Hong Kong and the Rest of Us

The images from Hong Kong over the weekend were heart-warming and awe-inspiring, with hundreds of thousands of people taking to streets and demanding freedom and democracy in defiance of the Chinese government’s brutal authoritarian crackdown. There’s hope that it’s reaching a critical mass that even the worst of the Chinese dictatorship can dish can’t resist, and that the people of the remarkable island city of Hong Kong will get the freedom they and democracy that all people of the earth deserve.
There’s also some faint hope that the movement will spread through the rest of authoritarian China, and perhaps even around the globe, but for the moment free and democratic America doesn’t seem to be playing its usual role in nudging it along.
President Donald Trump is waging a mutually destructive trade war with China over its undeniably unfair trading practices, but he still boasts of his close friendship with Chinese dictator Xi Jinping and doesn’t seem to care much about how his good buddy handles his pesky domestic protesters. In a series of “tweets” the president “tweeted” about how he was wreaking great damage on the Chinese economy, but late “tweeted’ that “I know President Xi of China very well. He is a great leader who very much has the respect of his people. He is also a good man in a ‘tough business.” I have ZERO doubt that if President Xi wants to quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem, he can do it. Personal meeting?”
Trump later clarified by “tweet” that he didn’t mean a personal meeting between himself and Xi, but rather a personal meeting between Xi and the hundreds of thousands of protestors flooding the streets of Hong Kong. We can’t imagine how those negotiations would turn out, nor can we imagine what Trump would consider a humane solution. In 1989 there was a mass demonstration on Tiananmen Square that threatened to bring freedom and democracy to China and the Chinese dictatorship squashed it with brutal force, and in a 1990 interview with Playboy Magazine Trump said “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it, then they were vicious, then they were horrible, but then they put it down with the power of strength. That shows you the power of strength.” When asked about it in a 2016 Republican primary debate, Trump insisted he wasn’t endorsing China’s response but clumsily explained, “I said that it was a strong, powerful government that put it down with strength. And then they kept down the riot.
Trump used to wax nostalgic at his campaign rallies about how protestors would have been taken out stretchers, and he’s winked at or urged on on similarly rough responses to protests in Turkey, the Philippines, Hungary, Poland, Italy, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and of course Russia. Those brave souls taking to the streets of Hong Kong clearly cannot count on Trump’s support, and at this point we’d advise anyone thinking of taking to the streets against to be brave but cautious.
Meanwhile, we also notice that none of those damned Democrats running for president seem to care much about those brave souls on the streets of Hong Kong, or any of the rest of the yearning-to-be-free world. Thus far the Democratic primary debates have been mostly about free this and free that for everyone in America, along with the usual promises made to various classes and races and sexual orientations within our borders, and somehow foreign policy never seems to come up. It might seem a missed opportunity for the Democrats, given what a mess Trump has made of foreign policy, but all of them seem to have the same Democratic instincts for protectionist trade policies and the same aversion to meddling in the world’s affairs on behalf of freedom and democracy.
Which seems to be where the rest of America’s at these days, in its time of relative economic prosperity and severe self-doubt. The once-iconic Democratic President John Kennedy vowed at his inauguration that America “shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any fried, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty,” but the Democrats jumped ship on that when the Vietnam War went sour and haven’t gotten back on since. The once-iconic President Ronald Reagan ultimately won the Cold War with similarly tough anti-Soviet rhetoric and no bullets fired, despite cutting off authoritarian allies in the Philippines and elsewhere, but these days most of the Republicans remember him as the guy who have gave amnesty to a bunch of Mexicans, and Republicans seem to have little regard for the people bravely pouring into the dangerous streets of Hong Kong.
By the vagaries of history China gave Great Britain a 99-year lease on Hong Kong after Britain got the best of a war over tea and opium, and despite Britain’s reputation for harsh colonial rule it granted the island city an unprecedented freedom and democracy, and the enterprising people of Hong Kong made it a very profitable enterprise even at Britain’s reasonable tax rates. When the lease ran out in 1997 Britain honored its deal, and the Chinese were at first willing to take its fair share of the profits from the roaring Hong Kong enterprise, but since then they’ve been cracking down on all that freedom and democracy the Hong Kong protestors had become accosted to over 99 years.
For obvious reasons we’re not running for president on either party’s ticket, but if we were there seems to be an opening here. America’s engagement in the rest of the world has always a messy business, to be sure, but under Republican and Democratic administrations America’s disengagement has always proved worse. In the short term standing up for Hong Kong’s freedom-loving and democratic protestors might not help Trump negotiate a trade war peace with his buddy Xi, but in the long run a free and democratic Chinese government is more likely to arrive at a mutually beneficial trade deal. Some Democrat might yet make a bold stand on behalf of the Hong Kong protestors, but he or she won’t want to negotiate with a more capitalist and formidable China anymore than Trump does.
Still, we hold out hope for the best. Freedom and democracy are resilient ideas, both here and abroad.

