Toasting the Tea Party With a Beer

Here’s wishing a happy fifth anniversary to the “Tea Party,” even if we’re not quite convinced of the date.
This whole “Tea Party” phenomenon has never been defined to our satisfaction, much less given a precise time of birth, yet activists associated with the movement and their antagonists in the media both marked Thursday as an anniversary because it came five years to the day after CNBC reporter Rick Santelli delivered a stirring on-air rant against the “stimulus package” and the rest of budget-busting spending that was going on in the heady early days of the Obama administration and his Democrat-dominated Congress. So far as we can tell the “Tea Party” stands steadfast against debilitating public debt, even more steadfastly against attempts to eliminate it with higher taxes, and holds an instinctive suspicion of big government even when it is on solid fiscal footing, which is a perfectly sensible philosophy that pre-dates the invention of the on-air ran by several centuries and has been an essential component of America’s politics since before the founding of the republic, but we suppose Thursday seemed as good a time any to take stock of the movement.
That such unfriendly media as The New York Times felt obliged to mark the more-or-less made-up anniversary with grudgingly respectful coverage indicates that the “Tea Party” packs a powerful political punch. The movement was responsible for the Republicans taking control of the House of Representatives in 2010 and holding it ever since, which has resulted in somewhat smaller deficits and thwarted further “stimulus packages” as well countless other attempts at Democratic mischief on issues ranging from gun control to immigration. Such modest accomplishments have not satisfied the “Tea Party” faithful, who are currently working to purge the party of House Speaker John Boehner and any other insufficiently rock-ribbed Republicans, but judging by much of the anniversary coverage they seem to have at least succeeded in forcing the party far enough to the right to infuriate the left. As moderate and weak as Boehner often is, and no matter how preferable a more conservative and confrontational leader might be, the “Tea Party” should take some solace in the certainty of how very much worse a Speaker Nancy Pelosi would have been. Boehner would have been worse without “Tea Party” pressure, too, and we happily predict it will continue to pull the party in a properly conservative direction.
It’s an unusually good wind that blows no ill, however, and for all its positive effects on America’s politics the “Tea Party” has caused occasional problems for conservatism. In the 2012 election the “Tea Party” was helpful in retaining the House majority and bolstering the totals of several Senate candidates, but also cost the party some winnable seats by choosing not-ready-for-prime-time candidates in Delaware and Connecticut and Nevada and Missouri and assorted House districts, and we suspect they were among the missing McCain voters who cost Mitt Romney a chance to defeat Barack Obama and thus make all things possible. The “Tea Party” infused the Republicans with a much needed spirit of amateurism in its very best sense of doing something for the love of it and not for financial gain, which of course is how a democracy is best achieved, but too often its newly-enthused candidates were simply amateurish in the worst sense of the word. The “Tea Party’s” aversion to professionals is understandable, even laudable, but as it purges the ranks it would do well to remember that a certain amount of professionalism will be needed against such a formidable pro outfit as the Democrats. A characteristically high-minded notion of the “Tea Party” that it’s better to lose to a radical leftist than vote for a less-than-pure conservative needs to be re-thought, too, as it is likely to result in a few more radical leftists surviving the upcoming mid-term elections that would have been otherwise necessary.
Also, the “Tea Party” is yet another one of those good ideas that have suffered bad marketing. That “Tea Party” moniker was always a bad choice, as the reference to the Revolutionary Era has little appeal to a younger generation that was taught the Howard Zinn version of history and only knows the Founding Fathers as a bunch of slave-holding 1-percenters in powdered wigs, and it also provided fodder for the late night comedians to make smutty “tea bagger” jokes and portray the movement as a bunch of crazy old white men in tri-corner hats. The brave defiance of the Boston Tea Party should remain an inspiration to any freedom-loving Americans, and the contemporary “Tea Party” isn’t nearly so white as the environmental movement or feminism or most another liberal cause, even if whiteness were an inherent flaw in a political philosophy, and the late night comics can’t possibly explain in their monologues why a $17 trillion dollar debt isn’t a looming catastrophe, but that hasn’t stopped the critics from making the term a pejorative to much of the population. Freedom is always a hard sell when the opposition is offering free stuff, and the “Tea Party” has often been clumsy in making the pitch.
On the whole, however, we think the “Tea Party” has had a salutary effect on America and is likely to do even more good between now and November’s voting. The movement has stopped the Democrats from doing some very stupid things, pulled the Republicans kicking and screaming in the right direction, and perhaps even learned some of the lessons that their more weak-willed but wised-up intra-party opponents mastered long ago. We also hope those less steadfast sorts of Republicans have learned that the Tea Party’s principles of fiscal sanity, limited government, and individual liberty must prevail before or after the looming disaster. If it doesn’t, the alternative is unthinkable.

