Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 10, 2013

Unemployment: Who’s the Real Scrooge?

As part of their attempt to pivot away from the ObamaCare rollout fiasco and broken promises as well as a year of scandals and legislative failure, Democrats are following the president’s lead and attempting to highlight income inequality as an issue with which they can hammer Republicans. So it was little surprise that Senator Rand Paul’s statement on Fox News Sunday that extending unemployment benefits actually worsens the problem they are intended to solve had the mouths of liberal pundits watering. Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus jumped on the statement during an appearance on MSNBC during which she gave Paul her “Scrooge of the Year Award.” At Salon, Brian Beutler seemed to do the same thing when he wrote that House Speaker John Boehner and Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan were being equally heartless by opposing any Democratic attempt to push for another extension of unemployment benefits even as the two parties attempt to negotiate a budget deal.

Both writers cast the issue in simplistic moral terms: Liberals want to give the poor money during the holiday season. Conservatives are playing Scrooge and asking those who want them to pony up a pittance for the needy if they are not better off in workhouses or prisons. Beutler would even like the Democrats to turn the tables on the GOP and threaten a government shutdown over the issue, though he concedes any such conduct is a political loser, even if it allows the left to do a D.C. version of A Christmas Carol.

But though Marcus and the rest of the chattering classes seem to think this illustrates again how hard-hearted Republicans have become, they are wrong. Far from demonstrating loyalty to Mitt Romney’s infamous line about the 47 percent of the country being takers whose votes are bought by liberals, Paul was actually right about the impact of unending unemployment benefits.

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As part of their attempt to pivot away from the ObamaCare rollout fiasco and broken promises as well as a year of scandals and legislative failure, Democrats are following the president’s lead and attempting to highlight income inequality as an issue with which they can hammer Republicans. So it was little surprise that Senator Rand Paul’s statement on Fox News Sunday that extending unemployment benefits actually worsens the problem they are intended to solve had the mouths of liberal pundits watering. Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus jumped on the statement during an appearance on MSNBC during which she gave Paul her “Scrooge of the Year Award.” At Salon, Brian Beutler seemed to do the same thing when he wrote that House Speaker John Boehner and Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan were being equally heartless by opposing any Democratic attempt to push for another extension of unemployment benefits even as the two parties attempt to negotiate a budget deal.

Both writers cast the issue in simplistic moral terms: Liberals want to give the poor money during the holiday season. Conservatives are playing Scrooge and asking those who want them to pony up a pittance for the needy if they are not better off in workhouses or prisons. Beutler would even like the Democrats to turn the tables on the GOP and threaten a government shutdown over the issue, though he concedes any such conduct is a political loser, even if it allows the left to do a D.C. version of A Christmas Carol.

But though Marcus and the rest of the chattering classes seem to think this illustrates again how hard-hearted Republicans have become, they are wrong. Far from demonstrating loyalty to Mitt Romney’s infamous line about the 47 percent of the country being takers whose votes are bought by liberals, Paul was actually right about the impact of unending unemployment benefits.

As a 2011 COMMENTARY article by Cheryl Strauss Einhorn pointed out, by opposing such measures, Republicans are acting on sound economic and moral principles. As Einhorn writes, by transforming unemployment from a “short-term salve” into an entitlement that operates as a semi-permanent form of welfare, the government is doing more harm than good. Though Marcus assumes that all those on unemployment would take any job rather than stay on the program, the evidence of economic studies has always pointed in the other direction:

No less important than cost is the matter of results. All 10 of the economists interviewed for this article agreed that longer availability of benefits would, in fact, lead to a more leisurely job search. The Heritage study showed that “a 13-week extension of unemployment benefits results in the average worker remaining unemployed for an additional two weeks,” wrote Campbell, Sherk, and Ligon.

A recent study by Denmark’s Economic Council showed that many of those who do not find work right away wait until just before their benefits expire to take anything available. The study argues against lengthy payments, showing that recipients tend not to seek the jobs they could get but rather those they would like to have. The results encouraged the Danes to halve the country’s four-year benefit system, which, like those of other European countries, is more generous than the American one.

This flies in the face of the sort of popular sentiment that Marcus reflected. But as Einhorn discussed, the key to understanding this question is no different than that of other economic issues: incentives.

Indeed, the greatest conceptual lapse in our current unemployment policies results from forgetting the cardinal behavioral rule: incentives matter. As the unemployed conduct a more leisurely search, they lapse into government dependence and strain their connection to the workforce. This has the potential to create a crisis, whose reach goes far beyond the political, or even economic, domain and deep into Americans’ sense of worth.

Arguing against giving the unemployed more money seems harsh. Indeed, as far as liberals are concerned, it is the epitome of Dickensian maltreatment of the poor in which a refusal to spend more in this fashion is the moral equivalent of condemning Tiny Tim to death or the long-suffering clerk Bob Cratchit to a debtor’s prison rather than the goose dinner the reformed Scrooge sends him in the book. But it is of a piece with the same instinct that built a welfare system that served to create a permanent underclass in this country rather than giving the poor the helping hand they needed.

As Einhorn concluded:

According to the Congressional Research Service, workers who have been unemployed the longest are often the last to be hired after a recession. But we do not need research to back up the larger truth of what we have already witnessed. In a free market, nothing compounds a crisis like a well-meaning government, and nothing saps the individual spirit like dependence—under any name.

A sober examination of the question shows that rather than being a modern Scrooge, Paul was right. Democrats want to play Santa Claus and hand out more goodies to the unemployed. Doing so may even be good politics, at least in the short term. But by playing this game, they are doing neither the intended objects of their largesse nor the country any favors.

