Commentary Magazine


Topic: USD

What Jerry Brown Does Not Propose to Cut, Realign, or Reform

It was easy to miss California Governor Jerry Brown’s State of the State address on Monday this week. Besides competing with events in the Middle East, his speech had the disadvantage of being little more than a pitch to California voters for the budget plan his office published in January. The plan is touted as inflicting pain on everyone, but it doesn’t. It postpones, for separate deliberation, a remedy for California’s looming $700 billion public-pension deficit. And it leaves the state’s regulatory posture untouched.

The Brown budget plan does propose significant cuts in health, higher-education, and welfare spending. It proposes a “fundamental realignment” of government that would shift more of the responsibility to pay for police and fire services, criminal courts, prisons, and parole programs to the counties and major cities. Brown plans to ease this transition with a five-year extension of the current, elevated tax rates, from which the revenues would be distributed to local governments. His budget includes consolidation of administrative functions in the state government, along with cuts of 8-10 percent in state-worker compensation.

But ultimately, the Brown approach is narrow and exclusively fiscal. The governor is trying to balance the books without addressing the government-imposed conditions that tend, inevitably, to unbalance them. The problem of unsustainable pensions is one of those conditions — and while Brown does propose to address it, he hasn’t attached any real incentives to the debate. By contrast, however, he is prepared to hold state funds for police and fire services hostage to the people’s willingness to vote for a tax extension. It’s a tribute to his laid-back brand of pugnacity (and the quiescence of the California media) that this veiled threat has gone virtually unrecognized for what it is. A New York politician would not be so lucky.

As alarming as the pension problem is, a more fundamental dysfunction is California’s vigorous, energetic, enthusiastically experimental regulatory environment. Regulation, as much as the tax code, drives businesses and jobs out of the state. Besides creating the artificial drought in the San Joaquin Valley, regulation has shut down entirely such potential sources of revenue as offshore drilling and modernized refineries, while ensuring that the state’s power and water infrastructures will not be adequately updated, and imposing some of the nation’s highest compliance costs on businesses and customers.

But Jerry Brown doesn’t propose to change policy on these matters, nor does he propose any changes in the administration of the regulatory environment. State regulatory agencies and their charters will be affected, in his budget, only by the government-wide consolidation of functions.

At some point, it may occur to California voters that they’re being asked to do all the adjusting so that the state government need suffer no interruption in imposing an ideological vision on them. I don’t see any other state government proposing to make these same choices in 2011; as usual, California is out on its own limb. It will be instructive, and no doubt cautionary, to observe what happens.

It was easy to miss California Governor Jerry Brown’s State of the State address on Monday this week. Besides competing with events in the Middle East, his speech had the disadvantage of being little more than a pitch to California voters for the budget plan his office published in January. The plan is touted as inflicting pain on everyone, but it doesn’t. It postpones, for separate deliberation, a remedy for California’s looming $700 billion public-pension deficit. And it leaves the state’s regulatory posture untouched.

The Brown budget plan does propose significant cuts in health, higher-education, and welfare spending. It proposes a “fundamental realignment” of government that would shift more of the responsibility to pay for police and fire services, criminal courts, prisons, and parole programs to the counties and major cities. Brown plans to ease this transition with a five-year extension of the current, elevated tax rates, from which the revenues would be distributed to local governments. His budget includes consolidation of administrative functions in the state government, along with cuts of 8-10 percent in state-worker compensation.

But ultimately, the Brown approach is narrow and exclusively fiscal. The governor is trying to balance the books without addressing the government-imposed conditions that tend, inevitably, to unbalance them. The problem of unsustainable pensions is one of those conditions — and while Brown does propose to address it, he hasn’t attached any real incentives to the debate. By contrast, however, he is prepared to hold state funds for police and fire services hostage to the people’s willingness to vote for a tax extension. It’s a tribute to his laid-back brand of pugnacity (and the quiescence of the California media) that this veiled threat has gone virtually unrecognized for what it is. A New York politician would not be so lucky.

As alarming as the pension problem is, a more fundamental dysfunction is California’s vigorous, energetic, enthusiastically experimental regulatory environment. Regulation, as much as the tax code, drives businesses and jobs out of the state. Besides creating the artificial drought in the San Joaquin Valley, regulation has shut down entirely such potential sources of revenue as offshore drilling and modernized refineries, while ensuring that the state’s power and water infrastructures will not be adequately updated, and imposing some of the nation’s highest compliance costs on businesses and customers.

But Jerry Brown doesn’t propose to change policy on these matters, nor does he propose any changes in the administration of the regulatory environment. State regulatory agencies and their charters will be affected, in his budget, only by the government-wide consolidation of functions.

At some point, it may occur to California voters that they’re being asked to do all the adjusting so that the state government need suffer no interruption in imposing an ideological vision on them. I don’t see any other state government proposing to make these same choices in 2011; as usual, California is out on its own limb. It will be instructive, and no doubt cautionary, to observe what happens.

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Jimmy Carter Sued for ‘Inaccurate’ Anti-Israel Book

Five readers have filed a $5 million lawsuit against former president Jimmy Carter, alleging that his 2006 anti-Israel book, “Peace Not Apartheid,” was so riddled with inaccuracies and misleading statements that it violated consumer-protection laws:

The suit accuses Carter and his publisher of violating New York consumer protection laws because they engaged in “deceptive acts in the course of conducting business” and alleges that they sought enrichment by promoting the book “as a work of non-fiction.”

In a press release, one of the attorneys, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner stated: “The lawsuit will expose all the falsehoods and misrepresentations in Carter’s book and prove that his hatred of Israel has led him to commit this fraud on the public. He is entitled to his opinions but deceptions and lies have no place in works of history.”

The plaintiffs don’t seem to have much of a legal case here. The spokesperson for Simon & Schuster told the Washington Post that the lawsuit would have “a chilling attack on free speech,” and he’s probably right. Carter’s anti-Israel tome may be a disgraceful distortion of reality, but if that was illegal, then there would be a lot of bankrupt authors.

The main point of the case seems to be to publicize how Carter’s anti-Semitic and anti-Israel views have shaped much of his misleading “advocacy” work in recent years. And that certainly will be fun to watch.

Five readers have filed a $5 million lawsuit against former president Jimmy Carter, alleging that his 2006 anti-Israel book, “Peace Not Apartheid,” was so riddled with inaccuracies and misleading statements that it violated consumer-protection laws:

The suit accuses Carter and his publisher of violating New York consumer protection laws because they engaged in “deceptive acts in the course of conducting business” and alleges that they sought enrichment by promoting the book “as a work of non-fiction.”

In a press release, one of the attorneys, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner stated: “The lawsuit will expose all the falsehoods and misrepresentations in Carter’s book and prove that his hatred of Israel has led him to commit this fraud on the public. He is entitled to his opinions but deceptions and lies have no place in works of history.”

The plaintiffs don’t seem to have much of a legal case here. The spokesperson for Simon & Schuster told the Washington Post that the lawsuit would have “a chilling attack on free speech,” and he’s probably right. Carter’s anti-Israel tome may be a disgraceful distortion of reality, but if that was illegal, then there would be a lot of bankrupt authors.

The main point of the case seems to be to publicize how Carter’s anti-Semitic and anti-Israel views have shaped much of his misleading “advocacy” work in recent years. And that certainly will be fun to watch.

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Curious Quote of the Day

From a Bloomberg News article on turmoil in the Middle East:

In Egypt, where Mubarak, 82, has been a dependable U.S. ally for 30 years, the White House will need “a delicate touch” to “ensure that a successor government is neither virulently anti-American nor openly hostile to Israel,” said Stephen M. Walt, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Egypt is the fourth-largest recipient of U.S. aid, after Afghanistan, Pakistan and Israel, according to the State Department’s 2011 budget, receiving more than $1.5 billion a year.

“We should be quietly advising other leaders in the region to take steps to alleviate discontent” and “avoid the same fate that Mubarak is now experiencing,” Walt said.

There’s no further description of Professor Walt in the Bloomberg article, but those familiar with his record on matters relating to Jews or Israel may find the spectacle of his cautioning against an Egyptian government “openly hostile to Israel” to be somewhat stunning, akin to Karl Marx being quoted hoping that the new Egyptian government won’t be openly hostile to capitalism. Though I suppose it leaves open the possibility that Professor Walt is hoping for an Egyptian government that’s privately hostile to Israel while publicly professing to wish it no harm.

From a Bloomberg News article on turmoil in the Middle East:

In Egypt, where Mubarak, 82, has been a dependable U.S. ally for 30 years, the White House will need “a delicate touch” to “ensure that a successor government is neither virulently anti-American nor openly hostile to Israel,” said Stephen M. Walt, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Egypt is the fourth-largest recipient of U.S. aid, after Afghanistan, Pakistan and Israel, according to the State Department’s 2011 budget, receiving more than $1.5 billion a year.

“We should be quietly advising other leaders in the region to take steps to alleviate discontent” and “avoid the same fate that Mubarak is now experiencing,” Walt said.

There’s no further description of Professor Walt in the Bloomberg article, but those familiar with his record on matters relating to Jews or Israel may find the spectacle of his cautioning against an Egyptian government “openly hostile to Israel” to be somewhat stunning, akin to Karl Marx being quoted hoping that the new Egyptian government won’t be openly hostile to capitalism. Though I suppose it leaves open the possibility that Professor Walt is hoping for an Egyptian government that’s privately hostile to Israel while publicly professing to wish it no harm.