— Bud Norman

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Meanwhile, Down South

What little attention Americans pay the rest of the world has lately been focused on Ukraine, so the noteworthy noise emanating from Venezuela has gone largely unheard. That’s partly because the uprising in Ukraine has thus far been bloodier than the one in Venezuela, and has political and economic implications for Europe rather than South America, and features Vladimir Putin in a villain’s role and a recent world heavyweight boxing champ as his antagonist instead of a bunch of Venezuelans no one in the United States has ever heard of, but we suspect it’s also because most of the American media find Ukraine less embarrassing than Venezuela.
The Ukrainian mess is an embarrassment for those media intent on favorable coverage of the administration, as it once again reveals the utter failure of the “reset” diplomacy with Russia and the forehead-slapping stupidity of its underlying theory that any problems with those kindly Russians must surely have been the fault of that belligerent cowboy George W. Bush, but the damage done to the cause is limited. Even right-wing Obama-bashing bastards such as ourselves can’t blame the 50-something-year-old president for the past centuries of atrocities that the Russians have inflicted on the Ukrainians, or the mess that the Ukrainians have thus far made of their opportunity for independence, and in the midst of all that tragic history there’s no need to remind anyone of the administration’s recent naiveté. All those Russian troops amassing on the Ukrainian border and the Russian warships docked in Cuba might yet make the story unmanageable, but for now it can be reported without trepidation.
The Venezuelan mess, on the other hand, is an unmitigated embarrassment to one of one liberalism’s most chic causes. An uprising against an explicitly Marxist Latin American regime, undeniably caused by the economic catastrophe that follows every attempt at Latin American Marxism, is not a tale that most of the modern media are eager to tell. This is especially true of Venezuela, where Hugo Chavez’ glorious revolution against the Yankee capitalist pig-dogs was especially trendy among the Hollywood bleeding-hearts, scruffy Occupy encampments, and the more progressive corners of the Democratic party. Some of the radical frisson has gone from Venezuela since the death last year of Chavez, the fat little windbag hillbilly who somehow acquired a cult of personality that stretched from the barrios of Caracas to the penthouses of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, but successor Nicolas Maduro has carried on the revolution with the same inflationary, impoverishing, iron-fisted style, and until recently Venezuela was still a fashionable example of social justice in action.
The fashions are changing, however, as protests against Maduro’s government are springing up in all the smart places. Maduro’s government has driven so many Venezuelans out of the country that they’ve been dispersed to all the smart places, where their eyewitness accounts of the country’s problems have had some success countering the media’s relentless propaganda, but it has also acted with such blatant disregard for human rights in putting down the protests that it cannot be ignored by even the most willfully blind observers. All of those celebrities who once basked in the revolutionary warmth of Venezuela, from pugnacious movie star Sean Penn to patrician politician Joseph Kennedy II, are now in danger of being out of style.
In his desperation Maduro has resorted to the Latin American Marxists’ most reliable trick of blaming the Yankees for his woes, going so far as to expel American diplomats from the country, and the administration has response by expelling an equal number of Venezuelan diplomats from this country, but no one outside the barrios of Caracas are likely to believe that President Barack Obama has ever wished any harm on Maduro’s convoluted share-the-wealth schemes. Obama’s own choice for the Federal Communication Commission’s “diversity czar” openly expressed his admiration for Chavez’ “incredible and democratic revolution,” which routinely denied broadcast licenses to any troublesome critics, and ever since the State Department sided with a Marxist coup in Honduras back in ’09 it has been clear the administration has been friendly toward to South American socialism. Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa recently returned from a three-day trip to the same Cuba where that Russian warship is parked and expressed great enthusiasm for its medical system, which he describes as even more advanced than Obamacare, former Democratic President Jimmy Carter is planning yet another trip to Venezuela to negotiate between the protestors and the government whose fraudulent elections has long endorsed, and it’s hard to think of anyone in the Democratic party that hasn’t been on board with the noble experiment that is currently imploding in Venezuela and to a lesser degree throughout South America.
The vast disparity between the coverage given to Ukraine and Venezuela is so conspicuous that The Washington Post felt compelled to explain it, but they didn’t mention the embarrassment they surely feel in addressing the story. It seems likely they’ll soon have to report the end of Chavez’ glorious revolution, but don’t expect them to mention who was complicit in the debacle.

