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On the Day After Opening Day

For such avid fans of the blood sport of American politics as ourselves, the quadrennial Iowa presidential caucuses are like the opening day of a once-every-four-years baseball season. Some youthful enthusiasm left within us wants to extrapolate the rest of the reason from the season from the first day’s statistically insignificant scores, some more sober sensibility acquired over the years reminds us that are plenty of games left to be played in what is always an up-and-down season, and we always wind up indulging in the obligatory speculation.
Over on the Democrats’ senior-in-more-ways-than-one circuit we note that former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State and long-presumed Next President of the United States Hillary Clinton is still going into extra innings as we write this against self-described socialist and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, which bolsters our pre-season suspicion that it’s going to be a long and hard-fought contest. In a far more crowded field the upstart Republicans’ winner was controversial right-fielder Texas Sen. Cruz, who had a plurality of 28 percent, with real-estate-and-gambling-and-reality-show-and-professional-wrestling mogul Donald J. Trump coming in from way out in the metaphorical left field to take an unaccustomed second place with 24 percent, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, now cast as the party’s steady center-fielder, just behind with an intriguing 23 percent, which at least provides hope for another long and hard-fought race.
Of course, one needs to keep in mind the peculiar ground rules that govern Iowa’s opening games. The Democrats require caucus-goers to spend all night standing with their fellow rooters in the corners of various frigid high school gymnasiums and senior centers spread across the state, staring one another down to attract the rooters from the candidates disqualified in the first rounds, which should have given her opponent’s more youthful and fired-up supporters an edge, so even a slight win will still count as a win even by pliable rules of politics. The next game will be played according to more traditional primary rules in New Hampshire, but that’s right next door to Vermont and Sanders has held a comfortable lead in the polls there for some time, so a win in Iowa means at least Clinton won’t get off to that 0-for-2 start so many formerly front-running candidates have never recovered from. Still, those bettors who put their chips on Clinton a full four years ago are likely in for a nervous season. Veteran political sports fans will recall that a similarly spirited far-left candidacy by Sen. Eugene McCarthy knocked sitting President Lyndon Johnson out of the race with a win in New Hampshire way back in the memorable ’68 season, and although those with more reliable memories will more accurately recall that Johnson eked out a victory it was close enough it was still enough to convince Johnson that he wouldn’t make it to the general election finish line, which makes it a potentially worthwhile analogy.
Cruz only won eight delegates to Trump’s and Rubio’s seven, and long-shot retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson got three, with even longer shots libertarian Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and erstwhile starting center fielder Jeb! Bush of the erstwhile Bush dynasty getting one apiece for finishing fifth and sixth, respectively, so with 1,114 delegates needed to clinch the pennant there’s still plenty of race of left. It’s still a crucial tally in the win column for Cruz, however, and although he’s starting from behind in New Hampshire the Iowa winner has traditionally picked up a few points in other contests. Veteran political sports fans will also recall how little-known Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter got a sudden amount of name-recognition-generating publicity from an upset win in Iowa and rode it to the Democratic nomination back in that sub-.300 year of ’76, and although those with more reliable memories will recall that Carter actually finished second to “undecided,” which ultimately proved poetically appropriate enough, the point still obtains. For someone running against a reality-star with almost unlimited free publicity and near-universal name recognition, it’s an especially important point.
In an ordinary season an ordinary candidate could claim more than seven delegates from a second-place finish in Iowa, but Trump is no ordinary candidate. The most likely explanation for the front-running Trump’s second-place finish is that Iowa’s Republican caucus is largely dominated by evangelical Christians who prefer a Baptist minister’s son such as Cruz to a thrice-married gambling mogul who publicly boasts of the billions he made by buying off politicians and all the married babes he’s bagged along the way, but we don’t think even Trump will attempt that spin and we don’t think New Hampshire voters would buy it even if they are next door to Vermont. Much of Trump’s appeal is based on his argument that he always wins, and that Americans might even get bored with all the winning he’s going to do for America, making it hard for him to spin an actual vote where he not only came in second but a full 76 percent of the voters went for someone else. He wisely declared himself “honored” by a second-place finish, noting only obliquely how many observers had thought Iowa an unfriendly field, and he’s still got the lead in New Hampshire before getting back on evangelical turf in South Carolina, but to mix the sports analogies somewhat at least he won’t be getting that early-round knock-out.
Rubio’s close third-place finish, on the other hand, should be worth more than just seven delegates over the coming weeks. It represents a significant bump in his previous poll standings, will merit enough mention to up his name recognition a few notches, and will likely even knock out some of the other players vying for the centerfield position. When the fourth-place Carson sooner or later bows out we suspect most of his support will flow to Cruz, so Rubio will need all the meager votes scattered about the rest of the soon-to-drop-out candidates, and when Bush makes his inevitable exit Rubio will at least be spared the millions of dollars of negative advertising that have been aimed him, so in this game opening day does matter more than in baseball.
Both leagues might wind up battering themselves into a sorry state for the eventual general election World Series, but that’s way too far away to speculate about now.