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Media- and NGO-Fueled Ignorance on Egypt and Tunisia

Amnon Rubinstein, a former Knesset member and minister from Israel’s left-wing Meretz Party, made an important point in today’s Jerusalem Post. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt took the West by surprise, he wrote, because Westerners know almost nothing about what goes on in undemocratic societies. And this ignorance stems largely from the fact that the bodies it relies on to provide information — the media and nongovernmental organizations — devote most of their energy to the low-hanging fruit, exposing real or imagined failings by democracies, instead of focusing on dictatorships, where getting information is much harder.

The openly pro-Palestinian reporter Amira Hass provided an excellent example in Monday’s Haaretz. At a Ramallah store where everyone was watching Al Jazeera, an employee asked if she had caught what a Tunisian protester just said: that “the Palestinians’ situation is better than that of the Tunisians, that they [the Palestinians] have food.”

I told him this was the same impression members of Egyptian solidarity delegations had upon visiting the Gaza Strip after Operation Cast Lead [Israel’s 2009 war with Hamas]. They were amazed at the abundance of food, especially fruits and vegetables, they were able to find in Gaza. And I heard that not from the Israeli Civil Administration spokesmen but from Egyptians and Palestinians.

But nobody would know this from media or NGO reports. Can anyone remember reading a news story about food shortages in Egypt or Tunisia in recent years? Yet hundreds of articles have been published about alleged humanitarian distress in Gaza, including many that claimed Israel’s blockade was causing starvation.

Indeed, the UN has run an annual humanitarian-aid appeal for the West Bank and Gaza since 2003; this year, it’s seeking $567 million, making it the organization’s fifth-largest “emergency campaign.” Can anyone remember the last UN appeal for aid to Egypt or Tunisia?

The same goes for NGOs. On Amnesty International’s website, the “features” page has nothing about either Egypt or Tunisia. Yet Israel merits two condemnatory features (the only country so honored), including the top-billed story — which, naturally, alleges food shortages in Gaza due to Israel’s blockade.

Then there’s the UN Human Rights Council — which, as Rubinstein noted, actually praised the human-rights situation in both Egypt and Tunisia, even as it issued 27 separate resolutions slamming Israel.

Thus most Westerners were utterly clueless about the economic distress and oppression that fueled the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. Indeed, based on the available information, the reasonable assumption would have been that Gaza, not Egypt or Tunisia, was the place most likely to explode.

Human Rights Watch founder Robert Bernstein decried his own organization in 2009 for betraying its “original mission to pry open closed societies” — to shed light precisely on those dark corners where information isn’t easily available — in favor of a focus on open societies, especially Israel. That, as I’ve argued repeatedly, leaves the world’s most oppressed people voiceless.

But it turns out the obsessive media/NGO focus on Israel also has another price: depriving the West of the information it needs to make sound judgments and set wise policy.

Amnon Rubinstein, a former Knesset member and minister from Israel’s left-wing Meretz Party, made an important point in today’s Jerusalem Post. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt took the West by surprise, he wrote, because Westerners know almost nothing about what goes on in undemocratic societies. And this ignorance stems largely from the fact that the bodies it relies on to provide information — the media and nongovernmental organizations — devote most of their energy to the low-hanging fruit, exposing real or imagined failings by democracies, instead of focusing on dictatorships, where getting information is much harder.

The openly pro-Palestinian reporter Amira Hass provided an excellent example in Monday’s Haaretz. At a Ramallah store where everyone was watching Al Jazeera, an employee asked if she had caught what a Tunisian protester just said: that “the Palestinians’ situation is better than that of the Tunisians, that they [the Palestinians] have food.”

I told him this was the same impression members of Egyptian solidarity delegations had upon visiting the Gaza Strip after Operation Cast Lead [Israel’s 2009 war with Hamas]. They were amazed at the abundance of food, especially fruits and vegetables, they were able to find in Gaza. And I heard that not from the Israeli Civil Administration spokesmen but from Egyptians and Palestinians.

But nobody would know this from media or NGO reports. Can anyone remember reading a news story about food shortages in Egypt or Tunisia in recent years? Yet hundreds of articles have been published about alleged humanitarian distress in Gaza, including many that claimed Israel’s blockade was causing starvation.

Indeed, the UN has run an annual humanitarian-aid appeal for the West Bank and Gaza since 2003; this year, it’s seeking $567 million, making it the organization’s fifth-largest “emergency campaign.” Can anyone remember the last UN appeal for aid to Egypt or Tunisia?

The same goes for NGOs. On Amnesty International’s website, the “features” page has nothing about either Egypt or Tunisia. Yet Israel merits two condemnatory features (the only country so honored), including the top-billed story — which, naturally, alleges food shortages in Gaza due to Israel’s blockade.

Then there’s the UN Human Rights Council — which, as Rubinstein noted, actually praised the human-rights situation in both Egypt and Tunisia, even as it issued 27 separate resolutions slamming Israel.

Thus most Westerners were utterly clueless about the economic distress and oppression that fueled the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. Indeed, based on the available information, the reasonable assumption would have been that Gaza, not Egypt or Tunisia, was the place most likely to explode.

Human Rights Watch founder Robert Bernstein decried his own organization in 2009 for betraying its “original mission to pry open closed societies” — to shed light precisely on those dark corners where information isn’t easily available — in favor of a focus on open societies, especially Israel. That, as I’ve argued repeatedly, leaves the world’s most oppressed people voiceless.

But it turns out the obsessive media/NGO focus on Israel also has another price: depriving the West of the information it needs to make sound judgments and set wise policy.

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Rutgers Responds to Anti-Zionism Event

Rutgers University is denying involvement in a campus event on Saturday that compared Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to the Holocaust. The program, “Never Again for Anyone,” was organized with assistance from Rutgers student organizations. Members of the Jewish community and Israel supporters said an entrance fee was imposed on them at the door, while anti-Zionists were allegedly allowed into the lecture for free.

University officials distanced themselves from the event today, telling the Washington Examiner’s J.P. Freire that Rutgers “was not the sponsor of Saturday evening’s event at the Douglass Campus Center.”

“The organizers had originally advertised a suggested donation of five to twenty dollars upon entry. At the event, the organizers chose to impose a five dollar entrance fee on attendees,” the university said in a statement. “Some attendees attempted to enter the venue without paying the fee or through unauthorized entrances, including fire doors.”

The school added that “Rutgers University Police did not bar anyone who paid the fee — which was imposed by the organizers who leased the space — from entering the hall.”

But imposing an entrance fee at the last minute may have been a violation of the university’s guidelines. According to Freire, the Rutgers office of scheduling “stated in a phone call that all details need to be confirmed three weeks prior to an event, including whether there would be an entry fee.”

Whatever Rutgers official position on the event is, it’s clear that it had some sort of responsibility to enforce its rules. The program took place in a university facility that was rented by an outside organization. Student groups were involved in promoting the event, and off-duty campus police were hired to maintain order. If an entrance fee was imposed in a discriminatory manner at the last minute, in an effort to bar certain people from attending a public event, that’s a very serious issue for Rutgers. So is the university’s apathy regarding the entire situation.

Rutgers University is denying involvement in a campus event on Saturday that compared Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to the Holocaust. The program, “Never Again for Anyone,” was organized with assistance from Rutgers student organizations. Members of the Jewish community and Israel supporters said an entrance fee was imposed on them at the door, while anti-Zionists were allegedly allowed into the lecture for free.

University officials distanced themselves from the event today, telling the Washington Examiner’s J.P. Freire that Rutgers “was not the sponsor of Saturday evening’s event at the Douglass Campus Center.”

“The organizers had originally advertised a suggested donation of five to twenty dollars upon entry. At the event, the organizers chose to impose a five dollar entrance fee on attendees,” the university said in a statement. “Some attendees attempted to enter the venue without paying the fee or through unauthorized entrances, including fire doors.”

The school added that “Rutgers University Police did not bar anyone who paid the fee — which was imposed by the organizers who leased the space — from entering the hall.”

But imposing an entrance fee at the last minute may have been a violation of the university’s guidelines. According to Freire, the Rutgers office of scheduling “stated in a phone call that all details need to be confirmed three weeks prior to an event, including whether there would be an entry fee.”

Whatever Rutgers official position on the event is, it’s clear that it had some sort of responsibility to enforce its rules. The program took place in a university facility that was rented by an outside organization. Student groups were involved in promoting the event, and off-duty campus police were hired to maintain order. If an entrance fee was imposed in a discriminatory manner at the last minute, in an effort to bar certain people from attending a public event, that’s a very serious issue for Rutgers. So is the university’s apathy regarding the entire situation.

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Israel Supporters Barred from Anti-Zionist Event at Rutgers

Hundreds of Jewish students and supporters were barred from attending an event comparing Israel to Nazi Germany at Rutgers University on Saturday, according to witnesses and news reports:

The campus police were asked to limit attendance to supporters of the program after it became clear the audience would be outnumbered 4 to 1 by the Jewish students, according to the report.

The Jewish students turned away from the event reportedly gathered in the lobby of the building where the program was being held and sang Hebrew songs.