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Kerry May Play by the Rules; Iran Won’t

In his testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee today, Secretary of State John Kerry had two objectives. One was to justify the nuclear deal he signed with Iran that gave the Islamist regime some sanctions relief and tacitly recognized their “right” to enrich uranium and continue their nuclear program in exchange for a six-month freeze on various actions that could be easily reversed and more intrusive inspections of their facilities. But his real goal was to try and head off efforts by some in Congress to toughen the sanctions already in place to make it even harder for the Iranians to sell their oil and thereby keep their government and its nuclear enterprise funded. He was met with widespread skepticism from both sides of the aisle, as Republicans and Democrats expressed worry that he had set in motion a process that will not stop the Iranians and might undermine the economic restrictions that had already been put in place. The members of the committee also were puzzled as to why passing a bill that would not go into effect until after the six-month period that is covered by the interim accord signed in Geneva would in any way inhibit the ongoing negotiations with Iran. Indeed, a number of them pointed out that having these sanctions in place and ready to be enforced if the talks failed would actually strengthen Kerry’s hand in talks with Iran.

Kerry’s answer to these well-taken points was to say that passing sanctions now would “break faith” with Iran as well as with the other members of the P5+1 group that had negotiated the deal. It would, he said with a tone that clearly illustrated his disdain for his critics, show that the U.S. “wasn’t playing by the rules.” Though he continued to insist that the deal wasn’t based on trust but rather on an interest in testing the intentions of the Iranians, he seems to think they would either be scared away from talks or use the sanctions as an excuse to break off negotiations. Given that the only reason the Iranians have been forced to the table was their worries about the impact of the existing sanctions, this makes little sense. If their goal were to lift the sanctions, why would the threat of more cause them to give up the only way of causing the West to drop the ones they are already struggling to deal with? The real answer to the question would likely undermine support for his diplomacy.

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In his testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee today, Secretary of State John Kerry had two objectives. One was to justify the nuclear deal he signed with Iran that gave the Islamist regime some sanctions relief and tacitly recognized their “right” to enrich uranium and continue their nuclear program in exchange for a six-month freeze on various actions that could be easily reversed and more intrusive inspections of their facilities. But his real goal was to try and head off efforts by some in Congress to toughen the sanctions already in place to make it even harder for the Iranians to sell their oil and thereby keep their government and its nuclear enterprise funded. He was met with widespread skepticism from both sides of the aisle, as Republicans and Democrats expressed worry that he had set in motion a process that will not stop the Iranians and might undermine the economic restrictions that had already been put in place. The members of the committee also were puzzled as to why passing a bill that would not go into effect until after the six-month period that is covered by the interim accord signed in Geneva would in any way inhibit the ongoing negotiations with Iran. Indeed, a number of them pointed out that having these sanctions in place and ready to be enforced if the talks failed would actually strengthen Kerry’s hand in talks with Iran.

Kerry’s answer to these well-taken points was to say that passing sanctions now would “break faith” with Iran as well as with the other members of the P5+1 group that had negotiated the deal. It would, he said with a tone that clearly illustrated his disdain for his critics, show that the U.S. “wasn’t playing by the rules.” Though he continued to insist that the deal wasn’t based on trust but rather on an interest in testing the intentions of the Iranians, he seems to think they would either be scared away from talks or use the sanctions as an excuse to break off negotiations. Given that the only reason the Iranians have been forced to the table was their worries about the impact of the existing sanctions, this makes little sense. If their goal were to lift the sanctions, why would the threat of more cause them to give up the only way of causing the West to drop the ones they are already struggling to deal with? The real answer to the question would likely undermine support for his diplomacy.

Kerry’s line dovetailed with the threats issued by the Iranian foreign minister who has already warned the U.S. that he will walk away from the process if Congress votes for more sanctions. Kerry fears the Iranians will torpedo negotiations because, contrary to his characterization of the talks, they are not acting out of weakness or fear. By getting sanctions relief of any sort without giving an inch on enrichment or dismantling a single centrifuge, let alone giving up their stockpile, they have operated as if they, not the U.S., are in the driver’s seat. By expressing the worry that the Iranians will “race” to a bomb if more sanctions are passed, Kerry is accepting this equation in which it seems as if they are doing the Americans a favor by deigning to negotiate with him. Like the president, Kerry believes it is impossible to force Iran to give up its nuclear program. Under these circumstances, it’s difficult to believe the follow-up talks have much chance of helping the administration make good on its promise never to allow Iran to get a bomb.

The disconnect between the secretary and his congressional critics is clear. Kerry thinks the only point of sanctions was to create room for diplomacy, not to put Tehran’s feet to the fire. As a number of committee members noted, they did not pass sanctions merely for the sake of negotiating but to pressure Iran to give up their nuclear ambition.

Kerry’s only coherent argument was an appeal for more time. In six months, he said, we would see whether he was right that a serious process that would make the world safer had been initiated. Indeed, we shall. But given his less-than-candid briefing on the terms of the agreement in which he exaggerated the difficulties Iran would have in re-converting its uranium stockpile to dangerous levels, Congress should be prepared to be told that diplomacy was still viable next summer no matter what actually happens in the months to come. Indeed, if, as Kerry says, the Europeans abandon sanctions merely because of the possibility that the U.S. will toughen them, how can he argue that they will stick with the restrictions in the coming months once he has already begun to unravel them?

Will Kerry succeed in stifling congressional action? The jury is out on that question. The administration has a consistent record of opposing all sanctions on Iran in spite of the fact that it currently brags about the impact of those measures that were forced upon it by an aroused Congress in the past. And it hopes it can count on Majority Leader Harry Reid to protect it from embarrassment if push comes to shove.

But having discarded their existing leverage over Iran and begging Congress not to give them more, Kerry has undermined confidence in his negotiating ability, if not his credibility on the issue. For him, diplomacy has always seemed to exist as a goal for its own sake as a game with rules that the players should respect regardless of outcomes. But while he wants to play by the rules, the Iranians have proved time and again that they do not.

Performances like the one Kerry put on today did little to enhance the chances that some key Senate Democrats will back his play. As war-weary as Americans may be, a diplomatic process whose premise is based on an American refusal to increase pressure and an Iranian resolve never to give up its key nuclear objectives is one that is hard to believe in. Passing the new sanctions bill would warn the Iranians that although they may have hoodwinked Kerry, Congress will hold him and the administration accountable for failure. By talking down to Congress today and asking them to have faith in him rather than pay attention to Iran’s record, he may have made the job of his critics a little easier. 

