline to do so for fear that the investments might not prove profitable due to business conditions or government action.

A strike of capital would seem to be what is going on now. As the New York Times noted in an editorial yesterday, American corporations are sitting on vast piles of cash. Apple Corporation alone has about $140 billion in the bank. Altogether publicly-listed corporations in the United States are holding about $4.75 trillion in cash, not far short of one-third of annual GDP. In 1995, they held only about $1.2 trillion in cash, and cash has about doubled as a percentage of corporate assets since that time, to 12 percent.

The Times notes that since interest rates are very low right now, all that money isn’t earning much parked in the bank. But it doesn’t come to grips with why corporations are reluctant to invest right now. Could it have something to do with the fear that federal economic and tax policies, and Obamacare, might either throw the economy back into recession or make any investment less profitable and more risky? Could be.

What companies have been doing is increasing both dividend payments and the buying back of their own stock, both of which tend to increase stock prices, part of the reason the market has been rising.

Instead the Times decries the fact that corporations have been keeping profits earned abroad in foreign countries rather than bringing them home. But while the federal government taxes corporate profits earned abroad, it does so only when that money has been repatriated to the United States. Is the Times editorial board really puzzled as to why so many corporations prefer keeping 100 percent of their earnings abroad rather than having only 65 percent of them here? It seems so. The Times writes:

Some businesses have brazenly proposed that Congress temporarily lower the rate on repatriated profits in exchange for a promise to spend some of that cash on plants and equipment or in dividend payouts. It should not take a tax break for companies to get on with investing for the future. That is what they are supposed to be in business to do.

Actually, corporations are in business to create wealth. Corporate managers “invest in the future” only when that seems the best way to fulfill their fiduciary responsibility to the stockholders to maximize the return on invested capital.

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Jeb Is the GOP Past, Not Its Future

If you are one of those political junkies who believe appearances on the Sunday news talk shows are a good barometer of the importance of political personalities, you might be forgiven for thinking that Jeb Bush is the most consequential Republican on the planet this week. Via the miracle of taped interviews, the former Florida governor and presidential son/brother performed the impressive feat of appearing on virtually every one of the network and cable shows yesterday. The motive for this deluge of Jebmania was ostensibly to promote the new book he has written with Clint Bolick on immigration reform. But most of the buzz as well as a good deal of the questions posed to him were about his political future, not his generally thoughtful ideas about immigration or education, two issues on which he has always been among the more insightful members of his party. Yet having pointedly refused to rule out a 2016 run for the presidency, any attempt on the part of his camp to deny that the purpose of this public relations blitz is to start the ball rolling toward another Bush presidency can only be described as disingenuous.

Ironically, the most endearing moment of his big TV morning was also the one that betrayed how out of touch he is with his party’s present, let alone its future. It came in response to a question from Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, in which he was asked about the impact of his brother’s political legacy on his own future. “I don’t think there’s any Bush baggage,” said Jeb who then went on to say “I love my brother, I’m proud of his accomplishments. I love my dad. I am proud to be a Bush.” Loyalty is a great virtue and Jeb, who has long been thought to be the biggest policy wonk of the family, has it in spades. No matter how they feel about the other Bushes, Republicans love that about him. But if he really thinks it is time for the GOP to nominate another member of the patrician family that passes for what is left of what might be called the Republican establishment, then he might not be as smart as a lot of us think he is.

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If you are one of those political junkies who believe appearances on the Sunday news talk shows are a good barometer of the importance of political personalities, you might be forgiven for thinking that Jeb Bush is the most consequential Republican on the planet this week. Via the miracle of taped interviews, the former Florida governor and presidential son/brother performed the impressive feat of appearing on virtually every one of the network and cable shows yesterday. The motive for this deluge of Jebmania was ostensibly to promote the new book he has written with Clint Bolick on immigration reform. But most of the buzz as well as a good deal of the questions posed to him were about his political future, not his generally thoughtful ideas about immigration or education, two issues on which he has always been among the more insightful members of his party. Yet having pointedly refused to rule out a 2016 run for the presidency, any attempt on the part of his camp to deny that the purpose of this public relations blitz is to start the ball rolling toward another Bush presidency can only be described as disingenuous.

Ironically, the most endearing moment of his big TV morning was also the one that betrayed how out of touch he is with his party’s present, let alone its future. It came in response to a question from Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, in which he was asked about the impact of his brother’s political legacy on his own future. “I don’t think there’s any Bush baggage,” said Jeb who then went on to say “I love my brother, I’m proud of his accomplishments. I love my dad. I am proud to be a Bush.” Loyalty is a great virtue and Jeb, who has long been thought to be the biggest policy wonk of the family, has it in spades. No matter how they feel about the other Bushes, Republicans love that about him. But if he really thinks it is time for the GOP to nominate another member of the patrician family that passes for what is left of what might be called the Republican establishment, then he might not be as smart as a lot of us think he is.