The event, called “Never Again for Anyone,” is part of a nationwide tour “to honor those who perished in the Holocaust by upholding the human rights inherent to all people — and particularly for Palestinians living under Israel’s occupation.” It engages in that increasingly popular form of Holocaust revisionism that equates Israel’s legitimate acts of self-preservation with the genocide carried out by the Nazi regime.

Organized by a student group called BAKA, the event was held in a public campus building and advertised as open to the public. Attendees were originally let inside the event for free, but once hundreds of members of the Jewish community began showing up, BAKA began trying to charge an attendance fee.

“They had a sign that had a $5- $20 donation suggestion, and they ripped the sign in half and said you have to pay to get inside,” Aaron Marcus, a Rutgers student who helped organize a counter-protest to the event, told me.

Of course, paying an entrance fee would also mean giving a donation to an organization whose specific purpose is to demonize Israel. In addition to hosting “Never Again for Anyone,” the Rutgers chapter of BAKA has hosted campus lectures by Norman Finklestein and gained national attention after it attempted to sponsor a flotilla to Gaza last fall.

And while anti-Zionist students were given wristbands and let into the event for free, almost none of the 400 Israel supporters were able to get inside, said Marcus. And those who did manage to find a way inside were prevented from using recording devices.

“As a skeptic, it’s just really, really disturbing that they don’t want anybody to videotape them, they don’t want anybody to audio-record them, they don’t want anybody who disagrees with them at their events,” said Marcus. “So what are they hiding, and why is it that students are paying for it?”

The Rutgers administration has not yet commented on the incident, but Marcus told me that the Anti-Defamation League has been in touch with some of the people who were refused admission to the event.

Hundreds of Jewish students and supporters were barred from attending an event comparing Israel to Nazi Germany at Rutgers University on Saturday, according to witnesses and news reports:

The campus police were asked to limit attendance to supporters of the program after it became clear the audience would be outnumbered 4 to 1 by the Jewish students, according to the report.

The Jewish students turned away from the event reportedly gathered in the lobby of the building where the program was being held and sang Hebrew songs.

The event, called “Never Again for Anyone,” is part of a nationwide tour “to honor those who perished in the Holocaust by upholding the human rights inherent to all people — and particularly for Palestinians living under Israel’s occupation.” It engages in that increasingly popular form of Holocaust revisionism that equates Israel’s legitimate acts of self-preservation with the genocide carried out by the Nazi regime.

Organized by a student group called BAKA, the event was held in a public campus building and advertised as open to the public. Attendees were originally let inside the event for free, but once hundreds of members of the Jewish community began showing up, BAKA began trying to charge an attendance fee.

“They had a sign that had a $5- $20 donation suggestion, and they ripped the sign in half and said you have to pay to get inside,” Aaron Marcus, a Rutgers student who helped organize a counter-protest to the event, told me.

Of course, paying an entrance fee would also mean giving a donation to an organization whose specific purpose is to demonize Israel. In addition to hosting “Never Again for Anyone,” the Rutgers chapter of BAKA has hosted campus lectures by Norman Finklestein and gained national attention after it attempted to sponsor a flotilla to Gaza last fall.

And while anti-Zionist students were given wristbands and let into the event for free, almost none of the 400 Israel supporters were able to get inside, said Marcus. And those who did manage to find a way inside were prevented from using recording devices.

“As a skeptic, it’s just really, really disturbing that they don’t want anybody to videotape them, they don’t want anybody to audio-record them, they don’t want anybody who disagrees with them at their events,” said Marcus. “So what are they hiding, and why is it that students are paying for it?”

The Rutgers administration has not yet commented on the incident, but Marcus told me that the Anti-Defamation League has been in touch with some of the people who were refused admission to the event.

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Obama Must Act Now on Egypt

The president of the United States makes $400,000 a year. He has government-provided housing, a personal chef, his own helicopter and airplane, not to mention the best personal protection in the universe. It is at times like this that he really earns all those nice perks. There is no task more difficult than managing a revolution in progress. Jimmy Carter got it wrong in Nicaragua, and Iran and went down as a failure. Ronald Reagan got it right in the Philippines and South Korea, which contributed to the overall success of his presidency.

So far, I haven’t seen much evidence that Obama is earning his salary with his response to the revolution in Egypt. On Friday, he delivered an ultra-cautious statement, telling the “Egyptian authorities to refrain from any violence against peaceful protesters” and saying that “the people of Egypt have rights,” including “the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech and the ability to determine their own destiny.” But he stopped well short of telling Hosni Mubarak, who is clearly on his last legs, that it was time for him to go — a message that Ronald Reagan memorably delivered via his friend Senator Paul Laxalt to Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

The New York Times explains Obama’s reticence by citing a “senior administration official” who said that “Mr. Obama warned that any overt effort by the United States to insert itself into easing Mr. Mubarak out, or easing a successor in, could backfire. ‘He said several times that the outcome has to be decided by the Egyptian people, and the U.S. cannot be in a position of dictating events.’”

Problem is, taking no stand isn’t an option for the United States in this situation. For decades, Egypt has been one of the largest recipients of American foreign aid, and Mubarak has been one of our closest allies in the Middle East. Egyptian officers have been educated in the United States, its forces are equipped with American weapons, and they regularly conduct exercises with American troops. We have a large say, whether we want it or not. If Obama stays silent about Mubarak’s future, that will be interpreted within Egypt as American support for an increasingly discredited dictator. Read More

The president of the United States makes $400,000 a year. He has government-provided housing, a personal chef, his own helicopter and airplane, not to mention the best personal protection in the universe. It is at times like this that he really earns all those nice perks. There is no task more difficult than managing a revolution in progress. Jimmy Carter got it wrong in Nicaragua, and Iran and went down as a failure. Ronald Reagan got it right in the Philippines and South Korea, which contributed to the overall success of his presidency.

So far, I haven’t seen much evidence that Obama is earning his salary with his response to the revolution in Egypt. On Friday, he delivered an ultra-cautious statement, telling the “Egyptian authorities to refrain from any violence against peaceful protesters” and saying that “the people of Egypt have rights,” including “the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech and the ability to determine their own destiny.” But he stopped well short of telling Hosni Mubarak, who is clearly on his last legs, that it was time for him to go — a message that Ronald Reagan memorably delivered via his friend Senator Paul Laxalt to Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

The New York Times explains Obama’s reticence by citing a “senior administration official” who said that “Mr. Obama warned that any overt effort by the United States to insert itself into easing Mr. Mubarak out, or easing a successor in, could backfire. ‘He said several times that the outcome has to be decided by the Egyptian people, and the U.S. cannot be in a position of dictating events.’”

Problem is, taking no stand isn’t an option for the United States in this situation. For decades, Egypt has been one of the largest recipients of American foreign aid, and Mubarak has been one of our closest allies in the Middle East. Egyptian officers have been educated in the United States, its forces are equipped with American weapons, and they regularly conduct exercises with American troops. We have a large say, whether we want it or not. If Obama stays silent about Mubarak’s future, that will be interpreted within Egypt as American support for an increasingly discredited dictator.

The Working Group on Egypt, co-chaired by Bob Kagan and Michele Dunn at Brookings, suggests a more muscular response. They urge Obama to “call for free and fair elections for president and for parliament to be held as soon as possible” and for the government to “immediately lift the state of emergency” and “publicly declare that Mr. Mubarak will agree not to run for re-election.” And just to drive the point home: “We further recommend that the Obama administration suspend all economic and military assistance to Egypt until the government accepts and implements these measures.”

That’s more like it. The one recommendation I am not sold on is immediate elections (though, admittedly, there’s wiggle room in the phrase “as soon as possible”). As we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, elections that occur in an atmosphere of instability can exacerbate that instability. This is an especially tricky moment in Egypt because Mubarak has ruthlessly repressed the secular opposition. The only large nongovernmental organization in the country is the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamists would thus have an advantage in any immediate election, which could allow them to win, as Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006, even though they have not been at the forefront of recent protests and most Egyptians would no doubt recoil from the imposition of an Iranian-style theocracy. (Whether the Brotherhood would in fact try to impose such a regime is unknown. Unfortunately, the only way to find out would be to let them take over.)

A safer alternative, to my mind, would be to call for Mubarak to step down immediately and hand over power to a transition government led by Mohammed ElBaradai, the secular technocrat who has recently returned to Egypt to become the most high-profile opposition leader. As is now happening in Tunisia, he could work with military support to prepare the way for elections in a suitable period of time — say in six months or a year.

But I think the Working Group is right to grasp that standing pat isn’t really an option anymore. In this case, the best advice was offered by a conservative Sicilian aristocrat, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, in his great novel The Leopard (1958), where he wrote that “everything must change so that everything can stay the same.”

In other words, if the U.S. is to have any hope of salvaging our alliance with Egypt, we need to embrace the change wanted by its people — not try to cling blindly to a past represented by Mubarak and his mini-me, the intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who has just been appointed vice president and putative successor.

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FROM THE JANUARY ISSUE: ‘The Problem with Printing Money’

The Federal Reserve’s dramatic new intervention into the U.S. economy—a $600 billion purchase of Treasury bonds that was immediately branded with the nautical nickname of QE2—had barely gotten underway in November 2010 before the Fed itself began sending signals that it had a public-relations disaster on its hands. In a speech to European central bankers in Frankfurt only two weeks after the policy was announced, Fed chairman Ben Bernanke said he didn’t like using the term “quantitative easing”—much less “QE2” —because it didn’t precisely describe what the central bank was trying to do by running the printing presses overtime.