— Bud Norman

Gay Rights and Other Rights in Kansas

Kansas is one of a few states considering a bill that would allow businesses to decline service to homosexuals, and all the bien pensant around here are in even higher than usual dudgeon about it. The local hipster weekly is calling the bill a step back into the dark ages and seems to expect the imminent return of burnings at the stake and papal pears, the more restrained corporate daily paper has run an editorial merely likening it to Jim Crow, and our Facebook page is filled with postings from vaguely familiar “friends” who are once again declaring their shame at living in the state.
At the risk of sounding even more than usual like provincial prairie bumpkins, we are not at all embarrassed to be in Kansas. We don’t believe the dire predictions that if the bill became law homosexuals would be unable to find a seat in a restaurant in Kansas, a possibility even more remote than encountering a heterosexual waiter at the better eateries in this or any other state, and in those extremely rare cases when it might apply we think it would do more good than harm. The bill was inspired by a couple of highly-publicized stories about a baker and a photographer who chose not to involve their businesses in a same-sex wedding ceremony, and we see no reason why Kansas’ bakers and photographers and other businesses with similar moral objections shouldn’t be free to do the same without fear of legal consequences. In the interests of tolerance and diversity, the two values the bien pensant most love to blather on about, diverse opinions regarding same-sex marriage must be tolerated.
Setting the controversy about the advisability of state-sanctioned same-sex marriages aside, there is a more consequential matter of allowing citizens to conduct their businesses according to the dictates of their own consciences. The estimable Kevin Williamson over at the venerable National Review proposed an intriguing thought experiment in which the notoriously homosexual-hating Fred Phelps and his cult at Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church insisted that a rainbow flag-flying member of the Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce rent out its party room for one of his frequent “God Hates Fags” rallies, and we don’t have to wonder if those criticizing the proposed bill would defend the business’ right to refuse. We’d certainly defend anyone’s right to not deal with Phelps, and we’ve had enough dealings with the man over the years that we’d be especially adamant about it, but we can’t endorse any law that would protect that right without denying it to those who still hold to the traditional idea of marriage.
An actual face-to-face friend whose opinions we take seriously argued over a recent beer that the law should be vigilant in protecting the rights of embattled minorities, a point well-taken, so we noted that these days it seems to be the fuddy-duddy photographers and bakers who are in need of protection from the rhetorical and legal lynch mobs. That traditional idea of marriage extended through the past several millennia, prevailed in every world civilization until quite recently, and was even endorsed by the oh-so-bien-pensant President of the United States until the polls allowed him to back out, but the current fashion for same-sex marriage seems to have overwhelmed such long-established civilizational inclinations. For some reason a similar bill in Arizona seems to be getting all the headlines, with such former bastions of traditionalism as the last Republican presidential candidate and the National Football League heaping on their condemnation, and the Attorney General of the United States is urging the attorneys general of the various united states to ignore their laws against same-sex marriage. Anyone willing to defy such official opprobrium is entitled to feel a wee bit embattled and minor.
Unfashionable as it may be, we’ll stick with freedom of association. It’s good for the baker or photographer who doesn’t want to be involved in a same-sex marriage, won’t prevent a same-sex couple from finding another baker or photographer, and if the fashions change as they are wont to do it will be good for that rainbow flag-flying Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce member who doesn’t want to work for Fred Phelps.