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No, Mike Lee Is Not a Collectivist

A common misconception that fuels much of the left’s discourse on American economic policy is the conflation of fighting poverty with fighting inequality. That is not to say that inequality never has any negative effects on the economy. It’s just that targeting inequality can come at an opportunity cost when it often makes more sense to target poverty. Conservatives have seemed to turn a corner on this, however, in their ability to make this distinction. Alleviating poverty is an end, not a means, and there is no reason conservatives shouldn’t be part of that effort.

Unless, that is, you think the very concept of social responsibility is a leftist construct. That seems to be the argument that two leaders of the Ayn Rand Institute, Yaron Brook and Steve Simpson, are making. They took to the Daily Caller to criticize Senator Mike Lee, one of the right’s thoughtful proponents of a classical conservatism that seeks to reclaim the ground in between individualism and statism. Lee recently gave a speech on poverty in which he said this:

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A common misconception that fuels much of the left’s discourse on American economic policy is the conflation of fighting poverty with fighting inequality. That is not to say that inequality never has any negative effects on the economy. It’s just that targeting inequality can come at an opportunity cost when it often makes more sense to target poverty. Conservatives have seemed to turn a corner on this, however, in their ability to make this distinction. Alleviating poverty is an end, not a means, and there is no reason conservatives shouldn’t be part of that effort.

Unless, that is, you think the very concept of social responsibility is a leftist construct. That seems to be the argument that two leaders of the Ayn Rand Institute, Yaron Brook and Steve Simpson, are making. They took to the Daily Caller to criticize Senator Mike Lee, one of the right’s thoughtful proponents of a classical conservatism that seeks to reclaim the ground in between individualism and statism. Lee recently gave a speech on poverty in which he said this:

First, let’s be clear about one thing.  The United States did not formally launch our War on Poverty in 1964, but in 1776: when we declared our independence, and the self-evident and equal rights of all men to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

For more than two hundred years, the United States – through trial and error, through good times and bad – has waged the most successful war on poverty in the history of the world. The United States has become so wealthy that it is easy to forget that, as Michael Novak once noted, most affluent Americans can actually remember when their own families were poor.

Upward mobility has never been easy. It has always and everywhere required backbreaking work, personal discipline, and at least a little luck. But if upward mobility was not universal in America, it was the norm. From our very Founding, we not only fought a war on poverty – we were winning. The tools Americans relied on to overcome poverty were what became the twin pillars of American exceptionalism: our free enterprise economy and voluntary civil society.

To that, Brook and Simpson have this to say:

Really? American colonists fought the most powerful nation on earth as a precursor to a mid-20th century welfare program? Would it be too much to expect a simple “you did build that” from a senator put in office by the Tea Party? Apparently so. …

Sen. Lee no doubt views himself as a champion of America’s founding principles. But how do his views really differ from President Obama’s? They both think America’s defining purpose is its ability to solve big social problems. They both think America’s wealth comes from some group — “community and cooperation” in the senator’s view and “one nation and one people” in the president’s. Their only dispute seems to be about how we should distribute it. Lee opposes government enforced charity and cooperation. But if you concede that wealth, success, and prosperity come from “community and cooperation” rather than individual initiative, why shouldn’t government force us to “give back”? The government would never stand by while some people stole property from others. If we really think groups produced the nation’s wealth, then it is groups that own that wealth and government should “redistribute” it. “We’re all in this together,” under Sen. Lee’s view, becomes just a conservative version of “you didn’t build that.”

This seems to me way off the mark. In fact, Brook and Simpson are appropriating the left’s rhetoric on Citizens United and related First Amendment cases, such as the Obama administration’s contraception mandate. Liberals dismiss the notion of corporate personhood with the claim that “corporations aren’t people.” But that’s not what the argument is about. The question is: when people assemble in a group in order to better project their voices above the din, do they retain their constitutional rights or not?

The conservative case, which is patently correct once you put the question into practice, is that yes: individuals retain their constitutional rights even when they gather. Indeed, Lee spells that out in his speech, when he says:

We usually refer to the free market and civil society as “institutions.” But really, they are networks of people and information and opportunity. What makes these networks uniquely powerful is that they impel everyone – regardless of race, religion, or wealth – to depend not simply on themselves or the government, but on each other. For all America’s reputation for individualism and competition, our nation has from the beginning been built on a foundation of community and cooperation.

Lee here is pointing out a key difference between right and left: institutions of the right are made up of individuals who choose to organize a certain way. Institutions of the left are really rolled into one institution: government. And its participation is based on coercion. When the government spends money, it’s spending money it took by force of law from one person and giving it to another. The institutions of civil society do not strip citizens of their choice, of their individual liberty.

That voluntary gathering doesn’t make them collectivist. Brook and Simpson argue that this is another version of “you didn’t build that.” But that strikes me as exactly the opposite of the case. You still “built that,” even if the you is plural. Further, the institutions of civil society serve as key protectors of individual liberty. If there is nothing between the government and the people, there is less to prevent every facet of private life from becoming the government’s business. Mike Lee understands that there is strength in numbers, but that’s a far cry from coercive collective action.

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The Opposition to BDS

It has been no pleasure to write about the anti-Israel activity in academia this year, beginning in April with the Association for Asian-American Studies resolution to boycott Israel and culminating in the decision of the National Council of the American Studies Association last month to vote up an academic boycott resolution of its own. That resolution is now being considered by the full membership.

I do not agree with David Bernstein, writing for Minding the Campus, that we can take much comfort in the fact that the ASA resolution is watered down, amounting mainly to a refusal of the ASA as an organization to cooperate with Israeli universities or their official representatives, rather than a call, say, for individual ASA members to stop inviting Israeli scholars to visit American campuses. No resolution the ASA passed was going to have a substantial direct effect, since the organization is quite small, and its ties to Israeli scholars are very limited. The meaning of the resolution was always going to be symbolic, and its impact, if the resolution passes the full membership, will be to bolster the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and the international Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, neither of which can bring itself to concede Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

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It has been no pleasure to write about the anti-Israel activity in academia this year, beginning in April with the Association for Asian-American Studies resolution to boycott Israel and culminating in the decision of the National Council of the American Studies Association last month to vote up an academic boycott resolution of its own. That resolution is now being considered by the full membership.

