Commentary Magazine


Topic: socialism

No, Bernie Sanders Will Not Make the Election a Battle of Ideas

Bernie Sanders is running for president. Bernie Sanders will never be president. These two facts, taken together, represent good news for Hillary Clinton in a week when she could really use it. Sanders will run to Hillary’s populist left, but–spoiler alert–his ideas won’t have much impact. We won’t have a truly important “national conversation” thanks to Bernie Sanders. He will remind Americans that Vermont exists, and then he will fade back into the background with a pint of Chunky Monkey to resurface as an answer to the occasional trivia night question at the pub.

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Bernie Sanders is running for president. Bernie Sanders will never be president. These two facts, taken together, represent good news for Hillary Clinton in a week when she could really use it. Sanders will run to Hillary’s populist left, but–spoiler alert–his ideas won’t have much impact. We won’t have a truly important “national conversation” thanks to Bernie Sanders. He will remind Americans that Vermont exists, and then he will fade back into the background with a pint of Chunky Monkey to resurface as an answer to the occasional trivia night question at the pub.

It’s not exactly controversial to say Sanders can’t win. It has a lot to do with why he’s running in the first place: he was elected to Congress a socialist, and a socialist he remains. It is true that a poll last year found that Democrats approve of socialism at the same levels they approve of capitalism. But that doesn’t mean Democrats will nominate an avowed socialist. If you want to get public policymaking to reflect the dangerous folly of socialism, you can’t call it that. Use words like “justice” and “fairness” and other liberal euphemisms for armed robbery instead.

Now you might think that the entry of a socialist into the Democratic Party primary, at a time when a majority of Democrats approve of socialism, would at the very least make for a lively debate that could pull the eventual nominee to the left. And further, you might think that would be even likelier since the main candidate in the Democratic race, Hillary Clinton, is the very embodiment of privilege, corruption, entitlement, influence peddling, and swamping American elections with foreign money.

But in order for that to be the case, two things would have to be true. The Democrats would have to actually oppose cronyism and corruption rather than see them as useful vehicles to attain power. And Democrats would have to be willing, in large numbers, to publicly embrace their inner socialist rather than prize electability over principle.

Neither of those is true.

As the Obama administration’s weaponized IRS and its reliance on lawmaking by bureaucratic regulation have shown, Democrats have fully realized something very important about American politics. If you hold the levers of power–especially the White House–and you’re of the correct political beliefs as far as the traditional organs of the fourth estate are concerned, you can get away with quite a lot. And you don’t really need Congress (though it helps).

As such, for leftists political campaigns are quite different from what the political parties have traditionally thought of them as being. They are not, for the left, about ideas or vetting their would-be leaders. They are simply about winning at any cost so that the unaccountable bureaucracy can go on ruling undisturbed.

And a key part of this, for Democrats, is to never say what everyone knows to be true.

If it were really about ideas, progressive activists would be flocking to Sanders and ignoring Elizabeth Warren, instead of the other way around. Warren, after all, is not really a populist but a demagogue. She merely does the bidding of certain wealthy bank lobby shops instead of others.

The press wants to believe this isn’t true. Hence NBC News tried to claim–bless their hearts–that “Bernie Sanders Won’t Win. But His Ideas Might.” On the matter of preferring Warren over Sanders, NBC has this to say:

Sanders, though, is less well-suited to run a credible challenge to Clinton than Warren. Sanders does not play the part of the typical presidential candidate, both because of his age and his style, which leans toward long, dense policy speeches instead of the more aspirational rhetoric of Obama.

Translation: when Bernie Sanders speaks, he says something. Democrats are far more likely to support a candidate who is not nearly so reckless, and who is instead careful to say nothing at all.

And Sanders’s entrance into the race also obviates the need for another “populist” to challenge Hillary. So by Sanders taking up Hillary’s left flank, he will ensure that a more serious candidate won’t attempt to grab that role for themselves. It’ll also mean that Hillary can position herself as the Democrats’ alternative to staid socialism, since there’ll be an overt socialist running against her. This is all good news for her impending coronation, and bad news for anyone hoping for a substantive debate on the left side of the aisle.

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Imagining a Jewish Conservatism

There is a remarkable expression of market economics in the Mishnah, the Jewish law book, in the discussion of fast days, and it’s worth revisiting when reading this month’s typically incisive Mosaic essay on Jewish conservatism. The Mishnah discusses the establishment of communal fast days when the rains don’t arrive by a certain point in the season in which they are needed. If the drought continues, the leaders declare three such fast days in two weeks, with the fasts taking place on consecutive Mondays and Thursdays. The mishnaic text reads:

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There is a remarkable expression of market economics in the Mishnah, the Jewish law book, in the discussion of fast days, and it’s worth revisiting when reading this month’s typically incisive Mosaic essay on Jewish conservatism. The Mishnah discusses the establishment of communal fast days when the rains don’t arrive by a certain point in the season in which they are needed. If the drought continues, the leaders declare three such fast days in two weeks, with the fasts taking place on consecutive Mondays and Thursdays. The mishnaic text reads:

Public fasts are not to be ordered to commence on a Thursday, in order not to raise the price of victuals in the markets; but the first fasts are to be on Monday, Thursday, and [the following] Monday; but the second three fasts may follow on Thursday, Monday, and [the following] Thursday. R. José says, “Even as the first fasts are not to be commenced on Thursday, so also are the second and last fasts not to commence on that day.”

Beginning an unscheduled fast on Thursday would raise prices just when people need to begin their grocery shopping for Shabbat. According to this logic the second fast can be a Thursday because it’s known in advance, giving shoppers time to prepare ahead of time and causing less havoc in the markets.

What we have here is a rather amazing case of Jewish law being set according to market economics and the principle of unintended consequences. You could call such ideas “conservative” or “classically liberal,” such as they are–but of course they preceded thinkers like Milton Friedman by almost two thousand years.

We’ll come back to Friedman in a moment, but first: this month’s fantastic Mosaic essay. In it, Eric Cohen argues for a Jewish conservatism as a political project in response to the threats–demographic, security, and otherwise–the Jews face today. A summary can’t really do the essay justice, so read the whole thing. Cohen talks about the role of the family in fostering continuity; the purpose of Jewish nationalism; the primacy of economics; and other conceptual areas of this political program. But he also says, as well he should, that: “What such an agenda would look like—its programmatic content—is a task for a separate essay and another occasion.”

Cohen’s purpose is to establish the principles, and he does so with great insight and erudition.

But we should still think about how to fill in the blanks, and also make one important distinction. Cohen’s essay is so valuable because it weaves together disparate elements into a “Jewish conservatism.” Yet part of any program of “Jewish conservatism” will also be conservatism as practiced by Jews. And for that, we really do have some idea how it would look.

Israel is the most obvious testing ground for Jewish conservatism. It is a country ever in the process of breaking free from its socialist shackles, but the seeds were planted earlier.

When we discuss the promotion of democracy abroad, we often hear objections like: “There are no Thomas Jeffersons and James Madisons in Iraq.” True. And what makes the United States and Israel such easy allies is the fact that Israel did have Thomas Jeffersons and James Madisons (though it needed more of them; it could have used a full constitution, for example). One such founder was Vladimir Jabotinsky.