— Bud Norman

For the Defense

China is beefing up its military and bullying its neighbors, the apocalyptic suicide cult running Iran is on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons with an arms race in the always-volatile Middle East bound to follow, Russia has been gradually re-establishing its Soviet empire while extending its insidious influence even farther, and in every corner of the world there is still the usual portion of crazy people with guns. This seems an odd moment for a peace dividend, but the administration is proposing drastic military budget cuts.
There are good geo-political reasons for the proposal unveiled Monday by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, we are told, but none seem convincing. The leaner budget will provide a meaner military by eliminating outdated Cold War weapons systems and emphasizing high-tech cyber-warfare over the old-fashioned armed servicemen shooting at the enemy approach to conflicts, according to the Defense Department’s argument, but we can’t help thinking that the aircraft designed to take out Soviet tanks will do just as well against any other country’s armor and that there are likely to be occasions when shooting an enemy will be more effective than disabling his lap-top computer and cutting off his Twitter account. Hagel’s proposal would reduce the number of troops to the lowest level since 1940, a date that has some resonance for the few Americans who still have some rudimentary knowledge of 20th Century history, and includes reductions in military benefits that would make service even less appealing for those who would remain on the watch. If you don’t buy that, there’s a backup argument that the proposed budget out-spends the sequester agreement those dovish Republicans imposed on the hawkish administration, but this ignores the well-documented fact that the sequester was the administration’s idea and that the Republicans would gladly agree to any deal that would beef up the military with money taken from elsewhere in the vast federal budget.
To believe that one have to believe that the Republicans have suddenly become the weak-on-defense party and is forcing pacifism on an administration eager to pursue a robust foreign policy backed up by a credible threat of force. The argument requires such an extraordinary feat of imagination that the press has already decided to go with the argument that a pre-World War II defense posture is the post-modern solution to national security at a time when seventh century theocracies have nearly arrived in the nuclear age. This is also a tough sell, of course, but given the public’s lack of interest in national security and its enthusiasm for the welfare benefits that will be spared by corresponding cuts in the military it might just work.
At least the public is wised up enough that no seems to be peddling the true rationale for the cuts. The smaller military fits nicely with the smaller role that the administration intends for America to play in the world’s affairs, but even the president no longer seems willing to convince anyone that this will bring peace. A belief in “soft power” and the president’s magical ability to charm dictatorial nations into peaceful co-existence with the democracies still informs every aspect of America’s foreign policy, but they no longer expect anyone else to believe it. The administration clearly believes that money from current and future generations of taxpayers is better spent on Obamaphones and advertisements touting the benefits of Obamacare than on national defense, but it is a hopeful sign that they have to get that message out to the grateful constituencies without being too noisy about it.
The Republicans, who we can hope are still hawkish as ever, might even be able to exploit that reticence to pass a more responsible budget and even force the president to sign it. Such a rare feat wouldn’t force the administration to pursue a more forcible foreign policy, but at least it would leave sufficient force for future administrations to do so.

— Bud Norman

On Board with Ukraine

Here’s hoping the Ukrainian people succeed in their heroic struggle for freedom and democracy, and that the western civilization they hope to join isn’t yet too enervated to offer meaningful help.
At the moment it seems possible that the Ukrainian people might prevail, as the mass protest movement for independence has forced pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych from Kiev and established a tenuous interim government controlling most of the country, while the western nations have belatedly offered incompetent but nonetheless crucial support. There is still reason to worry they might fail, though, as Yanukovych retains control of much of the eastern and largely ethnic Russian portion of country, the Winter Olympics are now over and Russian President Vladimir Putin thus has a freer hand to intervene with his usual cunning and ruthlessness, and the west’s recent record of resisting tyranny is not encouraging.
After weeks of characteristic dithering he European Union is offering monetary as well as rhetorical support for the new government, and the White House is issuing stern warnings against Russian meddling. These are positive developments, but they likely won’t inspire much confidence in the Ukrainians or much fear in Putin. America’s “reset” diplomacy with Russia has re-set the country to its traditional role of anti-western antagonist and encouraged its meddling not only in the old Soviet Union’s sphere of influence but also the Middle East and even the western hemisphere, the American president’s stern warnings of “red lines” in Syria and “grave consequences” for the terrorists who murdered for Americans in Libya have proved toothless, longtime allies from Poland the Czech Republic to Israel to South America and Asia have seen longstanding American promises betrayed, and the Ukrainians have no reason to believe that their fledgling democracy can expect resolute American support.
Any Ukrainian with access to the internet can find further reason for worry on YouTube, where an anonymous has post video of Victoria Nuland, the State Department’s top official for Europe, discussing a plan that would allow Yanukovych to retain a measure of power and ban opposition leader and national hero Vitali Klitschko from power. The proposal was too weak even for European tastes, and Nuland can be heard responding to their understandable objections by uttering an obscene suggestion for the EU. Aside from the worrisome fact that such foul language is now so ubiquitous it intrudes even into high-level diplomatic discussions, the conversation confirms a natural suspicion that the Obama administration’s first instinct was to mollify the Russians even at the expense of a proud nation’s long-sought independence.
President Barack Obama tried to allay these fears during a news conference last week in Mexico, saying “Our goal is to make sure the people of Ukraine are able to make decisions for themselves about there future,” but judging by Nuland’s remarks he doesn’t fully trust them to choose their own leaders. He preceded that statement by saying “Our approach as the United States is not see these as some Cold War chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia,” which also does not bode well. Obama and the rest of the left got the Cold War wrong, they apparently have not yet realized that we are still very much in competition with Russia, and they are clumsily playing checkers while Putin plays chess with typical Russian skill.
The Ukrainians might yet pull it off. Klitschko, the Ukrainian national hero that Nuland wanted to bar from power, is not only a recent world heavyweight boxing championship who well understands the masterful deployment of brute force, he’s also said to be a pretty fair chess player.