I do not agree with David Bernstein, writing for Minding the Campus, that we can take much comfort in the fact that the ASA resolution is watered down, amounting mainly to a refusal of the ASA as an organization to cooperate with Israeli universities or their official representatives, rather than a call, say, for individual ASA members to stop inviting Israeli scholars to visit American campuses. No resolution the ASA passed was going to have a substantial direct effect, since the organization is quite small, and its ties to Israeli scholars are very limited. The meaning of the resolution was always going to be symbolic, and its impact, if the resolution passes the full membership, will be to bolster the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and the international Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, neither of which can bring itself to concede Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

But Bernstein is right that we should be heartened by the “significant resistance” the resolution has met within the ASA. The ASA has a powerful radical wing, such that the sociologist Alan Wolfe took to the pages of the New Republic more than a decade ago to denounce a field increasingly characterized by “postcolonial criticism of the United States for its imperial pretensions” and for whose practitioners “nobody’s revolutionary credentials are good enough.” Nonetheless, seven former presidents of the ASA along with more than fifty other members have signed onto a letter against the resolution.

What is most remarkable about this letter is that it goes beyond what too often passes for level-headedness in academia, namely a ritual denunciation or Israel followed by the argument that although everyone agrees that Israel is an international criminal, academic freedom is too precious to sacrifice for the sake of denouncing international criminals.  Rather than choosing sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the letter’s authors call for “healthy, constructive debate on the Middle East and other complex topics,” and observe that the boycott, being “discrimination pure and simple” is unlikely to foster such debate.

Simon Bronner of Pennsylvania State University, the editor of the ASA’s Encyclopedia of American Studies, has led the effort to oppose the boycott (his petition is here), and other thoughtful members of the ASA have weighed in. ASA’s leaders have done what they can to shut out critics. ASA’s president Curtis Marez, according to Bronner, flatly refused his request to “provide corrections of misstatements, information on reasons for non-endorsement, and the possibility of extending the deadline for voting.” He did so even though the Council has communicated to members a lengthy justification of its actions before calling the vote.

Opposition is coming from other corners of academia, too. The American Association of University Professors, which criticized the Asian American Studies Association when it passed a boycott resolution, has issued an open letter urging members of the ASA to vote this new resolution down.

The comment I get most frequently when I write about higher education is that there is no hope for the higher education racket, and that we should pray that the economic and technological developments that now threaten our colleges and universities will destroy them and make way for something new. Some conservatives seem to have given up on academics altogether. But the opposition within the ASA to boycotting Israel suggests that even in a highly politicized academic organization, influential members have not given up on preserving the integrity of the scholarly and teaching professions. These people are not going down without a fight. Neither should we.

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Podesta Can’t Right Obama’s Sinking Ship

You know a president is in deep trouble when even an improving economy can’t boost his popularity. That’s the situation facing Barack Obama, as optimism about a less anemic recovery in the coming year has done nothing to halt the slide in his approval numbers. With every poll showing him in deep trouble, it’s time for the White House to call in reinforcements and that’s what they’ve done by getting former Bill Clinton chief of staff John Podesta to return to the West Wing as a counselor. Podesta, a veteran liberal ideologue as well as a friend of current White House chief of staff Dennis McDonough, is seen as bringing a steady hand to a political operation that has been shaken by a year of scandals and legislative failures that capped off with a spectacular fiasco in the form of the ObamaCare rollout and the revelation that the president’s promises about people keeping their insurance was a lie.

The thought appears to be that if anyone can get the president back on track it is the guy who helped Clinton weather the Monica Lewinsky scandal and an impeachment trial. Moreover, Podesta’s presence in a position of influence will reinforce the sense that the president will use his second term to take a sharp turn even farther to the left than the agenda he has already pursued. But as much as McDonough needs all the grown-ups he can muster to deal with the unanswered questions about ObamaCare and countless other failures, large and small, no one should be expecting Podesta to be the cavalry who will ride to the president’s rescue. The problems that this awful fifth year of the Obama presidency exposed can’t be fixed by a stronger focus on liberal doctrine, more attacks on the Republicans, or even greater accountability on the part of White House staff, though the latter would certainly be a welcome development. But the problem with this administration isn’t process; it’s credibility. Once a president has lost it, no gathering of wise heads or political magicians can rescue the situation.

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You know a president is in deep trouble when even an improving economy can’t boost his popularity. That’s the situation facing Barack Obama, as optimism about a less anemic recovery in the coming year has done nothing to halt the slide in his approval numbers. With every poll showing him in deep trouble, it’s time for the White House to call in reinforcements and that’s what they’ve done by getting former Bill Clinton chief of staff John Podesta to return to the West Wing as a counselor. Podesta, a veteran liberal ideologue as well as a friend of current White House chief of staff Dennis McDonough, is seen as bringing a steady hand to a political operation that has been shaken by a year of scandals and legislative failures that capped off with a spectacular fiasco in the form of the ObamaCare rollout and the revelation that the president’s promises about people keeping their insurance was a lie.

The thought appears to be that if anyone can get the president back on track it is the guy who helped Clinton weather the Monica Lewinsky scandal and an impeachment trial. Moreover, Podesta’s presence in a position of influence will reinforce the sense that the president will use his second term to take a sharp turn even farther to the left than the agenda he has already pursued. But as much as McDonough needs all the grown-ups he can muster to deal with the unanswered questions about ObamaCare and countless other failures, large and small, no one should be expecting Podesta to be the cavalry who will ride to the president’s rescue. The problems that this awful fifth year of the Obama presidency exposed can’t be fixed by a stronger focus on liberal doctrine, more attacks on the Republicans, or even greater accountability on the part of White House staff, though the latter would certainly be a welcome development. But the problem with this administration isn’t process; it’s credibility. Once a president has lost it, no gathering of wise heads or political magicians can rescue the situation.

According to the New York Times, Podesta will have special responsibility for pushing climate change issues as well as in advising the president on implementing ObamaCare and administrative and organizational issues. But there’s little doubt that his presence in the White House has as much, if not more to do with the president’s need to regain the political initiative.

