Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 12, 2014

Butt Out and Do Your Jobs

The New York Times reported earlier this week that two members of Congress–Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell and Republican Representative Tom Cole–planned to “send a strongly worded letter” to the commissioner of the National Football League, Roger Goodell, urging him to support changing the name of the Washington Redskins because it offends Native Americans and others.

Senator Cantwell, Democrat of Washington State and chairwoman of the Indian Affairs Committee, said in an interview that lawmakers would “definitely” examine the NFL’s tax-exempt status and other ways to pressure the league.

“You’re getting a tax break for educational purposes, but you’re still embracing a name that people see as a slur and encouraging it,” Ms. Cantwell said. The NFL can “no longer ignore this and perpetuate the use of this name as anything but what it is: a racial slur,” Cantwell and Cole said.

Wherever you stand on the name of the Washington franchise, to have Members of Congress weigh in on this is silly and inappropriate; and to have them threaten to use the law to punish the N.F.L. unless it bows to their wishes is troubling. Clearly they have too much time on their hands. 

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The New York Times reported earlier this week that two members of Congress–Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell and Republican Representative Tom Cole–planned to “send a strongly worded letter” to the commissioner of the National Football League, Roger Goodell, urging him to support changing the name of the Washington Redskins because it offends Native Americans and others.

Senator Cantwell, Democrat of Washington State and chairwoman of the Indian Affairs Committee, said in an interview that lawmakers would “definitely” examine the NFL’s tax-exempt status and other ways to pressure the league.

“You’re getting a tax break for educational purposes, but you’re still embracing a name that people see as a slur and encouraging it,” Ms. Cantwell said. The NFL can “no longer ignore this and perpetuate the use of this name as anything but what it is: a racial slur,” Cantwell and Cole said.

Wherever you stand on the name of the Washington franchise, to have Members of Congress weigh in on this is silly and inappropriate; and to have them threaten to use the law to punish the N.F.L. unless it bows to their wishes is troubling. Clearly they have too much time on their hands. 

How about this modest proposal: Before members of Congress weigh in on issues they have no business in, they actually perform the tasks that are properly theirs? Here’s another alternative: Congress cease and desist from telling the NFL what to do about the names of their teams until its public approval rating exceeds, say, 25 percent (right now it’s at 13 percent).

There are a lot of reasons to be frustrated, discouraged, and/or disgusted by members of Congress these days. Believing that they have an official role to play when it comes to the team name of an N.F.L. franchise (one that has been affixed to the Washington franchise since the 1930s) is yet one more.

Senator Cantwell and Representative Cole have nothing to teach the rest of us on this matter. They should butt out and do their jobs. 

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Conservative Education Reformers Go Beyond School Choice

School choice is usually the only aspect of education reform that gets much attention, though in recent years the prospect of the student-loan bubble bursting has brought higher education into focus. An NPR story from last night shows why higher education reform is moving up on the agenda of various politicians.

Its headline really says it all, but the story is worth reading as well. It’s titled “Going To College May Cost You, But So Will Skipping It.” That’s a good demonstration of why both the “for” and the “against” arguments in terms of getting a four-year degree seem to be one and the same. College has become absurdly expensive, but so has forgoing college. That’s the problem in a nutshell, isn’t it?

Part of what makes this so frustrating to the public and to some policymakers is that there are very obvious reasons for this. The federal government’s role in the student-loan business artificially inflates tuition rates, and its position as the sole accrediting institution does the same by protecting entrenched schools and barring entry to the marketplace for others, thus further driving up the cost of college. Access to federal loans is also tied to accreditation. That’s why in recent days both Marco Rubio and Mike Lee have floated ways to change that:

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School choice is usually the only aspect of education reform that gets much attention, though in recent years the prospect of the student-loan bubble bursting has brought higher education into focus. An NPR story from last night shows why higher education reform is moving up on the agenda of various politicians.

Its headline really says it all, but the story is worth reading as well. It’s titled “Going To College May Cost You, But So Will Skipping It.” That’s a good demonstration of why both the “for” and the “against” arguments in terms of getting a four-year degree seem to be one and the same. College has become absurdly expensive, but so has forgoing college. That’s the problem in a nutshell, isn’t it?

Part of what makes this so frustrating to the public and to some policymakers is that there are very obvious reasons for this. The federal government’s role in the student-loan business artificially inflates tuition rates, and its position as the sole accrediting institution does the same by protecting entrenched schools and barring entry to the marketplace for others, thus further driving up the cost of college. Access to federal loans is also tied to accreditation. That’s why in recent days both Marco Rubio and Mike Lee have floated ways to change that:

At issue are federal student loans, which can only be used to pay for education at federally accredited institutions. Lee argued that this policy makes the federal government a gatekeeper to higher education — and rather than keeping out bad actors, he said, it just protects institutions from competition. And as the government has closed and then subsidized this market, its product (the ubiquitous Bachelor’s degree) has become more expensive and less valuable.

So Lee’s proposed fix would let states set up their own accreditation regimes that would run parallel to the federal government’s.

“College presidents can rest assured that if they like their regional accreditor, they can keep their regional accreditor,” he said. “And I mean it, I’m absolutely sincere.”

Lee said the legislation could let states open accreditation for apprenticeships, professional certifications, and competency tests, among other alternative higher-ed modes. Apple and Google, for instance, could work to make accredited computer courses.

In a speech Monday, Rubio appeared receptive to Lee’s proposal, and had a few of his own:

Rubio, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, also pushed for the passage of the “Know Before You Go Act,” which would provide students with data about potential earning by different fields. But such a proposal would require reversing the ban on a national student unit record system.

“It’s important for students and families to have access to the information they need to make a smart choice,” says Ethan Senack, a higher education associate at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “Sens. Rubio and [Ron] Wyden undertook an important effort … trying to balance the need for transparency and information with institutional burden and privacy concerns. I think it’s certainly an important step in the discussion, but there’s a lot more that needs to be done.”

One of two suggestions Rubio made to tackle the growing mountain of student loan debt is to make income-based repayment the default option for all borrowers. Recent data from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau shows just slightly more than 10 percent of federal loan borrowers are enrolled in some type of income-driven repayment plan.

Income-based repayment plans have their drawbacks, such as the fact that they force the federal government to bear more of the risk and don’t necessarily control costs–a recipe for trouble. But these are essential conversations to be having for the simple reason that, as the NPR story makes clear, you can’t really opt-out of this expensive system. (There are exceptions, such as trades that don’t require a four-year liberal arts degree.)

“The result is a growing opportunity gap between the haves and the have-nots, those who have advanced education and those who do not,” Rubio said in his Monday speech. Rubio’s language here is correct if he means that those who have an advanced education have achieved their degree. As Andrew Kelly pointed out this afternoon, there is a vast difference between going to college and completing college, and the gap in earning potential between those with who started college but didn’t finish school and those who skipped it entirely has narrowed.