To read the rest of this article from COMMENTARY‘s January issue, click here.

To become a subscriber to COMMENTARY — online or print – click here.

The Federal Reserve’s dramatic new intervention into the U.S. economy—a $600 billion purchase of Treasury bonds that was immediately branded with the nautical nickname of QE2—had barely gotten underway in November 2010 before the Fed itself began sending signals that it had a public-relations disaster on its hands. In a speech to European central bankers in Frankfurt only two weeks after the policy was announced, Fed chairman Ben Bernanke said he didn’t like using the term “quantitative easing”—much less “QE2” —because it didn’t precisely describe what the central bank was trying to do by running the printing presses overtime.

To read the rest of this article from COMMENTARY‘s January issue, click here.

To become a subscriber to COMMENTARY — online or print – click here.

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A Challenge for Smart Power

The House Foreign Affairs Committee has posted the witness statements from its January 25 hearing regarding the United Nations. During the hearing (the video is here), there was an interesting colloquy regarding the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) between Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), the new chairman of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, and journalist Claudia Rosett.

Chabot noted that UNRWA refuses to vet its staff for ties to Hamas and “engages in anti-Israel and pro-Hamas propaganda and banks with Syrian institutions designated under the USA Patriot Act for terror financing and money laundering.” Then he posed a series of questions:

REP. CHABOT: Why is the U.S. still UNRWA’s largest single donor? Why have we given them about a half a billion dollars in the last two years alone? Why hasn’t the U.S. publicly criticized UNRWA for these problems and withheld funding until it reforms? Given that Hamas controls security in Gaza and that Hamas has confiscated UNRWA aid packages in the past, how can we possibly guarantee that U.S. contributions to UNRWA will not end up in Hamas’ hands?

MS. ROSETT: You can’t guarantee it. In fact, it does. … UNRWA is headquartered in Gaza and basically provides support services for what has become a terrorist enclave. … I asked how do you vet your staff to make sure that they are not terrorist members of Hamas? The answer I was given was we check them against the U.N. 1267 list. That sounds very impressive unless you happen to know that the 1267 list is al-Qaeda, which is maybe a problem in Gaza, but it’s not the main problem. The problem is Hamas.

So a temporary UN agency, formed 62 years ago for the relief of Arab and Jewish refugees from the 1948 war, is now a support group for a terrorist enclave — a quasi-permanent agency financed in large part by the United States, with contributions that — unlike UN dues — are voluntary.

Surely smart power is smart enough to find a tool to deal with this problem.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee has posted the witness statements from its January 25 hearing regarding the United Nations. During the hearing (the video is here), there was an interesting colloquy regarding the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) between Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), the new chairman of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, and journalist Claudia Rosett.

Chabot noted that UNRWA refuses to vet its staff for ties to Hamas and “engages in anti-Israel and pro-Hamas propaganda and banks with Syrian institutions designated under the USA Patriot Act for terror financing and money laundering.” Then he posed a series of questions:

REP. CHABOT: Why is the U.S. still UNRWA’s largest single donor? Why have we given them about a half a billion dollars in the last two years alone? Why hasn’t the U.S. publicly criticized UNRWA for these problems and withheld funding until it reforms? Given that Hamas controls security in Gaza and that Hamas has confiscated UNRWA aid packages in the past, how can we possibly guarantee that U.S. contributions to UNRWA will not end up in Hamas’ hands?

MS. ROSETT: You can’t guarantee it. In fact, it does. … UNRWA is headquartered in Gaza and basically provides support services for what has become a terrorist enclave. … I asked how do you vet your staff to make sure that they are not terrorist members of Hamas? The answer I was given was we check them against the U.N. 1267 list. That sounds very impressive unless you happen to know that the 1267 list is al-Qaeda, which is maybe a problem in Gaza, but it’s not the main problem. The problem is Hamas.

So a temporary UN agency, formed 62 years ago for the relief of Arab and Jewish refugees from the 1948 war, is now a support group for a terrorist enclave — a quasi-permanent agency financed in large part by the United States, with contributions that — unlike UN dues — are voluntary.

Surely smart power is smart enough to find a tool to deal with this problem.

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Iranian-Funded Press TV’s British Bank Accounts Frozen

Press TV, the international news organization and propaganda arm of the Iranian government, has had its British bank account frozen, the Times of London reported today.

The frozen account is thought to contain more than $140,000 (100,000 euros), and National Westminster Bank is expected to close it shortly.

And while National Westminster Bank said the move was a “private commercial decision over which the Government has no control,” there has been speculation by both critics and supporters of the news station that politics may have played a part in the decision.

Lauren Booth — the Israel-bashing sister-in-law of Tony Blair — has written a barely legible opinion column for Al Jazeera, blaming the freeze on Zionism, the Blair machine, and American imperialism (errors in the original):

“The freezing of Press TV Ltd business account by Nat West Bank, is a politically motivated act,” wrote Booth. “The bank accounts of those companies who bring uncomfortable truths into the public domain, can now be closed as part of a political agenda, eliciting from the USA. Supported by the Nat West and Her Majesty’s Government.”

Booth compared it to a similar incident in 2007, when National Westminster Bank shuttered the account of a Hamas-linked Palestinian “charity” called Interpal. The bank said it closed the account under pressure from the U.S. legal system.

And it’s possible that similar concerns could have prompted the bank to freeze Press TV’s account as well. Legally, the Iranian-government-funded news organization may be subject to Iranian sanctions.

“[I]t is not surprising that an international bank like Nat West has frozen the accounts of a propaganda station, funded entirely by the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is increasingly subject to international financial and trade sanctions in the European Union and the United States,” wrote Alan A. at the conservative blog Harry’s Place.

Whatever the reason for the freeze, hopefully it’ll lead to some more government scrutiny for Press TV. The fake news station not only devotes itself to publishing constant anti-American and anti-Israel propaganda; it’s also issued news reports denying the Holocaust and claiming that the Mossad helped commit the 9/11 attacks. At the very least, the government should require the station to provide a content warning informing viewers that it’s funded entirely by the Iranian government.

Press TV, the international news organization and propaganda arm of the Iranian government, has had its British bank account frozen, the Times of London reported today.

The frozen account is thought to contain more than $140,000 (100,000 euros), and National Westminster Bank is expected to close it shortly.

And while National Westminster Bank said the move was a “private commercial decision over which the Government has no control,” there has been speculation by both critics and supporters of the news station that politics may have played a part in the decision.

Lauren Booth — the Israel-bashing sister-in-law of Tony Blair — has written a barely legible opinion column for Al Jazeera, blaming the freeze on Zionism, the Blair machine, and American imperialism (errors in the original):

“The freezing of Press TV Ltd business account by Nat West Bank, is a politically motivated act,” wrote Booth. “The bank accounts of those companies who bring uncomfortable truths into the public domain, can now be closed as part of a political agenda, eliciting from the USA. Supported by the Nat West and Her Majesty’s Government.”

Booth compared it to a similar incident in 2007, when National Westminster Bank shuttered the account of a Hamas-linked Palestinian “charity” called Interpal. The bank said it closed the account under pressure from the U.S. legal system.

And it’s possible that similar concerns could have prompted the bank to freeze Press TV’s account as well. Legally, the Iranian-government-funded news organization may be subject to Iranian sanctions.

“[I]t is not surprising that an international bank like Nat West has frozen the accounts of a propaganda station, funded entirely by the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is increasingly subject to international financial and trade sanctions in the European Union and the United States,” wrote Alan A. at the conservative blog Harry’s Place.

Whatever the reason for the freeze, hopefully it’ll lead to some more government scrutiny for Press TV. The fake news station not only devotes itself to publishing constant anti-American and anti-Israel propaganda; it’s also issued news reports denying the Holocaust and claiming that the Mossad helped commit the 9/11 attacks. At the very least, the government should require the station to provide a content warning informing viewers that it’s funded entirely by the Iranian government.

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After the Happy Talk: A $1.5 Trillion Deficit

According to a new report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the federal budget deficit is on course to reach nearly $1.5 trillion this year, the biggest budget gap in history and one of the largest as a share of the economy since World War II. This year’s deficit would be the highest on record and would equal about 9.8 percent of the economy, the CBO said, slightly smaller than the 2009 budget gap, which at $1.4 trillion amounted to nearly 10 percent of the gross domestic product. The CBO forecast is on track to remain well above $1 trillion in 2012, the fourth year in a row. As a result, “debt held by the public will probably jump from 40 percent of GDP at the end of fiscal year 2008 to nearly 70 percent at the end of fiscal year 2011.”

These numbers are alarming. And today’s report highlights just how irresponsible President Obama is by not seriously addressing our exploding debt, which means addressing our entitlement crisis, which means (above all) reforming Medicare.

Long after last night’s State of the Union happy talk is forgotten, these fiscal realities will still be with us. The president has a moral obligation to confront this problem rather than deny it, to deal with the world as it is rather than as he wishes it to be.