There’s no question that the amateur show that we’ve been watching this last year—in contrast to the brilliant and sharp-elbowed reelection campaign we saw the president conduct in 2012—is a good reason to bring in someone experienced in both handling scandals and keeping his head. Podesta’s presence is a sign that Obama will take a page out of the Clinton war room playbook and conduct a fierce partisan counter-attack on Republicans. That’s the sort of thing that has worked for this administration in the past, albeit with a good deal of help from those in the GOP with a desire for suicide charges in the form of things like the government shutdown. Podesta has a well-earned reputation as a bare-knuckled left-wing combatant and it is to be expected that his advice will err on the side of more confrontation rather than a genuine effort on the part of the White House to seek compromise with Republicans.

Podesta is a skilled tactician, but it is a mistake to think the president’s decline is a function of tactics or process. What we have seen in the last 12 months is a gradual dropping away of the sense on the part of most Americans that the president is a well-intentioned man whose word can be trusted. That cannot be fixed by more pushback against the opposition or by a pivot to the left to pursue liberal agenda items like income inequality. Nor is it helped when the president continues to deny that he lied about ObamaCare coverage or to dismiss genuine problems like the IRS scandal as merely the product of a right-wing conspiracy. If the president’s poll numbers now match those of George W. Bush at a similar point in his administration it is not because of bad advice but bad policy, and a lack of honesty about it.

Rather than conjuring up the sort of misdirection plays that enabled Clinton to stay one step ahead of his foes, what the president needs is more humility and honesty, not more political combat. That such a shift seems unimaginable tells us more about the White House’s problems than it does about how they can be fixed.

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Why the Kerry-in-2016 Talk Matters

Americans who marveled at the tone-deaf extravagance and the parody-worthy self-importance of Barack Obama’s 2008 acceptance of his party’s nomination could be forgiven for thinking the ridiculous scene had become a specialty of the Democratic National Conventions. After all, just four years earlier voters were treated to the unmitigated awkwardness of “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty,” followed by a salute.

Kerry had come a long way from the vehement anti-military persona he had to leave behind to run for president–though he would return to it soon after by mocking the intelligence of America’s soldiers in Iraq. It’s doubtful there will ever be a better description of the scene at Kerry’s nomination than the one from our Andrew Ferguson: “There was also a telltale neoliberal excess to the convention that nominated him, in a hall festooned with so much military paraphernalia and overrun by so many saluting veterans that you might have thought you were watching a Latin American coup.”

But if you were one of the new voters who, in your tenacious youth and vacuous trendmongering, cast your first-ever vote for Barack Obama in 2008, there’s an outside chance that maybe, just maybe, you’ll get the opportunity to see what a joyless and uncomfortable spectacle it is when thousands of people are obliged to take John Kerry seriously at the same time. Here’s Mark Halperin, relating the latest bit of Beltway chatter:

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Americans who marveled at the tone-deaf extravagance and the parody-worthy self-importance of Barack Obama’s 2008 acceptance of his party’s nomination could be forgiven for thinking the ridiculous scene had become a specialty of the Democratic National Conventions. After all, just four years earlier voters were treated to the unmitigated awkwardness of “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty,” followed by a salute.

Kerry had come a long way from the vehement anti-military persona he had to leave behind to run for president–though he would return to it soon after by mocking the intelligence of America’s soldiers in Iraq. It’s doubtful there will ever be a better description of the scene at Kerry’s nomination than the one from our Andrew Ferguson: “There was also a telltale neoliberal excess to the convention that nominated him, in a hall festooned with so much military paraphernalia and overrun by so many saluting veterans that you might have thought you were watching a Latin American coup.”

But if you were one of the new voters who, in your tenacious youth and vacuous trendmongering, cast your first-ever vote for Barack Obama in 2008, there’s an outside chance that maybe, just maybe, you’ll get the opportunity to see what a joyless and uncomfortable spectacle it is when thousands of people are obliged to take John Kerry seriously at the same time. Here’s Mark Halperin, relating the latest bit of Beltway chatter:

“Let me just say quickly, if Hillary Clinton doesn’t run for president I bet you John Kerry does,” Mark Halperin declared on MSNBC.

The comment was at first met with silence, followed by awkward laughter from the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza — reactions that underscore how there’s been virtually no chatter about another White House bid for the Massachusetts senator and current secretary of state.

“That’s a first,” host Andrea Mitchell said in response.

Actually, it’s not a first. Slate’s Matt Yglesias had already floated the idea. But he wasn’t the first either. Progressive bloggers had been on the case before Kerry even took office at Foggy Bottom. I consider a Kerry candidacy for president to be quite unlikely, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth talking about. In fact, it’s the chatter, not the chances, that tells us something about the current state of play on the left side of the aisle.

The talk of Kerry possibly running for president mostly rests on his active diplomacy in the Middle East. Democrats have been starved in recent years for diplomatic achievement. They believed (incorrectly) that George W. Bush’s administration eschewed multilateral diplomacy in favor of unilateral war. They rejoiced at President Obama, the man who would shake anybody’s hand if they were willing only to unclench their fist. But then Obama turned out to be a startlingly poor diplomatic practitioner whose foreign-policy successes consisted of low-key invasions and targeted assassination.

This image was only compounded when his first secretary of state accrued astounding frequent-flyer miles by traveling as far away from the most challenging diplomatic conflicts as her plane would take her.

And then here comes John Kerry, reporting for duty. Now suddenly there’s a deal with Iran, which isn’t a good deal but at least there may or may not be public support for it, depending on the weirdly fluctuating polls. And now we have a secretary of state smugly lecturing the Israeli leadership on Israeli national television. That probably isn’t too popular here at home overall, but among Democrats it’s positively delightful behavior.

And of course there’s the deal working with the Bashar al-Assad regime to legitimize his mass murder when conducted through means other than chemical weapons–a deal which Kerry fell face-first into when he tied his own shoelaces together, but which averted the possibility of a strike so the doves are happy. (And the liberal interventionists like Samantha Power are reduced to tweeting furiously from luxurious hotel suites in New York. Nowhere are the world’s worst actors safe from Samantha Power’s hashtags.)