Both NPR and Kelly were discussing a new Pew report on the issue. For its story, NPR did a round of interviews and one student credited past data on income disparity with his decision to go to college, though his first instinct was not to: “In this generation you have to go to college. Like, it isn’t even optional.” That’s becoming more and more the case, and it’s a problem. And it makes the government’s gatekeeper role in higher education all the more troubling just as it makes reformers’ attempts to fix the system all the more important.

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Asking About the Palestinian Culture of War

Almost all of the focus in the mainstream media on the Middle East peace process tends to be on the decision taken by only one of the parties involved in the negotiations. The perennial question from pundits and even veteran kibitzers like the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman is whether or not the Israelis are ready to take risks in order to achieve peace. That was the conceit of his latest column, “Israel’s Big Question,” and if it seemed familiar to readers, it was no accident. Friedman has been writing the same column for decades in which he asks Israelis whether they will leave the West Bank in order to retain both the Jewish and democratic identities of their nation. If they don’t, and Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative fails, Israel’s doom is, he says, sealed.

There are two problems with his reasoning and they are the same that apply to every other stale Friedman article on the subject that has been published since the Clinton administration. One is that Israel has already tried to trade land for the promise of peace and failed. The Palestinians turned down three offers of statehood in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem. And there is every indication that they will turn down a fourth offer of up to 90 percent of the West Bank that is being mulled by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government. Israelis have made the decision to take risks and make peace several times in the last 20 years and seem prepared to do it again if real peace—which means the end of the conflict rather than merely a pause in it—is on the table.

But the part of the equation that Friedman and the rest of the foreign-policy establishment always ignore is whether the Palestinians are ready to make peace. They’ve made it clear they won’t recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn and won’t give up the “right of return” for the 1948 refugees. But Friedman’s assumption—as well as that of many of Israel’s critics—is that if the Israelis are sufficiently forthcoming those problems will disappear. Instead, they should be asking what it is about the political culture of the Palestinians that makes such intransigence not merely possible but inevitable. The answer comes in two separate stories that touch on what it is that both the PA’s negotiators and Hamas believe. Both make for instructive reading for those who treat the question of peace as one that is solely to be decided by the Israelis.

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Almost all of the focus in the mainstream media on the Middle East peace process tends to be on the decision taken by only one of the parties involved in the negotiations. The perennial question from pundits and even veteran kibitzers like the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman is whether or not the Israelis are ready to take risks in order to achieve peace. That was the conceit of his latest column, “Israel’s Big Question,” and if it seemed familiar to readers, it was no accident. Friedman has been writing the same column for decades in which he asks Israelis whether they will leave the West Bank in order to retain both the Jewish and democratic identities of their nation. If they don’t, and Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative fails, Israel’s doom is, he says, sealed.

There are two problems with his reasoning and they are the same that apply to every other stale Friedman article on the subject that has been published since the Clinton administration. One is that Israel has already tried to trade land for the promise of peace and failed. The Palestinians turned down three offers of statehood in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem. And there is every indication that they will turn down a fourth offer of up to 90 percent of the West Bank that is being mulled by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government. Israelis have made the decision to take risks and make peace several times in the last 20 years and seem prepared to do it again if real peace—which means the end of the conflict rather than merely a pause in it—is on the table.

But the part of the equation that Friedman and the rest of the foreign-policy establishment always ignore is whether the Palestinians are ready to make peace. They’ve made it clear they won’t recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn and won’t give up the “right of return” for the 1948 refugees. But Friedman’s assumption—as well as that of many of Israel’s critics—is that if the Israelis are sufficiently forthcoming those problems will disappear. Instead, they should be asking what it is about the political culture of the Palestinians that makes such intransigence not merely possible but inevitable. The answer comes in two separate stories that touch on what it is that both the PA’s negotiators and Hamas believe. Both make for instructive reading for those who treat the question of peace as one that is solely to be decided by the Israelis.

In Gaza, the Hamas government of the strip has apparently rejected the textbooks provided for schools by UNRWA, the United Nations agency that serves Palestinian refugees and their descendants. UNRWA has hired Hamas terrorists as staffers and has been rightly accused of helping to perpetuate the conflict by not seeking to resettle refugees so as to keep them in camps as props in the long Arab war against Israel. But while the textbooks they’ve published for Gaza schools apparently accept the Palestinian narrative of victimization and the illegitimacy of Israel, they are also seeking to encourage non-violence. The Hamas education ministry is particularly angry since the books emphasize the examples of peaceful protests. As the Times of Israel reports, Education Minister Mu’tasim Al-Minawi had the following objections:

The vast majority of examples [in the books] refer to [Mahatma] Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Helen Suzman, the Soweto Uprising, the Magna Carta and Apartheid, even though Islamic-Arab-Palestinian alternatives exist,” Al-Minawi said. “There are many models which could be used which are closer to the students’ understanding.”

But perhaps worst of all, the books focused on “peaceful resistance as the only way of achieving freedom and independence.” The entire eighth grade curriculum, Al-Minawi lamented, is “not dedicated to human rights but to domesticate the psyche of the Palestinian pupil, fostering negative feelings toward armed resistance.”

This tells us that Hamas is educating the children of Gaza not just to hate Israel and Jews but also to reject the Western frame of reference about human rights, even in the context of support for anti-Israel activism, which was clearly the intention of the UNRWA curriculum.

Also instructive is the mini-controversy inspired by Saeb Erekat, the man who represents the Palestinians in peace talks with the Israelis. Earlier this month at the Munich Security Conference, Erekat told his Israeli counterpart Tzipi Livni that asking him to recognize the Jewish state was impossible since it would force the Palestinians “to change their narrative” about their history. Not satisfied with that, he claimed that his family—and the rest of the Palestinians—has a prior claim over the land to the Jews since they are descended from the biblical Canaanites and were there when Joshua Bin Nun “burned my hometown Jericho.”

The patent absurdity of this claim is such that even anti-Israeli academics have been slow to pick it up. Suffice it to say that there is no evidence that Palestinian Arabs have any connection with the inhabitants of the country prior to the Arab conquest that occurred in the seventh century C.E.

This can be dismissed as irrelevant to the problems of Israelis and Palestinians today. Like the debate about whether a separate Palestinian Arab identity is a 20th century invention, it is a moot point. Like it or not, the Jews returned to the land and aren’t leaving. By the same token there are millions of Arabs there who call themselves Palestinians and their aspirations must also be taken into account if the conflict is ever to be ended.

But if even Erekat—whom we are told by the media and the U.S. government is a man of peace—is determined to cling to a historical narrative that is based in rejection of Jewish rights to any part of the country, then what hope is there for peace?

Both Fatah and Hamas continue to educate their peoples in a culture that is not only steeped in hatred of Jews and Israel but in a worldview in which the rejection of Zionism is integral to Palestinian identity. The question Kerry, Friedman, and others who continue to hound Israelis to do what they have already tried several times to do—make peace—should be asking is when will the Palestinians give up their culture of hate and embrace one that would give peace a chance? Both the Hamas education ministry and Erekat show us that that such a decision is nowhere in sight.

