Commentary Magazine


Topic: businessmen

Government by Whim

Yuval Levin writes:

The Department of Health and Human Services announced yesterday that 30 corporations (including McDonald’s, Jack in the Box, and a New York teachers’ union) would receive exemptions from a rule that would have required them to raise the minimum annual benefit in their employee insurance plans.

The exemptions themselves are good news, since the rule would have forced these companies to drop their employee coverage, leaving almost a million workers without the insurance they had before Obamacare. But it means that these companies now need permission from the administration to offer their employees a benefit they have offered for years. And of course, many other companies—those without the lobbying operation of a company the size of McDonald’s, or without the access to liberal policymakers that a NY teachers’ union  has—can’t get the same permission, and so can’t compete on a level playing field, or offer coverage that might entice the best qualified people to work for them. This kind of government by whim, and not by law, is the essence of the regulatory state.

This is one more example of the pattern we have seen since the closing weeks of the Bush administration. As the bailouts and mind-numbingly complex legislation multiplies, the private sector becomes rife with rent-seekers, looking to spin the dials and eke out some preferential treatment from the heavy hand of government. CEOs are chosen for their political and PR skills, not their prowess as wealth creators. Business judgment is clouded and distorted as businessmen must look over their shoulders to avoid the wrath of  bureaucrats and elected officials.

The fact that these judgments are unmoored to any fixed rules and depend on the whim of government officials makes it all the worse. If the rules are unclear and the name of the game is about access, the opportunities for corruption multiply. In fact, it’s hard to tell what corruption is.

This is all a recipe for a creepy sort of corporate statism, where big business and big government are joined at the hip. It is the natural and inevitable result of Obama’s agenda. Unless of course a new set of lawmakers decide they’ve had enough and it’s time to constrain government, keep the private and public realms distinct, and support rather than undermine the rule of law.

Yuval Levin writes:

The Department of Health and Human Services announced yesterday that 30 corporations (including McDonald’s, Jack in the Box, and a New York teachers’ union) would receive exemptions from a rule that would have required them to raise the minimum annual benefit in their employee insurance plans.

The exemptions themselves are good news, since the rule would have forced these companies to drop their employee coverage, leaving almost a million workers without the insurance they had before Obamacare. But it means that these companies now need permission from the administration to offer their employees a benefit they have offered for years. And of course, many other companies—those without the lobbying operation of a company the size of McDonald’s, or without the access to liberal policymakers that a NY teachers’ union  has—can’t get the same permission, and so can’t compete on a level playing field, or offer coverage that might entice the best qualified people to work for them. This kind of government by whim, and not by law, is the essence of the regulatory state.

This is one more example of the pattern we have seen since the closing weeks of the Bush administration. As the bailouts and mind-numbingly complex legislation multiplies, the private sector becomes rife with rent-seekers, looking to spin the dials and eke out some preferential treatment from the heavy hand of government. CEOs are chosen for their political and PR skills, not their prowess as wealth creators. Business judgment is clouded and distorted as businessmen must look over their shoulders to avoid the wrath of  bureaucrats and elected officials.

The fact that these judgments are unmoored to any fixed rules and depend on the whim of government officials makes it all the worse. If the rules are unclear and the name of the game is about access, the opportunities for corruption multiply. In fact, it’s hard to tell what corruption is.

This is all a recipe for a creepy sort of corporate statism, where big business and big government are joined at the hip. It is the natural and inevitable result of Obama’s agenda. Unless of course a new set of lawmakers decide they’ve had enough and it’s time to constrain government, keep the private and public realms distinct, and support rather than undermine the rule of law.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

It’s not like the Constitution says “informed advice and consent.” The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to confirm Elena Kagan, even though many (Lindsey Graham for one) complained they didn’t know much about her.

It’s not like Ohio is an important bellwether state, or anything. “The latest Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of Likely Voters in Ohio finds Republican candidate Rob Portman with 45% of the vote while Democrat Lee Fisher earns 39% support this month. Five percent (5%) prefer some other candidate in the race, and 11% more are undecided.”

It’s not like the administration listens to Israelis about Israel or businessmen about business, but still, even they should find this (from Jackson Diehl) compelling: “Those who argue that Western democracies should lift sanctions on Cuba often claim that even the island’s dissidents favor the move. So it was interesting to see the statement issued Monday by ten of the 11 political prisoners who were deported to Spain by the Castro dictatorship last week. Noting the ‘manifest willingness of some European countries’ to liberalize E.U. strictures on relations with Cuba, the dissidents said they opposed ‘an approval of this measure,’ because ‘the Cuban government has not taken steps that evidence a clear decision to advance toward the democratization of the country.’”

It’s not like a Democratic polling outfit wants to pour gasoline on the fire: Public Policy Polling’s Tom Jensen writes: “With Barack Obama’s polling numbers hitting the worst levels of his Presidency recently there have been a lot of calls, mostly from conservatives, for us to poll Hillary against Obama for the 2012 nomination. We’re not going to do that but even if we did I wouldn’t expect it to be very interesting.”

It’s not like we’re really going to talk to North Korea. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley explained (well, not explained, but said): “We’re always prepared to talk. But there are some definite steps that we have to see from North Korea before that becomes possible. So I think we agree fully with the South Korean foreign minister that, you know, there are conditions and obligations that North Korea has to demonstrate a willingness to tackle before we’ll consider having a follow-on conversation.”

It’s not like Obama has been great for Democrats in Virginia: “A new survey of Virginia’s 5th district race paints a tough reelection picture for freshman Rep. Tom Perriello (D). Sen. Robert Hurt (R) is leading the incumbent, 58 percent to 35 percent, according to the survey, conducted by SurveyUSA for WDBJ News in Roanoke.”

It’s not like this is a bad thing for Democrats — or for the country: “Senate climate legislation appeared to be on life support Tuesday after two key advocates said they were skeptical of reaching a quick deal on a controversial bill that includes a cap on greenhouse gases from power plants.”