Even if Kerry’s Syria deal was reminiscent less of Dean Acheson than Inspector Gadget, it’s part of what Democrats see as diplomacy taking its rightful place and producing (controversial) results. And it’s why Kerry is being treated to fulsome profiles–the Atlantic, Foreign Policy, the New York Times. But the irony of these profiles is that they tend to miss what is by far the most important aspect to Kerry’s diplomacy, especially with Iran, and which serves him well in comparison to Hillary Clinton. As the Boston Globe reported late last month, John Kerry opened secret backchannel communications with Iran in “early December 2011.”

That is, even when Clinton was America’s top diplomat, Kerry was the one Obama relied on to conduct his most consequential diplomacy. That’s probably because it would have been impossible for a sitting secretary of state to take part in such a plan without it becoming public. And it may also be because Clinton was too high-ranking an official to meet with the Iranians on a whim anyway. But whatever the reason, the point remains that dovish Democrats see this diplomacy as the culmination of a decade’s worth of efforts to steer the ship of state (and the Department of State) in their preferred direction–and Clinton’s name is not on it.

That’s not enough to make Kerry a realistic prospect for 2016 at this point, but it should worry Clinton that the conversation has turned from “will she run” to “maybe John Kerry should run instead.”

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“I Am Interested in the Views of the Opposition”

Over the weekend, while doing research for an essay, I re-read Catherine Drinker Bowen’s wonderful book Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention from May to September 1787. In it she quotes George Washington (a strong Federalist) on the value of the opposition.

“Upon the whole,” Washington wrote, “I doubt whether the opposition to the Constitution will not ultimately be productive of more good than evil; it has called forth, in its defence, abilities which would not perhaps have been otherwise exerted that have thrown new light upon the science of Government, they have given the rights of man a full and fair discussion, and explained them in so clear and forcible a manner, as cannot fail to make a lasting impression.”

Two centuries later the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin echoed these observations in an interview in which he was asked about critics of the Enlightenment (which Berlin was a great admirer of). 

“I am interested in the views of the opposition because I think that understanding it can sharpen one’s own vision,” Berlin said. “Clever and gifted enemies often pinpoint fallacies or shallow analyses in the thought of the Enlightenment. I am more interested in critical attacks which lead to knowledge than simply in repeating and defending the commonplaces of and about the Enlightenment.”

I cite both Washington and Berlin because what they are saying doesn’t come naturally to most of us and, in fact, runs deeply against our grain. Many of us have settled views on politics, on philosophy, on theology; we’re far more interested in refuting our critics than learning from them. Our moral intuitions and dispositions, our experiences and intellectual vanity can prevent us from appreciating the “new light” that can be cast by those with whom we disagree.

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Over the weekend, while doing research for an essay, I re-read Catherine Drinker Bowen’s wonderful book Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention from May to September 1787. In it she quotes George Washington (a strong Federalist) on the value of the opposition.

“Upon the whole,” Washington wrote, “I doubt whether the opposition to the Constitution will not ultimately be productive of more good than evil; it has called forth, in its defence, abilities which would not perhaps have been otherwise exerted that have thrown new light upon the science of Government, they have given the rights of man a full and fair discussion, and explained them in so clear and forcible a manner, as cannot fail to make a lasting impression.”

Two centuries later the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin echoed these observations in an interview in which he was asked about critics of the Enlightenment (which Berlin was a great admirer of). 

“I am interested in the views of the opposition because I think that understanding it can sharpen one’s own vision,” Berlin said. “Clever and gifted enemies often pinpoint fallacies or shallow analyses in the thought of the Enlightenment. I am more interested in critical attacks which lead to knowledge than simply in repeating and defending the commonplaces of and about the Enlightenment.”

I cite both Washington and Berlin because what they are saying doesn’t come naturally to most of us and, in fact, runs deeply against our grain. Many of us have settled views on politics, on philosophy, on theology; we’re far more interested in refuting our critics than learning from them. Our moral intuitions and dispositions, our experiences and intellectual vanity can prevent us from appreciating the “new light” that can be cast by those with whom we disagree.

It’s important to note that neither Washington nor Berlin gave up on their deeply held convictions. Washington did not become an anti-Federalist and Berlin did not become a critic of the Enlightenment. What both men were saying, I think, is that our ability to perceive the whole truth is impaired and can be improved upon; and one way it can be improved upon is to carefully weigh the arguments of one’s most (not least) serious critics. Even those we believe are wrong in their final judgments can identify weaknesses in our own arguments. None of us, after all, really and truly believes we hold exactly the right views on all the important issues at any given moment in time. We’re always learning new things, refining our views, and having to adjust them to shifting circumstances.

The second, and in some respects the more subtle, thing to be learned from the comments of Washington and Berlin is that they were speaking as empiricists, as individuals interested in gaining greater knowledge as a means to gaining greater wisdom. That is quite a different approach from being, say, ideologues who hermetically seal themselves off from data and arguments that challenge their views.

But here’s the dirty little secret. All of us are guilty, to one degree or another, of “epistemic closure” and confirmation bias. In addition, and for understandable reasons, we all tend to self-segregate. Among other things, there’s a natural human tendency to seek out a community of like-minded individuals who can offer us support and encouragement. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes that a friendship is born when two people discover they not only share common interests but see the same truth, who stand not face-to-face (as lovers do) but shoulder-to-shoulder. There’s an important place in our lives for intellectual and spiritual fellowship.

The question is where each of us falls on the continuum and whether we recognize intellectual rigidity in ourselves rather than others (which is one of the easiest sports known to man).

Recently I had a conversation with a treasured friend, an individual I have consistently turned to at critical junctures in my own life. He was visiting Washington and we had a lovely chat, during which he told me that as he gets older he finds himself to be a person characterized by less certitude on a range of issues.