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Abbas Shuts Down the Peace Process

Last week, Jonathan Tobin wrote here of how we were on the eve of a fourth Palestinian “no” to a peace agreement. It would appear that has now arrived, albeit slightly sooner than anyone had expected. Many observers assumed that once Secretary of State John Kerry got around to submitting his framework for a negotiated peace, Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas would then set about finding an excuse for rejecting it. What few could have predicted was that Abbas would find a way to reject the proposal before it was even submitted. Yet, this is precisely the impressive feat that Abbas has now accomplished.

Earlier today, Abbas’s spokespeople in Ramallah announced the PA’s new set of red lines in any negotiated peace settlement. Each and every one of these red lines blows to pieces anything Kerry was about to propose, as it does to the prospects for an agreement between the two sides in general. These red lines which Abbas details in a letter being sent to the U.S. and the Quartet seamlessly preempts whatever Kerry was likely to outline in his own peace parameters. In this way Abbas artfully dodges a scenario in which the Israelis would agree to a peace plan and the Palestinians would come under pressure not to derail yet another effort to resolve the conflict.

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Last week, Jonathan Tobin wrote here of how we were on the eve of a fourth Palestinian “no” to a peace agreement. It would appear that has now arrived, albeit slightly sooner than anyone had expected. Many observers assumed that once Secretary of State John Kerry got around to submitting his framework for a negotiated peace, Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas would then set about finding an excuse for rejecting it. What few could have predicted was that Abbas would find a way to reject the proposal before it was even submitted. Yet, this is precisely the impressive feat that Abbas has now accomplished.

Earlier today, Abbas’s spokespeople in Ramallah announced the PA’s new set of red lines in any negotiated peace settlement. Each and every one of these red lines blows to pieces anything Kerry was about to propose, as it does to the prospects for an agreement between the two sides in general. These red lines which Abbas details in a letter being sent to the U.S. and the Quartet seamlessly preempts whatever Kerry was likely to outline in his own peace parameters. In this way Abbas artfully dodges a scenario in which the Israelis would agree to a peace plan and the Palestinians would come under pressure not to derail yet another effort to resolve the conflict.

Abbas’s new red lines block just about every concession that the Israelis, and even the U.S., have requested. Abbas demands: a total Israeli withdrawal from all territories that went to Israel in 1967; that Israel complete that withdrawal within three to four years; that the Palestinians not be required to recognize the Jewish state; that east Jerusalem be specified as the capital of a Palestinian state; the release of all Palestinian prisoners; and resolving the refugee issue along the lines of UN General Assembly resolution 194, which in essence means sending those Palestinians claiming to be refugees, not to a Palestinian state, but to Israel, thus terminating the existence of the Jewish state Abbas refuses to recognize.

“Without these principles there can be no just and comprehensive peace in the region,” stated Abbas’s spokesman Abu Rudeineh. So it seems we can now bid farewell to Kerry’s rather shambolic efforts for reaching a negotiated peace, much of which have been marred by the trading of insults and accusations between the State Department and Israeli politicians, all the while with the EU standing on the sidelines, issuing threats about the repercussions for Israel should talks fail. In fact, earlier today EU parliamentary president Martin Shulz was in Israel’s Knesset lecturing Israelis (in German) on making “painful concessions for peace,” bemoaning the hardships he accused Israel of having inflicted on the Palestinians.  

Israel’s chief negotiator, Tzipi Livni, recently suggested that on the matter of the Palestinians accepting the Jewish state we might be in for a surprise. As it turned out, we weren’t. No one will be surprised by this rejection from the Palestinians, even if its early timing will have caught some a little off-guard. Even President Obama, who had been speaking of Kerry’s framework having a less than 50 percent likelihood of success, won’t be surprised when he receives Abbas’s letter. And Kerry, who was seeing all of this unfold close-up, surely won’t be able to claim to be surprised either.

As it was, the State Department was increasingly looking like it was about to try strong-arming the Israelis into accepting a framework, even on such unacceptable matters as a full Israeli withdrawal from the Jordan valley. Kerry was beginning to issue thinly veiled threats to the Israelis about what might become of Israel should it not find a way to appease Palestinian demands. There were also rumors that the State Department was trying to get the White House to back efforts to pressure the Israelis into accepting a deal even less to Israel’s liking than the one it originally seemed Kerry was about to come up with. Now, presumably, Prime Minister Netanyahu won’t have to worry about being asked to accept parameters that no Israeli leader could be expected to inflict on their people. Instead, Abbas has most likely deflected that whole unpleasant business.

What remains to be seen is how the EU, the State Department, J Street, the boycotters, the writers of Haaretz and the New York Times, and indeed Abbas himself will manage to pin this whole debacle on Israel and Netanyahu.    

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BDS on a Roll? Not So Fast

One of the BDS movement’s greatest assets is the fact that its every success gets massive media coverage while its failures (ScarJo excepted) are largely ignored. That’s why anyone following the news in recent weeks would probably conclude that boycott, divestment, and sanctions were rapidly gaining ground. Yet in reality, BDS has suffered several major failures lately–and some of these failures bode ill for its future.          

Just last week, for instance, Britain’s Supreme Court issued a major ruling against BDS when it upheld a trespassing conviction against four activists who chained themselves in an Ahava shop in London to protest the Israeli cosmetics firm’s West Bank plant. Far from being a narrow decision about trespassing, the ruling tackled the activists’ allegations against Ahava head-on.          

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One of the BDS movement’s greatest assets is the fact that its every success gets massive media coverage while its failures (ScarJo excepted) are largely ignored. That’s why anyone following the news in recent weeks would probably conclude that boycott, divestment, and sanctions were rapidly gaining ground. Yet in reality, BDS has suffered several major failures lately–and some of these failures bode ill for its future.          

Just last week, for instance, Britain’s Supreme Court issued a major ruling against BDS when it upheld a trespassing conviction against four activists who chained themselves in an Ahava shop in London to protest the Israeli cosmetics firm’s West Bank plant. Far from being a narrow decision about trespassing, the ruling tackled the activists’ allegations against Ahava head-on.          

First, the court rejected the claim that Ahava was “aiding and abetting the transfer of Israeli citizens to the OPT [Occupied Palestinian Territories],” and thereby violating the Geneva Convention. The company was doing no such thing, it said, but even if it were, “this could not amount to an offense by Ahava’s retailing arm.” That precedent will clearly be valuable for other Israeli companies fighting BDS.          

Second, the court rejected the claim that Ahava had mislabeled its goods by labeling them “made in Israel” when they were made in the West Bank–another precedent of obvious value. Moreover, its reasoning demonstrated a remarkably clear understanding of what BDS is about: The label isn’t misleading, it said, because “a consumer willing to buy Israeli products would be very unlikely not to buy Israeli products because they were produced in the OPT.” In short, the court understood that most boycotters aren’t just “anti-occupation”; they have a problem with Israel, period. That understanding is crucial to unmasking BDS for what it is.          