Jabotinsky rejected socialism and had a fuller appreciation of individual liberty than virtually any other Israeli founding father. Here is Jabotinsky on representative democracy:

What is especially difficult to understand is the mentality of those who yearn for “leaders.” The situation was completely different and better in my youth. We believed that every movement was made of people of equal worth. Each one was a prince, each one was a king. When election time came, they chose, not people, but programs. Those who were chosen were nothing but the executors of the program. We, the masses, would follow them and listen to them, not because they were “leaders,” but specifically because they were our “servants”; when you, of your own free will, chose a group of people and order to them to work for you, you had to help them–or remove them. Because you were obeying not their will, but only your own will, which was expressed in the election. … This philosophy of my youth was perhaps a complete fiction (like all human philosophies), but I much prefer it; it had more genius and more noblesse, even though it bore the name, whose prestige has declined–democracy.

When your nationalist movement has such men at the forefront, democracy and freedom are in the DNA of the state that eventually comes into being. Jabotinsky’s vision might not have been described as “conservative” then, but it sure is now. This focus on nationalism and democratic accountability is falling out of favor in the West, but any aspiring political program would do well to swim against that tide.

But we can get more specific than that, with examples, once the state was actually founded–actually, when the right finally won an election nearly thirty years after the founding of the country. Shedding the country’s socialist skin was not easy. But Israeli rightists were willing to take on the challenge, at least incrementally. Menachem Begin was the Likud’s first prime minister after the 1977 elections. He called on–you guessed it–Milton Friedman for assistance.

Avi Shilon’s biography of Begin probably has the best rundown of the Begin government’s economic plans. A brief summary is as follows.

Begin wanted Friedman’s help with his New Economic Reversal. Friedman called Begin’s reform plans as “daring as the raid on Entebbe.” Subsidies were eliminated. This was politically brave, since lower-income earners were a crucial voting bloc in Begin’s electoral triumph. Also cancelled were foreign-currency controls to open up trade and investment. In order to try to alleviate the deficit, Begin also raised the value-added tax.

But Begin still did not go far enough, and inflation hit. Shilon writes:

The desire to create a free market in an economy that had not known many changes since the establishment of the state was expressed, among other things, in the fact that the linkage mechanism that compensated wage earners for price increases and that had been in existence since the days of Mapai was not eliminated, thus negating the effect of the built-in mechanism of inflation, by which rising prices were supposed to reduce demand and inflationary pressures.

He was also hesitant to push a fuller privatization program. Additionally, he wouldn’t cut government spending where it needed to be cut to help manage the debt. “I want social justice without socialism,” he had said. It was a start, anyway.

Israel took a big step forward with the Economic Stabilization Program beginning in 1985. Though Labor’s Shimon Peres was prime minister that year, he was heading a national unity government at a time when Likud had the upper hand, and the program was overseen by the Likud finance minister, Yitzhak Moda’i. It was instituted to boost the shekel, and rein in government spending through various mechanisms. It also had the assistance of the Reagan administration.

The stabilization was successful. More such programs finally took place in 2003 when Benjamin Netanyahu, at the time the finance minister in Ariel Sharon’s government, instituted more reforms by cutting taxes and increasing privatization while keeping government spending in check. And of course we can’t forget Israel’s reputation as a “start-up nation,” in which the opportunity to take risks and innovate is a mark of pride.

Back in the U.S., many American Jews are already positively disposed toward market economics, which has given them unprecedented freedom and prosperity. But other issues, such as school choice and religious liberty, will play an increasingly significant role in their lives. On those issues, the conservative positions may become more attractive to practicing Jews.

I’ve deliberately left off support for Israel. Although these days the American right is far friendlier to Israel than is the left, there is nothing specifically “conservative,” just as there is nothing specifically “liberal,” about support for an ally and a fellow democracy like Israel. It ought to be part of any conservative political program, but I hesitate to say it’s conceptually conservative.

There are other examples I’m sure I’m missing, but it will only help to put meat on the bones of a Jewish conservatism that we have so many real-world examples of Jews practicing political conservatism. With that combination, a real Jewish conservatism can take shape.

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Bibi, Inequality, and the Israeli Economy

The conventional wisdom about Israel’s elections is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will lose tomorrow because he has not paid sufficient attention to domestic and economic issues while concentrating almost completely on the need to address security, specifically the nuclear threat from Iran. Considering that he has spent the last few days of campaigning speaking even more assertively about refusing to make concessions to the Palestinians, Netanyahu clearly disagrees with that conclusion. But that’s the point that New York Times columnist Paul Krugman makes in his pre-election column in which the economist and former Enron advisor (as the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto never tires of calling him) damns Netanyahu’s handling of the economy which he says has bred more inequality. There is some truth to Krugman’s analysis of what is wrong with Israel. But that answer to a very real inequality crisis is the opposite of what he thinks: more capitalism, not more statist economics. And that is why, despite his lack of emphasis on the issue, Netanyahu has a better grip on the problem than Krugman.

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The conventional wisdom about Israel’s elections is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will lose tomorrow because he has not paid sufficient attention to domestic and economic issues while concentrating almost completely on the need to address security, specifically the nuclear threat from Iran. Considering that he has spent the last few days of campaigning speaking even more assertively about refusing to make concessions to the Palestinians, Netanyahu clearly disagrees with that conclusion. But that’s the point that New York Times columnist Paul Krugman makes in his pre-election column in which the economist and former Enron advisor (as the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto never tires of calling him) damns Netanyahu’s handling of the economy which he says has bred more inequality. There is some truth to Krugman’s analysis of what is wrong with Israel. But that answer to a very real inequality crisis is the opposite of what he thinks: more capitalism, not more statist economics. And that is why, despite his lack of emphasis on the issue, Netanyahu has a better grip on the problem than Krugman.

Though references to Israel’s economy in the mainstream media often assume it is a mess, Krugman deserves some credit for pointing out that this is simply untrue:

Israel’s economy has performed well by the usual measures. It weathered the financial crisis with minimal damage. Over the longer term, it has grown more rapidly than most other advanced economies, and has developed into a high-technology powerhouse.

But, as Krugman is quick to point out, many Israelis are deeply disturbed by what they see as rising inequality with the people at the top doing well while poverty increases. But the main source of dissatisfaction is that the middle class is increasingly squeezed by the high cost of living, especially with regard to a shortage of affordable housing in the country’s main population centers.

But, as Krugman rightly notes, the sort of rhetoric that we are used to hearing about inequality from American liberals carrying on about the “one percent” who enjoy riches denied others doesn’t really apply to Israel.

At the other end, while the available data — puzzlingly — don’t show an especially large share of income going to the top 1 percent, there is an extreme concentration of wealth and power among a tiny group of people at the top. And I mean tiny. According to the Bank of Israel, roughly 20 families control companies that account for half the total value of Israel’s stock market. The nature of that control is convoluted and obscure, working through “pyramids” in which a family controls a firm that in turn controls other firms and so on. Although the Bank of Israel is circumspect in its language, it is clearly worried about the potential this concentration of control creates for self-dealing.