According to a new report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the federal budget deficit is on course to reach nearly $1.5 trillion this year, the biggest budget gap in history and one of the largest as a share of the economy since World War II. This year’s deficit would be the highest on record and would equal about 9.8 percent of the economy, the CBO said, slightly smaller than the 2009 budget gap, which at $1.4 trillion amounted to nearly 10 percent of the gross domestic product. The CBO forecast is on track to remain well above $1 trillion in 2012, the fourth year in a row. As a result, “debt held by the public will probably jump from 40 percent of GDP at the end of fiscal year 2008 to nearly 70 percent at the end of fiscal year 2011.”

These numbers are alarming. And today’s report highlights just how irresponsible President Obama is by not seriously addressing our exploding debt, which means addressing our entitlement crisis, which means (above all) reforming Medicare.

Long after last night’s State of the Union happy talk is forgotten, these fiscal realities will still be with us. The president has a moral obligation to confront this problem rather than deny it, to deal with the world as it is rather than as he wishes it to be.

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The President’s Speech: An Irresponsible Performance

State of the Union speeches are typically unimpressive and unmemorable. Last night’s address by President Obama was in that tradition. While his delivery was fine, the speech itself was mediocre — flat, undisciplined and unfocused, at times pedestrian and banal, with goals seemingly pulled out of thin air (e.g., by 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean-energy sources).

The speech was also oddly uncreative, with Obama dusting off slogans and ideas from past State of the Union speeches. For example, on the campaign trail in 2008 and during the first two years of his presidency, Barack Obama portrayed himself as the great enemy of earmarks. Perhaps the reason he has to keep reminding us of his antipathy for earmarks is because he has repeatedly signed into law legislation that contained thousands of them.

Still, this doesn’t mean the speech was unimportant. It was, in fact, quite significant in terms of highlighting the president’s cast of mind and how he understands, or fails to understand, the moment we’re in.

The State of the Union address reaffirmed that Barack Obama remains a man of the left. He spent most of the speech championing an array of new programs, explaining why he believes we need to expand the size, reach, scope, and cost of the federal government.

It was as if the president were awakening Leviathan from a two-year slumber rather than two years of hyperactivity.

Beyond that, though, Obama spoke as if he were living in an alternate universe — one where a $14 trillion debt and trillion dollar a year deficit don’t exist; where our entitlement programs are basically solvent and sound, in need of, at most, tweaking around the margins; and where the 2010 midterm election wasn’t a repudiation of the president’s progressive agenda.

The president dealt with our fiscal crisis as if it were a triviality, its importance on par with the need for more solar panels and high-speed rails.

Mr. Obama, I think, is misreading the public mood. Many Americans are unnerved by our fiscal imbalance, which helps explain the rise of the Tea Party movement. But whether or not Obama is out of touch with the public is, in one respect, irrelevant. Facts are stubborn things — and the fact is that we’re facing a crushing entitlement crisis that is getting worse literally by the hour. If we don’t come to grips with it soon, we are likely to experience something similar to the social unrest that is sweeping Europe.

More than mediocre, then, I found the president’s speech to be irresponsible. As the elected leader of the nation — and as one of the architects of our fiscal crisis — Obama has an obligation to address it in a serious, systematic, and intellectually honest manner. Instead, he is eschewing his governing duties. He is living in a world of his own imagination. That might be fine for writers of fiction and fairy tales. But for the president of the United States, it is quite a bad thing indeed.

State of the Union speeches are typically unimpressive and unmemorable. Last night’s address by President Obama was in that tradition. While his delivery was fine, the speech itself was mediocre — flat, undisciplined and unfocused, at times pedestrian and banal, with goals seemingly pulled out of thin air (e.g., by 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean-energy sources).

The speech was also oddly uncreative, with Obama dusting off slogans and ideas from past State of the Union speeches. For example, on the campaign trail in 2008 and during the first two years of his presidency, Barack Obama portrayed himself as the great enemy of earmarks. Perhaps the reason he has to keep reminding us of his antipathy for earmarks is because he has repeatedly signed into law legislation that contained thousands of them.

Still, this doesn’t mean the speech was unimportant. It was, in fact, quite significant in terms of highlighting the president’s cast of mind and how he understands, or fails to understand, the moment we’re in.

The State of the Union address reaffirmed that Barack Obama remains a man of the left. He spent most of the speech championing an array of new programs, explaining why he believes we need to expand the size, reach, scope, and cost of the federal government.

It was as if the president were awakening Leviathan from a two-year slumber rather than two years of hyperactivity.

Beyond that, though, Obama spoke as if he were living in an alternate universe — one where a $14 trillion debt and trillion dollar a year deficit don’t exist; where our entitlement programs are basically solvent and sound, in need of, at most, tweaking around the margins; and where the 2010 midterm election wasn’t a repudiation of the president’s progressive agenda.

The president dealt with our fiscal crisis as if it were a triviality, its importance on par with the need for more solar panels and high-speed rails.

Mr. Obama, I think, is misreading the public mood. Many Americans are unnerved by our fiscal imbalance, which helps explain the rise of the Tea Party movement. But whether or not Obama is out of touch with the public is, in one respect, irrelevant. Facts are stubborn things — and the fact is that we’re facing a crushing entitlement crisis that is getting worse literally by the hour. If we don’t come to grips with it soon, we are likely to experience something similar to the social unrest that is sweeping Europe.

More than mediocre, then, I found the president’s speech to be irresponsible. As the elected leader of the nation — and as one of the architects of our fiscal crisis — Obama has an obligation to address it in a serious, systematic, and intellectually honest manner. Instead, he is eschewing his governing duties. He is living in a world of his own imagination. That might be fine for writers of fiction and fairy tales. But for the president of the United States, it is quite a bad thing indeed.

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LIVE BLOG: Spending Freeze Again

Obama calls for a five-year spending freeze. Sounds a lot like the three-year spending freeze he proposed at last year’s State of the Union – and then promptly ignored.

“He came out with the same thing last year,” a key GOP-er told US News and World Report tonight, “but still came out with $70 billion in new spending.”

Obama calls for a five-year spending freeze. Sounds a lot like the three-year spending freeze he proposed at last year’s State of the Union – and then promptly ignored.

“He came out with the same thing last year,” a key GOP-er told US News and World Report tonight, “but still came out with $70 billion in new spending.”

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A Moment for Political Courage

According to media accounts, in his State of the Union address, President Obama is going to avoid dealing with our entitlement crisis. The question is: will Republicans?

That is setting up to be the key debate of the next several months.

There is one line of argument, articulated by Ramesh Ponnuru, that insists that for House Republicans to take on entitlement reform would be noble but politically suicidal. The reasoning is that (a) for the next two years, reform is impossible unless and until President Obama takes the lead on it; (b) Republicans have no mandate for reform even if they wanted to; and (c) every time they have tried to reform entitlements in the past (George W. Bush on Social Security and Newt Gingrich on Medicare), they have paid a high political price.

The more responsible approach would be to champion cuts in discretionary spending and continue to insist on the repeal of ObamaCare. That would be entirely enough, this argument goes; to do more will require a Republican president willing to educate the nation on the entitlement crisis and to do something about it.

The counterargument is that we are in a new and different moment when it comes to entitlement reform. Due to the financial crisis of 2008 and the spending habits of President Obama and the 111th Congress, what was a serious problem has become an acute one. In the past, the deficit and debt were manageable; now, every serious person who has studied this matter concedes, the situation is unsustainable. The public understands this in one way or another; and if they’re not yet ready to take on entitlement reforms, they are certainly educable in a way that has never been the case before. Read More

According to media accounts, in his State of the Union address, President Obama is going to avoid dealing with our entitlement crisis. The question is: will Republicans?

That is setting up to be the key debate of the next several months.

There is one line of argument, articulated by Ramesh Ponnuru, that insists that for House Republicans to take on entitlement reform would be noble but politically suicidal. The reasoning is that (a) for the next two years, reform is impossible unless and until President Obama takes the lead on it; (b) Republicans have no mandate for reform even if they wanted to; and (c) every time they have tried to reform entitlements in the past (George W. Bush on Social Security and Newt Gingrich on Medicare), they have paid a high political price.

The more responsible approach would be to champion cuts in discretionary spending and continue to insist on the repeal of ObamaCare. That would be entirely enough, this argument goes; to do more will require a Republican president willing to educate the nation on the entitlement crisis and to do something about it.

The counterargument is that we are in a new and different moment when it comes to entitlement reform. Due to the financial crisis of 2008 and the spending habits of President Obama and the 111th Congress, what was a serious problem has become an acute one. In the past, the deficit and debt were manageable; now, every serious person who has studied this matter concedes, the situation is unsustainable. The public understands this in one way or another; and if they’re not yet ready to take on entitlement reforms, they are certainly educable in a way that has never been the case before.

The way to frame this argument, according to those who want to take on entitlement programs, is to simply state the reality of the situation: we can act now, in a relatively incremental and responsible way, in order to avoid the painful austerity measures that are occurring in Europe and elsewhere. Or we can delay action and, at some point not far into the future, be unable to avoid cuts that will cause a great deal of social unrest.