What he was getting at wasn’t evidence of an existential crisis or a loss of faith. (His confidence in the love and sovereignty of God has actually grown over the years, with the result being he’s become more relaxed in his need to figure things out and to tie down loose ends.) What he meant, as I understood him, is that certain kinds of certitude actually inhibit the search for truth; that often it doesn’t take into account the subtleties and complexities of life; and that certain beliefs we might hold in the abstract dissolve once they make contact with real life, including when we learn first-hand the stories of people and their own struggles and triumphs along the way.

It turns out that life in this world–in politics, in philosophy, in theology, in our everyday lives–isn’t quite as neat and tidy as we might have thought.

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Monkeyshines

From the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up department:

Last week, TSA agents at the St. Louis airport confiscated a gun–from a sock monkey!

The monkey, Rooster Monkburn (homage to John Wayne in True Grit), was traveling from St. Louis to Washington in the company of his creator, doll-maker Phyllis May.  Actually, he was traveling in Ms. May’s carry-on bag, along with some sewing supplies. A keen-eyed TSA agent spotted the dual threat, pulled the bag from the conveyor belt, and called Ms. May over. Removing Rooster’s pistol from its holster she informed Ms. May that, “This is a gun.” The sewing supplies were confiscated, as was the gun. All two-inches of it (check out the photo). Ms. May got her needles and thread back, but the sock-monkey cowboy had to make the trip unarmed.

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From the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up department:

Last week, TSA agents at the St. Louis airport confiscated a gun–from a sock monkey!

The monkey, Rooster Monkburn (homage to John Wayne in True Grit), was traveling from St. Louis to Washington in the company of his creator, doll-maker Phyllis May.  Actually, he was traveling in Ms. May’s carry-on bag, along with some sewing supplies. A keen-eyed TSA agent spotted the dual threat, pulled the bag from the conveyor belt, and called Ms. May over. Removing Rooster’s pistol from its holster she informed Ms. May that, “This is a gun.” The sewing supplies were confiscated, as was the gun. All two-inches of it (check out the photo). Ms. May got her needles and thread back, but the sock-monkey cowboy had to make the trip unarmed.

The TSA’s response? “TSA officers are dedicated to keeping the nation’s transportation security systems safe and secure for the traveling public. Under longstanding aircraft security policy, and out of an abundance of caution, realistic replicas of firearms are prohibited in carry-on bags.”

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I sure will sleep better tonight knowing that my safety, and the safety of my friends and loved ones, is in such good hands.

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A Call for Freedom in South Africa

President Obama has not always embraced the notion that he is the leader of the free world. Far too often, he has preferred to pose as a figure of the post-American era. He has been quick to apologize for America’s flaws and too besotted with multilateralism and multiculturalism to assert that the model of American liberty is right for the rest of the world. Nor has he been a consistent or even a particularly assertive advocate for human rights. Indeed, his predecessor’s freedom agenda, a sometimes flawed but still deeply principled effort to expand the reach of democracy and to topple tyrants, was something he often consciously rejected. He stood largely mute when protesters took to the streets in Tehran and seemed only excited by the rise to power of Islamist movements during the Arab Spring, a development that was no victory for freedom.

But today during his eulogy in South Africa for the late Nelson Mandela, the president did seize this unique moment to draw the world’s attention to that same freedom agenda that he has often spurned. Mixed in with amorphous calls for peace and the need to deal with inequality, he said this:

There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. And there are too many of us who stand on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.

While Obama must be considered as someone who has largely stood on the sidelines in the manner that he described, it was important for someone at the funeral to call attention, even indirectly, to the fact that the vast majority of African countries fit his description.

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President Obama has not always embraced the notion that he is the leader of the free world. Far too often, he has preferred to pose as a figure of the post-American era. He has been quick to apologize for America’s flaws and too besotted with multilateralism and multiculturalism to assert that the model of American liberty is right for the rest of the world. Nor has he been a consistent or even a particularly assertive advocate for human rights. Indeed, his predecessor’s freedom agenda, a sometimes flawed but still deeply principled effort to expand the reach of democracy and to topple tyrants, was something he often consciously rejected. He stood largely mute when protesters took to the streets in Tehran and seemed only excited by the rise to power of Islamist movements during the Arab Spring, a development that was no victory for freedom.

But today during his eulogy in South Africa for the late Nelson Mandela, the president did seize this unique moment to draw the world’s attention to that same freedom agenda that he has often spurned. Mixed in with amorphous calls for peace and the need to deal with inequality, he said this:

There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. And there are too many of us who stand on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.

While Obama must be considered as someone who has largely stood on the sidelines in the manner that he described, it was important for someone at the funeral to call attention, even indirectly, to the fact that the vast majority of African countries fit his description.

Nelson Mandela was, as both Max Boot and I wrote last week, one of the pivotal historical figures of the last century. His embrace of racial reconciliation and peace was crucial to his country’s future and set an example for the world. But one of the flaws in this truly great man’s public persona was his inability to discard the alliances he made during his struggle for freedom with despotic regimes. Mandela’s alliances with the Soviet Union, Communist Cuba, and terrorists like Yasir Arafat were marriages of convenience forced on him due to the fact that the Cold War left him without significant Western friends. But as Seth Lipsky wrote yesterday in Haaretz, the Soviets were no friends of freedom even when they were backing Mandela and his African National Congress. Unfortunately, though Mandela embraced democracies in power and sought to make his own country free, he was unwilling to drop these unsavory friends once in power. Thus, despotic regimes, like that of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, never lost South Africa’s support.

President Obama’s eloquent praise of Nelson Mandela largely did him and the United States credit. But he needs to take his own advice about speaking out against tyranny. If convention called for him to shake the hand of Cuban dictator Raul Castro at the funeral, he shouldn’t lose the opportunity to call for freedom in Cuba or to demand the release of Alan Gross, an American aid worker who remains imprisoned there. It is a shame that he did not do so. It should be remembered that while Mandela chose peace, he did not accept the continuation of tyranny; he ended it. When President Obama embraces détente with the tyrannical government of Iran and puts the issues of human rights and terrorism on the back burner, he gives the lie to his praise of Mandela. If, instead of seeking to empower rogue regimes, the president were to dedicate the foreign policy of his second term to a renewed freedom agenda, he would do much to burnish his own legacy as well as doing honor to the man he claims as his hero.