What’s Good for General Motors …

Being the hard-nosed and hard-hearted sorts of old-fashioned conservatives who embrace Adam Smith and Milton Friedman and their red-in-tooth-and-claw school of laissez faire capitalism, we’ve always voted against those damned Democrats for fear they’d arrogantly think they could run our incomprehensibly multi-trillion dollar economy better than the free markets comprised of the free men and women  who actually make it happen. Now we’ve got a Republican president who arrogantly thinks he better knows how to run both big and small corporations better than the executives who have made them successful, however, and at the risk of being called Republicans in Name Only we can’t say we like that any better.
The constantly feuding President Donald Trump’s latest feud is with the iconic and still-formidable General Motors Company, where the brains behind the operation have decided that their long-term fortunes require them to shut down five plants and lay off 14,000 workers in the United States, which Trump would prefer they not do, and he’s threatening whatever punishments he has at hand if they go ahead and do it. Most of those plants and workers are in some of the industrial midwest states that provided Trump his improbable electoral victory based on his promises he would protect manufacturing jobs, so we can well understand his political calculations, but Trump’s underlying economic theory is not so obvious.
General Motors’ explanation is that by shutting down those five plants and laying off those 14,000 workers they can reinvest the money they’re currently losing in more efficient plants with workers building more profitable products in the scarily looming days of self-driving cars and other high-tech automotive gizmos, and that if they don’t the whole company and all of its workers might eventually be out of business. We don’t know any more about the automotive industry than Trump seems to, but given General Motors’ long tradition of existence to its workers and customers we’re inclined to believe its executives have a better grasp of the company’s situation than we or Trump have. We’ve long observed that success of capitalism involves some creative destruction, and this looks like one of those situations.
We have sincere sympathy for those 14,000 thousand workers and everyone in those five communities that will see a major segment of their economy shut down, even if they don’t affect our non-existent political careers, but we’d hate even more to see the rest of General Motors’ hard-working employees eventually be put out of work in a futile effort to sustain an unsustainable status quo. We’ll always remember how our beloved Boeing executive Dad used to agonize over the layoffs he was sometimes forced to make to keep that company the world-beating entity it is today, Life is undeniably tough in the red-in-tooth-and-claw free market world, yet it does seem to get better over the long run, and so far we haven’t found any damned Democrats or damned Republicans who can credibly claim to make it better yet.
So far this Trump fellow’s meddling in the economy strike us as arrogantly intrusive as anything that even a self-proclaimed socialist such as Sen. Bernie Sanders or any damn Democrat might have done if they’d had the chance. Republicans used to complain that Democrats wanted to choose the winners and losers, but Trump’s trade wars have provoked retaliatory tariffs and thus chosen the steel-making sector of the economy over the steel-using sector that includes General Motors, the coal-mining industry over the many industries that would prefer to use less expensive and more environmentally-friendly sources of energy, and he also prefers the mom and pop Main Street retailers over an e-commerce giant offering better prices whose owner also happens to own that troublesome Washington Post. So far it’s worked out well enough, but recent trends and ancient history suggest it won’t last forever.
Trump is still feuding with the iconic and steel-buying Harley-Davidson motorcycle company, which shifted some work to Europe to get around Trump’s trade war with that entire continent, and now he’s threatening tariffs that would raise the cost of the Apple Computer Company’s hugely popular designed-in-America but made-in-China I-Phones by a hundred bucks or so, which probably won’t play well with young voters.  Apple dominates the huge high-tech sector of the American economy that has lately been taking a beating on the stock markets, which was helped wipe out all of the last year’s overall stock market gains, so the threat strikes us as both economics and bad politics.
Trump is currently blaming the stock market’s recent swoon on the guy he appointed to be Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, which has recently nudged interest rates up slightly to a point that’s still far lower than historic norms in response to what Trump boasts is the great American economy ever, but we trust that the Fed knows more about monetary than Trump or we do. The inflation rate is a full 11 points or so lower than the worst we’ve seen since way back in the ’70s, but it is outpacing the modest gains in wages that Trump likes to brag about, and the Fed seems to be acting according to the time-honored economic principles that the free market has mostly thrived on. Lower or at least steady interest rates would be a short-term gain for the president, especially after two trillion dollars of debt that’s been racked up by his administration despite the best American economy ever, but in the long run we’ll better trust better than Trump the time-honored economic principles and the creative destruction of the free markets.
Nowadays that makes us Republicans in Name Only, and we have no faith any damned Democrat would do any better than Trump has, so for now we don’t have much say in the matter. Those immutable laws of economics and their awesome market enforcements are more powerful than  anything n the universe anything but God, however, and General Motors and Harley-Davidson and the Federal Reserve Board still hold some significant sway, and we expect they will eventually prevail over such puny forces as Trump or those damned Democrats.