— Bud Norman

A Friendly Visit From the FCC

Those friendly folks at the Federal Communications Commission are planning a visit to your local newsroom, and it will be interesting to see what kind of reception they’ll receive. If they drop by here we’ll be tempted to greet them with a combination of the First and Second Amendments, but we worry they’ll be greeted cordially at the more respectable publications.
The visits are entirely voluntary and merely a matter of intellectual curiosity, we are assured, and intended only to gather helpful information about how the various media decide which stories to report. More specifically, they hope to find out about the “processes” radio and televisions stations use in making their editorial judgments and how often they provide the “critical information needs” of news consumers. It strikes us as chilling that the government now concerns itself with the thoughts underlying the perfectly legal and openly expressed opinions of the media, and has already reached its own conclusions about what information citizens critically need, and one wonders how “voluntary” an invitation can be when issued by the agency that grants a newsroom license to broadcast, but we are assured this is merely right-wing paranoia.
Such assurances would be more reassuring if the government hadn’t lately been using the Internal Revenue Service to harrass the administration’s political opponents, the Department of Justice hadn’t been treating reporters’ investigative journalism as a criminal conspiracy, the National Security Agency wasn’t snooping around Americans’ phone records, and the United States hadn’t recently dropped another 13 spots to 46th place on Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom rankings. Our concerns do seem relegated to the conservative corners of the media, judging by the sources of the scant attention being paid to the FCC’s plans, but the quietude of the rest makes it all the more troubling.
The Fox New Network is on the story, possibly because they’re the ones whose reporters have treated as criminal co-conspirators and excluded from the White House news pool and routinely criticized by every level of the administration, and the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and the radio talk shows have been paying some attention for obvious reasons of their own, but otherwise the story has gone largely unnoted. In our years of journalism we endured many a journalist’s self-righteous sermon about the obligation of the press to bravely resist any governmental interference, but that was mostly during Republican administrations, when nothing like the FCC’s current curiosity and the nation’s slide down the rankings of press freedom ever occurred, and at this moment of hope and change none of the over-the-air networks seem terribly concerned that their notions of the news consumers’ critical information needs will differ much from the government’s.
There’s little chance that the FCC will bother with such far-flung internet publications as this, but if they take a mind to we will save the taxpayers the cost of a visit. We select the stories we write about by a process of finding something that piques our interest or provides an opportunity for embittered satire, and we believe that Americans critically need to be informed that the government is getting too nosy and bossy, and that freedom of the press shall not be abridged.