So we’re clear, the entitlement that really matters is Medicare. “The fact is,” my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin told Michael Gerson, “Medicare is going to crush the government, and if Republicans leave it unreformed then the debt picture is very, very ugly. They might never — literally never — show the budget reaching balance. Not in the 10-year window and not if they take their graphs out a hundred years. Obama could probably show balance just past the budget window in the middle of the next decade because of the massive Medicare cuts he proposes, even if in practice they will never actually happen.”

To get a sense of what we’re talking about, Veronique de Rugy has put together a very useful chart that can be found here.

It makes the point that cutting discretionary spending only makes a small difference in the overall budget picture. She lays out the difference between the Republican Study Committee plan, which cuts $2 trillion over 10 years and is therefore a good deal more aggressive than the House Republican leadership proposal, and where spending would be without those cuts over the next 10 years. As you will see, it’s a small difference. Spending keeps growing rapidly either way. Without entitlement reform, then, this is about as much as we could reasonably do — and it just isn’t that much.

In other words, if Republicans don’t take on Medicare, their credibility as a party of fiscal responsibility and limited government will be shattered. The math guarantees it. The GOP, having made the 2010 election largely (though not exclusively) a referendum on the deficit and the debt, will be viewed as fraudulent.

Compounding the problem is the fact that, as Gerson explains, if Republicans don’t touch Medicare, their budget approach — on paper, at least — will have less long-term debt reduction than Obama’s, both because Obama supports tax increases and he uses a slew of budget gimmicks to make his health-care plan appear to be far more affordable than it really is.

It’s a pretty good bet that the president will advance the same kind of gimmicks in his 2012 budget. If so, then unless Republicans are willing to champion Medicare reform (meaning changing it from a defined benefit program to a defined contribution program), Obama will be able to position himself as a budget hawk, at least compared to the GOP. This could have devastating political effects, including dispiriting the Republican base and the Tea Party movement. Having just elected Republicans in large measure to stop the financial hemorrhage and to restore fiscal balance, voters will not react well when they are told, in so many words, “Never Mind.”

So count me as one who believes Republicans need to embrace entitlement reform in general, and Medicare reforms in particular, because not doing so is irresponsible. It means willfully avoiding what everyone knows needs to be done in the hope that at some future, as-yet-to-be-determined date, a better and easier moment will arrive.

Sometime a political party needs to comfort itself with the axiom that good policy makes good politics. That isn’t always the case, certainly, but often it is. In any event, if the GOP avoids reforming Medicare, there is no way any Republican lawmaker, when pressed by reporters on fiscal matters, can make a plausible argument that their actions are remotely consistent with their stated philosophy.

They will hem and haw and duck and dodge and try to change the subject — and they will emerge as counterfeit, deceptive, and unserious. Here it’s worth recalling the words of the columnist Walter Lippmann, who wrote:

With exceptions so rare that they are regarded as miracles and freaks of nature, successful democratic politicians are insecure and intimidated men. They advance politically only as they placate, appease, bribe, seduce, bamboozle, or otherwise manage to manipulate the demanding and threatening elements in their constituencies. The decisive consideration is not whether the proposition is good but whether it is popular — not whether it will work well and prove itself but whether the active talking constituents like it immediately.

Perhaps I’m asking GOP lawmakers to prove themselves to be miracles and freaks of nature. But if I am right in my analysis, that is what is called for. It would mean Republicans have an enormous public-education campaign ahead of them. They will have to explain why their policies are the most responsible and humane. They will need to articulate the case not simply for entitlement reform but also for limited government. And they will need to explain, in a compelling and accessible way, why limited government is crucial to civic character.

None of this is easy — but lawmakers weren’t elected to make easy decisions. They were elected to make the right ones. And reforming Medicare is, in our time, the right decision.

Let’s get on with it.

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Fight Off, Don’t Pay Off, Pirates

Good for South Korea. Last week its commandos staged a daring assault on a freighter ship hijacked by pirates off Somalia. Eight pirates were killed, five captured. All 21 hostages were released; only one of them — the captain of the ship — was wounded.

This raid comes only a few months after the ship in question, the Samho Jewelry, was freed by Somali pirates from a previous period of captivity. South Korea reportedly paid a ransom $9.5 million — the highest ever. Ransom payments to the pirates have been going up dramatically. According to the Financial Times: “A recent study from the US-based One Earth Future foundation showed the average ransom paid to Somali pirates rose nearly 60 per cent from 2009 to 2010, reaching $5.4m. The average ransom paid in 2005 was $150,000.”

The experience of the Samho Jewelry should  confirm that paying off pirates is not a wise move. Fighting them makes more sense. After all, the Somali pirates are lightly armed; professional military forces like South Korea’s can make mincemeat of them. The problem is that most of the countries that have sent naval vessels off the coast of Somalia have been reluctant to give them the kind of robust rules of engagement that would allow them to take the fight to the pirates. Too often, even when pirates have been captured, they have been released because Somalia has no functioning courts and no other country is eager to try them. Shipping lines have operated under the assumption that it’s cheaper to cooperate with pirates than to fight them. Under those circumstances, is it any wonder that piracy has grown and grown? If the risk is low and the payoff high, it’s safe to expect that more Somalis will take to the seas to take down merchant shipping.

The key to securing this vital shipping lane is to unleash all the naval power that is already in the region. The U.S. and our allies should give our fleets shoot-on-sight orders when they detect suspected pirates — the same kind of order our troops operate under when dealing with armed insurgents in Iraq or Afghanistan. It would not take many gunfights, I suspect, to deter all but the most foolhardy or daring pirates from continuing with their criminal racket.

Good for South Korea. Last week its commandos staged a daring assault on a freighter ship hijacked by pirates off Somalia. Eight pirates were killed, five captured. All 21 hostages were released; only one of them — the captain of the ship — was wounded.

This raid comes only a few months after the ship in question, the Samho Jewelry, was freed by Somali pirates from a previous period of captivity. South Korea reportedly paid a ransom $9.5 million — the highest ever. Ransom payments to the pirates have been going up dramatically. According to the Financial Times: “A recent study from the US-based One Earth Future foundation showed the average ransom paid to Somali pirates rose nearly 60 per cent from 2009 to 2010, reaching $5.4m. The average ransom paid in 2005 was $150,000.”

The experience of the Samho Jewelry should  confirm that paying off pirates is not a wise move. Fighting them makes more sense. After all, the Somali pirates are lightly armed; professional military forces like South Korea’s can make mincemeat of them. The problem is that most of the countries that have sent naval vessels off the coast of Somalia have been reluctant to give them the kind of robust rules of engagement that would allow them to take the fight to the pirates. Too often, even when pirates have been captured, they have been released because Somalia has no functioning courts and no other country is eager to try them. Shipping lines have operated under the assumption that it’s cheaper to cooperate with pirates than to fight them. Under those circumstances, is it any wonder that piracy has grown and grown? If the risk is low and the payoff high, it’s safe to expect that more Somalis will take to the seas to take down merchant shipping.

The key to securing this vital shipping lane is to unleash all the naval power that is already in the region. The U.S. and our allies should give our fleets shoot-on-sight orders when they detect suspected pirates — the same kind of order our troops operate under when dealing with armed insurgents in Iraq or Afghanistan. It would not take many gunfights, I suspect, to deter all but the most foolhardy or daring pirates from continuing with their criminal racket.

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What Now for Keith Olbermann?

Since Keith Olbermann’s abrupt departure from MSNBC on Friday, there’s been a lot of speculation about where the liberal commentator will go next.

Though it seems clear that Olbermann had been anxious to leave the network for a while — the New York Post reported that he’s wanted out for at least a year — it also sounds like the breakup was mutual, and may have even preempted a firing. Olbermann was notoriously tough to deal with, and with the rise of other liberal stars on the network and a pending change in ownership, it wasn’t much of a loss for MSNBC to let him out of his contract.

Of course, the question is, Where will he go now? As far as liberal-commentary careers go, hosting a nightly show on MSNBC is the peak. You don’t really go up from there.

So far, there have been some interesting predictions. The New York Daily News wonders whether he’ll go back into sports commentary (based on one of his Twitter updates). The Huffington Post and Entertainment Weekly predict that he may change career direction and star in Aaron Sorkin’s new TV series Network.

And the Wrap reports that Olbermann is planning to stake out on his own and build a media outlet similar to the Huffington Post — which sounds far more likely:

With two years left on his $7 million a year contract, Olbermann was seeking a full exit package but he really has his eye on creating his own media empire in the style of Huffington Post, according to the individual. That way, Olbermann would control his own brand and, in his view, potentially earn far more as an owner.

Olbermann already has a high-profile brand as a liberal opinionater, and he might as well take advantage of it. The move also wouldn’t be without precedent. Former and current cable news hosts Glenn Beck and Tucker Carlson have both launched pretty successful media outlets.

Since Keith Olbermann’s abrupt departure from MSNBC on Friday, there’s been a lot of speculation about where the liberal commentator will go next.

Though it seems clear that Olbermann had been anxious to leave the network for a while — the New York Post reported that he’s wanted out for at least a year — it also sounds like the breakup was mutual, and may have even preempted a firing. Olbermann was notoriously tough to deal with, and with the rise of other liberal stars on the network and a pending change in ownership, it wasn’t much of a loss for MSNBC to let him out of his contract.

Of course, the question is, Where will he go now? As far as liberal-commentary careers go, hosting a nightly show on MSNBC is the peak. You don’t really go up from there.

