Commentary Magazine


Posts For: October 7, 2013

Turkey Shifts Toward Autocracy

I’ve now spent almost a decade writing about the transformation in Turkey. A decade ago, Turkey was a Western-leaning democracy, however flawed, with a largely free even if cantankerous press. Now, Turkey leans firmly toward the Arab world and China, has a prime minister who seems a blend of Vladimir Putin and an Ottoman Sultan, and has not only cracked down on press freedom, but now also seems to be penalizing “thought crime.”

Two-and-a-half years ago, for example, Turkish police raided the home and office of Ahmet Şık in order to confiscate his unpublished manuscript in which he demonstrated penetration of the Turkish security forces by the followers of controversial Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen. Now, a Turkish writer is to be prosecuted for making a word play on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s middle name:

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I’ve now spent almost a decade writing about the transformation in Turkey. A decade ago, Turkey was a Western-leaning democracy, however flawed, with a largely free even if cantankerous press. Now, Turkey leans firmly toward the Arab world and China, has a prime minister who seems a blend of Vladimir Putin and an Ottoman Sultan, and has not only cracked down on press freedom, but now also seems to be penalizing “thought crime.”

Two-and-a-half years ago, for example, Turkish police raided the home and office of Ahmet Şık in order to confiscate his unpublished manuscript in which he demonstrated penetration of the Turkish security forces by the followers of controversial Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen. Now, a Turkish writer is to be prosecuted for making a word play on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s middle name:

[Emrah] Serbes had made a pun in a TV show by changing the prime minister’s middle name “Tayyip” to “Tazyik,” a word meaning pressurized water in reference to the police’s excessive use of water cannons and tear gas against protesters during the most recent May Day.

Serbes could serve up to 12 years in prison.

It gets worse: Earlier this year, Turkey was rocked by protests against the destruction of one of the few remaining green spaces in central Istanbul. The protests shook Erdoğan, who is unaccustomed to public criticism. Indeed, at a recent rally in Adana, photographers spotted gas masks under the chairs of Erdoğan and his wife, just in case. Well, now even thinking about protesting is a crime in Turkey. The Justice and Interior Ministry, both controlled by Erdoğan’s political party, has issued new regulations authorizing without any judicial action the detention for up to one day of anyone at “risk of conducting a protest.”

The lesson learned? Both Bush and Obama let Turkey slip away with a series of ambassadors more prone to sycophancy than hard talk and with political correctness blunting observation of Erdoğan’s Islamist agenda. In the short run, however, I guess the lesson learned is simply not to think bad thoughts about the Tazyik-in-chief next time anyone should pass through Istanbul.

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Happy Birthday to the Income Tax

Income inequality has long been a bugaboo of the left. There is just something wrong, liberals think, with X earning much more than Y. They never explain why it’s wrong, of course, apparently regarding it as self-evident. What it is, actually, is a modern echo of the medieval notion of the “just price,” the idea that everything has a proper price for which it should be bought or sold and the authorities (the Church in the Middle Ages, the federal government today) should see that everything is.

In the early Clinton era, Democrats passed and the president signed a bill limiting the deductibility of executive salaries over $1 million from corporate income taxes. Naturally, they didn’t limit the deductibility of the enormous incomes of their Hollywood pals, but intellectual consistency is seldom a political virtue.

The level of inequality diminished, briefly, during the financial crisis of 2008, as stock prices crashed and dividends were cut. But it is now increasing again, as CBS news reported recently. Some economists recommend a top income tax rate of 73 percent in order to foster more equality. But this fails to take into account the ample evidence that as income-tax rates rise, so does tax avoidance.

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Income inequality has long been a bugaboo of the left. There is just something wrong, liberals think, with X earning much more than Y. They never explain why it’s wrong, of course, apparently regarding it as self-evident. What it is, actually, is a modern echo of the medieval notion of the “just price,” the idea that everything has a proper price for which it should be bought or sold and the authorities (the Church in the Middle Ages, the federal government today) should see that everything is.

In the early Clinton era, Democrats passed and the president signed a bill limiting the deductibility of executive salaries over $1 million from corporate income taxes. Naturally, they didn’t limit the deductibility of the enormous incomes of their Hollywood pals, but intellectual consistency is seldom a political virtue.

The level of inequality diminished, briefly, during the financial crisis of 2008, as stock prices crashed and dividends were cut. But it is now increasing again, as CBS news reported recently. Some economists recommend a top income tax rate of 73 percent in order to foster more equality. But this fails to take into account the ample evidence that as income-tax rates rise, so does tax avoidance.