— Bud Norman

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Meanwhile, In the Rest of the News

We woke up fully resolved to write about something other than radical Islamic terrorism or Donald Trump, but the day’s news hasn’t been at all cooperative. A thorough reading of our vast and eclectic news sources yielded little mention of anything else, not even any of the collegiate craziness that has lately provided us a bemusing diversion, and except for a pleasant stroll with the folks through the impressive “Illuminations” Christmas display at our city’s nearby botanical garden there was, as usual, nothing worth mentioning in our personal life, so we are left with nothing but a few stray comments about the filler items we encountered.
There was a double satisfaction in reading that former President Jimmy Carter’s cancer treatment is coming along well. Although we found little to like in Carter’s presidency, or his post-presidency, we’re not the sorts of internet trolls who wish ill on our political adversaries. The good news of his apparent recovery is even further sweetened by the fact it’s due to medicines and medical techniques invented in Israel, a very fine nation that Carter has described as an “apartheid state” and has urged sanctions against and has never been a friend to. None of the reporters at Carter’s press conference were impolite enough to note the irony, but we would have relished the opportunity to ask if he would have preferred a Palestinian procedure.
All well-informed citizens these days are regular readers of the indispensable Drudge Report, which has lately been breathlessly linking to the numerous stories about that pornographic film actor who’s been accused of rape by at least three of his female co-stars, which has some prurient interest. We’re not au courant on the current skin flick scene, and are admittedly unfamiliar with the work of James Deen, who is clearly intended to be confused with the broodingly handsome James Dean of an earlier and more innocent era of American cinema, but apparently his on-screen persona was that of the “boy next door,” and so far as we can tell that makes the allegations against him all the more shocking. Somehow we are not all shocked that a porn star, even the one next door, might turn out to be a sleaze, and as we’re not the sort to wish ill on any victims he might prove to have preyed on we will instead offer the advice they seek other employment opportunities.
 There was some good news from Venezuela, of all places, where the opposition to socialist President Nicolas Maduro won a Congressional majority, even if Maduro was promising ahead of the results that “the revolution will continue.” The revolution has quite literally reduced the population to knife-fighting over the last scraps of toilet paper in that unfortunate country, and it seems likely to get even uglier, but there’s now hope for some satisfactory resolution and in any case the American press will be preoccupied with damning Trump and helping out whichever socialist the Democrats might nominate.
Of course there were also the elections in France, where the frankly nationalist National Front party was the big winner, but that’s all about radical Islamic terrorism and leads inevitably to a discussion of Donald Trump, and we’re still fully resolved not write about any of that. If by any chance you’re in the Riverside neighborhood of Wichita during this holiday season we highly recommend a leisurely stroll through Botanica’s “Illuminations,” and invite you to drop by afterwards, as we’re just a few blocks away, but otherwise we have nothing to offer but hope for a better news cycle today.