So far, there have been some interesting predictions. The New York Daily News wonders whether he’ll go back into sports commentary (based on one of his Twitter updates). The Huffington Post and Entertainment Weekly predict that he may change career direction and star in Aaron Sorkin’s new TV series Network.

And the Wrap reports that Olbermann is planning to stake out on his own and build a media outlet similar to the Huffington Post — which sounds far more likely:

With two years left on his $7 million a year contract, Olbermann was seeking a full exit package but he really has his eye on creating his own media empire in the style of Huffington Post, according to the individual. That way, Olbermann would control his own brand and, in his view, potentially earn far more as an owner.

Olbermann already has a high-profile brand as a liberal opinionater, and he might as well take advantage of it. The move also wouldn’t be without precedent. Former and current cable news hosts Glenn Beck and Tucker Carlson have both launched pretty successful media outlets.

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USAID: Mend It, Don’t End It

The Republican Study Committee, a group of 165 conservative House members, has just unveiled a proposal for cutting the federal budget. Their push for cuts and their willingness to be specific is to be commended. Many of their nominees for cuts are traditional Republican targets, such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Legal Services Corporation. I would not lose any sleep if these agencies were defunded tomorrow, but I am concerned about one of the proposals: a cut of $1.39 billion in the budget of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Since USAID’s budget is only $1.65 billion, this would all but put the agency out of business.

I share the concerns expressed by many over how foreign aid is being spent. No doubt much of it goes to useless or even counterproductive projects. USAID is notorious for poor management and for judging results by how much money it spends — not by what kinds of effects it achieves. In Afghanistan and Iraq, where the agency has been asked to cooperate in military-led counterinsurgency projects, some of its work has been valuable, but a good deal of it has also fueled corruption and been too disconnected from the broader campaign.

Does that sound as if I agree with the desire of these House Republicans to all but eliminate USAID? I don’t, because I do think foreign aid can be a valuable tool of American diplomacy, and it’s not as if USAID is a big drag on the budget — it represents a whopping .04 percent of estimated federal spending this year ($3.8 trillion). We are not going to balance the budget by eliminating USAID. Calling for its virtual eradication will only make it easy for Democrats to brand the GOP as an isolationist party.

The Republicans’ message should be “mend it, don’t end it.” USAID needs a major overhaul, which should involve hiring more full-time officers. In recent decades, it has been too reliant on contractors of dubious reliability because its workforce has been cut. It also needs a more sharply defined mission rather than simply bolstering generic “development” — it ought to be targeted specifically at enhancing nation-building in states of key concern to the U.S., such as Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. In other words, it should be an adjunct of our broader “war against terrorism” and an instrument that the U.S. government can use to bolster failed or failing states. It sounds as if Rajiv Shah, current head of USAID, is planning to move the agency in that direction.

Hill Republicans should work with him, helping to overcome institutional resistance and holding him accountable for results, rather than trying to wish the agency away.

The Republican Study Committee, a group of 165 conservative House members, has just unveiled a proposal for cutting the federal budget. Their push for cuts and their willingness to be specific is to be commended. Many of their nominees for cuts are traditional Republican targets, such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Legal Services Corporation. I would not lose any sleep if these agencies were defunded tomorrow, but I am concerned about one of the proposals: a cut of $1.39 billion in the budget of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Since USAID’s budget is only $1.65 billion, this would all but put the agency out of business.

I share the concerns expressed by many over how foreign aid is being spent. No doubt much of it goes to useless or even counterproductive projects. USAID is notorious for poor management and for judging results by how much money it spends — not by what kinds of effects it achieves. In Afghanistan and Iraq, where the agency has been asked to cooperate in military-led counterinsurgency projects, some of its work has been valuable, but a good deal of it has also fueled corruption and been too disconnected from the broader campaign.

Does that sound as if I agree with the desire of these House Republicans to all but eliminate USAID? I don’t, because I do think foreign aid can be a valuable tool of American diplomacy, and it’s not as if USAID is a big drag on the budget — it represents a whopping .04 percent of estimated federal spending this year ($3.8 trillion). We are not going to balance the budget by eliminating USAID. Calling for its virtual eradication will only make it easy for Democrats to brand the GOP as an isolationist party.

The Republicans’ message should be “mend it, don’t end it.” USAID needs a major overhaul, which should involve hiring more full-time officers. In recent decades, it has been too reliant on contractors of dubious reliability because its workforce has been cut. It also needs a more sharply defined mission rather than simply bolstering generic “development” — it ought to be targeted specifically at enhancing nation-building in states of key concern to the U.S., such as Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. In other words, it should be an adjunct of our broader “war against terrorism” and an instrument that the U.S. government can use to bolster failed or failing states. It sounds as if Rajiv Shah, current head of USAID, is planning to move the agency in that direction.

Hill Republicans should work with him, helping to overcome institutional resistance and holding him accountable for results, rather than trying to wish the agency away.

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‘Conversing’ About Afghanistan

I had not previously suspected that Grover Norquist has quite the sense of humor. I had thought of him as a dour ideologue, but he shows hidden strains of mirth in responding to my blog post expressing skepticism about his attempts to rally a “center-right” coalition against the Afghan war. The Daily Caller quotes him as follows:

Norquist said Boot’s comments underscore the need for a real debate on America’s strategy in the Af-Pak theatre. “OK, people for whom everything is World War II haven’t read much history. Because they have no other analogies other than things they have seen from World War II movies,” he told me. “There’s got to be a better case for what we’re doing in Afghanistan than Max Boot’s. Somewhere. ‘Shut up’, he argued. It’s, you know, it’s embarrassing.”

At the same time, Norquist insisted that he is not calling for America to pull out of the war — at least not yet. “I see enough to say that I think about it, and that’s what I’ve tossed out there,” he said. “There are guys who do this for a living, and they’re focused on it, who have strong criticisms of the status quo in different places. I’m very comfortable saying this is not for free and that the benefits are not clear to me. Could we have a conversation about the cost, and please make the benefits clear to me and others?”

“When somebody says ‘I don’t want to have a conversation about [what] this costs, I don’t want to have a conversation about what the benefits are, I surely don’t want to be asked what the point of this is’. … I think they have a weak case, because I do other things in life, right? But [proponents of the war] are focused on this all day. They think they have a weak case, and that’s scary, that’s frightening. I just think we ought to have a conversation.”

I will bypass his jape about not reading “much history,” which as it happens is what I do pretty much all day, every day — it’s necessary to read a lot of history to write your own works of history, which is what I spend most of my time doing.

I am more amused by his attempt to walk away from his viewpoint. As Alana pointed out earlier, he’s not really suggesting getting out of Afghanistan, he claims; he just wants to have a “conversation” about it. As if we had not debated it before, ad nauseum. Grover may not have noticed while he was doing “other things in life,” but this conversation has been going on for quite some time, both inside and outside the administration. I am hardly “embarrassed” to debate the merits of the war effort. If he is interested in my explanation of why we can win and why we must do so, he might start by reading two COMMENTARY articles I wrote — here and here.

I am hard put to see, however, why we must revive the debate now on Norquist’s say-so. President Obama — hardly a hawk — oversaw a fairly intensive debate within the administration in the fall of 2009. The surge strategy he approved then is only now being implemented. It makes sense to wait until we see how it plays out before starting a “conversation” about a pullout. Read More

I had not previously suspected that Grover Norquist has quite the sense of humor. I had thought of him as a dour ideologue, but he shows hidden strains of mirth in responding to my blog post expressing skepticism about his attempts to rally a “center-right” coalition against the Afghan war. The Daily Caller quotes him as follows:

Norquist said Boot’s comments underscore the need for a real debate on America’s strategy in the Af-Pak theatre. “OK, people for whom everything is World War II haven’t read much history. Because they have no other analogies other than things they have seen from World War II movies,” he told me. “There’s got to be a better case for what we’re doing in Afghanistan than Max Boot’s. Somewhere. ‘Shut up’, he argued. It’s, you know, it’s embarrassing.”

At the same time, Norquist insisted that he is not calling for America to pull out of the war — at least not yet. “I see enough to say that I think about it, and that’s what I’ve tossed out there,” he said. “There are guys who do this for a living, and they’re focused on it, who have strong criticisms of the status quo in different places. I’m very comfortable saying this is not for free and that the benefits are not clear to me. Could we have a conversation about the cost, and please make the benefits clear to me and others?”

“When somebody says ‘I don’t want to have a conversation about [what] this costs, I don’t want to have a conversation about what the benefits are, I surely don’t want to be asked what the point of this is’. … I think they have a weak case, because I do other things in life, right? But [proponents of the war] are focused on this all day. They think they have a weak case, and that’s scary, that’s frightening. I just think we ought to have a conversation.”

I will bypass his jape about not reading “much history,” which as it happens is what I do pretty much all day, every day — it’s necessary to read a lot of history to write your own works of history, which is what I spend most of my time doing.

I am more amused by his attempt to walk away from his viewpoint. As Alana pointed out earlier, he’s not really suggesting getting out of Afghanistan, he claims; he just wants to have a “conversation” about it. As if we had not debated it before, ad nauseum. Grover may not have noticed while he was doing “other things in life,” but this conversation has been going on for quite some time, both inside and outside the administration. I am hardly “embarrassed” to debate the merits of the war effort. If he is interested in my explanation of why we can win and why we must do so, he might start by reading two COMMENTARY articles I wrote — here and here.