— Bud Norman

Doubling Down on a Dumb Trade War

Way back when we were proud to be Republicans, it was largely because of the Grand Old Party’s principled stand for red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism. When Republican nominee Mitt Romney accused President Barack Obama during a campaign debate of picking the economic winners and losers, and mostly picking the losers, we stood up and cheered. Now the Republicans are obliged to defend President Donald Trump’s protectionist trade war against the rest of the world, and to ignore the fact that he’s picking the economic winners and losers and mostly picking the losers.
On Monday Trump escalated the trade war with China by threatening $200 billion of tariffs on that country’s exports to the United States, his earlier threat of a mere $50 billion of tariffs having failed to force China’s capitulation to his trade demands, and of course China immediately responded with threats of retaliatory tariffs. Of course the stock markets hated the news, and so did everyone else with a basic understanding of the global economy. It’s bad economic policy, has warped America’s foreign policy to the point that North Korea’s nutcase dictator Kim Jong-Un is a an honorable leader much beloved by his starving people and Canada’s democratically elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is a weak and dishonest leader who awaits a special place in hell and all of our longtime allies are suspect, and in the long run it will prove bad politics.
Trump’s tariffs on steel and coal imports will surely be popular with people employed in those industries, but it will just as surely be unpopular with people who work in steel- and coal-buying industries, and anyone who buys anything made of steel or powered by coal, and the latter categories are by far a bigger voting bloc. There are also a lot of wheat farmers and airplane-makers who do a brisk trade with China and will surely be chagrined if China decides to buy from Argentina or Airbus, and a large chunk of Trump’s die-hard defenders will eventually notice that their shopping trips to Wal-Mart are suddenly far more expensive. The worst case scenario for a global trade war is the same as the last time a cocky and unprincipled Republican president tried it, which resulted in the Great Depression and eventually World War II, and even Trump will be hard-pressed to spin that outcome to even his most die-hard defenders.
The best-case scenario is harder to imagine. Red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism has always resulted in the creative destruction of longstanding industries, such as buggy-making and Blockbuster video stores, but it has reliably replaced them with something the public has always found better. China isn’t the reason that coal-mining now employs a mere 50,000 workers in America, which is mainly because of mechanization and nuclear plants and fracking of natural gas and all those windmills along I-35 and other more healthy ways to generate the nation’s energy. We sympathize with those last remaining coal miners, but red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism might well replace their jobs with something that doesn’t cause black-lung disease and an early death, and in any case they’re a small voting bloc.
Trump seems to believe the best-case scenario is back to the good old days when America mined coal and made all the world’s steel, and that his die hard defenders will prefer that to this high-tech age and what might come next. What might come next might well be far better, though, and we’ll bet on that rather Trump’s global trade war.

— Bud Norman

Swimming Against the Mighty Amazon

The anti-capitalists on the left have always railed against the biggest retail sales giant of the moment. Back in the prairie populist days they warned that the Sears & Roebuck catalogue would destroy all local commerce, and by the early 20th Century it was the A&P grocery store chain that threatened to rule us all with a monopolistic fist. Until recently the scary corporate villain was the Wal-Mart discount store chain, but they’ve lately been usurped in both sales totals and political notoriety by the on-line retail giant called Amazon.
This time around, though, it’s putatively Republican and unabashedly capitalist President Donald Trump who’s leading the boos and hisses. Trump has frequently criticized Amazon, and he did so again on Thursday with yet another “tweet.”
“I have stated my concerns with Amazon long before the Election,” Trump wrote. “Unlike others, they pay little or no taxes to state or local governments, use our Postal System as their Delivery Boy (causing tremendous cost to the U.S.), and are putting many thousands of retailers out of business!”
Putting aside our usual complaints with the usual arbitrary capitalizations and use of parenthesis and that always annoying exclamation point, pretty much every word of it is embarrassing economic illiteracy and pure balderdash. Even worse, we’d say than what the left has always peddled.
In actual fact, rather than alternative fact, Amazon does indeed collect and then pass along sales taxes on items sent to the 45 states and many localities that have decided to require it by law. The other five states apparently have their own reasons for not requiring it, probably either purely ideological or brazenly corrupt, but we figure that’s their business, and Trump is in no moral position to criticize Amazon for not paying a penny more in taxes than is most strictly required.
Amazon does indeed use America’s postal system as one of its “Delivery Boys,” but so do all the rest of us who have sent a letter or utility bill payment or greeting card or Christmas package through the postal system. This is what the postal system does, after all, and it will take one hell of a “tweet” to explain how having the country’s biggest retailer as a client is bad for business. We can well believe that Amazon has negotiated a favorable deal with its delivery boy’s biggest client, but every analysis we’ve read suggests the delivery boy should be glad for the business in these days of on-line communications, and once again Trump is in no moral position to criticize their artful dealings.
There’s no doubt that Amazon will drive at least a few thousand Main Street brick-and-mortar retailers out of business, just as Sears & Roebuck and the A&P and Wal-Mart undoubtedly did, but the Republicans and the right in general used to chalk that up to the “creative destruction” of capitalism. The much-railed-against railroads delivered delivered Sears & Roebuck catalog’s low-priced items to people across the rural areas, including all the guitars used on all the great country and blues recordings of the time, and it worked out pretty well. The A&P chain did well because it used its market share to negotiate good deals with the wholesalers and then passed the discount along to its consumers, and more recently Wal-Mart has found itself in a position to negotiate profitable deals the likes of China and pass along the everyday savings to their grateful and often obese customers.
In every case, it all proved relatively momentary and nobody wound up ruling the world. These days nobody’s afraid of the big, bad Sears & Roebuck catalogue, the last of the far-flung rural A&P grocery stores went under three years ago, and Amazon has now passed Wal-Mart both in sales and as the leading target of the traditional left and the newfangled right.
Amazon is already using drones as an occasional delivery boy, which can’t be good for the postal system’s negotiating position, and there’s no telling what they’ll come up with next. Whatever Buck Rogers gizmo they come up with, though, we’re sure that some kid in some garage somewhere on the fruited plains is on the verge of something that will overtake Amazon in sales and villainy and low, low prices to the consumer. Perhaps it’ll be one of those “Star Trek” gizmos that immediately transmits whatever your desire and whatever your credit card will allow.
It’s not that we’ll regard it as a grand and glorious day. We’re the old-fashioned sort of Main Street Republicans who still nostalgically long for that ol’ corner store — if you’ve got a few moments to spare, our friend Jonathan Richman put it especially well — and we still resent almost everything from the Sears & Roebuck catalogue to the A&P to Wal-Mart to that newfangled Amazon thingamajig. There’s something tactile and human about brick-and-mortar and face-to-face commercial interactions, and we’d hate to see it go, but we don’t worry that any kid in any garage will soon match that.
Still, we’ll be rooting for Amazon over Trump in their momentary battle for rule over the world. Amazon has ever done us any wrong, as we’ve had nothing to do with them except for their publication of our e-novel “This Town Is Nowhere,” and at this point we have more complaints with Trump. We can’t help suspecting that part of Trump’s crusade against Amazon is because it’s owner, Jeff Bezos, is provably far richer than Trump claims to be, because Trump really is that petty. Bezos is also the owner of The Washington Post, a nationaly-read newspaper that daily publishes news stories Trump would rather not hear, and that seems to have something more to do with this feud.
We don’t care much about Sears & Roebuck or the late A&P or Wal-Mart or the currently almighty Amazon, or whatever comes next, as we do little business with any of them, but the freedom of the press is dear to our heart. So is the constitutional prohibition of bills of attainder, which has long prevented the government from acting against any specific person or specific group of persons, and we don’t worry that Trump will wind up ruling the world.