Also last week, Holland’s largest pension fund–and the world’s third largest–took the unusual step of issuing a press statement announcing that it had no intention of divesting from Israeli banks, having “concluded that these banks themselves do not act in breach of international laws and regulations, and that there are no judicial rulings that should lead to their exclusion.” ABP’s statement was a direct challenge to Holland’s second largest pension fund, PGGM, which last month announced plans to divest from Israeli banks because of their involvement in financing the settlements. PGGM had claimed such activity was problematic from the standpoint of international law. Now its larger crosstown rival has just publicly termed that nonsense. Such a rebuttal from a major European financial institution is far more convincing than anything Israel could say.          

Two weeks earlier, BDS suffered another loss in a French court. The French distributor for the Israeli firm SodaStream, which also has a West Bank plant, had sued a local pro-boycott group for claiming that SodaStream products were being sold fraudulently because they were labeled “made in Israel.” The court found the claim that the distributor was deceiving or defrauding customers to be baseless. It therefore fined the group and ordered it to halt its campaign. As with the British ruling, this precedent will be very useful to other Israeli companies.          

Moreover, many recent BDS “victories” are actually optical illusions. Take, for instance, the announcement by Denmark’s largest bank that it’s divesting from Bank Hapoalim. But as Hapoalim pointed out, “Denmark’s Danske Bank has no investments, of any kind, with Bank Hapoalim.” Similarly, the Norwegian Finance Ministry recently ordered its sovereign wealth fund to divest from two other Israeli companies–but again, the fund had no investments in those companies.          

Such “faux boycotts” are obviously still damaging, because they create the illusion that BDS is gathering steam. Nevertheless, they’re a far cry from real boycotts that do real economic damage.        

In short, despite John Kerry’s warnings that if peace talks fail, anti-Israel boycotts will metastasize, BDS remains a fringe movement that can still be thwarted. It will grow to threatening proportions only if Israel and its allies make no effort to challenge it.

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The Attack on Israeli Democracy and AIPAC

One of the most disgraceful conceits of American Jewish life is the pose of martyrdom adopted by critics of Israel. American Jews who publicly berate Israel’s government and those Americans who support the Jewish state never stop telling us that what they are doing is courageous. They claim the Jewish establishment seeks to silence them all the while freely shouting their message from the rooftops to the applause of the mainstream media. To disassociate oneself from Israel is a guarantee of a platform for your views on the op-ed pages of major newspapers like the New York Times if not a lucrative book contract. But if you dare to call out such persons, watch out. You stand a fair chance of being demonized or shunned by the chattering classes.

That’s the lesson to be learned from an exchange centering on the conduct of the rabbis at Manhattan’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun. As I wrote on Monday, Rabbis Rolondo Matalon and Felicia Sol joined with other fashionable New York liberals last week to denounce New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for his support for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The prominent letter writers were outraged at the ultra-liberal mayor’s willingness to embrace the umbrella pro-Israel group that they maliciously and falsely denounced as a right-wing group that does not speak for American Jews. This was too much for a group of BJ congregants who wrote a letter to their rabbis to express their pain at the spectacle of their synagogue’s spiritual leaders aligning themselves against an organization whose sole mission is to support the democratically-elected government of Israel. For their pains, the group was subjected to a scathing denunciation in today’s Haaretz by writer Peter Beinart, who was himself one of the signatories along with Matalon and Sol, of the letter to de Blasio.

Beinart’s diatribe against the BJ congregants is interesting for two reasons. One, it shows again that while blasting Israel and AIPAC wins you praise in the media, speaking up against such slanders can earn you the sort of opprobrium that can make you very unpopular, especially on New York’s Upper West Side. But just as important was the argument Beinart made. He claimed the congregants were employing Orwellian language when they said it was appropriate for American Jews to back the verdict of Israeli voters. As far as Beinart is concerned the fact that the West Bank is not a democracy renders that argument false. To speak of support for Israeli democracy is therefore in Beinart’s view emblematic of a culture of dishonesty and “euphemism” on which the pro-Israel lobby is built.

But in this case it is Beinart who is playing Orwellian tricks with language. In doing so, this self-proclaimed Zionist is not only seeking to delegitimize the majority of Israelis who have ignored his advice about what to do about the West Bank but also willfully misrepresents the nature of the conflict.

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One of the most disgraceful conceits of American Jewish life is the pose of martyrdom adopted by critics of Israel. American Jews who publicly berate Israel’s government and those Americans who support the Jewish state never stop telling us that what they are doing is courageous. They claim the Jewish establishment seeks to silence them all the while freely shouting their message from the rooftops to the applause of the mainstream media. To disassociate oneself from Israel is a guarantee of a platform for your views on the op-ed pages of major newspapers like the New York Times if not a lucrative book contract. But if you dare to call out such persons, watch out. You stand a fair chance of being demonized or shunned by the chattering classes.

That’s the lesson to be learned from an exchange centering on the conduct of the rabbis at Manhattan’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun. As I wrote on Monday, Rabbis Rolondo Matalon and Felicia Sol joined with other fashionable New York liberals last week to denounce New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for his support for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The prominent letter writers were outraged at the ultra-liberal mayor’s willingness to embrace the umbrella pro-Israel group that they maliciously and falsely denounced as a right-wing group that does not speak for American Jews. This was too much for a group of BJ congregants who wrote a letter to their rabbis to express their pain at the spectacle of their synagogue’s spiritual leaders aligning themselves against an organization whose sole mission is to support the democratically-elected government of Israel. For their pains, the group was subjected to a scathing denunciation in today’s Haaretz by writer Peter Beinart, who was himself one of the signatories along with Matalon and Sol, of the letter to de Blasio.

Beinart’s diatribe against the BJ congregants is interesting for two reasons. One, it shows again that while blasting Israel and AIPAC wins you praise in the media, speaking up against such slanders can earn you the sort of opprobrium that can make you very unpopular, especially on New York’s Upper West Side. But just as important was the argument Beinart made. He claimed the congregants were employing Orwellian language when they said it was appropriate for American Jews to back the verdict of Israeli voters. As far as Beinart is concerned the fact that the West Bank is not a democracy renders that argument false. To speak of support for Israeli democracy is therefore in Beinart’s view emblematic of a culture of dishonesty and “euphemism” on which the pro-Israel lobby is built.

But in this case it is Beinart who is playing Orwellian tricks with language. In doing so, this self-proclaimed Zionist is not only seeking to delegitimize the majority of Israelis who have ignored his advice about what to do about the West Bank but also willfully misrepresents the nature of the conflict.