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Dan Rather’s Obsession

Dan Rather was once among the most powerful figures in American media. Which is why watching him today is a particularly poignant and painful thing. 

Consider Mr. Rather’s appearance with CNN’s Piers Morgan Monday night. When asked about the recent, erroneous Benghazi report on 60 Minutes that led to a leave of absence for reporter Lara Logan, Rather compared that story to the one that ruined his career:

“With our story, the one that led to our difficulty, no question the story was true. What the complaint… was ‘Okay, your story was true, but the way you got to the truth was flawed. The process was flawed.’ That’s not the case with the Benghazi story. Unfortunately, and there’s no joy in saying this, they were taken in by a man who was a fraud.”

Now for some context.

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Dan Rather was once among the most powerful figures in American media. Which is why watching him today is a particularly poignant and painful thing. 

Consider Mr. Rather’s appearance with CNN’s Piers Morgan Monday night. When asked about the recent, erroneous Benghazi report on 60 Minutes that led to a leave of absence for reporter Lara Logan, Rather compared that story to the one that ruined his career:

“With our story, the one that led to our difficulty, no question the story was true. What the complaint… was ‘Okay, your story was true, but the way you got to the truth was flawed. The process was flawed.’ That’s not the case with the Benghazi story. Unfortunately, and there’s no joy in saying this, they were taken in by a man who was a fraud.”

Now for some context.

Mr. Rather’s 44-year career at CBS (24 years of which he spent as the anchor of the CBS Evening News) ended because of his role in a story that blew apart. The 2004 story was meant to smear President George W. Bush a few months before his reelection. The problem is that it was based on forged National Guard documents that were almost immediately revealed as such. Yet Rather insists to this very day that the forged documents were accurate. 

This claim is a hallucination, as this 224-page Report of the Independent Review Panel (convened by CBS) makes clear. But Rather would not let it go. After being fired in 2006, he filed a $70 million lawsuit against CBS and its parent company, Viacom, claiming he had been made a “scapegoat,” which was subsequently dismissed in its entirely. Mr. Rather of course appealed. And in 2012, while promoting his book Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News, the former CBS reporter continued to insist the forged documents were accurate. “I believe them to be genuine. I did at the time, I did in the immediate aftermath of it, and yes, I do now,” he said.

This story fascinates me in part because of its insight into human psychology. Mr. Rather is emotionally unable to accept that the National Guard story was false and built on lies, that his effort to bring down an American president brought him down instead. And so he keeps returning to the scene of the crime, hoping to clear his name, convinced that one more adamant declaration that his story was true will magically make it so. Unfortunately, and there’s no joy in saying this, Rather doesn’t have the self-awareness to know that each time he does this, he becomes a more pitiable figure.

“To the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” These are the words of Captain Ahab as he tosses his harpoon toward the great white whale. But they could just as easily be Dan Rather’s. 

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The Tikvah Programs for 2014

Our friends at the Tikvah Fund have been engaging for years in a splendid effort to offer deeper education to adults in the bonds between Western civilization and the United States and the history of Judaism. Now the Fund is announcing a series of exciting seminars for 2014, and soliciting applications for attendees. 

Tikvah programs bring exceptional individuals from America, Israel, and around the world to New York City to study economics, war and grand strategy, and Jewish thought. Our extraordinary faculty includes Peter Berkowitz, Frederick W. Kagan, William Kristol, Meir Soloveichik, Ruth Wisse, and Dara Horn, among many more.

Programs run 1 to 3 weeks starting next spring. All participants receive generous stipends to cover their travel, lodging, and investment of time. 

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Our friends at the Tikvah Fund have been engaging for years in a splendid effort to offer deeper education to adults in the bonds between Western civilization and the United States and the history of Judaism. Now the Fund is announcing a series of exciting seminars for 2014, and soliciting applications for attendees. 

Tikvah programs bring exceptional individuals from America, Israel, and around the world to New York City to study economics, war and grand strategy, and Jewish thought. Our extraordinary faculty includes Peter Berkowitz, Frederick W. Kagan, William Kristol, Meir Soloveichik, Ruth Wisse, and Dara Horn, among many more.

Programs run 1 to 3 weeks starting next spring. All participants receive generous stipends to cover their travel, lodging, and investment of time. 

Program:              Tikvah Advanced Institutes

Website:               http://tikvahfund.org/

Eligibility:       For advanced undergraduates, graduate students, and individuals in professional life – public policy, journalism, academia, education, law, business, or culture

Dates:               1 to 3 week seminars, running from April to July 2014.

Application Due Date:    February 15, 2014

The Tikvah Advanced Institutes will give accomplished individuals of any nationality, from a broad range of academic and professional backgrounds, the chance to participate with leading thinkers and practitioners in their choice of advanced courses on policy and Jewish thought, on a schedule designed for people who do not have much time to spare. The seminars will take place in New York City over periods extending from one to three weeks; and participants will be given stipends of $1,000 to $5,000, depending on the seminar’s length, to cover their travel, lodging, and investment of time.

The courses and instructors are:

  • The Israeli Economy: A Strategy for the Future, Dan Senor and Ohad Reifen
  • Liberalism, Conservatism, and the Jews, Peter Berkowitz, Yuval Levin, Meir Soloveichik, William Kristol, and William Galston
  • The Jewish Idea of God, Micah Goodman and Clifford Orwin
  • War and Human Nature, Frederick W. Kagan, Barry Strauss, Eric Edelman, Charles Hill, and Stephen Rosen
  • The Future of the Family, Eric Cohen, Gilbert Meilaender, Dara Horn, W. Bradford Wilcox, Jack Wertheimer, Ryan T. Anderson, and Jonathan V. Last

Program:                   Summer Fellowship on Jewish Thought and Citizenship

Website:                     http://tikvahfund.org/

Eligibility:                  Undergraduates, graduate students, and young professionals, ages 20-29

Dates:                         July 27 – August 8, 2013

Stipend:                       $1,000, plus expenses

Application Due Date:     March 1, 2014

 

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