— Bud Norman

Boeing, Boeing, Boing, Boing

For civic and family and purely personal reasons we have a certain affection for the Boeing Company, gigantic globalist corporate villain of creative capitalist destruction though it might well be, so naturally we were alarmed to see it was the most recent target of president-elect Donald Trump’s latest “tweet.”
“Boeing is building a brand new Air Force One for future presidents, but costs are out of control, more than $4 billion,” Trump “tweeted,” ominously adding the words “Cancel order!” Although a president-elect’s “tweet” doesn’t carry the same legal authority as an actual president’s nebulously defined executive power to renege on a contract, at least for the moment, the threatened cancellation was enough to cause a momentary dip in Boeing stock value and set off a round of harrumphing among all sorts of media. The left was reflexively appalled by any Trump “tweet,” even if it meant defending one of their usual corporate villains, the office-dwelling segments of the right were understandably worried about what’s to become of the rest of the federal government’s sizable contracts in the upcoming age of “The Art of the Deal,” even if that was a criticism of a duly elected Republican, and from our political perspective on the sidelines we’re going with our personal affection for the Boeing Company and unshakeable suspicion of this Trump fellow.
Four billion bucks does seem a lot of money for an airplane, at least by our own personal transportation standards, and probably even by the personal transportation standards of a billionaire who has famously gold-plated and leather-lined toilets on one of his fleet of jets and helicopters, and even those suspiciously lefty newspapers concede that Trump’s “tweeted” price is not far off the mark, but surely there are other considerations. There are actually two airplanes required to cope with all the exigencies of an all-out nuclear war, which unfortunately is once again one of those things that might actually happen, and both have to be outfitted with highly sophisticated defense and re-fueling systems that can survive the most devastating attacks and still coordinate communications with whatever’s left of a post-apocalyptic world. That kind of thing doesn’t come cheap, of course, and is not typically acquired by the same means as a real estate developer leaning on a less-politically-connected contractor and his immigrant workers, so we’re reduced to hoping that the president-elect is out of his league in this fight.
If Trump is willing to be the first future president to risk that post-apocalyptic scenario so be it, and we’ll just be glad he’s going down with the rest of us, but if he thinks he can get a better bid elsewhere, we’re not sure where he’d look. At this point Boeing is the only company in America with the know-how and other resources to get the job done, and even if Trump were willing to forsake his nationalist principles and find a supplier elsewhere he’d probably discover there’s no other company in the entire world up to the task. Unlike the Democratic left or what’s left of the erstwhile Republican right, Boeing finds itself in a strong negotiating position against Trump. Something in our red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalist souls abhors such a monopoly, but we can’t help liking the idea of Boeing serving as a check and balance on Trump’s presidential power.
Our beloved hometown of Wichita was transformed from a sleepy little wheat-dealing and biplane-making town into a top-50 metropolis when Boeing started cranking out round-the-clock B-29s here during World War II, and the resulting military-industrial complex drew our beloved pop here with a job at the same company. As he rose from the engineering drafting boards to the executive suites he and his colleagues helped win the Cold War with the constantly and expensively upgraded B-52, and he went on to devise some very deadly helicopters designed for the persistent smaller but still expensive wars that have followed, and in his retirement he’s been mostly pleased how those young whippersnappers who succeeded him have kept his stock holdings up, so naturally we cheer on Boeing’s success. The company pulled almost entirely out of town a while back, and is now outnumbered by the heavily-subsidized and once-hated Europeans of Airbus in the local workforce, but as a good-bye gesture Boeing gave a sweetheart deal on that huge south side factory complex and most of its job to one of its biggest subcontractors, and the Beech and Cessna and Lear plants or whatever their current corporate names are have all survived the current president’s past rhetoric against “corporate jets,” so for now we’re still the self-proclaimed “Air Capital of the World.” The family portfolio should do just as well, and we hope that the rest of capitalism fares as well.
An apparent attempt to low-ball Boeing on a previously signed and legally iron-clad deal is already alarming every other company that does business with the federal government, and given that more than 22 percent of the gross domestic product is paid for by the federal government that’s a lot of businesses, and among them are the only ones who know to get certain essential jobs done. If Trump wants to renegotiate each of the thousands or hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of contracts that have already been negotiated by the government he now heads he can go right on ahead, but we expect it will prove more costly than that Trump University case he recently settled for a mere $25 million. Free markets and an independent judiciary are two of the essential bulwarks against autocracy, even when they’re monopolistic and legalistic, and we’re glad of it.