AIPAC’s position and that of the overwhelming majority of the American people is that Israel’s people have the right to govern themselves and not have solutions to the conflict with the Palestinians imposed on them from the outside. But in Beinart’s twisted reasoning, backing the verdict of the overwhelming majority of Israeli voters who elected the current government led by Prime Minister Netanyahu—and gave parties that share Beinart’s views only a small percentage of their votes—is somehow anti-democratic. Since Israelis believe they have no choice but to stay in the West Bank until the Palestinians are ready to make peace, Beinart has adopted the ludicrous and hypocritical position that they have no claim on the word democracy.

Attempts to create a Palestinian democracy faltered in the last decade. Gaza fell under the despotic rule of Hamas. In the West Bank, Israel’s supposed peace partner Fatah has as little interest in liberty as their Islamic rivals. Current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is serving the 10th year of the four-year term to which he was elected. None of this is Israel’s fault. Israel would welcome the creation of a real democracy as opposed to an Islamist dictatorship or a Fatah kleptocracy posing as one. But, as Beinart knows, that isn’t in the cards, whether or not Israel withdraws from the West Bank.

More to the point, three times in the last generation Israel has offered to withdraw from almost all of the West Bank and even a share of Jerusalem in order to create a Palestinian state. Three times they were turned down because Yasir Arafat and his successor Abbas could not bring themselves to sign a treaty that recognized the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn or to renounce the “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees. Even the supposed “right-wing government” that Beinart and his fellow letter-writers so despise is now negotiating with the PA and has reportedly expressed its willingness to withdraw from 90 percent of the West Bank and make territorial swaps to create a Palestinian state. No one, except perhaps Secretary of State John Kerry, expects the Palestinian response to be positive. If Israeli voters have rejected Beinart’s pleas to withdraw from the West Bank regardless of the dangers, it is because they have been paying attention to the events of the last 20 years during which the Jewish state has continually sought to trade land for peace and received only terror in return.

The point here is not so much that Beinart is out of touch with both Israeli opinion and the reality of Palestinian intransigence, but that in order to justify his stand he is willing to trash the idea that Israeli democracy matters. The position of AIPAC is not that it seeks to justify perpetual Israeli rule in all of the West Bank. It is one of support for the right of Israel’s democratic government to wait until the Palestinians are ready to make a genuine peace before risking a repeat of what happened in Gaza when the Jewish state withdrew every settlement and soldier.

Rather than Israel’s defenders engaging in dishonesty, it is Beinart and his colleagues who have twisted the truth in this debate. The question in the Middle East is not whether Israel will let the West Bank become a democracy but whether the one true democracy in the region—Israel—will continue to exist. AIPAC and its supporters stand with the people of Israel in their efforts to defend their country. Those like Beinart, the BJ rabbis, and the assorted anti-Zionists who joined with them to denounce de Blasio have placed themselves in opposition not so much to AIPAC but the people of Israel and echoed the arguments of those in the BDS movement that wage economic war on the Jewish state. If they wish to truly renew and cleanse Jewish life as they claim, they should look in the mirror before casting aspersions on either Israel or its defenders.

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Why Have Health-Care Costs Been Rising so Much More Slowly of Late?

On a par with President Obama’s oft-repeated masterpiece of mendacity that “If you like your insurance plan you can keep your insurance plan,” is his claim that the Affordable Care Act has already begun to slow down the rise in medical costs.

There’s only one problem with that. The ACA came into effect (well, at least those parts Obama did not decide to waive on his own, non-existent authority) on October 1, 2013, and medical cost increases have been slowing for more than a decade. So what did cause the slow down?

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On a par with President Obama’s oft-repeated masterpiece of mendacity that “If you like your insurance plan you can keep your insurance plan,” is his claim that the Affordable Care Act has already begun to slow down the rise in medical costs.

There’s only one problem with that. The ACA came into effect (well, at least those parts Obama did not decide to waive on his own, non-existent authority) on October 1, 2013, and medical cost increases have been slowing for more than a decade. So what did cause the slow down?

John C. Goodman, head of the National Center for Policy Analysis, makes the argument that the causative agent has been the Health Savings Account, which first became legally possible in 2003. The HSA and its close cousin Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRA) provide company employees with a high-deductible insurance plan to cover catastrophic events and a savings account that can be used to cover routine medical expenses. If the money in the savings account is not needed, it usually is added to the employee’s retirement account.

HSAs have grown by leaps and bounds since 2003. In 2005 there were about 1 million people covered by them. At the end of 2012, about 15 million were.

This structure has great economic advantages. For one thing, health insurance becomes health insurance, covering unexpected costs that would be financially calamitous, just like car and house insurance does. It does not cover routine expenses, such as the infamous birth-control pills, that are much more expensive to cover in what amounts to a pre-payment plan, as I have explained before.

But most important, it gets health-care consumers to ask the magic question: How much is this going to cost? When consumers have to ask that question, costs are kept under control much more easily. As Milton Friedman explained, no one spends other people’s money as carefully as they spend their own. When it becomes in a person’s self-interest to find the cheapest way to get a job done, he will find the cheapest way. If it makes no difference to him, why bother? Life is short enough.

This has had supply-side effects as well. As Goodman explains, “The emergence of so many people paying for care with their own money is also changing the supply side of the market, leading to walk-in clinics that post their prices and provide timely care, and places like Walmart that offer $4 generic drugs financed by cash, not costly insurance.”

Altogether, HSAs cost about 25 percent less than traditional health insurance.

HSAs were not legally possible before 2003 because Senator Ted Kennedy, who favored a single-payer system, used all of his very considerable legislative skill to keep them off the market. He feared, correctly, that they would work effectively to keep down costs and thus pose a threat to the socialization of health care he so wanted, so he fought them tooth-and-nail.

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In Defense of Victoria Nuland

The colorful and crude terms in which American diplomat Victoria Nuland dismissed the European Union’s slow response to Ukraine’s political crisis expectedly overshadowed the other implications of the gaffe. One was discussed by Max Boot at the time: Russia seemingly had recorded the phone call between Nuland and America’s Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, and then released the tape to drive a wedge between the U.S. and the EU.

But the other, more important implication had to do with what Nuland and Pyatt were discussing, and why. Nuland is America’s top diplomatic official for Europe. Pyatt is the ambassador to the country whose capital was convulsed in popular protests demanding the end of the ruling regime of Viktor Yanukovych and constitutional protections against autocracy. Among the topics discussed in the Nuland-Pyatt conversation was an organizational strategy for the opposition. In other words, Nuland and Pyatt were doing their jobs, and quite sensibly so, to tell from the recording.

But for some, the idea of the United States involving itself in Eastern European politics, even when invited, is deemed to be meddling. The Cold War is over, proclaim those who remain obsessed to the point of distraction with the Cold War. I’ve written about this in past, a prominent example being President Obama’s amateurish joke that those who criticize Putin’s Russia are stuck in a “Cold War mind warp,” when in fact it was the president who compulsively brought up the Cold War. And now Nuland is coming in for criticism from such corners.