Still, why is Israeli inequality a political issue? Because it didn’t have to be this extreme. …

Meanwhile, Israel’s oligarchs owe their position not to innovation and entrepreneurship but to their families’ success in gaining control of businesses that the government privatized in the 1980s — and they arguably retain that position partly by having undue influence over government policy, combined with control of major banks.

Krugman is right about this. When Israel began to privatize its bloated and mismanaged government-run industries after it woke up to the reality that its founders’ belief in socialism was misplaced, what happened bore a resemblance to the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and with similar consequences: the creation of a very small class of moguls who benefitted from the windfall.

But the implication here is that somehow this is Netanyahu’s fault. He’s been prime minister a long time, but not that long. Most of the blame for the distribution of goodies to the elites belongs to the previous generation of Israeli leaders, especially Shimon Peres and the late Yitzhak Rabin.

But though Krugman complains that Israel doesn’t do enough for the poor, even he has to acknowledge that high poverty rates are mostly the function of the problems of the country’s Arab minority and its ultra-Orthodox Jewish population. Many Arabs remain trapped in a cycle of poverty that is rooted in the conflict over Israel’s existence and cultural problems that are seen in surrounding Arab countries. Many ultra-Orthodox men don’t choose to participate in the work force out of a misplaced belief that it is wrong for them to do so rather than to engage in religious studies.

Yet that doesn’t gainsay the fact that the country has a real problem with a cost of living and the lack of social mobility for the middle class. Angst about this is exacerbated by the country’s long embrace of egalitarian ideals. It is also true, as Krugman says, that there wasn’t much inequality up until the early 1990s. But that was because before that point Israel was operating on a socialist economic model that made it difficult for anyone to make money. If historically capitalism invented an awareness of poverty because before its appearance almost everyone was poor, the same applies to any discussion of income inequality In Israel prior to the reforms that were instituted.

But contrary to Krugman, the cure for this isn’t a retreat from capitalism. Netanyahu was primarily responsible for saving Israel’s economy in the early 2000s when, as finance minister in Ariel Sharon’s first government, he spearheaded reforms that helped make it possible for it to become the “Start-Up Nation” that is the envy of the world’s high-tech centers. As the primary advocate in Israel of what Krugman correctly calls “free market economics,” Netanyahu is competing against a generation of fellow politicians who remain mired in the rhetoric of entitlement and big-government solutions. Their talk pleases those who are nostalgic for the Israel that was egalitarian but was so economically backward that visitors were asked to bring jeans and consumer goods with them. That is a path to more problems, not greater and more widespread prosperity.

If the next Israeli government strays from free market policies, the result won’t do much to make it more egalitarian. But it will be poorer. And that is something that even Netanyahu’s critics won’t applaud.

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The Root of Middle East’s Economic Woes

I admit, I’m a bit late getting to this in my read pile, but Dalibor Rohac’s CATO Institute essay, “The Dead Hand of Socialism: State Ownership in the Arab World,” is a must-read for anyone who truly cares about stability in the Middle East or who goes beyond the usual “autocracy vs. theocracy” arguments in the Middle East to look at why both extremes tend to do so poorly in practice.

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I admit, I’m a bit late getting to this in my read pile, but Dalibor Rohac’s CATO Institute essay, “The Dead Hand of Socialism: State Ownership in the Arab World,” is a must-read for anyone who truly cares about stability in the Middle East or who goes beyond the usual “autocracy vs. theocracy” arguments in the Middle East to look at why both extremes tend to do so poorly in practice.

Indeed, whereas a couple decades ago, the Middle East was on par with most Asian economies and well above sub-Saharan Africa, now Arab economies trail well beyond their East Asian counterparts, and may soon find themselves in the basement as stable economic development takes root in sub-Saharan Africa, fears of Ebola in West Africa notwithstanding.

Rohac argues clearly and with much evidence that “extensive government ownership in the economy is a source of inefficiency and a barrier to economic development.” Indeed, it’s not uncommon in some Arab countries for the government to control half the GDP.

Not all Arab countries are the same, of course. As Rohac demonstrates, some countries (Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt) have undertaken large-scale and serious privatization over the last two decades while Lebanon has never had large government ownership of the economy. Government enterprise continues to dominate Algeria, Libya, Yemen, and Egypt, despite the latter’s Mubarak-era reforms. The issue isn’t simply the gas and oil industries, but also utilities, banks, and, in some cases, broader manufacturing.

Rohac goes further, however, and discusses various case studies and methods of privatization, recognizing that one size does not fit all and the devil is often in the details. Certainly, after all, part of the problem with Egypt’s privatization was that while it spurred growth, it also retrenched its kleptocracy as political and military connections trumped competence and further convinced the broader Egyptian public that government was accountable and responsible to only the few.

That said, I’d go even further than Rohac in one aspect which is crucial to opportunity and building a stable middle class beyond simply the issue of state-owned enterprises: In too many Arab countries, whether monarchies or republics and regardless of whether oil-rich or oil-poor, there are franchise and sector monopolies that discourage competition. For example, Mercedes or McDonalds or any other big-name Western company may grant contracts to partners and work exclusively with one business. While in the United States, there are dozens of franchisees for big chain restaurants and hundreds for automobile dealerships, this is a rarity in the Middle East. One person will gain the contract for “McBurger King Hut,” for example, and will never have to face competition in the country for which the license was granted. This, in turn, means that international companies most often will deal exclusively with a country’s top and most politically-connected businessmen. In Kurdistan, for example, forget working with anyone who’s not connected to the Barzani family or former President Jalal Talabani’s wife Hero Khan. And, in Bahrain, any businessman worth even a thousandth of his income will partner with an al-Khalifa. (I’ve already written about the problem of the Middle East’s first sons, here.)

For the soft drink companies, fast food joints, car manufacturers, or any large company, it’s often easier to deal with a single businessman. But so long as various country’s legislatures in the Arab world allow such concessionaire monopolies, they will be undermining the growth of their middle class and constraining opportunity which ultimately would contribute to greater stability.

Democracy needn’t be a lost cause in the Middle East. But, demanding radical political change without catalyzing growth and opening economic opportunity to grow the middle class is to repeat the mistakes of the last three years. It’s time to get serious about Arab economic reform.

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Maduro’s Empty Call for “Dialogue”

Nicolas Maduro’s ghost writer should be commended for making the Venezuelan dictator sound, in his op-ed in today’s New York Times, like a reasonable man in search of a reasonable solution. You would never know, on the basis of this article alone, that this is the same Maduro who claims to have encountered the ghost of his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, on the Caracas subway system; who instinctively denounces his opponents as “Nazis” and “fascists”; who alleged a conspiracy involving former Bush administration officials to assassinate a senior opposition leader to “create chaos” in Venezuela.