— Bud Norman

In the Age of Whatever Works

Latin America faces a crucial choice between liberty and tyranny, as always, just like the rest of us, and the President of the United States’ advice is that it go with “whatever works.” Barack Obama actually said that nonsense in a speech to the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative while on his recent south-of-the-border tour, and although that also included him doing the wave at a baseball game with the communist dictator of Cuba and embarrassingly doing the tango for his Peronista variety of fascist hosts in Argentina while the capital of the European Union reeled from yet another terror attack it was probably the low point of that disastrous vacation.
Any President of the United States worthy of that once-august office would be making the plain case that liberty is the only thing that has ever worked in the entire history of organized humankind, and that tyranny has never worked out, but these days that is apparently too much to ask for. The runaway winner of five of the last six state contests in the Democratic nominating process is the self-described socialist Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who worries that there are too many kinds of deodorants on America’s supermarket shelves and prescribes the same solutions that have resulted in toilet paper shortages in Venezuela, and the party’s putative front-runner struggles to explain why she’s not a socialist. Meanwhile, the putative Republican front-runner is issuing threats that his press critics will “have problems, such problems” and “tweeting” like a South American caudillo and promising nothing but “better deals” with all these pesky foreigners, which sounds to us like pretty much like the equivalent of “whatever works.”
The sole remaining long-shot possibility for the leadership of what was once called the free world is Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whose much criticized father endured the tortures of the same communist Cuban dictatorship that the “whatever works” president was doing the wave with, and went on to a formidable career and as a legal and Senatorial advocate for the conservative cause, and he strikes us as a full-throated advocate of liberty and the Judeo-Christian tradition and red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism and other higher values than whatever might work. He’s bogged down with a report in the front-runner’s buddy’s National Enquirer, though, and is just within the margin-of-error in the polls in the important states of Wisconsin and California. We’d love to see a match-up of Cruz’ hard-edged advocacy of capitalism and constitutionalism against Sanders’ unabashed socialism and whatever works, but such stark choices are perhaps too much to wish for in an age when people are more concerned with whatever works for them, if not necessarily everyone else.

— Bud Norman

Another Annus Horribilis

Years always seem to end in the dead of winter, when the trees are bare and the skies are gray and the prairie winds blow bitterly cold, and thus far 2015 is proving no exception to that desultory rule. In this case it seems altogether apt, as 2015 has been a desultory year. Even the most determined optimist would find it hard to identify much good news from the past six months of headlines, in any section of the paper.
The economy sputtered along steadily enough that the Federal Reserve has hiked interest rates a teensy-weensy bit, and the unemployment rate didn’t seem so bad if you just excluded all the underemployed and the huge number of people who’d given up on finding any sort of work, but the working stiff’s wages were still stagnant and even the investor class was having the hardest time making a profit since the legendarily hard times of the Great Depression. The global state of affairs further deteriorated, with the Middle East exploding in an even greater than usual hatred and the deadly repercussions being felt as far away as Paris and San Bernardino, refugees from that troubled region and Central America and elsewhere in the Third World pouring into the west in such numbers that they overwhelmed the resources and generosity of the First World, and elite western opinion blaming it all on capitalism. Academia went utterly mad in 2015, government regulations proliferated at an unprecedented rate, the popular culture offered no compensatory movies or songs or novels or dance crazes that we noticed, and our favorite sports teams suffered frustrating seasons.
The new year that starts tomorrow promises an extra Leap Year day, an inevitable spring, and a long and leafy summer that will lead to an autumnal Election Day that could possibly put some of this right, but the past year doesn’t make us hopeful. So far the Democrats seem more riled up about impoverishing the rich than enriching the poor, and the polls predicts that they’ll nominate a woman who has parlayed political influence into extraordinary wealth to make the point, so there’s little chance for progress there. Meanwhile the Republicans, until recently infuriated by crony capitalism and Russian arrogance and a shallow popular culture, are threatening to nominate a man who brags about buying off politicians and revels in the praise of Vladimir Putin and was the star of a long-running reality television show to make their point. The infuriation of 2015 will make level-headed decision-making difficult in 2016, although we can hope the warmer weather will help.