— Bud Norman

The Series Finale of That ’70s Show

Rep. Henry Waxman of California has announced he is at long last leaving Congress, and one can only hope that America will at long last begin to leave behind the 1970s.
In recent years Waxman has been best known as one of Washington’s wackier liberals and perhaps the least handsome man ever to make a living in politics, both of which are notable distinctions, but it is also worth noting that he first arrived on the political scene as a member of the class of ’74. The estimable psephologist Michael Barone has reminded us that with Waxman and fellow Rep. George Miller of California both declining to seek re-election, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa making the same decision, and Sen. Max Baucus of Montana opting for an even cushier job as ambassador to China, the infamous freshman class will finally have almost fully graduated to private life after decades of legislative mischief. Two lone hold-outs will remain in the Senate after this fall’s mid-term elections, but it is almost the end of an error.
Readers of a certain age will readily remember the fall of ’74 with a shudder and a grimace, but for the youngsters among you it is hard to describe the horrors of that leisure-suited era. The Watergate scandal, the desultory end of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and the coinage of the word “stagflation” had brought the Republican party to unprecedented disrepute, a newly triumphant baby boomer counter-culture and the corporate clout of the only three channels on television had given the Democrats a overpowering fashionableness, and the country consequently elected one of the most liberal groups of lawmakers in the history of the republic. Things got so bad that even in here in reliably Republican Kansas the party stalwart Bob Dole had to resort to some prototypical abortion politics to survive a challenge from an allegedly moderate Democrat, and in less sensible sections of the country the likes of Henry Waxman won office.
There had been liberal eras before, from Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson and their congressional enablers, but the class of ’74 marked the most liberal yet. Despite brief pauses during the Harding-Coolidge and Eisenhower years the country had already gone so far left by the early ‘70s that such a putative Republican as President Richard Nixon had created the Environmental Protection Agency, instituted the federal government’s first quota programs, proclaimed that “We are all Keynesians now,” normalized relations with Red China, sought an accommodationist détente with the Russians, and generally racked up the sort of record that would latter allow President Barack Obama to claim with a straight face that “In a lot of ways Richard Nixon was more liberal than I was,” and yet the freshmen of ’74 regarded both Nixon and his even more moderate successor Gerald Ford as knuckle-dragging paleo-conservatives. That Congress blocked military aid funding that might have saved Vietnam from communism, started spending like money as if it could simply be printed up, went on a binge of regulation and social engineering, and then went even further after Democrat Jimmy Carter was elected president.
The damage done was so severe that the country reacted in 1980 by sending the impeccably conservative Republican Ronald Reagan to the White House, even if the Democrats retained the decades-long hold on the Congress, and the result was victory in the Cold War, the longest and strongest economic expansion in the country’s history, and a renewal of America’s cultural confidence. Reaganism proved only another brief interregnum, however, and the seeds planted in ’74 would bear their most bitter fruit decades later. Among the other accomplishments of the mid- to late-‘70s government were the Community Reinvestment Act that provided the legal authority for the disastrous subprime lending policies of the Clinton and Bush administrations and the subsequent economic crash of ’08 that has still defied full recovery, as well as the Church Committee reforms that so constrained America’s intelligence gathering capabilities that the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks were made possible. The two greatest tragedies thus far in America’s 21st Century began in the late ‘70s of the 20th Century, and were voted for by Democrats who stuck around long enough to see President Barack Obama capitulate to the Russians and Chinese on everything, spend money as if it could simply be printed up, write up regulations and social engineering projects on a scale that make the ‘70s seem sober, and pass an Obamacare law that will ultimately do more economic damage than even the subprime schemes he is hoping to revive.
Conventional wisdom holds that Waxman and his fellow surviving members of the class of ’74 are declining another term because they expect the Democrats to take another drubbing in the upcoming mid-term elections, and it can be hoped that their well-honed instincts are correct. The next elections should not only be a repudiation of the past six years but also most of the past of the 40, and with luck we can finally put and end to the dismal ‘70s and maybe even embark on another roaring ‘80s.

— Bud Norman

Presidential Funeral Etiquette

Attending funerals isn’t an especially challenging chore. All you have to do is dress in formal but not flashy attire, maintain a somber expression throughout the proceedings, and avoid speaking ill of the guest of honor. It’s so simple, in fact, that the job is routinely entrusted to vice presidents.
Even so, President Barack Obama somehow managed to cause not just one but two separate controversies on Tuesday while attending the funeral for former South African President Nelson Mandela.
One flap involved some seemingly inappropriate levity with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt during the service. A series of widely-disseminated photographs show the two sharing laughs while Mandela is being eulogized, even as the dignitaries seated around them remain properly glum, and it can only be hoped that they’re not scoffing at the kind words being said. Some small amount of chuckling is permissible at funerals if shared between old friends recalling some endearing anecdote about their shared relationship with the deceased, but this is not a likely explanation for the yucks as neither Schmidt nor Obama ever met Mandela. In one of the photographs the pair smilingly pose for a “selfie” on the small camera Obama holds at arm’s length, which is a breach of etiquette at any funeral even in these coarse times. The photographs also suggest a sort of flirtatiousness between Obama and Schmidt, who is fairly attractive by head of state standards, and judging by the sour look on Michelle Obama’s face she seems to have noticed it as well.
A more significant controversy concerned Obama’s handshake with Cuban dictator Raul Castro. The gesture thrilled such excitable news commentators as CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, who squealed with delight that Mandela “brought people together in life and he continues to bring people together today,”, and it gave former President Jimmy Carter hope that it will lead to friendlier relationships with Cuba, but more sensible observers such as Arizona Senator and failed presidential candidate John McCain were put off by such cordiality toward a murderous communist dictator. White House officials were quick to downplay the handshake, insisting it was not a “pre-planned encounter,” and noted that Obama’s eulogy included a subtle swipe at the unnamed countries that fail to lie up to Mandela’s ideal of freedom. The handshake was more noteworthy than the forgettable eulogy, which was also a sort of “selfie” that suggested Mandela’s greatest achievement in life was inspiring the career of Obama, but it’s nice to know that the president is at least sensitive to the soft-on-communism charge that has dogged him throughout his political career.
All in all, it was a rather poor funeral performance by the president. On the other hand, at least he didn’t bring his dog.