What the piece–written in reaction to a stirring Times op-ed by Leopoldo Lopez, a senior opposition leader incarcerated by the Maduro regime on charges of “terrorism”–attempts to do is persuade the reader that Venezuela is really a socialist paradise warmed by the Caribbean sun. Hence, Maduro trots out the some of the standard themes which are familiar to observers of chavismo, for example that the revolution inaugurated by Chavez has shattered income inequality, along with former President Jimmy Carter’s belief that Venezuela’s electoral process “is the best in the world” (an old but much utilized quote that will serve as an eternal reminder of Carter’s obsequious stance toward the chavistas).

But there are other themes that are, significantly, absent from the op-ed. Until quite recently, the chavistas made much of the bold percentage increases in the national minimum wage, but Maduro wisely chose not to mention this “fact.” Wisely, because Venezuela’s currency, the Bolivar, has been devalued by an accumulated total of 2,000 percent over the last 15 years, rendering meaningless any minimum wage boosts. As CENDAS, a Caracas-based research institute, has discovered, thanks to the shortages and inflation that have worsened radically during Maduro’s first year in power, each Venezuelan now needs four minimum wages to meet basic expenses for food, clothing, and health care.

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Nicolas Maduro’s ghost writer should be commended for making the Venezuelan dictator sound, in his op-ed in today’s New York Times, like a reasonable man in search of a reasonable solution. You would never know, on the basis of this article alone, that this is the same Maduro who claims to have encountered the ghost of his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, on the Caracas subway system; who instinctively denounces his opponents as “Nazis” and “fascists”; who alleged a conspiracy involving former Bush administration officials to assassinate a senior opposition leader to “create chaos” in Venezuela.

What the piece–written in reaction to a stirring Times op-ed by Leopoldo Lopez, a senior opposition leader incarcerated by the Maduro regime on charges of “terrorism”–attempts to do is persuade the reader that Venezuela is really a socialist paradise warmed by the Caribbean sun. Hence, Maduro trots out the some of the standard themes which are familiar to observers of chavismo, for example that the revolution inaugurated by Chavez has shattered income inequality, along with former President Jimmy Carter’s belief that Venezuela’s electoral process “is the best in the world” (an old but much utilized quote that will serve as an eternal reminder of Carter’s obsequious stance toward the chavistas).

But there are other themes that are, significantly, absent from the op-ed. Until quite recently, the chavistas made much of the bold percentage increases in the national minimum wage, but Maduro wisely chose not to mention this “fact.” Wisely, because Venezuela’s currency, the Bolivar, has been devalued by an accumulated total of 2,000 percent over the last 15 years, rendering meaningless any minimum wage boosts. As CENDAS, a Caracas-based research institute, has discovered, thanks to the shortages and inflation that have worsened radically during Maduro’s first year in power, each Venezuelan now needs four minimum wages to meet basic expenses for food, clothing, and health care.

In tandem with the omissions are the lies and distortions that one would expect from Maduro; for example, the fabricated charge that students protesting the sexual assault of a young female by National Guard members “burned down a university in Táchira State.” He demonizes the last two months of protest as the temper tantrum of a spoiled, entitled middle class, asserting that “the protests have received no support in poor and working-class neighborhoods.” What he doesn’t add is that the overwhelming presence, in the same neighborhoods, of the paramilitary colectivos is something of a disincentive to participating in demonstrations that highlight the damage the regime is doing to everyone, especially the poor and vulnerable.

Maduro ends his piece with an appeal for “dialogue to move forward.” Who, exactly, will he dialogue with? Leopoldo Lopez is in jail, while his colleague Maria Corina Machado has been stripped of her parliamentary immunity. As the perceptive Argentinian journalist Daniel Lozano noted in his report of the attempt by Machado and her supporters to reach the National Assembly building, what they found resembled a “military fortress”:

An enormous deployment of the National Guard blocked off the National Assembly. An attempt at dialogue with them, once again, did no good. A group of government supporters surrounded the deputy shouting “Imperialist! Traitor! Murderer!” The rising tension forced Machado and her group to abandon the scene…Machado couldn’t speak to the chamber but made use of the street stage to ask a question. And to answer it. “Why do they want to silence me? Why do they want to do that? Because they are terrified of the truth and people on the streets fighting for their liberty.”

And it’s not just Lopez and Machado. Enzo Scarano and Daniel Ceballos, the respective mayors of the opposition strongholds of San Diego and San Cristobal, have been summarily dismissed and imprisoned. Nobody yet knows the total human cost of the regime’s brutal operation to drive demonstrators off the streets of San Cristobal. As for Maduro’s laughable statement in his Times piece that the government will prosecute human-rights abusers in the security forces, the complete collapse of Venezuela’s independent judicial system over the last decade is the best counter-argument to that claim.

Inter alia, Maduro says, “My government has also reached out to President Obama, expressing our desire to again exchange ambassadors. We hope his administration will respond in kind.” Responding “in kind” would signal that the U.S. government is, at best, indifferent to the fate of Venezuela under continued chavista rule. Far better to point out that the friendship of the United States is a privilege, and not a right. If Maduro releases the thousand-odd political prisoners detained during the protests and reins in the colectivos, perhaps then, and only then, might there be something to discuss.

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NBC’s Cuddly Dictators

NBC has earned some well-deserved scorn for treating Soviet history, as recalled during the Olympic ceremonies, as if it were the political equivalent of New Coke: an interesting idea that flopped. But one is tempted to dismiss it not as leftists’ unwillingness to condemn their efforts to excuse mass murder, slavery, and torture in the name of forced equality but as typical media kowtowing to authoritarian thugs in the name of access.

After all, NBC aired yesterday and today its interview with Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov as part of its Olympics coverage. The interview looked as though Kadyrov himself produced the segment. He is portrayed as a deeply devout leader who modernized postwar Chechnya and brought stability where there was chaos. There was the requisite question about accusations that he’s a “dictator,” quickly waved off by Kadyrov and dropped by the interviewer so the segment could move on to neighboring Dagestan, portrayed as mostly rubble where Kadyrov’s Chechnya, especially Grozny, gleams.

The strangest part of the segment was when the interviewer says Kadyrov “has aligned himself with Russia.” Does NBC think Chechnya is an independent country? It’s easy, after watching the Kadyrov interview, to just dismiss the network’s airbrushed version of Soviet history as part of its dictators-are-cuddly pathology. But I think that lets them off too easily. Nonetheless, we can turn this into something constructive–by taking them at their word. As Jonah Goldberg wrote about NBC’s whitewashing of history:

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NBC has earned some well-deserved scorn for treating Soviet history, as recalled during the Olympic ceremonies, as if it were the political equivalent of New Coke: an interesting idea that flopped. But one is tempted to dismiss it not as leftists’ unwillingness to condemn their efforts to excuse mass murder, slavery, and torture in the name of forced equality but as typical media kowtowing to authoritarian thugs in the name of access.

After all, NBC aired yesterday and today its interview with Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov as part of its Olympics coverage. The interview looked as though Kadyrov himself produced the segment. He is portrayed as a deeply devout leader who modernized postwar Chechnya and brought stability where there was chaos. There was the requisite question about accusations that he’s a “dictator,” quickly waved off by Kadyrov and dropped by the interviewer so the segment could move on to neighboring Dagestan, portrayed as mostly rubble where Kadyrov’s Chechnya, especially Grozny, gleams.