— Bud Norman

Badgering in the Badger State

President Barack Obama was warmly welcomed to Wisconsin by Gov. Scott Walker on Thursday, then let loose with another one of his characteristic petty partisan screeds, this one ridiculing his host. The characteristically petty partisan crowd roared its approval, of course, and the characteristically petty partisan press described it as part of a “victory lap” after a week of favorable legislation and Supreme Court rulings, of course, but not a word of it bears more skeptical scrutiny.
Speaking to an adoring throng in LaCrosse, Obama likened the entire Republican to a senile “Uncle Harry” making nonsensical statements at a family Thanksgiving dinner, adding that “You still love him. He’s still a member of your family. Right? But you’ve got to correct him. You don’t want to put him charge of stuff.” He also compared Wisconsin’s government under Walker to that of neighboring and more-Democratic Minnesota, noting that Minnesota had raised taxes on the wealthy, increased the minimum wage, expanded Medicaid, implemented all-day kindergarten, offered subsidies for college, and had a lower unemployment rate and higher median income. With the applause indicating that he had an audience willing to believe that higher taxes and higher labor costs and increased government spending is the obvious explanation for Minnesota’s relatively healthier economy, Obama then boasted of his own successes with this same formula, and contrasted his humane approach with the Republicans’ policy of giving tax breaks to the wealthy and letting everyone else fend for themselves. Such callous economics was the cause of the ’08 financial crisis, Obama told the crowd, anding that “Being an American is not about taking as much as you can from your neighbor before they take as much as they can from you. We are not a bunch of individuals out here on our own. We are a community, we are family. We are in this together.”
One hardly knows where to begin rebutting such hogwash, but it might as well be at the beginning with that crack about the crazy uncle. This comes from the World’s Greatest Orator, who was going to end the era of partisan division and facilitate a serious discussion about the nature’s future. It also comes from the leader of a party that features a crazy and foul-mouthed Uncle Joe and a creepy face-lifted Aunt Nancy and a perverted Cousin Anthony who keeps sending pictures of his underwear-clas private parts over his cell phone and a First Mom who insists that everyone eat their vegetables while she wolfs down what the fancy chefs who’ve been flown have created and a cackling evil stepmother Hillary who seems next in line to lead our very dysfunctional national family, and we can’t share the audience’s satisfaction that everything has worked out so well since they’ve been “put in charge of stuff.”
Walker does a fine enough job defending his controversial policies in an op-ed article at Real Clear Politics, graciously headlined “Welcome to Wisconsin, Mr. President,” noting the significant economic gains that have lately occurred in his state in spite of the sluggish national economy. He didn’t anticipate the part about Minnesota, so for his benefit we’ll add that the high tax rates on job-creators cannot possibly explain the state’s job creations, the minimum wage increase is less than a year old and hasn’t yet pushed up overall wages and has almost certainly eliminated many minimum-wage jobs, the Medicaid expansion wouldn’t have been necessary if the Minnesota economy were as robust as he represents it, and probably was made more necessary by the many Minnesotans who lost the suddenly more-expensive health plans they liked and were promised they could keep but were relegated to Medicaid by Obamacare, there’s no proof that all-day kindergarten does children much good, somebody’s still paying those ever-increasing college costs that always go up further with the subsidies, and a more telling basis for comparison would be the relative improvement of the Wisconsin and Minnesota economies over the past few years.
Nor does the broader American economy seem to justify such arrogance. The labor participation rate is at a low unseen since Jimmy Carter’s presidency, wages remain stagnant, the Gross Domestic Product contracted the first quarter of this year and the most optimistic predictions having it growing at around 2 percent or a fraction over the full year, such meager advances have added more than $8 trillion to the national debt during the Obama presidency, and no one who isn’t within clapping distance of the presidents anticipates that happy days will soon be here again. We’re not heartened by the rest of the president’s great week, either. The Supreme Court ruled that the Obamacare law doesn’t say what it says on the written 2,000-plus, but that instead it means whatever five justice of the Supreme Court would prefer it said, and then on the big same-sex marriage decision it pretty much concluded the same thing about the Constitution, and whatever political benefits might redound to the president neither development is likely to do much good for the rule of law and Constitutional restraints on the federal government. A lot of Republicans and a few cowed Democrats also gave the president “fast track” authority to negotiate a top-secret free-trade deal with numerous Asian nations, and although we’re generally free traders we don’t like the top-secret and remain worried that it will allow him to pull some immigration and environmental shenanigans.
Most annoying, though, were his descriptions of capitalism and socialism. The natural rights of individuals to voluntarily trade and contract with another in a free market, an arrangement that has produced greater wealth and one more to advance civilization than any cockamamie bureaucratic regulatory scheme, is explained in terms of “taking as much as you can from your neighbor before they take as much as they can from you.” Any individual who has become self-sufficient by voluntarily trading and contract with another individual in a free market should be grievously offended by this, and we daresay their neighbors should be as well. But then again, we’re “not a bunch of individuals” in Obama’s America, we are a “family.” Obama is presumably the father, although regrettably not the absent sort of father figure he grew up without, and as that cheering throng of hipsters in LaCrosse would probably tell you, with all their progressive sophistication, father knows best.
On second thought, the very most annoying part of Obama’s speech was that line about how the unregulated avarice of that ruthless capitalist system that leaves everyone to fend for themselves was the cause of the ’08 financial crisis. The lie is so oft-repeated that it goes almost unnoticed and almost entirely unquestioned, but the pesky fact remains that it wasn’t caused by lack of regulations that prevented greedy bankers from making home loans to people who clearly could never repay them, but rather because of presumably well-intentioned government interventions in the free market, which encouraged and cajoled and eventually coerced the bankers to make those loans in the cause of affordable housing and civil rights and fairness and all sorts of focus-group tested themes. Obama surely knows this, as he did pro bono work for some subprime borrowers that forced Citibank to write them mortgage, and was a member of the Congressional Black Caucus was it was screaming racism at the regulatory “watchdogs” who were warning of the coming collapse and successfully resisting George W. Bush’s efforts to stop it, and he surely knows that as a result of his efforts housing became less affordable and black Americans wound up disproportionately poorer, as they remain today, and that in the end it was disastrously unfair to all the more credit-worthy homeowners and their creditors as well as just about everyone else.
Obama’s at least a deft enough orator to leave that part out.. We’re looking forward to Walker’s announcement that he’ll be running for president, and expect much better from him, and although he seems a nice and Wisconsin sort of fellow who won’t resort to petty partisanship and sneering ridicule we hope he will bluntly talk back to such hogwash.