— Bud Norman

A Swiss Miss

Military life never had much appeal for us, as we are lazy and cowardly and constitutionally disinclined to follow orders, but we’re considering volunteering our services to the Swiss.
Such a radical career change occurred to us on a slow news day when we came across a story about an Ethiopian Airlines flight that was hijacked by its co-pilot and flown to Geneva. These developments were intriguing enough, but an even more striking detail was that French and Italian fighter planes were used to escort the hijacked airliner to the ground because the incident happened after the Swiss Air Force had concluded its business day. It seems the Swiss Air Force strictly observes an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule, with an hour-and-half lunch break starting at noon, and anything that threatens Swiss national security during the off-hours is left to more martial nations such as the French and Italians.
That 8 a.m. starting time is somewhat daunting, given our very nocturnal tendencies, but a lengthy lunch break with Swiss cuisine might provide adequate compensation for the inconvenience. The Swiss Army’s famous knives always include a corkscrew, so we assume that the lunch will include a glass or two of wine, and the waitresses will presumably be blond, fair-complexioned, and pleasant-natured. War is hell, as no less an authority than General William Tecumseh Sherman once observed, but a cessation of hostilities at every lunch and dinner time and a good night’s rest following a cup of hot chocolate could make it tolerable.
The chances of avoiding anything remotely resembling war altogether are favorable for a member of the Swiss military, too, given Switzerland’s longstanding policy of strict neutrality. This distinctively Swiss tendency is much celebrated by pacifists everywhere, although we always thought that neutrality toward the Nazis and Communists and assorted other totalitarian evils that were gobbling up their neighbors was taking things a bit too far, but that’s us and we assume it’s more popular with the typical Swiss serviceman. Throw in the high wages and ample benefits that are bound to be offered by such a generous welfare state as Switzerland, and the military recruiters’ job must be easy duty. They might not be interested in out-of-shape fifty-somethings who don’t speak whatever language is spoken in Switzerland, but if they can find any use for our wine-popping skills and waggish wit we’d be tempted by the deal.
On the other hand, perhaps we should just wait for the United States military to catch up with our more progressive European examples. Another three years of radical transformation might well deliver us a unionized and nine-to-five Air Force that doesn’t dare practice weightist and ageist discrimination against out-of-shape fifty-somethings, and we’d be spared the necessity of learning whatever language it is that they speak in Switzerland.

— Bud Norman

Minimum Wages and Minimal Logic

Those mischievous economists at the Congressional Budget Office are back in the news, this time with a report suggesting that raising the minimum wage would also raise the unemployment rate.
The notion that raising the cost of something such as unskilled labor might also reduce the demand for it will seem reasonable enough to anyone with a rudimentary understanding of economics, but it has provoked an outcry among those with a more sophisticated view of these things. There apparently are studies out there by some experts or another suggesting that raising the cost of something doesn’t affect the demand for it and that people will gladly continue paying a higher price for something long after the cost has exceed its actual economic value, no matter how many centuries of economic history sense suggest otherwise, and we are told that it would be downright anti-science to argue with an expert’s study. Advocates for an increase in the minimum wage also note that the CBO has concluded that minimum wage workers would make more money if the minimum wage were increased, which will also seem reasonable enough to anyone with a rudimentary understanding of economics, and argue that so far as social justice and all the jazz goes the lost jobs would be offset by the gains those lucky enough to keep their swelled wages.
Neither argument is convincing. The president and any economists supporting his call for raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour clearly haven’t spent much time lately in the drive-thru lane of a fast-food restaurant, where they surely would have encountered uncouth and innumerate workers whose feeble efforts could not possibly provide a profitable return on that exorbitant amount, and we don’t doubt there are far more of them than the 500,000 or that the CBO has estimated will get the axe. There’s also the distinct possibility that a few million more over-paid workers will demand a bump up above the minimum and find that they are no longer worth the cost. Despite our dissatisfaction with these workers’ performances we are not so insouciant about their fates as the more high-minded activists seem to be, and we don’t share the view that they’re better of unemployed at $10.10 an hour rather than employed at the current rates.
This is a most unfashionable point of view, however, and it remains to be seen if it will prevail. The last time the CBO raised such a fuss was when it reported that more than a million people will be induced to leave the labor force rather than relinquish their Obamacare subsidies, and presidential and bien-pensant opinion concluded that they’d all better off and free to pursue careers in the arts. As much as we’re looking forward to the artistic renaissance that will surely flower from all those fast-food workers laid off to make room burger-flipping robots, it doesn’t seem likely to spur an economic revival any time soon.