— Bud Norman

Reinvesting the Truth

Three cheers for Sumit Agarwal, Efraim Benmelech, Nattai Bergman, and Amit Seru. Their recent research for the National Bureau of Economic Research comes far too late to have averted our current financial woes, and will likely be little noticed by the people charged with averting future catastrophes, but it’s nice to hear the truth spoken even when only for its own sake.
The quartet of exotically-named economists titled their paper “Did the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) Lead to Risky Lending?,” and before delving into some very complicated analysis they answer the titular question with a simple “Yes, it did.” This admirably plain-spoken truth isn’t just a matter of academic interest, easily relegated to the pages of obscure economic journals, but rather a matter of importance to anyone hoping to make a living. Simply put, it exposes a widely-believed lie that has done much to bring America to its current sorry state.
Readers with reliable memories will surely recall the sudden bursting of the housing bubble back in ’08, which of course was immediately followed by a recession said to be the worst since he Great Depression, and they might also remember how it was all blamed on the voracious greed of top hat-wearing, moustache-twirling bankers who had tried to get rich by making hundreds of billions of dollars worth of loans to people who would never be able to pay them back. Republicans in general and George W. Bush in particular were also blamed, for it was their superstitious fetish for de-regulation that had removed the rule that previously forbade bankers to make loans to people who would never be able to pay them back. The economic downturn was fortuitously timed for Barack Obama, who stood foursquare against greedy bankers and promised all the regulations that a liberal heart might desire.
It was all utter nonsense, as a moment’s reflection could have revealed. There are no possible circumstances that might occur in a truly free market which would cause a banker, especially a greedy one, to make loans to people who will not be able to pay them back. There had never been a rule against making such futile loans, just as there had never been a rule against bankers giving all their money away to the panhandler on the corner, because there was no need for it. One didn’t even need to know that no financial de-regulation had occurred the Bush administration, and that on the contrary he had signed the Sarbanes-Oxley bill that added far too many new regulations, as simple logic should have sufficed. That panic that followed the crash didn’t allow for a moment’s reflection and overwhelmed logic, though, and the greedy bankers and ideological Republicans made for convenient scapegoats.
The truth, which even the Republican presidential ticket dared not speak, was that the federal government had tempted, cajoled, and at times outright compelled the banks to make the mortgage loans that brought down the financial industry. Although it had gone largely unnoticed, despite the Democrats’ occasional campaign boasts while the housing bubble was being inflated, the sub-prime loan was the culmination of a 30 year effort that began with the usual good intentions. Bankers had refused to make to loans to people who couldn’t pay them back from the dawn of commerce until 1978, but that year Congress and the reliably wrong Jimmy Carter decided to rectify this blatant discrimination with the Community Reinvestment Act to induce loans to law-income borrowers with bad credit scores.
The law was more or less ignored by the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, an oversight that was little noted at time except in the occasional outraged editorial, but starting in 1993 the Clinton administration began to enforce it with an evangelical zeal. Lawsuits brought by the Justice and Housing Departments forced billions of loans to borrowers who had previously been denied credit, while a concerted effort by activist groups such as ACORN, newspapers such as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and leftist lawyers such as Barack Obama increased the pressure. The Clinton administration eventually agreed to a wide range of financial de-regulations intended to minimize the risks of the policy, including the hated “derivatives” for which George W. Bush is usually blamed, and it even ordered the industry-dominating Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac mortgage institutions to fill half their portfolios with sub-prime loans. When a construction boom inevitably followed, Clinton was pleased to take the credit.
As the great French economist Frédéric Bastiat observed, “it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the ultimate consequences are fatal,” but by the time all those loans started going bad Clinton was out of office and basking in his reputation as an economic genius. George W. Bush was the one who was there to deal with the mess, and despite his frequent efforts to convince the congressional Democrats to reform the various sub-prime policies he was the one who would be forever blamed. With no one in the press willing to admit their own culpability in the fiasco, an economic catastrophe caused by well-intentioned governmental meddling led to the election and re-election of the most meddlesome government in American history.
There’s not much that Agarwal, Benmelech, Bergman, and Seru can do about it now, but it’s good to have such highfalutin evidence to back up the obvious truth.

— Bud Norman