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The colorful and crude terms in which American diplomat Victoria Nuland dismissed the European Union’s slow response to Ukraine’s political crisis expectedly overshadowed the other implications of the gaffe. One was discussed by Max Boot at the time: Russia seemingly had recorded the phone call between Nuland and America’s Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, and then released the tape to drive a wedge between the U.S. and the EU.

But the other, more important implication had to do with what Nuland and Pyatt were discussing, and why. Nuland is America’s top diplomatic official for Europe. Pyatt is the ambassador to the country whose capital was convulsed in popular protests demanding the end of the ruling regime of Viktor Yanukovych and constitutional protections against autocracy. Among the topics discussed in the Nuland-Pyatt conversation was an organizational strategy for the opposition. In other words, Nuland and Pyatt were doing their jobs, and quite sensibly so, to tell from the recording.

But for some, the idea of the United States involving itself in Eastern European politics, even when invited, is deemed to be meddling. The Cold War is over, proclaim those who remain obsessed to the point of distraction with the Cold War. I’ve written about this in past, a prominent example being President Obama’s amateurish joke that those who criticize Putin’s Russia are stuck in a “Cold War mind warp,” when in fact it was the president who compulsively brought up the Cold War. And now Nuland is coming in for criticism from such corners.

Kenneth Weisbrode has written a piece for Foreign Policy’s website comparing Nuland to the tradition of proconsuls going back to ancient Rome, and then suggesting that to Nuland “it may be that the Cold War never really ended.” It’s an entirely unconvincing piece, in part because the phone call showed Nuland to understand the nuances of Ukrainian politics while it is Weisbrode who can’t help but see the Cold War anytime Americans and Russians disagree. But Weisbrode gives an indication of his perspective on this when he reviews Nuland’s experience:

Nuland’s work for Talbott coincided with a NATO project called Partnership for Peace, similar to today’s E.U. Eastern Partnership, although it was offered publicly (as even the Marshall Plan was) to anyone east of the old Iron Curtain, including Russia. For reasons that are still opaque, Talbott and his team came instead to endorse a policy of enlarging NATO itself, which in effect supplanted the Partnership for Peace. The scholar Michael Mandelbaum, who had been well disposed toward the Clinton administration, called this nothing less than a “bridge to the nineteenth century.”

Quoting Mandelbaum as an authority on this is strange, because Mandelbaum’s judgment on this issue, as we now know, was wrong. (Though it should have been clear at the time that he wrong.) NATO isn’t a bridge to the nineteenth century but a bridge to the twenty-first, by enabling states to move toward democracy, independence, and self-sufficiency. It should actually be considered complementary to Nuland that she understood the future post-Soviet power structure so much better than her critics at the time. And it appears she still does.

It’s worth quoting here the portion of the phone call that raised such suspicion. Here is the relevant segment about Vitaly Klitschko, a prominent but inexperienced opposition figure:

Nuland: Good. I don’t think Klitsch should go into the government. I don’t think it’s necessary, I don’t think it’s a good idea.

Pyatt: Yeah. I guess… in terms of him not going into the government, just let him stay out and do his political homework and stuff. I’m just thinking in terms of sort of the process moving ahead we want to keep the moderate democrats together. The problem is going to be Tyahnybok [Oleh Tyahnybok, the other opposition leader] and his guys and I’m sure that’s part of what [President Viktor] Yanukovych is calculating on all this.

Nuland: [Breaks in] I think Yats is the guy who’s got the economic experience, the governing experience. He’s the… what he needs is Klitsch and Tyahnybok on the outside. He needs to be talking to them four times a week, you know. I just think Klitsch going in… he’s going to be at that level working for Yatseniuk, it’s just not going to work.

You can see how this makes it look like the uprising is being stage managed by the U.S., but it’s not as though Nuland provoked the unrest. If the opposition didn’t want her there, she’d be locked out of the process. What she’s offering is guidance–even if it appears heavyhanded at times–to an inexperienced opposition group representing a significant movement in favor of more democracy.

One lesson of the Arab Spring, and of many popular uprisings before it, is that the transition to a post-authoritarian government is really quite challenging, and that a failed transition to a more democratic model can result in harsh authoritarian backsliding and the discrediting of political liberty. Nuland, to her credit, has been on the ground in Kiev since the early days of the protests supporting those who want her help. That doesn’t make her a Roman proconsul or a Cold Warrior, but a principled American diplomat.

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“The One Man Who Had Quite Purged His Heart and Mind from Hatred or Even Anger”

Two hundred and five years ago today Abraham Lincoln was born in Hodgenville, Kentucky. Lincoln was our greatest president, for reasons too numerous to recount here. But there is one element of Lincoln’s character, I think, that’s worth focusing on–his ability, as the scholar Walter Berns put it, to fight the Civil War to the end without looking upon the Confederates as enemies.

In his biography of Lincoln, Lord Charnwood wrote, “This most unrelenting enemy to the project of the Confederacy was the one man who had quite purged his heart and mind from hatred or even anger towards his fellow-countrymen of the South.”

In a particularly polarized political age, when the capacity to amplify personal attacks and demonize opponents through various outlets and social media is unprecedented, Lincoln’s example of purging hate and anger from heart and mind is particularly apposite. This doesn’t mean that one doesn’t fight for great causes with great passion. It doesn’t mean avoiding criticisms of opponents or refusing to take on bad arguments. Lincoln himself was a master at this, using his logic, wit, and sometimes sarcasm to great effect.

But Lincoln was never a hater; and his capacity to extend grace to rather than to exact retribution against the South after the Civil War remains one of the remarkable achievements in American history.

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Two hundred and five years ago today Abraham Lincoln was born in Hodgenville, Kentucky. Lincoln was our greatest president, for reasons too numerous to recount here. But there is one element of Lincoln’s character, I think, that’s worth focusing on–his ability, as the scholar Walter Berns put it, to fight the Civil War to the end without looking upon the Confederates as enemies.

In his biography of Lincoln, Lord Charnwood wrote, “This most unrelenting enemy to the project of the Confederacy was the one man who had quite purged his heart and mind from hatred or even anger towards his fellow-countrymen of the South.”

In a particularly polarized political age, when the capacity to amplify personal attacks and demonize opponents through various outlets and social media is unprecedented, Lincoln’s example of purging hate and anger from heart and mind is particularly apposite. This doesn’t mean that one doesn’t fight for great causes with great passion. It doesn’t mean avoiding criticisms of opponents or refusing to take on bad arguments. Lincoln himself was a master at this, using his logic, wit, and sometimes sarcasm to great effect.

But Lincoln was never a hater; and his capacity to extend grace to rather than to exact retribution against the South after the Civil War remains one of the remarkable achievements in American history.

“We are not enemies, but friends,” Lincoln said five weeks before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”

In the end, of course, the war came–and with it countless patriot graves. But Lincoln saved the American Republic and, after its most brutal war, he helped to bind up the wounds. He began to repair the bonds of affection. He has a special place in the American pantheon.