The strangest part of the segment was when the interviewer says Kadyrov “has aligned himself with Russia.” Does NBC think Chechnya is an independent country? It’s easy, after watching the Kadyrov interview, to just dismiss the network’s airbrushed version of Soviet history as part of its dictators-are-cuddly pathology. But I think that lets them off too easily. Nonetheless, we can turn this into something constructive–by taking them at their word. As Jonah Goldberg wrote about NBC’s whitewashing of history:

What to say of the gormless press-agent twaddle conjured up to describe the Soviet Union? In its opening video for the Olympic Games, NBC’s producers drained the thesaurus of flattering terms devoid of moral content: “The empire that ascended to affirm a colossal footprint; the revolution that birthed one of modern history’s pivotal experiments. But if politics has long shaped our sense of who they are, it’s passion that endures.”

To parse this infomercial treacle is to miss the point, for the whole idea is to luge by the truth on the frictionless skids of euphemism.

Agreed. But let’s take the “infomercial treacle” to its logical conclusion. If socialistic governance is a “pivotal experiment,” then we can all agree it’s taught us a valuable lesson, because it’s an “experiment” that failed. (Why the left needs an experiment to learn that gulags and death camps aren’t the way to go is another question entirely.) I would almost be willing to ignore the “pivotal experiment” nonsense if they actually treated it like an experiment.

For example, the violence, repression, and anti-Semitism of the regime of the late Hugo Chavez in Venezuela could earn him plenty of cogent and accurate descriptors. On the day of his funeral, however, NBC’s news anchor went looking for a phrase to sum up Chavez’s legacy, and landed on “harsh critic of the U.S. who ruled for 14 years.” Proponent of a “pivotal experiment” would have been a step up from that.

Chavez’s successor isn’t an improvement, and as Ben Cohen explained here last week, Venezuela is continuing its descent into misery and chaos. AFP has the latest on Venezuela’s version of the pivotal experiment:

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Sunday accused Washington of plotting with anti-government protesters and expelled three US diplomats in retaliation.

Maduro’s order came on the same day that fugitive opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez re-appeared and called for a mass rally on Tuesday and challenged the government to arrest him at the event.

Nearly two weeks of anti-government protests spearheaded by students have become the biggest challenge to Venezuela’s socialist rulers since the death of longtime leader Hugo Chavez in 2013.

The oil-rich country is mired in a deep economic crisis critics blame on policies that Maduro largely inherited from Chavez.

Strict controls on currency and prices have created huge bottlenecks that have fueled inflation and emptied store shelves.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s the wonder of the socialist experiment. Deprivation, violence, paranoia. Goldberg is correct when he implores readers to “Imagine the controversy” if the Olympics were held in Germany and an opening ceremonial program involved a floating swastika. Would broadcasters, when eulogizing the Nazis, talk of a “pivotal experiment”? Now imagine the controversy if a Nazi leader had been described as a “harsh critic of the U.S.” as his identifying characteristic.

There is moral clarity with regard to the Nazis that there simply isn’t with regard to other socialists, as Goldberg notes. And part of that is because leftists don’t mean it even when they gloss over socialist horrors as an “experiment.” Martin Malia has written that because the Soviet project was conducted on behalf of global socialism, the way those in the West talked about Russian socialism was infused with a self-consciousness about the way it reflected on socialism everywhere.

“It is only by taking the Soviets at their ideological word, treating their socialist utopia with literal-minded seriousness, that we can grasp the tragedy to which it led,” Malia wrote. That advice can be broadened: we should take not just socialists but their enablers, excusers, and whitewashers at their word.

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Oh To Be Young and Socialist Again

If the polls are correct, in less than two months New York City will elect Bill de Blasio as its next mayor. A doctrinaire liberal, his impending victory seems to be, as Seth noted last month, the return of the Dinkins Democrats to power in New York after 20 years of Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. De Blasio’s left-wing populism and hostility to both the business community and the police tactics that have helped fuel New York’s revival bode ill for the city’s future. But today’s New York Times gives us further insight into de Blasio that gives new meaning to the stories indicating that Gotham’s political balance of power is lurching to the hard left. In an effort to gain further understanding of the Democratic primary winner’s character, the Times takes us back to de Blasio’s misspent youth when he was no limousine liberal but rather a full-blown hardcore leftist who traveled to Nicaragua to support the Marxist Sandinista government. Even before traveling to Central America, the Times tells us the future mayor had no doubts about his goal for society:

Mr. de Blasio became an ardent supporter of the Nicaraguan revolutionaries. He helped raise funds for the Sandinistas in New York and subscribed to the party’s newspaper, Barricada, or Barricade. When he was asked at a meeting in 1990 about his goals for society, he said he was an advocate of “democratic socialism.”

Of course, De Blasio characterizes his views differently today, calling himself a “progressive” and saying merely that seeing the Sandinistas up close merely motivated him to see that the government protects the poor. While he now says he disapproved of the suppression of dissenting views by the Marxist tyrants he backed so fervently, then it was a different story. Nor did he seem terribly interested in supporting human rights when he chose to spend his honeymoon in Communist Cuba, a decision that his daughter told the New York Daily News she thinks is “badass”—which is her way of saying she approves of the choice.

There will be those who say that none of this tells us much about the choices New York faces today and they will have a point. As George W. Bush used to say, “When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.” But the romantic gloss that is being applied to this portion of de Blasio’s biography tells us a lot not only about him but also about the revisionist history that is the foundation for this story.

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If the polls are correct, in less than two months New York City will elect Bill de Blasio as its next mayor. A doctrinaire liberal, his impending victory seems to be, as Seth noted last month, the return of the Dinkins Democrats to power in New York after 20 years of Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. De Blasio’s left-wing populism and hostility to both the business community and the police tactics that have helped fuel New York’s revival bode ill for the city’s future. But today’s New York Times gives us further insight into de Blasio that gives new meaning to the stories indicating that Gotham’s political balance of power is lurching to the hard left. In an effort to gain further understanding of the Democratic primary winner’s character, the Times takes us back to de Blasio’s misspent youth when he was no limousine liberal but rather a full-blown hardcore leftist who traveled to Nicaragua to support the Marxist Sandinista government. Even before traveling to Central America, the Times tells us the future mayor had no doubts about his goal for society:

Mr. de Blasio became an ardent supporter of the Nicaraguan revolutionaries. He helped raise funds for the Sandinistas in New York and subscribed to the party’s newspaper, Barricada, or Barricade. When he was asked at a meeting in 1990 about his goals for society, he said he was an advocate of “democratic socialism.”

Of course, De Blasio characterizes his views differently today, calling himself a “progressive” and saying merely that seeing the Sandinistas up close merely motivated him to see that the government protects the poor. While he now says he disapproved of the suppression of dissenting views by the Marxist tyrants he backed so fervently, then it was a different story. Nor did he seem terribly interested in supporting human rights when he chose to spend his honeymoon in Communist Cuba, a decision that his daughter told the New York Daily News she thinks is “badass”—which is her way of saying she approves of the choice.