Others argue that income inequality and growth are inextricably linked and trying to limit one will, necessarily, limit the other.

Still others argue, what income inequality? They say it is mostly a statistical illusion that results from how the “poverty rate” is determined and how income is measured. For instance, the CBO counts realized capital gains as income but not unrealized capital gains. So if two people buy houses the same year for the same price and one sells his 30 years later for a gain of $500,000, he’s in the one percent, but his neighbor who didn’t sell is not. Next year, of course, the seller will be back among the hoi polloi.

And transfer payments, such as Social Security, Medicare, and food stamps, are not counted as income by the CBO in determining the poverty rate. So an elderly couple might be considered below the poverty line, despite receiving a check for $1,700 every month from the government and having most of their medical bills picked up. The elderly couple regard the $1,700 as income (it buys stuff, after all), so why shouldn’t the CBO count it as income?

As so often, statistics are being wielded as political weapons, not as a means to understanding the human universe. And meanwhile, the real measure of prosperity—consumption—is often ignored. For instance, while “wages,” as defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, have been relatively flat since the 1980s, consumption by the less affluent has increased briskly. In 2001, only 19.8 percent of low-income households owned a computer. By 2009, it was 47.7 percent. In 2001 21.9 percent of these families had living space of more than six rooms (not counting bathrooms), by 2009 that had risen to 30 percent.

Meanwhile, the No. 1 tool that politicians use to play politics with income inequality, the income tax, turned 100 last Friday. How much has it been used for political purposes? As John Fund points out, in 1913, the tax code was 400 pages long. Today it is 73,954 pages long.

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Democrats Bench Obama in Favor of Reid

There have been numerous profiles of Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid over the past week or so, after he took the lead on government shutdown non-negotiations and began something of a public meltdown. He took some heat for angrily snapping at CNN’s Dana Bash and badly fumbling a question about funding for cancer treatment. He also threatened to leak private emails from Republican House Speaker John Boehner to the press, and then did so.

Because of his temper and his tendency to lash out, Reid has always been more effective working behind the scenes to protect Democrats’ priorities and find procedural ways to further marginalize Republican participation in the legislative process. With the attention on the government shutdown, it was inevitable Reid would have to step somewhat into the spotlight, and Beltway media are noticing. But by far the most enlightening profile of Reid’s new, more public role is today’s version in the Hill. It is from this story we learn that President Obama has, essentially, been benched:

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There have been numerous profiles of Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid over the past week or so, after he took the lead on government shutdown non-negotiations and began something of a public meltdown. He took some heat for angrily snapping at CNN’s Dana Bash and badly fumbling a question about funding for cancer treatment. He also threatened to leak private emails from Republican House Speaker John Boehner to the press, and then did so.

Because of his temper and his tendency to lash out, Reid has always been more effective working behind the scenes to protect Democrats’ priorities and find procedural ways to further marginalize Republican participation in the legislative process. With the attention on the government shutdown, it was inevitable Reid would have to step somewhat into the spotlight, and Beltway media are noticing. But by far the most enlightening profile of Reid’s new, more public role is today’s version in the Hill. It is from this story we learn that President Obama has, essentially, been benched:

President Obama has handed over the reins of leadership on government funding and the debt limit to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Reid is now fully in charge of his party’s negotiating strategy, a significant change from past showdowns with Republicans.

He has taken the initiative from Obama, who played the principal role in the 2011 debt-limit talks and New Year’s fiscal cliff deal. Some Democrats on Capitol Hill are relieved by the switch.

The story goes on to note the “pugnacious style” Reid has brought to the crisis, which is an understatement. But the change in command is not really about “style,” the story explains:

Liberal Democrats do not fully trust Obama, in part because of his more diplomatic style. Their disquiet was deepened by his past tax deals with Republicans and repeated offers to trim Social Security and Medicare costs.

Obama alarmed some in the Senate Democratic caucus last week when he convened congressional leaders at the White House to discuss the government shutdown and looming debt-limit debate.

They feared he might take the lead in the talks and make concessions to get past the current fiscal crisis.

“There’s some concern being expressed now that Obama is calling the leaders to the White House that this might be premature,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, a senior Democrat from Iowa. “What’s he going to say? What’s he going to do?

“I hope he just says, ‘Harry’s the leader. We’re following Sen. Reid,’” he added.