It’s not like the Constitution says “informed advice and consent.” The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to confirm Elena Kagan, even though many (Lindsey Graham for one) complained they didn’t know much about her.

It’s not like Ohio is an important bellwether state, or anything. “The latest Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of Likely Voters in Ohio finds Republican candidate Rob Portman with 45% of the vote while Democrat Lee Fisher earns 39% support this month. Five percent (5%) prefer some other candidate in the race, and 11% more are undecided.”

It’s not like the administration listens to Israelis about Israel or businessmen about business, but still, even they should find this (from Jackson Diehl) compelling: “Those who argue that Western democracies should lift sanctions on Cuba often claim that even the island’s dissidents favor the move. So it was interesting to see the statement issued Monday by ten of the 11 political prisoners who were deported to Spain by the Castro dictatorship last week. Noting the ‘manifest willingness of some European countries’ to liberalize E.U. strictures on relations with Cuba, the dissidents said they opposed ‘an approval of this measure,’ because ‘the Cuban government has not taken steps that evidence a clear decision to advance toward the democratization of the country.’”

It’s not like a Democratic polling outfit wants to pour gasoline on the fire: Public Policy Polling’s Tom Jensen writes: “With Barack Obama’s polling numbers hitting the worst levels of his Presidency recently there have been a lot of calls, mostly from conservatives, for us to poll Hillary against Obama for the 2012 nomination. We’re not going to do that but even if we did I wouldn’t expect it to be very interesting.”

It’s not like we’re really going to talk to North Korea. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley explained (well, not explained, but said): “We’re always prepared to talk. But there are some definite steps that we have to see from North Korea before that becomes possible. So I think we agree fully with the South Korean foreign minister that, you know, there are conditions and obligations that North Korea has to demonstrate a willingness to tackle before we’ll consider having a follow-on conversation.”

It’s not like Obama has been great for Democrats in Virginia: “A new survey of Virginia’s 5th district race paints a tough reelection picture for freshman Rep. Tom Perriello (D). Sen. Robert Hurt (R) is leading the incumbent, 58 percent to 35 percent, according to the survey, conducted by SurveyUSA for WDBJ News in Roanoke.”

It’s not like this is a bad thing for Democrats — or for the country: “Senate climate legislation appeared to be on life support Tuesday after two key advocates said they were skeptical of reaching a quick deal on a controversial bill that includes a cap on greenhouse gases from power plants.”

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Obama’s “Winning” Agenda Is a Loser

On the Fox News Sunday roundtable, the panelists observed that the financial-reform bill, indeed all the enormous pieces of legislation that Obama has gotten through Congress, aren’t helping him any:

BRIT HUME: Because his big agenda has not seemed to the public to be focused on the things the public is concerned about. The economy was job one. They did something on the economy that the public did not like and did not believe in, and does not believe in to this day, which is the stimulus program. And since then, the president has been on to other things, other things that were nowhere high on the public’s priority list. I speak, of course, of the — of the health care reform bill, financial reform.

Regulatory reform may be something the public thought ought to be done, but it doesn’t come anywhere near the priority that people have on the creation of jobs and the — and the awakening of the economy so that — so that it will boom enough to really generate some jobs. …

NINA EASTON: … it’s fascinating, because this bill, which, as you said, was going to be the cracking down on fat cats of Wall Street, has got small community banks concerned, farmers concerned who deal in derivatives for their business. It’s got — something like 533 rulemaking proceedings are going to be going in, which creates lots of uncertainty and lots of fear.

And it’s interesting that this week the president in an interview said, “Look, I’m” — when he was talking about his poll numbers, “Look, I’m facing 9.5 percent unemployment.” He’s got an unpopular economy the same way President Bush in 2006 had an unpopular war. We grant him that.

And now, fascinating to us, that you’ve got this Wall Street reform that doesn’t really — it’s really — it doesn’t look like it’s going after Wall Street. And so I’m not sure that’s going to help them in November.

Indeed, it’s not merely that the financial reform bill, the stimulus, and ObamaCare haven’t helped the president; they’ve actually hurt him, both in the short and the long term.

An array of polling evidences a revulsion against big government and the enormous debt that has accompanied Obama’s spending spree. The public thinks he and his party are too liberal, and, as Bill Kristol pointed out, Republican Party identification is consequently rising. All this suggests that what’s at work is more than simply a bad economy or misplaced priorities. Obama has managed to reinforce the Democrats’ liberal tax-and-spend identity, which Bill Clinton worked mightily to shed.

But the real problem for Obama is the long-term, or longer-term, damage he has done to the economy and in turn to his party. The massive tax hikes (with more to follow if the Bush tax cuts are allowed to expire), the raft of new regulations and mandates, the mound of new debt, and the anti-business rhetoric (which the Obama administration now bizarrely claims isn’t anti-business at all) have freaked investors and employers. The economy now seems headed for that feared double-dip recession, which can fairly be attributed to Obama’s insistence on putting a ball and chain around the ankles of businessmen, entrepreneurs, and consumers.

All in all, it’s been a rather amazing display of economic and political folly.

On the Fox News Sunday roundtable, the panelists observed that the financial-reform bill, indeed all the enormous pieces of legislation that Obama has gotten through Congress, aren’t helping him any:

BRIT HUME: Because his big agenda has not seemed to the public to be focused on the things the public is concerned about. The economy was job one. They did something on the economy that the public did not like and did not believe in, and does not believe in to this day, which is the stimulus program. And since then, the president has been on to other things, other things that were nowhere high on the public’s priority list. I speak, of course, of the — of the health care reform bill, financial reform.

Regulatory reform may be something the public thought ought to be done, but it doesn’t come anywhere near the priority that people have on the creation of jobs and the — and the awakening of the economy so that — so that it will boom enough to really generate some jobs. …

NINA EASTON: … it’s fascinating, because this bill, which, as you said, was going to be the cracking down on fat cats of Wall Street, has got small community banks concerned, farmers concerned who deal in derivatives for their business. It’s got — something like 533 rulemaking proceedings are going to be going in, which creates lots of uncertainty and lots of fear.