I agree with Pete Wehner that the attempt of some on the right to read Jeb Bush out of the conservative movement or to label him as a RINO is ridiculous and counterproductive. Jeb deserves a hearing for his ideas and any test of conservative ideological purity that excludes him is a blueprint for making the GOP a permanent minority. If the goal is to put forward a potential president who is articulate, presentable and possessed of a raft of realistic proposals on the key issues of the day, Republicans could do worse than Jeb Bush in 2016–and might very well do so. Indeed, they did worse than him in the last two presidential elections when they put forward John McCain and Mitt Romney.

But having said that, the notion that the party is waiting patiently for another member of their royal family to lead them to the promised land is patently absurd.

The Bush baggage is real. As I wrote last week, conservatives have good reason to think the public’s continued willingness to blame George W. Bush for the state of the economy is unfair. But as President Obama’s successful re-election campaign last year proved, polls that show the majority of the public feel this way are all too accurate.

Sadly for Bush, anyone who wanted conclusive proof that he is part of the party’s past rather than its future need only look at one of the central recommendations of his book. Though billed as a manifesto for immigration reform, Bush and Bolick stopped short of calling for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Perhaps that seemed like the most realistic stance for a conservative to take on that issue when the book was delivered to the publisher last year, but in the meantime opinion shifted. With a bipartisan group including conservative star Senator Marco Rubio endorsing such a path, Jeb’s book was already obsolete the moment it rolled off the presses. His claim to be an opinion leader on the issue is empty.

The current depth of the GOP bench is such that Jeb, who might have been considered one of the few bright Republicans with a future a few years ago, has been displaced before he even got a chance to shine on his own in the national spotlight. Some of those new leaders, like Rand Paul, may be pushing the party in a negative direction, but for good or for ill the next Republican presidential nominee will not be a retread. Neither the biggest publicity machine in the world nor the genius of his brother’s guru Karl Rove would be powerful enough to foist another Bush on the GOP in 2016. 

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Conservatism and the Search for Apostates

During a recent interview on NBC’s The Today Show, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was asked whether the Republican Party should put revenue increases on the table in order to reach a grand bargain.

Governor Bush said it’s hard to imagine that, after the tax increases that went into effect earlier this year, one could argue we have a revenue problem. When pressed by Matt Lauer, however, whether there was any “wiggle room,” Bush said, “There may be [room for revenue] if the president is sincere about dealing with our structural problems.” And he went on to speak about the importance of growth as a way to increase revenues.

It didn’t take long for Bush’s critics to strike. As a story  in the Washington Post put it:

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During a recent interview on NBC’s The Today Show, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was asked whether the Republican Party should put revenue increases on the table in order to reach a grand bargain.

Governor Bush said it’s hard to imagine that, after the tax increases that went into effect earlier this year, one could argue we have a revenue problem. When pressed by Matt Lauer, however, whether there was any “wiggle room,” Bush said, “There may be [room for revenue] if the president is sincere about dealing with our structural problems.” And he went on to speak about the importance of growth as a way to increase revenues.

It didn’t take long for Bush’s critics to strike. As a story  in the Washington Post put it:

[Bush] drew a sharp critique from anti-tax activist Grover Norquist… Norquist likened Bush’s comments to “throwing marbles at the feet” of GOP lawmakers. “If you’re trying to introduce yourself to the modern Republican Party outside of Florida, probably best not to start with a discussion about how much you could be talked into a tax increase,” Norquist said. “People are looking for someone who’s tough, and you’re saying, ‘I’d fold.’”        

Craig Shirley, in the context of a broader attack on Bush writes, “A Bush speaking at the Reagan dinner [the annual Conservative Political Action Conference dinner] is for True Believers mind-boggling.” Shirley goes on to say, “Jeb Bush might also explain his call this week for even higher taxes on the American worker.”

Now both Norquist and Shirley have, in different ways, made useful contributions to the conservative cause–Norquist on policy and Shirley through his fine book on the 1980 Reagan campaign. I’ve had cordial communications with both; but in this instance their criticisms strike me as misguided.

For one thing, Jeb Bush was a highly successful conservative governor. To therefore characterize an invitation to Bush to speak at CPAC’s annual dinner as “mind-boggling” is itself a bit mind-boggling. (It’s worth noting that Bush spoke last week at the Reagan Library where he was warmly welcomed.)

In addition, Bush was not calling for higher taxes on American workers; he was saying that if Barack Obama was serious about dealing with our structural problems–meaning our unsustainable entitlement system–there may be room for an increase in revenues, which could be done by closing loopholes and deductions instead of increasing tax rates. Bush wasn’t saying he expected the president to tackle entitlements in a serious manner; he was merely answering a hypothetical in a reasonable way.

But the main point I want to underscore is the danger to conservatism when someone like Jeb Bush (or Mitch Daniels, or Bob McDonnell, or Chris Christie) is considered an apostate.

Let’s consider Bush’s record as governor. While Bush never signed an anti-tax pledge, he never raised taxes. In fact, he cut taxes every year he was governor (covering eight years and totaling $20 billion). 

Ronald Reagan, by contrast, signed into law what his biographer Lou Cannon called “the largest tax hike ever proposed by any governor in the history of the United States”–one four times as large as the previous record set by Governor Pat Brown–as well as the nation’s first no-fault divorce law and legislation liberalizing California’s abortion laws, which even people sympathetic to Reagan concede “led to an explosion of abortions in the nation’s largest state.” (Reagan didn’t anticipate the consequences of the law and deeply regretted his action.)