I am hard put to see, however, why we must revive the debate now on Norquist’s say-so. President Obama — hardly a hawk — oversaw a fairly intensive debate within the administration in the fall of 2009. The surge strategy he approved then is only now being implemented. It makes sense to wait until we see how it plays out before starting a “conversation” about a pullout.

Or is the war of such urgent fiscal concern that we need to pull out tomorrow? Hardly. We are spending roughly $100 billion a year in Afghanistan. Our budget deficit last year was $1.29 trillion. So even if we suddenly stopped all spending on Afghanistan, that would reduce the deficit by less than 8 percent. But of course, not even most advocates of a troop drawdown suggest that we should abandon Afghanistan entirely. Most agree we need to keep Special Operations forces there, keep trainers there to help the Afghan Security Forces, etc. So our actual savings would be considerably less than that. There are many reasons for opposing the war effort, but Norquist’s chosen argument — calling for fiscal rectitude by withdrawing — is not terribly compelling.

Nor am I convinced by a poll sponsored by the liberal New America Foundation, with which Norquist has affiliated himself, claiming that most conservatives favor drawing down our troop numbers now. I suspect this is typical of the partisan “polls” that Washington operatives like Norquist put together to make their cause du jour appear more popular than it actually is. In reality, Republicans in Congress are solidly behind the war effort; I rather doubt they do so in the face of adamant opposition from their conservative constituents. In any case, I have not seen much sign of conservative opposition to the Afghan war effort — which is why Norquist is working with the New America Foundation, not, say, the Heritage Foundation.

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J Street Launches Campaign Against Ros-Lehtinen

J Street is calling on Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to return campaign contributions that she received from Irving Moskowitz, the financier behind the new construction at the Shepherd’s Hotel site. Yes, the George Soros–funded J Street is criticizing someone for taking money from a controversial philanthropist. This is too easy:

With the two-state solution hanging by a thread, what a terrible signal it sends for an American political leader to be so cozy with a far-right political funder whose actions undermine the foreign policy of the United States and makes a two-state solution harder to achieve.

Ros-Lehtinen, the new Republican chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, reportedly accepted $4,800 from both Moskowitz and his wife during her campaign. Moskowitz’s wife also gave $5,000 to a pro-Israel PAC that donated $10,000 to Ros-Lehtinen.

According to J Street, Moskowitz “actively works to derail the chances for a two-state solution by funding Jewish settler housing in the middle of Palestinian neighborhoods.”

First of all, Moskowitz isn’t funding “Jewish” housing. He’s constructing an apartment building for Israelis of all religions and ethnicities, in a largely Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem. The housing complex is being built on land he already owned for decades. So J Street is now the arbiter of what an Israeli can build on his own property?

This whole campaign comes down to one thing. Ros-Lehtinen is one of the strongest friends of Israel in Congress, and her new, prominent position on the House Foreign Affairs Committee is terrifying to J Street. Expect more petty attacks like this in the future.

J Street is calling on Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to return campaign contributions that she received from Irving Moskowitz, the financier behind the new construction at the Shepherd’s Hotel site. Yes, the George Soros–funded J Street is criticizing someone for taking money from a controversial philanthropist. This is too easy:

With the two-state solution hanging by a thread, what a terrible signal it sends for an American political leader to be so cozy with a far-right political funder whose actions undermine the foreign policy of the United States and makes a two-state solution harder to achieve.

Ros-Lehtinen, the new Republican chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, reportedly accepted $4,800 from both Moskowitz and his wife during her campaign. Moskowitz’s wife also gave $5,000 to a pro-Israel PAC that donated $10,000 to Ros-Lehtinen.

According to J Street, Moskowitz “actively works to derail the chances for a two-state solution by funding Jewish settler housing in the middle of Palestinian neighborhoods.”

First of all, Moskowitz isn’t funding “Jewish” housing. He’s constructing an apartment building for Israelis of all religions and ethnicities, in a largely Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem. The housing complex is being built on land he already owned for decades. So J Street is now the arbiter of what an Israeli can build on his own property?

This whole campaign comes down to one thing. Ros-Lehtinen is one of the strongest friends of Israel in Congress, and her new, prominent position on the House Foreign Affairs Committee is terrifying to J Street. Expect more petty attacks like this in the future.

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Amazing Hypocrisy Alert on the Upper West Side

This story tells of a demonstration staged by Democratic politicians on the Upper West Side of Manhattan on the issue of homelessness. In attendance: Rep. Charlie Rangel, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Councilwoman Gail Brewer, and others. What they’re all doing, though, is protesting against the creation of a homeless shelter.

In one of the craziest acts of regulatory silliness in recent history, members of the New York state legislatures took it in their heads to get all riled up about the fact that “residential hotels” in Manhattan were increasingly being used not as places to live but as places to rent rooms by the day or week to travelers and tourists. A tenant pays $400-$500 per month. A transient will pay $100 a night. You do the math.

The conversion of these residential hotels (which, in the context of permanent housing, refers to facilities with tenants living in rooms without kitchens) into tourist hotels was for some reason deemed a great evil and unfair to the residents. Some of the buildings are not zoned for transience; others do not have the right permits. Nobody seems to care about all this except “housing advocates,” a category of activist all but unique to New York City, whose hunger for more affordable housing would seem to be in conflict with their hatred of everybody who actually owns a building and dares to rent out an apartment.

An assemblywoman named Linda Rosenthal explained how mean the use of residential-hotel space for transient payers is: “They lose a lot by having people stay there who don’t feel a responsibility to keep it clean and nice. When there are transients there, they feel like they can do whatever they want.” And so it was time for a state law to layer on top of other laws to prevent such horrible transience — for what particular reason is not clear. But it was passed, and then-Governor Paterson signed it, and it goes into effect soon.

So what some of those who own these hotels have decided to do is lease them to the New York City Department of Homeless Services, which will pay them a generous room rate to house homeless people comparable to what they would get from Europeans looking for a cheap room. That this is what would have happened if the law had passed originally was clear at the time; the landlords themselves said it’s what they would do; and the city needs the shelter space.

But … but … not in my affluent and ostensibly caring (70 percent Obama) neighborhood! So gasp these very liberal Democratic politicians, who are not ordinarily known for taking a stand against the notion that the city and state should be responsible for housing the homeless. In particular, Rangel has long claimed the mantle of homeless advocate, but evidently not when he’s still mindful he might be out of a job in two years owing to his legal troubles.

New York City has had a demented housing policy for six decades, and this is just the latest iteration. By the way, one of those residential hotels is right across the street from my apartment building. And the people who seem to be staying there all look very nice, rolling their bags up and down the block. If it becomes a homeless shelter, those nicely packed bags will soon become grocery carts, and the people pushing them won’t be quite so nice.

This story tells of a demonstration staged by Democratic politicians on the Upper West Side of Manhattan on the issue of homelessness. In attendance: Rep. Charlie Rangel, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Councilwoman Gail Brewer, and others. What they’re all doing, though, is protesting against the creation of a homeless shelter.

In one of the craziest acts of regulatory silliness in recent history, members of the New York state legislatures took it in their heads to get all riled up about the fact that “residential hotels” in Manhattan were increasingly being used not as places to live but as places to rent rooms by the day or week to travelers and tourists. A tenant pays $400-$500 per month. A transient will pay $100 a night. You do the math.

The conversion of these residential hotels (which, in the context of permanent housing, refers to facilities with tenants living in rooms without kitchens) into tourist hotels was for some reason deemed a great evil and unfair to the residents. Some of the buildings are not zoned for transience; others do not have the right permits. Nobody seems to care about all this except “housing advocates,” a category of activist all but unique to New York City, whose hunger for more affordable housing would seem to be in conflict with their hatred of everybody who actually owns a building and dares to rent out an apartment.

An assemblywoman named Linda Rosenthal explained how mean the use of residential-hotel space for transient payers is: “They lose a lot by having people stay there who don’t feel a responsibility to keep it clean and nice. When there are transients there, they feel like they can do whatever they want.” And so it was time for a state law to layer on top of other laws to prevent such horrible transience — for what particular reason is not clear. But it was passed, and then-Governor Paterson signed it, and it goes into effect soon.

So what some of those who own these hotels have decided to do is lease them to the New York City Department of Homeless Services, which will pay them a generous room rate to house homeless people comparable to what they would get from Europeans looking for a cheap room. That this is what would have happened if the law had passed originally was clear at the time; the landlords themselves said it’s what they would do; and the city needs the shelter space.

But … but … not in my affluent and ostensibly caring (70 percent Obama) neighborhood! So gasp these very liberal Democratic politicians, who are not ordinarily known for taking a stand against the notion that the city and state should be responsible for housing the homeless. In particular, Rangel has long claimed the mantle of homeless advocate, but evidently not when he’s still mindful he might be out of a job in two years owing to his legal troubles.

New York City has had a demented housing policy for six decades, and this is just the latest iteration. By the way, one of those residential hotels is right across the street from my apartment building. And the people who seem to be staying there all look very nice, rolling their bags up and down the block. If it becomes a homeless shelter, those nicely packed bags will soon become grocery carts, and the people pushing them won’t be quite so nice.

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