Even if this is the truth, it would probably be more appropriate for these Democrats to avoid humiliating Obama like this. But it certainly is revealing. Probably the best description of the Democrats’ mindset from the beginning of the shutdown is that they were “alarmed” when Obama invited congressional leaders to talk. Even communicating with Republicans is frowned upon.

And why are Democrats opposed to Obama participating in the current round of national politics? Because they fear he will negotiate in good faith–the idea of which has sent Reid into an erratic tailspin–and that the president will think he has more authority here than Reid. That’s not how Democrats see it: “There’s no question, Reid is now the quarterback,” one Senate aide told the Hill.

Of course there is logic to Reid’s strategy. Polling shows that Republicans went against public opinion to risk shutting down the government over ObamaCare, and they do not seem to have had a fully developed strategy for winning the showdown. Democrats see negotiations as throwing a lifeline to a Republican caucus seemingly in need of one. As the White House’s petty behavior has shown, the Democrats would prefer the shutdown continue and are attempting to make it as painful as possible on the country because they assume Republicans will get the blame for the effects of the shutdown.

The story suggests that when it comes to the government turning its abusive tactics on the American people, Reid thinks that even Obama has his limits. Nobody thinks Reid has such limits, which is why Democrats are going to the press with declarations of loyalty to Reid and suggestions that maybe the president sit this one out.

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Evict Obama’s Mother-in-Law from White House

The news is full of stories of private residences on public land being shut down because of the government shutdown. Here, for example, is a story regarding an elderly couple temporarily evicted from a cabin they own on federal land. And it is also turning people away from privately-run inns on federal land.

And yet, at the height of hypocrisy, Marian Robinson, President Obama’s mother-in-law, apparently continues to reside in the White House, a federally-owned business on federal land.

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The news is full of stories of private residences on public land being shut down because of the government shutdown. Here, for example, is a story regarding an elderly couple temporarily evicted from a cabin they own on federal land. And it is also turning people away from privately-run inns on federal land.

And yet, at the height of hypocrisy, Marian Robinson, President Obama’s mother-in-law, apparently continues to reside in the White House, a federally-owned business on federal land.

Michelle Obama has referred to her mom in a stump speech, talking about her residence in the South Side of Chicago. Perhaps it’s time to head back. Maybe it would be asking too much for the president and his immediate family to vacate his federally-provided residence for the duration of the shutdown, but if Obama is willing to interpret the law to evict the aging and elderly from private buildings and businesses which may sit on federal land but which do not require federal services, then it’s well past time to end the hypocrisy and send Robinson to a nearby hotel. Presumably Obama can afford it, far more than those he seems intent on having the government harass under a tendentious and mendacious reading of the law.

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Why Pay Furloughed Workers?

This may seem like sacrilege for someone who works in the Washington D.C. area, but while so many of my neighbors and friends are celebrating the rare bipartisan unanimity to pay furloughed workers once the government shutdown is over, I just don’t get it.

I understand the difficulty the shutdown has imposed upon those whose family incomes rely on government jobs, but paying back wages makes no sense. The whole reason for the shutdown is that the United States government does not have the money to pay “non-essential” workers since there is no budget and no continuing resolution. If those same workers are promised their pay retroactively once this ends, then in effect the government is promising inconvenience without any fiscal upside. If the taxpayers at least saved some money, that would offset the minor inconveniences so far wrought. At the same time, it reflects poorly on the mindset of Washington: government jobs are treated as yet one more entitlement and pay should flow even when the job remains undone.

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This may seem like sacrilege for someone who works in the Washington D.C. area, but while so many of my neighbors and friends are celebrating the rare bipartisan unanimity to pay furloughed workers once the government shutdown is over, I just don’t get it.

I understand the difficulty the shutdown has imposed upon those whose family incomes rely on government jobs, but paying back wages makes no sense. The whole reason for the shutdown is that the United States government does not have the money to pay “non-essential” workers since there is no budget and no continuing resolution. If those same workers are promised their pay retroactively once this ends, then in effect the government is promising inconvenience without any fiscal upside. If the taxpayers at least saved some money, that would offset the minor inconveniences so far wrought. At the same time, it reflects poorly on the mindset of Washington: government jobs are treated as yet one more entitlement and pay should flow even when the job remains undone.

Certainly, families might wring their hands at the dysfunction of Washington, but there are few skill sets for which the government hires non-essentials for which there aren’t jobs in the private sector, even if the private sector often demands better performance and more efficiency than does the government.

Simply put, there should be no pay for no work, not pay regardless of work.

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