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EU Shows Contempt for National Sovereignty, Democracy

Switzerland is not a member of the European Union, and so you might have thought that the outcome of a Swiss referendum would be none of Brussels’s business. Not so: the EU’s contempt for national sovereignty and the democratic process of individual states extends even to countries not locked into its project for a federalized Europe. Referendums usually turn out to be trouble for the EU; whenever the electorate of individual member states are given a say on adopting such things as the single currency or a treaty appropriating yet more powers from national parliaments to EU bureaucrats, they have a tiresome tendency of saying “no,” or “non” or “nee.” In which case the practice is usually to wait a few months before holding the referendum again and telling the voters to come back with the correct answer this time. For that reason, the people of Europe aren’t often asked their opinion on these matters.   

One aspect of the EU project that most Europeans seem to wish to give a resounding “no” to is the policy of open-border immigration. This is what the Swiss have voted against. Not that they want to have immigration stopped, but simply that they want to see it curbed and regulated in the coming years, as opposed to maintaining the current EU program of unrestricted immigration between European states. The problem here is that Switzerland has a number of trading agreements with the European Union, the price of which has been accepting Brussels’s enthusiasm for mass immigration.

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Switzerland is not a member of the European Union, and so you might have thought that the outcome of a Swiss referendum would be none of Brussels’s business. Not so: the EU’s contempt for national sovereignty and the democratic process of individual states extends even to countries not locked into its project for a federalized Europe. Referendums usually turn out to be trouble for the EU; whenever the electorate of individual member states are given a say on adopting such things as the single currency or a treaty appropriating yet more powers from national parliaments to EU bureaucrats, they have a tiresome tendency of saying “no,” or “non” or “nee.” In which case the practice is usually to wait a few months before holding the referendum again and telling the voters to come back with the correct answer this time. For that reason, the people of Europe aren’t often asked their opinion on these matters.   

One aspect of the EU project that most Europeans seem to wish to give a resounding “no” to is the policy of open-border immigration. This is what the Swiss have voted against. Not that they want to have immigration stopped, but simply that they want to see it curbed and regulated in the coming years, as opposed to maintaining the current EU program of unrestricted immigration between European states. The problem here is that Switzerland has a number of trading agreements with the European Union, the price of which has been accepting Brussels’s enthusiasm for mass immigration.

As punishment for daring to express an opinion out of line with reigning federalist doctrine, Eurocrats have been threatening all kinds of retaliation. Most prominently, the president of the European Parliament, Martin Shulz, has warned that Switzerland’s economic ties with the EU could be jeopardized if it decides to implement the will of its voters. Part of the reaction is no doubt out of fear that the Swiss vote could exacerbate existing sentiments in other European countries who would like a pause in the policy of unrestricted immigration. In Britain in particular, public pressure led government ministers to broach the idea of setting a cap on the number immigrants who could come to Britain–or at least claim welfare there–when Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU at the beginning of this year. Naturally, no such allowance was permitted by Brussels, which is curious, given that when Poland joined in 2004, Germany (usually such a staunch advocate of having a maximalist European superstate) defended its national interest and had immigration from Poland restricted.

The Swiss vote touches on two particularly sensitive issues for European federalists. First is the ardent belief in the abolition of nation-states through open-border policies, which by promoting mass migration ultimately deconstruct any sense of distinctive national identity between member countries. Second, and attached to this first program, comes the deep dislike of the democratic process for Europe in general and nation-states in particular. Democracy at the national level reinforces the idea that the elected parliaments of individual countries have a legitimate right to govern and claim sovereignty. More broadly, Eurocrats have a latent distrust of populism. They believe that they have divined the correct path for Europe’s shining future, a future that cannot be put at risk by the prejudices, petty interests, and backwardness of the public.

Switzerland’s citizens may think they know what immigration policy is best for their country. They’re wrong. This is another matter Brussels thinks it can decide for them.  

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Mr. Boehner’s Critics

As explained by both Jonathan and our former COMMENTARY colleague Jennifer Rubin, Speaker John Boehner, for entirely understandable reasons–he held no cards–declared he would allow a vote on raising the debt ceiling with no strings attached. (It passed 221-201.)  Predictably, some conservative groups blasted Mr. Boehner for capitulation and for being unprincipled. 

“Leadership needs to go – they need to be completely changed,” Amy Kremer, chairman of the Tea Party Express, said. “They have no spine to fight for anything.” She added that her group would focus on making sure GOP leaders are defeated in the 2014 elections, and she’s not alone. The Senate Conservatives Fund is demanding he be replaced. So are other groups.

So some of the same people who recommended the GOP embrace the strategy that produced the government shutdown were insisting that House Republicans should have forced a showdown on raising the debt ceiling. One political disaster in a half year apparently isn’t enough. Why not two?

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As explained by both Jonathan and our former COMMENTARY colleague Jennifer Rubin, Speaker John Boehner, for entirely understandable reasons–he held no cards–declared he would allow a vote on raising the debt ceiling with no strings attached. (It passed 221-201.)  Predictably, some conservative groups blasted Mr. Boehner for capitulation and for being unprincipled. 

“Leadership needs to go – they need to be completely changed,” Amy Kremer, chairman of the Tea Party Express, said. “They have no spine to fight for anything.” She added that her group would focus on making sure GOP leaders are defeated in the 2014 elections, and she’s not alone. The Senate Conservatives Fund is demanding he be replaced. So are other groups.

So some of the same people who recommended the GOP embrace the strategy that produced the government shutdown were insisting that House Republicans should have forced a showdown on raising the debt ceiling. One political disaster in a half year apparently isn’t enough. Why not two?

It is a curious thing, those who insist on fighting losing battles, on large stages, based on wholly unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved. For some politicians seeking to curry favor with some part of the GOP base, the motivations may be ambition and self-interest. But there are others who seem to believe going down in flames is a high calling and a purifying ritual. Every tactical difference is framed as an apocalyptic struggle. The choice is liberty or tyranny. You’re a “constitutional conservative” or a statist. It’s the American Revolution all over again. You, too, can be Patrick Henry.

Now John Boehner is hardly an inspiring, let alone a perfect, political figure. He hardly sets conservative hearts aflutter. If there are those on the right who think another person should be speaker of the House, fine; they’re free to make their case and coalesce behind a challenger. But this should be said as well: Mr. Boehner’s job is more challenging than fulminating from deep in the bowels of a hidden bunker for three hours every weeknight. And whatever his limitations, Mr. Boehner has the virtue of being a serious adult who isn’t intemperate, who’s not in a constant state of agitation, and who hasn’t lost touch with political reality. Which is more than can be said about some of his critics.

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No Wonder Obama Was so Desperate to Pack the D.C. Circuit

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down another Obama administration power grab yesterday. It ruled unanimously that the IRS did not have the statutory authority, under the so-called Horse Act of 1884 (passed 29 years before the income tax existed), to license tax preparers, require them to pay annual fees, and attend at least 15 hours of continuing education a year.