There will be those who say that none of this tells us much about the choices New York faces today and they will have a point. As George W. Bush used to say, “When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.” But the romantic gloss that is being applied to this portion of de Blasio’s biography tells us a lot not only about him but also about the revisionist history that is the foundation for this story.

Any attempt to refight the political wars of the 1980s may be a futile endeavor, but the willingness of the press to allow de Blasio to paint his support for the Sandinistas as part of the journey that led him to the mayoralty bodes ill for the city. That’s not just because the Sandinista cause was largely discredited when they were finally forced by the stalemate in the fighting to face the people of Nicaragua in a democratic election. Their defeat at the polls vindicated the efforts of the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations to support the rebels who resisted the Marxists and exposed the group’s supporters like de Blasio as fronts for Communist killers.

That may not be a disqualifying attribute to many New York voters, but it ought to give pause to those whose livelihoods and safety will depend on de Blasio and the wrecking crew he brings to City Hall next January not demolishing all that Giuliani and Bloomberg accomplished in the last 20 years.

To those who are either too young or too deluded by liberal propaganda to know better, the struggle against the socialism that de Blasio backed was the most important battle fought in the last half of the 20th century. Those who aimed at stopping socialism were not trying to hurt the poor; they were defending human rights against a political cause that sacrificed more than 100 million victims on the Marxist altar. The verdict of history was delivered as the Berlin Wall fell and the “socialist motherland” collapsed, and along with it much of the ideological house of cards that liberals had built as they sought to discredit or defeat anti-Communists. It says a lot about de Blasio’s commitment to that vicious political faith that even after the Iron Curtain fell and the peoples of captive Eastern Europe celebrated the defeat of the Communist cause that he would make a pilgrimage to one of its last strongholds in Cuba to celebrate his marriage.

If de Blasio were willing to admit that much of what he said in defense of the Sandinistas and Cuba was wrong, there would be nothing to say now about his past other than to state that he had learned from it. But since he appears to be proud of his support for tyrants, it is fair game for his critics. More to the point, it is also worth asking just how much those experiences still influence a politician who will have at his disposal the vast powers of the mayoralty. 

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Perfect Example of Why New York Is the “Least Free” State

In a new Mercatus Center survey ranking American states according to the freedom of their citizens, New York found itself dead last. The survey ranked states based on “fiscal policy, regulatory policy, and personal freedom [and weighed] public policies according to the estimated costs that government restrictions on freedom impose on their victims.” A new provision buried in the latest budget out of the New York State legislature perfectly illustrates what earned New York this ranking.

According to reports, this budgetary provision will guarantee an increase in the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 per hour and taxpayers will be footing a significant portion of the bill until 2016. Unfortunately for taxpayers, the terms of the agreement were made during closed-door negotiations and will not become public until after the provision is passed as part of the state’s budget. The Associated Press reports that “early estimates are between $20 million and $40 million, with no cap on the total.” Given the outcry that would’ve been made if these negotiations were made public, it’s understandable (though completely undemocratic) for Governor Cuomo and state legislatures to reach this agreement hidden from voters.

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In a new Mercatus Center survey ranking American states according to the freedom of their citizens, New York found itself dead last. The survey ranked states based on “fiscal policy, regulatory policy, and personal freedom [and weighed] public policies according to the estimated costs that government restrictions on freedom impose on their victims.” A new provision buried in the latest budget out of the New York State legislature perfectly illustrates what earned New York this ranking.

According to reports, this budgetary provision will guarantee an increase in the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 per hour and taxpayers will be footing a significant portion of the bill until 2016. Unfortunately for taxpayers, the terms of the agreement were made during closed-door negotiations and will not become public until after the provision is passed as part of the state’s budget. The Associated Press reports that “early estimates are between $20 million and $40 million, with no cap on the total.” Given the outcry that would’ve been made if these negotiations were made public, it’s understandable (though completely undemocratic) for Governor Cuomo and state legislatures to reach this agreement hidden from voters.

Even liberals are uncomfortable with the plan, though not exactly for all the right reasons. Frank Mauro of the progressive Fiscal Policy Institute told the AP “You are kind of flying blind on this” and said “[the credit] flies in the face of sound tax policy, good labor market practice, or common sense.” Mauro’s concerns with the credit center on the fact that it will only benefit seasonal workers under the age of 20, which could displace older workers with students. These are valid criticisms of the plan, but they don’t even scratch the surface of what is most problematic about the very idea of redistributing the wealth of some to the paychecks of others.

What Mauro and others quoted in the AP story don’t say, but what is painfully obvious to anyone with a basic understanding of human history, is that what the New York State legislature is proposing is socialism, pure and simple. Students making less than $9 an hour will now have part of their salaries at fast-food restaurants and department stores paid by New York’s taxpayers. The wealth of hardworking New Yorkers will be redistributed to lower paid high school and college students frying burgers at their first jobs. While those crafting this legislation may be thinking that they’re just gouging the “fat-cats” paying taxes in the more wealthy parts of the state like New York City, they will also be siphoning off the salaries of hardworking New Yorkers in the rural areas north of Westchester county. As wealth distribution goes, this is especially uninspiring, as money will be taken from the salaries of mothers and fathers in Rochester and deposited into paychecks of teenagers working at H&M on 34th Street. 

Scott Reif, spokesman for the Senate’s Republican conference, called this plan part of a larger budgetary compromise. State Republicans, not to mention Democrats, making agreements like these is the reason why the Mercatus Center has deemed New York State the least free state in the union. If these lawmakers find themselves wondering why they have fewer taxpayers to gouge in coming years, they will have no one to blame but themselves. The outward migration of New Yorkers to more hospitable economic climates was already underway and closed-door decisions like these will only fuel the trend further.

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Dictators and Free Lunches

For those Americans who loathed their own country’s role as a beacon of freedom, the appeal of Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez was irresistible. Following in the footsteps of other Western pilgrims who had trooped to the Cuban prison of Fidel Castro or to Joseph Stalin’s Soviet empire to praise these gulags as the face of the future, people like Oliver Stone and Sean Penn dutifully embraced Chavez. They liked his childish rants about George W. Bush and helped burnish the myth that he was a true man of the people even as this caudillo suppressed freedom and built a cult of personality. Chavez’s death hasn’t changed this, and in the last day we have heard more blather about populism and his concern for those in poverty. Predictably, the leftists at The Nation are eulogizing him as a humanitarian. Joseph Kennedy showed why he wasn’t up to carrying on the legacy of the previous generation of his family by also mourning the Venezuelan strongman as a caring individual.

There is nothing to be done about those who will applaud anyone who hates America. Such sentiments are nothing more than adolescent rebellion masquerading as political opinion. But the claim that Chavez deserves credit for helping the poor is worth taking down, if only because this issue carries within it a lesson that applies to democracies as well as to authoritarian states like the one he created in Venezuela. The tradition of tyrants trying to buy the love of the masses with government money is as old the Roman Empire. It often pays immediate dividends to the person handing out the goodies, but people who think they are getting something for nothing always suffer in the end.