— Bud Norman

Five Long Years of Stimulation

Monday marked the fifth anniversary of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as “the stimulus,” but we did not observe the occasion with a celebration. What with the economy the way it is, and having failed to apply for any available federal funding, we could ill-afford a fancy party or a bottle of fine champagne.
There was a warm rush of nostalgia, however, as we recalled the giddy optimism that attended President Barack Obama’s lavishly ceremonial signing of the law. We were told that the law would cost a mere $800 billion, already a insignificant sum by Washington standards, and yet keep the unemployment rate from topping 8 percent and bring it down to 5 percent by 2013 with “shovel-ready jobs” while lifting two million Americans out of poverty and saving the world from global warming by creating a new “green energy” industry. Since then the cost has grown to $2 trillion, the unemployment rate hit 10.1 percent and stayed above 8 percent for four years before enough people finally gave up looking for a job to push it down to the current 6.6 percent, the poverty rate has risen to a 50 year high, the president has joked that the shovel-ready jobs were “not as shovel-ready as we expected,” and the “green jobs” that survived the bankruptcies of the subsidized companies turned out to cost about $5 million apiece. This winter’s wicked weather suggests some success in combating global warming, but otherwise an objective observer might reasonably conclude that all the optimism seems have been unfounded.
Still giddy after all these years, the law’s indefatigable apologists offer two lines of defense.
One is that even if the stimulus did not live up to its promises it did at least prevent the country from sliding into another Great Depression and the earth from sliding out of its orbit and into the sun. The White House economists did overstate the stimulative effect of the stimulus, according to this popular theory, but only because they had generously underestimated the damage done by the stinginess and de-regulatory zeal of that free-market-crazed cowboy George W. Bush. This ignores that only months before signing the stimulus into law Obama had criticized Bush’s “irresponsible” and “un-patriotic” budget deficits, and fails to name a single regulation Bush eliminated that might have caused the financial downturn, and conveniently omits any mention of the Clinton-era “affordable housing” policies and their sub-prime shenanigans that did in fact cause the crash, but it has the emotionally satisfying appeal of blaming Bush.
The other argument is that the stimulus failed to achieve its stated goals only because it was far too small. One might expect that a $2 trillion infusion of freshly-printed cash would be sufficient to stimulate some economic activity, especially if you throw in a third trillion from the Trouble Assets Relief Program passed just a few months earlier, but apparently not. The theory that if what you’re doing only seems to be making things worse you should do far more of it is not new, having been around at least since it informed the Roosevelt administration policies that prolonged the actual Great Depression for nine years before the massive stimulus program that was World War II came along, and its temptation to those handing out the money has not diminished over the years.
Neither of these arguments can be definitively disproved, as economics does not allow for the sorts of controlled laboratory experiments that would settle such questions in the harder sciences, but there does seem ample reason for a healthy skepticism. The notion that handing out a couple trillion dollars of Monopoly money to reliably Democratic constituencies is the only logical way to revive an economy has an inherently suspicious ring to it, and much of the stimulus money was spent in ways that are remarkably unproductive even by government standards.
Those cheeky iconoclasts at The Washington Free Beacon chose ten especially outrageous expenditures that illustrate the point. One program spent $389,357 to find why young men drink malt liquor and smoke marijuana, when we could have told them for a far more economical sum that it’s to in order to get drunk and high, and another spent $8,408 to find out if mice can get drunk, which could have been learned for the price of a mouse and a beer. Another spent $1.2 million on a University of California-San Francisco study of erectile dysfunction in overweight men, while Yale University was given $384, 949 to study duck penises. (This genital pre-occupation reminds of us an old bureaucracy joke too blue to repeat here, by the way, but if you’re interested shoot us an e-mail with proof that you’re of age in your state and we’ll pass it along.) Yet another $100,000 went to fund anti-capitalist puppet shows, a particularly peculiar way of promoting economic growth, and still another $600,000 was spent to plant trees in the wealthiest neighborhoods of Denver, which presumably offset the benefits to the hated rich with commensurate benefits to beloved and impoverished Mother Nature. If such wacky use of public funds does not convince you of the wisdom of the stimulus, perhaps the $1.3 million spent on signs advertising the benefits of the stimulus did the trick. Judging by the amount of Obamacare’s budget spent on advertising its blessings, the government seems quite convinced that you’ll fall for it again.
Which is not to say the apologists aren’t quite right, of course. Perhaps such spending did save the country from breadlines and a return to the hit parade for “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” and perhaps it would have worked better yet if only we’d be willing to shell out a cool million for even more duck penis revelations, and there is no denying that the earth hasn’t slipped out of its orbit and into the sun. We can’t quite shake a nagging suspicion that Keynesian is bunk, and that like global warming it’s a scam to legitimize the government’s ravenous appetite for power, but if we could afford a fine bottle of champagne we’d drink it.