— Bud Norman

The New Un-Americanism

We were not surprised to hear Howard Dean saying that we’re not Americans and should relocate to Russia or Ukraine. The former Vermont governor, Democratic National Committee Chairman, and progressive standard-bearer is an excitable fellow given to such ill-tempered outbursts, and his sentiments are nowadays all too common on the left. We frequently encounter such vitriol in our social encounters, usually from lefties who are fooled by our disheveled appearance and lack of horns and pitchfork into thinking we share their hatreds, and these days even the Senate Majority Leader and the President of the United States are casting the same sorts of aspersions.
Still, Dean’s rant at a rally for a congressional candidate in Colorado was both hurtful to our sensitive feelings and confounding to our logical brains. Dean wasn’t referring to us specifically, just to Republicans and conservatives in general, but we couldn’t help taking it personally. We were also flummoxed how such wholesome Kansas boys and bona fide Eagle Scouts as ourselves could be considered un-American, and even more so by why we should feel more at home in Russia or Ukraine. Back in our childhood days it was the commies who were advised to go back to Russia, and you won’t find anyone less commie than us. The slur seems especially odd given that Dean was speaking on behalf of a candidate named Romanoff. “Go back to Ukraine” is an entirely unfamiliar slur, and we haven’t the slightest idea what it means. If Dean means to imply that we should go to a bankrupt country run along crony capitalist lines that is being bullied by the Russians, we see no reason to inconvenience ourselves with a move.
Dean’s insults were preceded by a claim that Republicans are engaged in some sort of nefarious plot to deny voting rights, but we’re not aware of any such effort and are certainly not involved. We assume he’s referring to checking voting registrations and requiring photo identification and other rules intended to prevent people who don’t have a legal right to vote from casting a ballot or two, but that hardly seems a reasonable cause to deport anyone, especially to such uninviting locales as Russia or Ukraine. We suspect that Dean’s wrath was inspired by the broader range of our constitutionally-limited government and free market capitalist opinions.
Modern liberals such as Dean, Reid, and Obama are so cocksure of their moral and intellectual superiority that anyone who disagrees with them must be so very evil that they’re no longer entitled to share space in their country. Recent revelations about the Internal Revenue Service’s harassment of conservatives, intrusive search warrants based on criminal conspiracy charges against nosy journalists, the banning of right-leaning speakers from academia, and the occasional beatings of protestors by union thugs suggest that they’re intent on enforcing their prejudices. This strikes us as a rather illiberal attitude, but maybe that’s just our evil streak. There’s always an outside chance that massive deficits, strangling regulations and bureaucratic control, a foreign policy based on betraying allies and sweet-talking adversaries, libertine social policies, and bossy rules about everything from light bulbs to school lunches are indeed the way to achieve heaven on Earth, and our inherent evilness simply keeps us from grasping this obvious truth.
Even so, that “un-American” slur seems odd. Anyone who has read Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” as all good liberals have done, should know that Americanism is a creed of avaricious capitalism and unrelenting racism and militaristic imperialism, in dire of need of the transformation that the president promised, and it’s a little late in the game to start claiming that those rich white slaveholders who founded the nation were all up-to-date collectivist Democrats who didn’t add Obamacare to the constitution merely because of an oversight. Reid considers the Koch brothers “un-American” because they exercise their free speech rights to advocate free markets, and Dean thinks it traitorous to restrict voting in American elections to American citizens, and the president seems to think it unpatriotic to oppose anything he does no matter how far it might stray from the Constitution, but it’s hard to reconcile any of that with the liberal critique of America or any historically accurate notion of the country’s creed.
In any case, we have no plans to move to Russia or Ukraine, nor do we intend to stop advocating sensible rules against voter fraud or the economic systems that once made America the most prosperous and free nation in the history of the planet. Dean his his fellow liberals can try to evict us, if they truly want to, but they’d better get on the job before the mid-term elections.