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For those Americans who loathed their own country’s role as a beacon of freedom, the appeal of Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez was irresistible. Following in the footsteps of other Western pilgrims who had trooped to the Cuban prison of Fidel Castro or to Joseph Stalin’s Soviet empire to praise these gulags as the face of the future, people like Oliver Stone and Sean Penn dutifully embraced Chavez. They liked his childish rants about George W. Bush and helped burnish the myth that he was a true man of the people even as this caudillo suppressed freedom and built a cult of personality. Chavez’s death hasn’t changed this, and in the last day we have heard more blather about populism and his concern for those in poverty. Predictably, the leftists at The Nation are eulogizing him as a humanitarian. Joseph Kennedy showed why he wasn’t up to carrying on the legacy of the previous generation of his family by also mourning the Venezuelan strongman as a caring individual.

There is nothing to be done about those who will applaud anyone who hates America. Such sentiments are nothing more than adolescent rebellion masquerading as political opinion. But the claim that Chavez deserves credit for helping the poor is worth taking down, if only because this issue carries within it a lesson that applies to democracies as well as to authoritarian states like the one he created in Venezuela. The tradition of tyrants trying to buy the love of the masses with government money is as old the Roman Empire. It often pays immediate dividends to the person handing out the goodies, but people who think they are getting something for nothing always suffer in the end.

Chavez is still celebrated in some sectors for confiscating the property of oil companies and using much of that wealth to fund projects and services for the poor. Playing Robin Hood never goes out of style. Chavez enjoyed the role immensely and built himself a cult bought and paid for with state money. Traditional urban political machines in the United States worked on the same principle. Taking money from one set of people and giving it another larger group is good politics. But the Tammany Halls of the world always come to grief because the culture of “where’s mine” cannot be sustained indefinitely. Sooner or later, thug governments run out of people to fleece to pay off their followers. That’s true even for a government funded by seemingly limitless oil wealth like Venezuela.

The Chavez regime prospered on the notion that there is such a thing as a free lunch, and those who ate at his table continue to believe that there was no price for his largesse. Those who have justified and supported every dictator or totalitarian system through history have made the same wrongheaded calculation. What they fail to understand is that the giveaway of government goodies at the price of condoning theft of property and denial of rights ultimately penalizes even those who believe they are the beneficiaries of the scheme. Venezuelans now have a country without a true free press, independent judiciary or elections that can be considered genuine expressions of democracy. And they have an economic system that will ultimately fail because it is not based on the rule of law.

Concern for the welfare of the least fortunate is an obligation of all societies. But there is a vast difference between genuine social justice and a strongman doling out favors to his followers. Ultimately, socialism is organized theft, and even when executed with the panache of charismatic thugs like Chavez it is a system that is predicated on the denial of freedom by those who pose as its defenders. Those who play that game, whether mafia dons, tin pot dictators or legendary thieves, are good topics for fiction. But no decent or thinking person should ever mistake them for humanitarians.

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Hollande’s No Homework Pledge No Joke

My 11-year-old daughter has finally found a politician in which she can fully believe. His name isn’t Obama, Biden, Romney or Ryan. It’s Francois Hollande, president of the Republic of France. Why the affection for Hollande? This allegiance doesn’t stem from support for Hollande’s Socialist Party, as America has no greater supporter of the free enterprise system and the market economy than her. Nor is it based on this junior fashionista’s soft spot for anyone who calls Paris home. It is because he alone of all world leaders has embraced the cause that is nearest and dearest to her heart: a movement to ban homework. Last week, Hollande formally proposed that homework should be illegal. My daughter’s been telling me that every day when she gets home from school for years.

Of course, Hollande’s rationale is not the same as hers. He doesn’t care that homework eats into the time she could devote to recreational pursuits or plays havoc with her schedule on days when she has extracurricular activities or religious studies. He thinks having students doing extra work at home promotes inequality since not all kids have the same resources to aid their efforts. Instead, he wishes to have them spend more time in class where theoretically the playing field is equal. While he may claim that the intention is to help more children, this wacky proposal demonstrates everything that is wrong about the socialist mentality. Rather than seeking to further encourage individual initiative and a sense of responsibility, Hollande wants to give the government more control over education. Taking the terrible Hillary Clinton line about “it takes a village to educate a child” too much to heart, the French president wants to remove parents and caretakers from the equation and extend the state-run system’s hold on every aspect of student life. The impact of this idea, if it were adopted, would be a disaster for a French education system that ranks below most European countries as well as the United States in achievement scores.

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My 11-year-old daughter has finally found a politician in which she can fully believe. His name isn’t Obama, Biden, Romney or Ryan. It’s Francois Hollande, president of the Republic of France. Why the affection for Hollande? This allegiance doesn’t stem from support for Hollande’s Socialist Party, as America has no greater supporter of the free enterprise system and the market economy than her. Nor is it based on this junior fashionista’s soft spot for anyone who calls Paris home. It is because he alone of all world leaders has embraced the cause that is nearest and dearest to her heart: a movement to ban homework. Last week, Hollande formally proposed that homework should be illegal. My daughter’s been telling me that every day when she gets home from school for years.

Of course, Hollande’s rationale is not the same as hers. He doesn’t care that homework eats into the time she could devote to recreational pursuits or plays havoc with her schedule on days when she has extracurricular activities or religious studies. He thinks having students doing extra work at home promotes inequality since not all kids have the same resources to aid their efforts. Instead, he wishes to have them spend more time in class where theoretically the playing field is equal. While he may claim that the intention is to help more children, this wacky proposal demonstrates everything that is wrong about the socialist mentality. Rather than seeking to further encourage individual initiative and a sense of responsibility, Hollande wants to give the government more control over education. Taking the terrible Hillary Clinton line about “it takes a village to educate a child” too much to heart, the French president wants to remove parents and caretakers from the equation and extend the state-run system’s hold on every aspect of student life. The impact of this idea, if it were adopted, would be a disaster for a French education system that ranks below most European countries as well as the United States in achievement scores.

Hollande wants to expand the school week in France from four to four and a half days in order to make the idea work. That will win him no friends even with those children that despise homework.

Most kids and their parents — who are invariably drafted to help them with it — do think of homework as a burden. Some schools may overdo the load of homework but it is a vital method for reinforcing what is learned in the classroom. It also teaches students to work on their own rather than only in groups while under the thumb of their teachers.

It is true that this puts kids without parents or a proper learning environment at home at a disadvantage. But the answer to this problem is not to create a false equality by trying to dumb down students who can manage to complete their homework but by measures intended to aid those who can’t.

As the Wall Street Journal noted in an incisive editorial on the subject, Hollande’s ideas about schools molding the “citizens of the future,” tells us a lot about what kind of citizens he wants France to have.

Fortunately, most French educators and parents are opposed to this scheme, as they understand not only the benefits of homework but also the dangers of relying too heavily on state institutions to monopolize the lives of the young. While many fashions that start in Paris find their way to our shores, this is one that should be nipped in the bud in France.

Though Hollande’s proposal has set off a wave of jokes about him gaining support among those too young to vote, like my daughter, his agenda is a dangerous one. Modern social democratic parties such as his may have, at least for the moment, stepped back from an agenda of toppling capitalism but the anti-individualism aspect of his plan needs to be seen as a peril not only to education but to freedom.