And it’s interesting that this week the president in an interview said, “Look, I’m” — when he was talking about his poll numbers, “Look, I’m facing 9.5 percent unemployment.” He’s got an unpopular economy the same way President Bush in 2006 had an unpopular war. We grant him that.

And now, fascinating to us, that you’ve got this Wall Street reform that doesn’t really — it’s really — it doesn’t look like it’s going after Wall Street. And so I’m not sure that’s going to help them in November.

Indeed, it’s not merely that the financial reform bill, the stimulus, and ObamaCare haven’t helped the president; they’ve actually hurt him, both in the short and the long term.

An array of polling evidences a revulsion against big government and the enormous debt that has accompanied Obama’s spending spree. The public thinks he and his party are too liberal, and, as Bill Kristol pointed out, Republican Party identification is consequently rising. All this suggests that what’s at work is more than simply a bad economy or misplaced priorities. Obama has managed to reinforce the Democrats’ liberal tax-and-spend identity, which Bill Clinton worked mightily to shed.

But the real problem for Obama is the long-term, or longer-term, damage he has done to the economy and in turn to his party. The massive tax hikes (with more to follow if the Bush tax cuts are allowed to expire), the raft of new regulations and mandates, the mound of new debt, and the anti-business rhetoric (which the Obama administration now bizarrely claims isn’t anti-business at all) have freaked investors and employers. The economy now seems headed for that feared double-dip recession, which can fairly be attributed to Obama’s insistence on putting a ball and chain around the ankles of businessmen, entrepreneurs, and consumers.

All in all, it’s been a rather amazing display of economic and political folly.

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The Problem of Economic Calculation

This morning, while riding the express train to work, I stood facing one of those ubiquitous census ads and, for the first time, began considering its wording in earnest. I am sure you’ve seen it too: “If we don’t know how many schoolchildren we have, how can we know how many schools to build? … If we don’t know how many people we have, how can we know how many hospitals to build?” And so on and so forth.

That the government should still pose such questions — innocent as they are — suggests that the so-called problem of economic calculation afflicts the endeavors of central planners today no less than it did in the 1920s, when Ludwig Von Mises first set it forth. Not only that, but the government has also failed to find tools more efficacious in tackling this problem than the nationwide survey — that is, the census. And what a crude device that is!

For one thing, any information collected through it soon becomes outdated, since the census is taken at intervals of no less than 10 years, during which time a lot can happen in terms of economic development and population shifts. For another, delivering the surveys to every doorstep in the country, entreating the citizens to fill them out, and ensuring that a tolerable number of them actually do so amounts to an onerous affair not cheap to orchestrate — as is plainly evinced by the budget of $11.3 billion set aside for the accomplishment thereof. And for all the pains that go into collecting it, this information winds up reaching the government incomplete and only approximately accurate — the proportion of falsified surveys that alloy the census results being a matter of contentious and largely partisan debate.

Numerous and intractable as these difficulties are, they don’t even touch on the core inadequacy of the census at informing central planning — which is that no questionnaire could possibly gauge supply and demand. Only the market can take their measure, through prices and, to some extent, interest rates — its two chief signalers. It is by dollars that people vote for what they want and how much of it they want and how badly. The results of such “elections,” the likes of which are held daily in the marketplace, might differ widely from anything obtainable by aggregating the individual wish lists of the “voters.” And because, on the whole, they reflect practical reality as opposed to vague or impossible fancies, the former results are always preferable to the latter and form the only sound basis for business planning. This is the crux of the problem of economic calculation: the reason why in every kind of regime past or present, even the most well meaning of central planners have found it impossible to allocate scarce resources efficiently throughout the economy.

To the not-so-rhetorical questions of the census ads, such as, “If we don’t know how many people we have, how do we know how many … (fill in the blank) buses we need?” one all-purpose answer comes to mind: you, the public sector, cannot know how many buses a line needs, or how many schools and hospitals should be built in an area, and knowing how many people live nearby might not even help you to find out. But the private sector eventually gets those answers right. If there are too many buses in a line, the private transportation company incurs a loss and cuts some of them. If there are not enough, someone will endeavor to introduce one more and thus realize a profit. The same argument applies to hospitals, clinics, and schools. Leave the matter to the businessmen and entrepreneurs, whose livelihoods depend on it. And don’t employ the census toward any end except the one dictated by the Constitution — i.e., to apportion the number of members of the United States House of Representatives among the several states.

This morning, while riding the express train to work, I stood facing one of those ubiquitous census ads and, for the first time, began considering its wording in earnest. I am sure you’ve seen it too: “If we don’t know how many schoolchildren we have, how can we know how many schools to build? … If we don’t know how many people we have, how can we know how many hospitals to build?” And so on and so forth.

That the government should still pose such questions — innocent as they are — suggests that the so-called problem of economic calculation afflicts the endeavors of central planners today no less than it did in the 1920s, when Ludwig Von Mises first set it forth. Not only that, but the government has also failed to find tools more efficacious in tackling this problem than the nationwide survey — that is, the census. And what a crude device that is!

For one thing, any information collected through it soon becomes outdated, since the census is taken at intervals of no less than 10 years, during which time a lot can happen in terms of economic development and population shifts. For another, delivering the surveys to every doorstep in the country, entreating the citizens to fill them out, and ensuring that a tolerable number of them actually do so amounts to an onerous affair not cheap to orchestrate — as is plainly evinced by the budget of $11.3 billion set aside for the accomplishment thereof. And for all the pains that go into collecting it, this information winds up reaching the government incomplete and only approximately accurate — the proportion of falsified surveys that alloy the census results being a matter of contentious and largely partisan debate.