— Bud Norman

Bleeding Kansas Again

Our favorite right-wing radio station has lately been airing an attack ad against Dr. Milton Wolf, and it sounds as if the battle for the soul of the Republican party has once again come to Kansas.
Even if you’re reading this far outside the Sunflower State you might have already heard of Wolf, the Kansas City-area radiologist who is challenging Sen. Pat Roberts for their party’s nomination, if only because he is also a second cousin of President Barack Obama. He’s from the Kansas side of the family and is as severe a critic of Obama as you’re likely to find even among the most outspoken corners of the Republican party here on the prairie, so his long shot race against an entrenched incumbent has piqued some bemused curiosity from the national press. That Roberts apparently sees a need to dip into his campaign chest and reservoir of political capital with a response to Wolf’s numerous withering and widely-aired advertisements, however, suggests that something more significant than an extended family squabble is afoot.
The determination of the more conservative and combative Republican voters to rid their party of its more moderate and accommodating elements has figured in several important contests the past few election cycles, and been widely reported by a press eager to gloat over the occasionally catastrophic results, but when a politician such as Roberts finds himself among the plausible targets it is a new development. Roberts is not only as entrenched an incumbent as sits in Congress, he has also carefully cultivated a reputation for both conservatism and combativeness, so if he is vulnerable to a primary challenge it is hard to imagine anyone in the party who is not. The critique of Roberts’ career is also telling, and seems a template for the attempted reconstruction of the party.
So far as we can understand the rationale for Wolf’s candidacy, Roberts’ entrenched incumbency is the problem. Kansans and other small state denizens have traditionally regarded incumbency as an argument for yet another re-election, given the power of seniority to deliver pork in packages inordinate to the relatively puny size of our congressional delegation, but in an age of $17 trillion debt there is an understandable lack of enthusiasm among conservatives for pork and a reflexive suspicion of anyone that has been around Washington for the extended period of time it has been piling up. Roberts’ time there has been undeniably extended, starting when he arrived after brief stints in the Marines and journalism as an aide to Sen. Frank Carlson in 1967 and stretching through eight terms as the vast First District’s Representative before winning a Senate seat of his own in 1996, so at this point he can hardly claim to be an outsider. The charge has compounded by the revelation that Roberts no longer has a Kansas residence of his own, which is the sort of thing that Kansans quite resent, as gleefully reported by The New York Times, and we suspect that is the reason that Roberts is now taking to the airwaves with his own indignant charge that Wolf’s campaign contributions are coming from out of the state.
What’s missing from Wolf’s advertisements, however, are any substantive policy disagreements with Roberts. Although Roberts once presented himself as a pragmatically conservative politician in the style of Sens. Bob Dole and Nancy Landon Kassebaum and his mentor Carlson, back when the debt didn’t seem so worrisome and that sort of deal-making proficiency still struck most Kansans as good for business, but in recent years his voting record has been carefully in line with the more conservative mood of his constituents. Wolf’s pitch makes much of Roberts’ vote to confirm fellow Kansan and former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as Secretary of Health and Human Services, but that was before Obamacare was passed and since then Roberts has repeatedly demanded her resignation. Roberts was complicit in much of the profligacy of the Bush years, but Bush won landslide majorities of the Kansas vote in both campaigns and since the even greater profligacy of the Obama years Roberts has become reliably stingy. The media onslaught against the partial government shutdown and the Republicans’ intermittent debt ceiling squabbles have not deterred Roberts from voting with the Tea Party caucus on every occasion, and his public pronouncements on the controversies have been filled with all the crusty invective a Kansas conservative might hope for.
Perhaps Roberts has tacked so far to the right only because he held a licked thumb to the winds and noted which way they were blowing, but we’re not sure that such political savviness should be punished rather than put to good use. Given a choice between two candidates who would vote the same way in every instance, there is no compelling argument for the political neophyte with no chance at an important committee position rather than the shrewd veteran whose seniority ensures influence and whose cynicism insures ideological compliance. We share Wolf’s frustration with the establishment, and remain open to his arguments, but he hasn’t yet convinced us that we’d be better served with him as our Senator. Nor has he assuaged a nagging concern that his challenge could be a problem for the party.
Should Wolf win the primary we’ll happily vote for him over anyone the state’s Democrats might put up, we’d just as happily pull the lever for Roberts, and no one here seems at all concerned that a majority of Kansans will do the same, so the Wolf insurgency is unlikely in any case to affect the party’s chances of re-taking the Senate from the strangling grip of the Democrats. A similar restiveness in less reliably Republican states could unseat an experienced politician with a chance of winning and nominating an inexperienced amateur who will lose a winnable election with an another amateurish outburst, however, and the party can ill-afford such zeal. As much as we appreciate to the effort to build a more conservative Republican party, and wish it well in those states where the more conservative candidate can actually win, we would prefer that it reconfigure itself into something effective as well as ideologically pure. What does it profit a party to save it soul if it loses the world?

— Bud Norman