Now imagine the Norquist and Shirley standard being applied to Reagan in the 1970s. If Jeb Bush’s comments unleashed heated attacks, even given his sterling anti-tax record, think about what Reagan’s support for unprecedented tax increases–including higher taxes on top rates, sales taxes, bank and corporate taxes, and the inheritance tax–would have elicited. The Gipper would have been accused of being a RINO, a pseudo-conservative, unprincipled, and a member of the loathsome Establishment. Fortunately for Reagan (and for America) the temptation to turn conservatism into a rigid ideology was not as strong then than it is now.

To be clear: I consider Reagan to be among the greatest presidents of the 20th century and a monumental figure in the conservative movement. He shaped my political philosophy more than any other politician in my lifetime, and working in his administration was a great privilege. I’m just glad he was judged in the totality of his (conservative) acts, which were enormously impressive, and not marked out as unprincipled or a heretic because of his transgressions against conservative orthodoxy. 

What is sometimes forgotten about Reagan, I think, is that he was not only a man well grounded in political theory; he was also a supremely great politician who made thousands of decisions and compromised throughout his career, usually wisely but sometimes not. And on those rare occasions when he was criticized by movement conservatives, he was known to complain about those who wanted to go “off the cliff with all flags flying.”

It tells you something about the times in which we live that some of those who consider themselves to be the torchbearers of Reaganism are now employing a standard of purity that Reagan himself could not have met and would never have insisted on.

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Halabja’s Lessons

Saturday, March 16 will mark the 25th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons strike on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja. The chemical bombardment may not have been Saddam’s first chemical weapons strike nor was it his last, but it was his most devastating: Perhaps 5,000 Kurdish civilians died in a matter of minutes. Kurdish doctors say that survivors still suffer a disproportionate number of cancers.

Because the Reagan administration sought rapprochement—and valuable arms contracts—with Saddam Hussein, both the White House and State Department turned a blind eye to Saddam’s use of chemical weapons. That was reprehensible and remains a stain on U.S. foreign policy. Still, despite the self-flagellation of some American academics and the America-bashing of others, it was not the United States which provided Saddam Hussein with the chemical weapons or their precursors (and, indeed, declassified documents show Donald Rumsfeld had warned Saddam about any use of CW in Rumsfeld’s earlier capacity as Reagan’s special envoy), but rather European commercial enterprises which were happy to make a neat profit and not ask questions. The German NGO Wadi explains:

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Saturday, March 16 will mark the 25th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons strike on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja. The chemical bombardment may not have been Saddam’s first chemical weapons strike nor was it his last, but it was his most devastating: Perhaps 5,000 Kurdish civilians died in a matter of minutes. Kurdish doctors say that survivors still suffer a disproportionate number of cancers.

Because the Reagan administration sought rapprochement—and valuable arms contracts—with Saddam Hussein, both the White House and State Department turned a blind eye to Saddam’s use of chemical weapons. That was reprehensible and remains a stain on U.S. foreign policy. Still, despite the self-flagellation of some American academics and the America-bashing of others, it was not the United States which provided Saddam Hussein with the chemical weapons or their precursors (and, indeed, declassified documents show Donald Rumsfeld had warned Saddam about any use of CW in Rumsfeld’s earlier capacity as Reagan’s special envoy), but rather European commercial enterprises which were happy to make a neat profit and not ask questions. The German NGO Wadi explains:

The German government has been dragging its feet for more than 20 years now and systematically plays down its responsibility for the build-up of the Iraqi chemical weapons program. Yet, German assistance in building up a chemical weapons production was essential: Without German economic aid the Iraqi chemical weapons production would not have been possible… Many documents and sources, though, not only suggest that German cooperation was essential for the Iraqi poison gas program. They also show that there was already some awareness about this in Germany back then. All the same, the relevant goods were delivered… 70 percent of the equipment for Iraqi chemical weapons plants were delivered by German companies. German foreign intelligence service personnel had been present in at least one of these companies. Most parts to enhance Iraq’s rockets, grenades and missiles were delivered from Germany. The military-economic cooperation was backed politically by export credit guaranties. The armament of Iraq was wished for.

Western officials—and human rights activists—should push for the German government and German businesses to acknowledge their role in making possible Saddam’s weapons program if only because the same pattern appears to be repeating today with regard to Iran. German Chancellor Angela Merkel may talk a good game, and German Green Party members may cynically shroud themselves in the rhetoric of human rights, but when push comes to shove German officials across the political spectrum appear to put profits above the fight against the most genocidal autocrats. Hence, rather than curtail German businesses investing in Iran, Berlin seems to be encouraging them.

It is time to shine light on Germany’s dangerous cynicism. That German officials and businesses continue to shirk responsibility for their role in enabling Saddam’s genocidal Anfal campaign suggests the West can have no confidence that German officials are serious about denying a potentially genocidal regime the weaponry to act upon their ideological impulses.

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