Numerous and intractable as these difficulties are, they don’t even touch on the core inadequacy of the census at informing central planning — which is that no questionnaire could possibly gauge supply and demand. Only the market can take their measure, through prices and, to some extent, interest rates — its two chief signalers. It is by dollars that people vote for what they want and how much of it they want and how badly. The results of such “elections,” the likes of which are held daily in the marketplace, might differ widely from anything obtainable by aggregating the individual wish lists of the “voters.” And because, on the whole, they reflect practical reality as opposed to vague or impossible fancies, the former results are always preferable to the latter and form the only sound basis for business planning. This is the crux of the problem of economic calculation: the reason why in every kind of regime past or present, even the most well meaning of central planners have found it impossible to allocate scarce resources efficiently throughout the economy.

To the not-so-rhetorical questions of the census ads, such as, “If we don’t know how many people we have, how do we know how many … (fill in the blank) buses we need?” one all-purpose answer comes to mind: you, the public sector, cannot know how many buses a line needs, or how many schools and hospitals should be built in an area, and knowing how many people live nearby might not even help you to find out. But the private sector eventually gets those answers right. If there are too many buses in a line, the private transportation company incurs a loss and cuts some of them. If there are not enough, someone will endeavor to introduce one more and thus realize a profit. The same argument applies to hospitals, clinics, and schools. Leave the matter to the businessmen and entrepreneurs, whose livelihoods depend on it. And don’t employ the census toward any end except the one dictated by the Constitution — i.e., to apportion the number of members of the United States House of Representatives among the several states.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

How dumb does Obama think businessmen are? “The White House has launched a coordinated campaign to push back against the perception taking hold in corporate America and on Wall Street that President Barack Obama is promoting an anti-business agenda.” Besides, wasn’t his populist, anti–Wall Street rhetoric supposed to be the key to minimizing midterm losses?

How upset do you think the White House is that the West Virginia governor has put another Senate seat at risk? “West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw (D) cleared the way for Gov. Joe Manchin (D) to call a November 2010 special election for the late Sen. Robert Byrd’s (D-W.Va.) seat. The legal opinion McGraw issued Thursday did not give a specific timeline for a special election, but suggests using the already scheduled election this November.”

How slow do you think things are in Washington if the Politico forum is about whether Sarah Palin should replace Michael Steele? Yeah, like she needs, or would ever contemplate taking, that job.

How nervous do you think this Sarah Palin ad made the 2012 GOP contenders? Whatever you think of her, the ad is really good.

How much weight do you think the neo-isolationists and paleo-conservatives have in the GOP? Not much right now if Ann Coulter and Ron Paul are the only pro–Michael Steele voices. But Republicans should be wary — there is always the temptation to pull up the drawbridge.

How angry do you think Americans will be with Obama when they realize this? (More than they already are, that is): “After nearly a decade of federal tax cuts, Americans could awaken New Year’s Day with a whopper of a hangover. Breaks covering everything from child tax credits to the death tax are set to expire that day, less than six months from now, bringing higher payments for nearly every American who pays taxes. ‘We’ve never in history seen anything quite like this, where such a major portion of the tax code is set to expire on a single date and affect so many Americans all at once,’ said Scott Hodge, president of The Tax Foundation, a Washington nonprofit that tracks tax policies.”

How much trouble do you think Obama is in when Ruth Marcus sounds like John Podhoretz?

How many GOP 2012 candidates do you think will take this smart advice on immigration reform from Charles Krauthammer?It seems to me that the Republicans ought to argue enforcement first — and then a very generous, open and humane solution for those already here.” Not enough, I fear.

How dumb does Obama think businessmen are? “The White House has launched a coordinated campaign to push back against the perception taking hold in corporate America and on Wall Street that President Barack Obama is promoting an anti-business agenda.” Besides, wasn’t his populist, anti–Wall Street rhetoric supposed to be the key to minimizing midterm losses?

How upset do you think the White House is that the West Virginia governor has put another Senate seat at risk? “West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw (D) cleared the way for Gov. Joe Manchin (D) to call a November 2010 special election for the late Sen. Robert Byrd’s (D-W.Va.) seat. The legal opinion McGraw issued Thursday did not give a specific timeline for a special election, but suggests using the already scheduled election this November.”

How slow do you think things are in Washington if the Politico forum is about whether Sarah Palin should replace Michael Steele? Yeah, like she needs, or would ever contemplate taking, that job.

How nervous do you think this Sarah Palin ad made the 2012 GOP contenders? Whatever you think of her, the ad is really good.

How much weight do you think the neo-isolationists and paleo-conservatives have in the GOP? Not much right now if Ann Coulter and Ron Paul are the only pro–Michael Steele voices. But Republicans should be wary — there is always the temptation to pull up the drawbridge.

How angry do you think Americans will be with Obama when they realize this? (More than they already are, that is): “After nearly a decade of federal tax cuts, Americans could awaken New Year’s Day with a whopper of a hangover. Breaks covering everything from child tax credits to the death tax are set to expire that day, less than six months from now, bringing higher payments for nearly every American who pays taxes. ‘We’ve never in history seen anything quite like this, where such a major portion of the tax code is set to expire on a single date and affect so many Americans all at once,’ said Scott Hodge, president of The Tax Foundation, a Washington nonprofit that tracks tax policies.”

How much trouble do you think Obama is in when Ruth Marcus sounds like John Podhoretz?

How many GOP 2012 candidates do you think will take this smart advice on immigration reform from Charles Krauthammer?It seems to me that the Republicans ought to argue enforcement first — and then a very generous, open and humane solution for those already here.” Not enough, I fear.

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Economic Uncertainty in China

The almost universal assumption is that China is a rising dragon that someday — perhaps someday soon — will overtake the United States. But notwithstanding China’s impressive growth rates, there is trouble on the horizon — something that is suggested by this New York Times article — which reports on the growing unease among foreign companies trying to do business in China. As the article notes:

Foreign companies doing business in China are increasingly feeling as if the deck is stacked against them.