— Bud Norman

The Art of Bankruptcy

Maybe it’s our grumpily conservative political views, or perhaps a certain prairie roughness in our manner and speech, but people often seemed surprised to discover what avid culture vultures we are. In warmer weather we frequently stroll a few blocks through our elegantly aging Riverside neighborhood to visit the Wichita Art Museum, even making the trek during a blinding snowstorm this past brutal winter in order to catch the opening of that terrific George Catlin traveling exhibition, and many a snooty easterner has been taken aback by our familiarity with the finer arts. That’s largely due to our early and ongoing exposure to the Wichita Art Museum, which has taken aback many a snooty easterner with a an unexpectedly fine collection that includes John Steuart Curry, Stuart Davis, Richard Diebenkorn, Thomas Eakins, Albert Pynkham Ryder, Winslow Homer, three Edward Hoppers, with two of them major works, and perhaps the most major work by Mary Cassatt.
Such works of art have long exerted a powerful influence on us, ever since Mom first dragged us down to the museum intent on getting her young’un’s some refinement, and remain one of our favorite things about living in Wichita. They can’t help but affect our reaction to an intriguing story in the invaluable Weekly Standard about far-off Detroit, where that beleaguered city has reached a tentative deal to prevent its municipal art museum from selling off its even most significant collection to pay off the debts of decades of mismanagement by a corrupt coalition of Democratic machine politicians and union bosses. The article makes a convincing case that the deal flouts reasonable bankruptcy laws, favors pubic pensioners over other rightful creditors, and reeks of a political cronyism redolent of the Detroit auto industry bail-out, but acknowledges that at least Detroit will get to keep its art. It’s difficult to weigh such competing values, especially for such grumpily conservative culture vultures with a certain prairie roughness such as ourselves, but we’re inclined to go with keeping the art.
The deal would have such well-heeled do-gooder groups as the Ford, Kresge, and Knight Foundations shell out $330 million for the museum’s collection, along with another $350 million from the state of Michigan, and comes with a promise to keep the collection in Detroit and add all the proceedings to the bankruptcy payout to Detroit’s public employee pensioners. We have no sympathy for public employee pensioners, who did so much to drive the city into bankruptcy, and feel sorry for those municipal bondholders who won’t get in on the loot, even if they were suckers to place a bet on Detroit, but otherwise the arrangement does not offend our conservative sensibilities.
We rather like that such long-dead red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalists as Ford, Kresge, and Knight are riding to rescue of Detroit’s high-cultural heritage, for one thing, even if the average snooty easterner wouldn’t acknowledge the irony. The same corporate titans that the arty types always disparage have always been the essential patrons of American arts, even if the refined aesthetes won’t notice until their guillotines have finished their dirty work. This requires an amusing amount of denial by the culturati left, especially here in Wichita where the much-vilified Koch family is by far the most generous benefactor of the arts. A punctiliously politically correct friend of ours is affiliated with the Wichita Art Museum, and when we noted that the aforementioned terrific George Catlin exhibition was underwritten by the Fred C. and Mary Koch Foundation she huffily protested that at least there was no money from their evil spawn Charles Koch. We pointed out that the patriarch of the family fortune was an unrepentant John Bircher who earned his anti-communist bona fides by going toe-to-toe with Joe Stalin business negotiation over his pioneering oil-extraction techniques and would probably consider his sons pinko sell-outs she was eager to change the subject. At least her collection’s survival wasn’t dependent on on such a mean old anti-Semite as Henry Ford or the Wal-Mart of his day, the indignity that has befallen the culturati of Detroit. The Knight foundation was named after the co-founder of the newspaper chain that we used to toil for, and the Wichita Art Museum’s inaugural collection was bankrolled by the founder of the local newspaper that it long ago bought out, but somehow our friend won’t be so embarrassed by that.
None of the various strains of conservatism can object to those individuals who have prospered in the capitalist system contributing to the cultural life of their country. Once those contributions have been necessarily bequeathed to the care of the collective, however, the matter does become more complicated. We are sympathetic to the libertarian arguments against public financing of the arts, as most of our satisfying cultural experiences have been with garage bands and Hollywood movies and dime novels and other artists who would never stand a chance with those highfalutin grant-givers, and a certain prairie roughness in us makes us susceptible to the populist argument that the south-siders shouldn’t have to pay even the few pennies they’re being charged to indulge our hoity-toity Riverside tastes. There’s still a strain of conservatism that seeks to conserve the very best of our cultural heritage, however, and ultimately we find it most convincing.
Somewhere in the middle of the liberal-caused fiasco that is Detroit you will still find an extraordinary collection of truth and beauty and the best of Western Civilization, and that is worth conserving. Most Detroiters will prefer the noisome distractions of The Jerry Springer Show and the latest hip-hop releases or the virtual or actual orgies of violence that are staples of the local culture, but those lucky few who happen to wander in might find more worthy aspirations. Rescuing Detroit will require cruel doses of capitalism and a routing of the public sector rackets that have driven the city bankruptcy, but it will also require considerable art.

— Bud Norman