The Horse Act was passed to bring an end to a rash of fraudulent claims stemming from the Civil War, where people would claim compensation from the government for horses and other property taken or killed in the war. They would often claim that some broken-down plow horse was actually a magnificent beast worth many times more. (That’s not at all dissimilar to the rash of allegedly fraudulent claims against BP for the Gulf oil spill of 2010 that’s going on right now.) It authorized the treasury secretary to establish standards for people representing claimants before the Treasury.

In 2011, rather than asking Congress for the power to license tax preparers, the Obama administration just went ahead and took the power, using the fig leaf of the Horse Act. But tax preparers, of course, don’t represent their clients before the IRS. They simply fill out the incredibly complicated forms. The clients, not the preparers, are representing that the information on the forms is correct. That was the opinion of the IRS itself up until the Obama administration came into being. In 2009 it wrote, “Just preparing a tax return [or] furnishing information at the request of the IRS … is not practice before the IRS ….”

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The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down another Obama administration power grab yesterday. It ruled unanimously that the IRS did not have the statutory authority, under the so-called Horse Act of 1884 (passed 29 years before the income tax existed), to license tax preparers, require them to pay annual fees, and attend at least 15 hours of continuing education a year.

The Horse Act was passed to bring an end to a rash of fraudulent claims stemming from the Civil War, where people would claim compensation from the government for horses and other property taken or killed in the war. They would often claim that some broken-down plow horse was actually a magnificent beast worth many times more. (That’s not at all dissimilar to the rash of allegedly fraudulent claims against BP for the Gulf oil spill of 2010 that’s going on right now.) It authorized the treasury secretary to establish standards for people representing claimants before the Treasury.

In 2011, rather than asking Congress for the power to license tax preparers, the Obama administration just went ahead and took the power, using the fig leaf of the Horse Act. But tax preparers, of course, don’t represent their clients before the IRS. They simply fill out the incredibly complicated forms. The clients, not the preparers, are representing that the information on the forms is correct. That was the opinion of the IRS itself up until the Obama administration came into being. In 2009 it wrote, “Just preparing a tax return [or] furnishing information at the request of the IRS … is not practice before the IRS ….”

The Circuit Court ruling was unequivocal: “If we were to accept the IRS’s interpretation of Section 330 [of the United States Code, where the Horse Act is enshrined today], the IRS would be empowered for the first time to regulate hundreds of thousands of individuals in the multi-billion dollar tax-preparation industry. Yet nothing in the statute’s text or the legislative record contemplates that vast expansion of the IRS’s authority.”

Why did the Obama IRS try to get away with this? Simple: to help out the big guys at the expense of the small guys, which is to say crony capitalism. Obeying the new regulations would have been no problem for, say, H&R Block or even full-time accountants. It was aimed at forcing out of the market the mom-and-pop operations who earn a few thousand dollars each spring helping friends and neighbors to file their income-tax returns.

The giveaway here is that the deputy IRS commissioner who crafted the new rules was none other than Mark Ernst, former CEO of—wait for it!—H&R Block. H&R Block, of course, was all in favor of the new rules that would have axed a considerable portion of their competition. Giving Ernst a political appointment to deal with matters directly concerning a former employer would have been flatly illegal, so he was given a “civil service” appointment instead, as though he were nothing more than one more bureaucrat moving up the ladder. His civil service career lasted less than two years.

President Obama presents himself as the champion of the poor and downtrodden. But that’s only the poor and downtrodden who are happy to be, effectively, wards of the state. The ordinary Joe who is just trying to make his own independent living is of no concern to Obama. Indeed Obama cares far more about the big guy who can attend $30,000-a-plate dinners and expects favors in return.

Despite frequent attribution, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt never said it, but President Obama should: “Law? What do I care about the law? I got the power ain’t I?”

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Press Freedom Index Dose of Reality

Reporters Without Borders today released its newest press freedom index. While its website is still a bit quirky—they must have modeled themselves after Healthcare.gov—and so it’s difficult to get the simple list of rankings, there are some notable findings.

First, despite all the hope for change, a dispassionate look at the Iranian press found that there had been no change in Iranian press freedom under new president Hassan Rouhani. Iran still remains in the basement; journalists are still imprisoned or killed; and there is no right to free speech.

Turkey, whose leader President Barack Obama has described as one of his most-trusted foreign friends, remains an embarrassment, ranking 154th in terms of press freedom. That puts Turkey behind Afghanistan, Iraq, and Russia, and on par with Belarus. Frank Ricciardone, the U.S. ambassador in Ankara, continues to support Turkey’s European Union membership. Then again, Ricciardone once suggested Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was so popular, he could win elections in the United States and, according to declassified documents, Ricciardone once led the drive to normalize relations with that noted moderate and reformer, Saddam Hussein, so perhaps his cheerleading for dictators should be taken with a grain of salt.

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Reporters Without Borders today released its newest press freedom index. While its website is still a bit quirky—they must have modeled themselves after Healthcare.gov—and so it’s difficult to get the simple list of rankings, there are some notable findings.

First, despite all the hope for change, a dispassionate look at the Iranian press found that there had been no change in Iranian press freedom under new president Hassan Rouhani. Iran still remains in the basement; journalists are still imprisoned or killed; and there is no right to free speech.

Turkey, whose leader President Barack Obama has described as one of his most-trusted foreign friends, remains an embarrassment, ranking 154th in terms of press freedom. That puts Turkey behind Afghanistan, Iraq, and Russia, and on par with Belarus. Frank Ricciardone, the U.S. ambassador in Ankara, continues to support Turkey’s European Union membership. Then again, Ricciardone once suggested Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was so popular, he could win elections in the United States and, according to declassified documents, Ricciardone once led the drive to normalize relations with that noted moderate and reformer, Saddam Hussein, so perhaps his cheerleading for dictators should be taken with a grain of salt.

Israel shot up in the rankings, after Reporters Without Borders penalized it last year for killing two Hamas operatives who were moonlighting as reporters. The NGO knocked several points off both the United States and the United Kingdom for their prosecution of whistle blowers, though there is a difference between prosecuting government officials who violated their oath to protect the secrecy of material versus targeting journalists who were simply doing their job. (Granted, the United States did a little of both.) Eritrea remained in the basement, behind even North Korea, which seems curious at best.

What does make interesting reading is to go down the list and compare the press freedom rankings of those countries the Obama administration coddles versus those countries Secretary of State John Kerry and Obama criticize; for example, juxtaposing China and Taiwan, or Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Here, it seems that the key to gaining praise from the White House is to imprison journalists, while granting citizens freedom and liberty seems a sure-fire means to find yourself in the White House’s diplomatic cross hairs. Perhaps the press freedom rankings can be a wakeup call to Obama and Kerry about how they judge and treat allies.

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