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Is Socialism a Swing State Issue?

One of the most incredible ads so far this election season was produced and paid for not by a candidate, Super PAC, or party, but instead by a private citizen. Thomas Peterffy, a Hungarian-born businessman who made his fortune in online trading, has begun airing a 60-second ad that will be broadcast on major networks (CNN, CNBC and Bloomberg) in the swing states of Ohio, Wisconsin and possibly Florida, he told the Washington Examiner. Petterffy, who has a net-worth of over $4.6 billion according to Forbes, intends to spend between $5-10 million on the ads.

Peterffy’s ad is powerful in its simplicity. He speaks directly to the camera and recounts the story of his childhood in socialist Hungary, using images of himself and the poverty-stricken European nation. Peterffy, a member of the Forbes 400 list and Forbes’s list of billionaires, describes the importance of hard work and the value of respecting success. Interspersed with messages about the dangers of socialism are recent photos of the Occupy Wall Street movement’s protests. While the ad never addresses Obama’s early supportive statements regarding OWS, Americans need to look no further than statements made during the last two debates to understand that the Obama White House values “fairness” over success. Peterffy concludes his ad by stating, “That is why I am voting Republican and putting this ad on television.”

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One of the most incredible ads so far this election season was produced and paid for not by a candidate, Super PAC, or party, but instead by a private citizen. Thomas Peterffy, a Hungarian-born businessman who made his fortune in online trading, has begun airing a 60-second ad that will be broadcast on major networks (CNN, CNBC and Bloomberg) in the swing states of Ohio, Wisconsin and possibly Florida, he told the Washington Examiner. Petterffy, who has a net-worth of over $4.6 billion according to Forbes, intends to spend between $5-10 million on the ads.

Peterffy’s ad is powerful in its simplicity. He speaks directly to the camera and recounts the story of his childhood in socialist Hungary, using images of himself and the poverty-stricken European nation. Peterffy, a member of the Forbes 400 list and Forbes’s list of billionaires, describes the importance of hard work and the value of respecting success. Interspersed with messages about the dangers of socialism are recent photos of the Occupy Wall Street movement’s protests. While the ad never addresses Obama’s early supportive statements regarding OWS, Americans need to look no further than statements made during the last two debates to understand that the Obama White House values “fairness” over success. Peterffy concludes his ad by stating, “That is why I am voting Republican and putting this ad on television.”

A quick glance at Peterffy’s FEC contributions doesn’t seem to indicate his status as a conservative version of George Soros. In May 2009 he donated $2,400 to Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Roger Pearson (D-CT) respectively. According to the Seattle PI, Peterffy doesn’t have a political affiliated listed according to a public records search. While the majority of his other donations are to Republican and right-wing causes, almost all until this past election cycle are for local candidates in Connecticut, Peterffy’s home state. This election, it seems, has sparked an interest in national politics that was previously unrealized.

Peterffy’s decision to spend the majority of his ad-buy in Ohio isn’t just about electoral politics. Three of the six largest Hungarian populations in the U.S. are found in the state, after New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. In an election where such a large population comprises the vote of one of the most crucial swing states in the country, Peterffy’s ad could actually impact the presidential race. If nothing else, it gives voice to many in his generation who have seen the American Dream scorned through the Occupy protests and the class warfare rhetoric of the current administration.

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America’s Not a Kibbutz; Neither is Israel

Mitt Romney is catching some flak today for a statement made yesterday and first reported on BuzzFeed in which he contrasted American society and its economy as being very different from a socialist model. He told the crowd at a Chicago fundraiser:

“It’s individuals and their entrepreneurship which have driven America,” Romney said. “What America is not a collective where we all work in a kibbutz or we all in some little entity, instead it’s individuals pursuing their dreams and building successful enterprises which employ others and they become inspired as they see what has happened in the place they work and go off and start their own enterprises.”

This is being represented in some quarters as a knock on Israel or at least showing that, as BuzzFeed put it, his friendship for the Jewish state, “only extends so far.” But anyone who tries to represent this as somehow qualifying Romney’s backing for Israel or showing disrespect for it doesn’t know much about the real life Israel as opposed to myths from Leon Uris novels. While the kibbutz is an iconic symbol of the state’s beginnings, the collective farm movement is a dinosaur in modern Israel with only a minuscule role in its economy. Many of have gone bankrupt while others have become hotels or factories more than farms. Indeed, Israel’s current economic success is based on its transformation in the last generation into a first world economy rather than one handicapped by the socialist ideology of its founders.

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Mitt Romney is catching some flak today for a statement made yesterday and first reported on BuzzFeed in which he contrasted American society and its economy as being very different from a socialist model. He told the crowd at a Chicago fundraiser:

“It’s individuals and their entrepreneurship which have driven America,” Romney said. “What America is not a collective where we all work in a kibbutz or we all in some little entity, instead it’s individuals pursuing their dreams and building successful enterprises which employ others and they become inspired as they see what has happened in the place they work and go off and start their own enterprises.”

This is being represented in some quarters as a knock on Israel or at least showing that, as BuzzFeed put it, his friendship for the Jewish state, “only extends so far.” But anyone who tries to represent this as somehow qualifying Romney’s backing for Israel or showing disrespect for it doesn’t know much about the real life Israel as opposed to myths from Leon Uris novels. While the kibbutz is an iconic symbol of the state’s beginnings, the collective farm movement is a dinosaur in modern Israel with only a minuscule role in its economy. Many of have gone bankrupt while others have become hotels or factories more than farms. Indeed, Israel’s current economic success is based on its transformation in the last generation into a first world economy rather than one handicapped by the socialist ideology of its founders.

It is true that the kibbutz is, as Buzzfeed put it, “integral to the story of the founding of the state of Israel.” In pre-state Palestine, collective farms were useful in putting down claims on parts of the country at a time when the Jews were returning to their ancient homeland. They were more defensible than individual farmsteads and survived as much on the Zionist and socialist fervor of their members as their economic value. Though always small in number, their members formed part of the Jewish community’s elite and both before and after 1948, they often were disproportionately represented in the leadership of the Israel Defense Force and its precursor the Haganah.

But while Romney is obviously right that the collective idea has no place in America, it is a falsehood to assert that it still has much, if any, importance in Israel.

While collective farms played an outsized role in the formation of the state and its defense, in the long run they were not part of a viable economic model. For generations they have been subsidized by agricultural policies and direct aid from the state, something those who criticize funding for West Bank settlements often forget. But eventually even that wasn’t enough to keep many of them alive. If anything, they are now more of a symbol of the failed socialist economic policies the Labor Party imposed on the country for decades and which have now been replaced by a free market model that turned Israel into an economic powerhouse. The decline of the kibbutz is something of a cliché in Israeli society, and those farms are as out of place in its economy now as the old socialist and labor union monopolies that hamstrung development and a political leadership that refused to allow television until the 1970s. Though there is some nostalgia in Israel for the past, the idea that the country would return to the old East German model is absurd.

What Romney said was no gaffe. America isn’t a kibbutz. It never was and never will be. And Israel isn’t going back to them either.

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