China has filed more than a dozen trade cases to limit imports, imposed a series of “buy Chinese” measures and limited exports of some minerals to force multinationals to move factories to China.

That echoes the concern of some American businessmen in Tokyo, to whom I talked last week. They complained about how unpredictable business conditions are in China- – subject to the whims of shortsighted, corrupt cadres, who are intent on lining the pockets of well-connected countrymen even at the expense of cheating major investors. Japan, by contrast, has its own barriers to business but, these executives report, is a much more welcoming, less worrisome place in which to grow a business. Another American investor with whom I talked recently mentioned that he had just invested in a major real-estate project in India — something he would not do in China, because he has no confidence in that country’s future.

None of this is meant to dismiss China’s prospects. Wherever I went in Asia there was talk about growing Chinese power especially as manifested in its ever-more-capable armed forces; its naval ships are acting in increasingly aggressive ways toward Japan, the United States, and other states. But the Chinese quest for economic growth — the underpinning of its military power — will be endangered unless it can develop a genuine rule of law that will assure foreign and domestic investors of its long-term prospects.

The almost universal assumption is that China is a rising dragon that someday — perhaps someday soon — will overtake the United States. But notwithstanding China’s impressive growth rates, there is trouble on the horizon — something that is suggested by this New York Times article — which reports on the growing unease among foreign companies trying to do business in China. As the article notes:

Foreign companies doing business in China are increasingly feeling as if the deck is stacked against them.

China has filed more than a dozen trade cases to limit imports, imposed a series of “buy Chinese” measures and limited exports of some minerals to force multinationals to move factories to China.

That echoes the concern of some American businessmen in Tokyo, to whom I talked last week. They complained about how unpredictable business conditions are in China- – subject to the whims of shortsighted, corrupt cadres, who are intent on lining the pockets of well-connected countrymen even at the expense of cheating major investors. Japan, by contrast, has its own barriers to business but, these executives report, is a much more welcoming, less worrisome place in which to grow a business. Another American investor with whom I talked recently mentioned that he had just invested in a major real-estate project in India — something he would not do in China, because he has no confidence in that country’s future.

None of this is meant to dismiss China’s prospects. Wherever I went in Asia there was talk about growing Chinese power especially as manifested in its ever-more-capable armed forces; its naval ships are acting in increasingly aggressive ways toward Japan, the United States, and other states. But the Chinese quest for economic growth — the underpinning of its military power — will be endangered unless it can develop a genuine rule of law that will assure foreign and domestic investors of its long-term prospects.

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Mearsheimer Makes a List

John Mearsheimer gave a speech at the Palestine Center in Washington yesterday and called Israel an apartheid state that has practiced ethnic cleansing and will likely practice it in the future. For Mearsheimer, this is standard practice. But he added a new twist: he separated American Jews into three categories: “Righteous Jews,” “New Afrikaners,” and a middle group of Jews who aren’t quite sure whether they’re righteous or ethnic cleansers. These are Mearsheimer’s Righteous Jews:

To give you a better sense of what I mean when I use the term righteous Jews, let me give you some names of people and organizations that I would put in this category. The list would include Noam Chomsky, Roger Cohen, Richard Falk, Norman Finkelstein, Tony Judt, Tony Karon, Naomi Klein, MJ Rosenberg, Sara Roy, and Philip Weiss of Mondoweiss fame, just to name a few. I would also include many of the individuals associated with J Street and everyone associated with Jewish Voice for Peace, as well as distinguished international figures such as Judge Richard Goldstone. Furthermore, I would apply the label to the many American Jews who work for different human rights organizations, such as Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch.

And then there are America’s Afrikaner Jews, who are not just apologists for apartheid and ethnic cleansing, but are actually a fifth column. Note that he goes beyond the normal “dual loyalty” trope and says that these American Jews are “blindly loyal” only to Israel:

These are individuals who will back Israel no matter what it does, because they have blind loyalty to the Jewish state. … I would classify most of the individuals who head the Israel lobby’s major organizations as new Afrikaners. That list would include Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Ronald Lauder of the World Jewish Congress, and Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America, just to name some of the more prominent ones. I would also include businessmen like Sheldon Adelson, Lester Crown, and Mortimer Zuckerman as well as media personalities like Fred Hiatt and Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post, Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, and Martin Peretz of the New Republic. It would be easy to add more names to this list.

I believe Mearsheimer left out a category: “Anti-Semites and Jew-Baiters.” I will leave it to you who to add to that list.

UPDATE: David Bernstein adds his thoughts over at Volokh.

John Mearsheimer gave a speech at the Palestine Center in Washington yesterday and called Israel an apartheid state that has practiced ethnic cleansing and will likely practice it in the future. For Mearsheimer, this is standard practice. But he added a new twist: he separated American Jews into three categories: “Righteous Jews,” “New Afrikaners,” and a middle group of Jews who aren’t quite sure whether they’re righteous or ethnic cleansers. These are Mearsheimer’s Righteous Jews:

To give you a better sense of what I mean when I use the term righteous Jews, let me give you some names of people and organizations that I would put in this category. The list would include Noam Chomsky, Roger Cohen, Richard Falk, Norman Finkelstein, Tony Judt, Tony Karon, Naomi Klein, MJ Rosenberg, Sara Roy, and Philip Weiss of Mondoweiss fame, just to name a few. I would also include many of the individuals associated with J Street and everyone associated with Jewish Voice for Peace, as well as distinguished international figures such as Judge Richard Goldstone. Furthermore, I would apply the label to the many American Jews who work for different human rights organizations, such as Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch.

And then there are America’s Afrikaner Jews, who are not just apologists for apartheid and ethnic cleansing, but are actually a fifth column. Note that he goes beyond the normal “dual loyalty” trope and says that these American Jews are “blindly loyal” only to Israel:

These are individuals who will back Israel no matter what it does, because they have blind loyalty to the Jewish state. … I would classify most of the individuals who head the Israel lobby’s major organizations as new Afrikaners. That list would include Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Ronald Lauder of the World Jewish Congress, and Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America, just to name some of the more prominent ones. I would also include businessmen like Sheldon Adelson, Lester Crown, and Mortimer Zuckerman as well as media personalities like Fred Hiatt and Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post, Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, and Martin Peretz of the New Republic. It would be easy to add more names to this list.

I believe Mearsheimer left out a category: “Anti-Semites and Jew-Baiters.” I will leave it to you who to add to that list.

UPDATE: David Bernstein adds his thoughts over at Volokh.

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Strange Herring*

Social Security will take in less than it pays out this year, requests that more Americans die by October 31, please.

ObamaCare promises to stave off mutant plague. So we’ve got that going for us…

Oliver Stone’s celebration of left-wing fascist is a go in U.S. Will be in only 1D, as Chavez had other 2D shot. (H/T Big Hollywood)

“Most Influential Books” meme yields 24,000 votes for Everybody Poops.

Only 24% of Republicans think Obama is the Anti-Christ. Give it time.

Chinese mothers to be launched into space, initiating whole new era in family planning.

Radio’s decline may be slowing. Finally gaining traction against “that moving-picture box.”

If you can’t read this, it must be Earth Day.

Russian math genius turns down $1M prize for solving brainiac puzzler. Someone finally explains to him that the “M” does not stand for “Mallomars.”

California may legalize pot. Voters convinced only “drug-induced haze” holds hope for brighter economic future.

Prince Philip, who once asked some indigenous Australian businessmen if they still threw spears at each other, is worshiped as a godling on the island of Vanuatu. Man, some people get all the gigs …

DNA from ancient finger reveals new “hominid ancestor.” Great. One more deadbeat relative to pick up at the train this Thanksgiving. And exactly which finger was it, by the way?

British man hooks up flamethrower to his scooter. (They’ve just never been the same since Suez…)

Germans provide cover for terrorists. U.S. considers designating them “Scientologists” to gain cooperation from Berlin.

Bank robbers place order ahead of time, fear slow service will delay their arrival at Moron Convention.

Steve Jobs finally answers his e-mail. Learns the “Lisa” was a bust.

High-fructose corn syrup worse than heroin if weight loss is what you’re going for.

First Jeremy Piven, now Abraham Lincoln. Enough with the sushi.

* Derived from a 16th-century tract entitled A Most Strange and Wonderful Herring Taken Neere Drenton by Jan van Doetecum. It seems that freak members of the family Clupidae were interpreted as portents of the End of All Things.

Social Security will take in less than it pays out this year, requests that more Americans die by October 31, please.

ObamaCare promises to stave off mutant plague. So we’ve got that going for us…

Oliver Stone’s celebration of left-wing fascist is a go in U.S. Will be in only 1D, as Chavez had other 2D shot. (H/T Big Hollywood)

“Most Influential Books” meme yields 24,000 votes for Everybody Poops.

Only 24% of Republicans think Obama is the Anti-Christ. Give it time.

Chinese mothers to be launched into space, initiating whole new era in family planning.

Radio’s decline may be slowing. Finally gaining traction against “that moving-picture box.”

If you can’t read this, it must be Earth Day.

Russian math genius turns down $1M prize for solving brainiac puzzler. Someone finally explains to him that the “M” does not stand for “Mallomars.”

California may legalize pot. Voters convinced only “drug-induced haze” holds hope for brighter economic future.

Prince Philip, who once asked some indigenous Australian businessmen if they still threw spears at each other, is worshiped as a godling on the island of Vanuatu. Man, some people get all the gigs …

DNA from ancient finger reveals new “hominid ancestor.” Great. One more deadbeat relative to pick up at the train this Thanksgiving. And exactly which finger was it, by the way?

British man hooks up flamethrower to his scooter. (They’ve just never been the same since Suez…)

Germans provide cover for terrorists. U.S. considers designating them “Scientologists” to gain cooperation from Berlin.

Bank robbers place order ahead of time, fear slow service will delay their arrival at Moron Convention.

Steve Jobs finally answers his e-mail. Learns the “Lisa” was a bust.

High-fructose corn syrup worse than heroin if weight loss is what you’re going for.

First Jeremy Piven, now Abraham Lincoln. Enough with the sushi.

* Derived from a 16th-century tract entitled A Most Strange and Wonderful Herring Taken Neere Drenton by Jan van Doetecum. It seems that freak members of the family Clupidae were interpreted as portents of the End of All Things.

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Teaching Moderate Islam

The New York Times features a fascinating story about how a Turkish Islamic scholar who lives in the United States is creating schools in Pakistan, Nigeria, and other countries that combine a secular Western curriculum with a moderate brand of Sufi Islam. The schools are the brainchild of Fethullah Gulen, and they are funded by Turkish businessmen. Times correspondent Sabrina Tavernise describes the schools as follows:

They prescribe a strong Western curriculum, with courses, taught in English, from math and science to English literature and Shakespeare. They do not teach religion beyond the one class in Islamic studies that is required by the [Pakistani] state. Unlike British-style private schools, however, they encourage Islam in their dormitories, where teachers set examples in lifestyle and prayer.

Tavernise also offers a great example of how these schools can spread moderation when she recounts this encounter between the Turkish school principal and some locals in the Pakistani city of Karachi:

When he prayed at a mosque, two young men followed him out and told him not to return wearing a tie because it was un-Islamic.

“I said, ‘Show me a verse in the Koran where it was forbidden,’ ” Mr. Kacmaz said, steering his car through tangled rush-hour traffic. The two men were wearing glasses, and he told them that scripturally, there was no difference between a tie and glasses.

“Behind their words there was no Hadith,” he said, referring to a set of Islamic texts, “only misunderstanding.”

This seems like exactly the kind of project that the United States should be promoting. Of course, as Terry Teachout noted in COMMENTARY in an article on the CIA’s Cold War activities, there is a stigma that comes with covert American funding if it is uncovered. Therefore we need to think about creative ways, perhaps using foundations, to fund moderate schools of the sort that Fethullah Gulen seems to be building. In the long run, such efforts can do more than cruise missiles or Predators to defeat our enemies-and the enemies of the vast majority of moderate Muslims.

The New York Times features a fascinating story about how a Turkish Islamic scholar who lives in the United States is creating schools in Pakistan, Nigeria, and other countries that combine a secular Western curriculum with a moderate brand of Sufi Islam. The schools are the brainchild of Fethullah Gulen, and they are funded by Turkish businessmen. Times correspondent Sabrina Tavernise describes the schools as follows:

They prescribe a strong Western curriculum, with courses, taught in English, from math and science to English literature and Shakespeare. They do not teach religion beyond the one class in Islamic studies that is required by the [Pakistani] state. Unlike British-style private schools, however, they encourage Islam in their dormitories, where teachers set examples in lifestyle and prayer.

Tavernise also offers a great example of how these schools can spread moderation when she recounts this encounter between the Turkish school principal and some locals in the Pakistani city of Karachi:

When he prayed at a mosque, two young men followed him out and told him not to return wearing a tie because it was un-Islamic.

“I said, ‘Show me a verse in the Koran where it was forbidden,’ ” Mr. Kacmaz said, steering his car through tangled rush-hour traffic. The two men were wearing glasses, and he told them that scripturally, there was no difference between a tie and glasses.

“Behind their words there was no Hadith,” he said, referring to a set of Islamic texts, “only misunderstanding.”

This seems like exactly the kind of project that the United States should be promoting. Of course, as Terry Teachout noted in COMMENTARY in an article on the CIA’s Cold War activities, there is a stigma that comes with covert American funding if it is uncovered. Therefore we need to think about creative ways, perhaps using foundations, to fund moderate schools of the sort that Fethullah Gulen seems to be building. In the long run, such efforts can do more than cruise missiles or Predators to defeat our enemies-and the enemies of the vast majority of moderate Muslims.

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The Wrong Concessions

President Bush is again “optimistic” that Israeli-Palestinian peace can be finalized during the remaining months of his presidency. For Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, this can only mean one thing: more photo-ops with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, with massive frequent-flyer miles accumulating in the process. But yesterday, Rice finally complemented her shuttling with diplomatic results, winning a set of concessions from Israel that are intended to ease Palestinian livelihoods and create conditions that are ripe for peace.

I’m dubious regarding the potential for economic progress to translate into Palestinian support for the peace process-particularly in the short timeframe with which the Bush administration is working. That said, insofar as the goal is to improve the West Bank economy, many of the measures to which Israel agreed are sensible, if not long overdue. These include the decision to raise the number of Palestinian businessmen permitted into Israel to 1,500; issuing 5,000 additional work permits for Palestinian laborers; building new housing for Palestinians in 25 villages; and supporting large-scale economic development programs.

But the most essential concessions to which Israel agreed make little sense. These include decisions to dismantle one permanent roadblock and remove fifty travel barriers around Jenin, Tulkarem, Qalqiliya, and Ramallah. Israel has long maintained that these checkpoints critically bolster its security, stemming the flow of terrorists and weapons among the West Bank’s most contentious cities. Yet in agreeing to dissemble these barriers on account of political considerations, Israel is discrediting its own claims regarding the security-relevance of its West Bank policies. Moreover, on account of its decreased ability to monitor movement within the West Bank in the absence of a reliable Palestinian security force, Israel may face a decline in security.

Make no mistake: a further decline in Israeli security would be the final nail in the Annapolis coffin-a disaster for the Bush administration. Indeed, if the Annapolis “process” aims for the realization of a two-state solution-a long-held U.S. interest-anything that might validate the occupation as necessary for Israeli security should be immediately removed from the table. It is for this reason that I have viewed the cessation of Israeli settlement activity as a more reasonable Israeli concession for the Bush administration to demand: halting construction would have no negative security consequences for Israel, and would represent clear progress towards drawing the line in the sand that Israeli-Palestinian peace will require.

In this vein, Israel’s agreement to connect Palestinian villages to its power grid is downright regressive. Again, if the goal remains a two-state solution-in which Palestine is an autonomous entity-why would Rice press for the Palestinians to become more reliant on Israel for their needs? Indeed, if Israel’s recent experience in Gaza should teach policymakers anything, it’s that territorial concessions must aim to absolve Israel of responsibility for those territories entirely.

In short, once again, Rice has failed to meet U.S. policy objectives with narrowly tailored policies. For this reason, the Annapolis “process” remains a hopeless exercise, in which optimism trumps reality.

President Bush is again “optimistic” that Israeli-Palestinian peace can be finalized during the remaining months of his presidency. For Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, this can only mean one thing: more photo-ops with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, with massive frequent-flyer miles accumulating in the process. But yesterday, Rice finally complemented her shuttling with diplomatic results, winning a set of concessions from Israel that are intended to ease Palestinian livelihoods and create conditions that are ripe for peace.

I’m dubious regarding the potential for economic progress to translate into Palestinian support for the peace process-particularly in the short timeframe with which the Bush administration is working. That said, insofar as the goal is to improve the West Bank economy, many of the measures to which Israel agreed are sensible, if not long overdue. These include the decision to raise the number of Palestinian businessmen permitted into Israel to 1,500; issuing 5,000 additional work permits for Palestinian laborers; building new housing for Palestinians in 25 villages; and supporting large-scale economic development programs.

But the most essential concessions to which Israel agreed make little sense. These include decisions to dismantle one permanent roadblock and remove fifty travel barriers around Jenin, Tulkarem, Qalqiliya, and Ramallah. Israel has long maintained that these checkpoints critically bolster its security, stemming the flow of terrorists and weapons among the West Bank’s most contentious cities. Yet in agreeing to dissemble these barriers on account of political considerations, Israel is discrediting its own claims regarding the security-relevance of its West Bank policies. Moreover, on account of its decreased ability to monitor movement within the West Bank in the absence of a reliable Palestinian security force, Israel may face a decline in security.

Make no mistake: a further decline in Israeli security would be the final nail in the Annapolis coffin-a disaster for the Bush administration. Indeed, if the Annapolis “process” aims for the realization of a two-state solution-a long-held U.S. interest-anything that might validate the occupation as necessary for Israeli security should be immediately removed from the table. It is for this reason that I have viewed the cessation of Israeli settlement activity as a more reasonable Israeli concession for the Bush administration to demand: halting construction would have no negative security consequences for Israel, and would represent clear progress towards drawing the line in the sand that Israeli-Palestinian peace will require.

In this vein, Israel’s agreement to connect Palestinian villages to its power grid is downright regressive. Again, if the goal remains a two-state solution-in which Palestine is an autonomous entity-why would Rice press for the Palestinians to become more reliant on Israel for their needs? Indeed, if Israel’s recent experience in Gaza should teach policymakers anything, it’s that territorial concessions must aim to absolve Israel of responsibility for those territories entirely.

In short, once again, Rice has failed to meet U.S. policy objectives with narrowly tailored policies. For this reason, the Annapolis “process” remains a hopeless exercise, in which optimism trumps reality.

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Bookshelf

• Back when I was flogging my H.L. Mencken biography on the book-tour circuit, people were always asking me if I thought there were any contemporary writers who were comparable in quality to Mencken, and I always gave the same answer: Tom Wolfe and Andrew Ferguson. Wolfe can take care of himself, but if I were to awake tomorrow morning and find myself in charge of a great big foundation, the first thing I’d do would be to award a great big grant to Ferguson so that he could quit his day job and do nothing but write books like Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America (Atlantic Monthly Press, 279 pp., $24). He is that rarest of birds, a writer who is at one and the same time very funny and very serious. Alas, he labors in the time-gobbling vineyards of weekly journalism, and his only previous book, Fools’ Names, Fools’ Faces (1996), was a collection of his wonderful magazine essays. Now he’s followed up that debut with a full-fledged book, and it is, not at all surprisingly, even better.

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• Back when I was flogging my H.L. Mencken biography on the book-tour circuit, people were always asking me if I thought there were any contemporary writers who were comparable in quality to Mencken, and I always gave the same answer: Tom Wolfe and Andrew Ferguson. Wolfe can take care of himself, but if I were to awake tomorrow morning and find myself in charge of a great big foundation, the first thing I’d do would be to award a great big grant to Ferguson so that he could quit his day job and do nothing but write books like Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America (Atlantic Monthly Press, 279 pp., $24). He is that rarest of birds, a writer who is at one and the same time very funny and very serious. Alas, he labors in the time-gobbling vineyards of weekly journalism, and his only previous book, Fools’ Names, Fools’ Faces (1996), was a collection of his wonderful magazine essays. Now he’s followed up that debut with a full-fledged book, and it is, not at all surprisingly, even better.

Land of Lincoln is not a biography of Abraham Lincoln, or a scholarly monograph on some aspect or other of Lincoln’s life and thought. It is, rather, a kind of intellectual travel book, an account of Ferguson’s visits to Lincoln-related sites and events across America, in the course of which he meets a wildly diverse assortment of Lincoln-lovers and Abe-haters, most of them eccentric in degrees varying from mildly aberrant to near-pathological. (Did you know that there’s an annual convention of Lincoln impersonators?) Everything he sees and everyone he encounters along the way is described with an engaging combination of dry, sly wit and what can only be described as empathy, for Ferguson is himself a recovering Lincoln buff who spent much of his Illinois childhood in the grip of a historical obsession:

I cleared my schedule—not so hard to do when you’re ten—whenever Abe Lincoln in Illinois or Young Mr. Lincoln was to show up on TV. My favorite book was a photographic album as thick and heavy as a plank of oak, called Lincoln in Every Known Pose. . . . Photographs of Lincoln hung on the walls of my bedroom. Sometimes at night, wakened by a bad dream, I’d rise from my bed and go to my desk and pull from the center drawer a sheaf of papers written in Lincoln’s own hand. I’d bought a packet of these yellowed, crinkly reproductions, reeking of the rust-colored dye that was meant to make them look antique, at a cavernous gift shop near his birthplace. The words carried the force of an incantation—entrancing, if not, to me, thoroughly comprehensible.

As always with Ferguson, his purpose in introducing us to the shadowland of Lincoln buffery is to make a deeply serious point about postmodern American life:

Lincoln hasn’t been forgotten, but he’s shrunk. From the enormous figure of the past he’s been reduced to a hobbyist’s eccentricity, a charming obsession shared by a self-selected subculture, like quilting or Irish step dancing. He has been detached from the national patrimony, if we can be said to have a national patrimony any longer. He is no longer a common possession. That earlier Lincoln, that large Lincoln, seems to be slipping away, a misty figure, incapable of rousing a reaction from anyone but buffs.

This is a very powerful theme, and though Ferguson states and varies it with the lightest of touches in Land of Lincoln, you are never in doubt of his underlying purpose. He visits Springfield’s Disney-style Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and captures its cheery essence in a single devastating sentence: “Cute and chilling and sad and chipper—and fun!—and never, not for a moment, more realistic than an animated movie.” He attends a workshop for businessmen who long to learn how to run their corporations along Lincolnian lines and imagines how the Gettysburg Address might have been reconceived as a PowerPoint presentation (“Key Proposition: Everybody Equal”). It’s all laughable, but the joke, we know, is on us, and on America as well.

“I’m just a journalist, not a scholar,” Ferguson says at book’s end. True enough, but journalism like Land of Lincoln beats most scholarship hollow. John Coltrane once said of Stan Getz, “We’d all play like that . . . if we could.” I wish I could write like Andrew Ferguson, but at least I can read him, as can you. Do so.

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