Archive for March, 2010

Incomprehensible

March 31, 2010

Once again I find myself perplexed by the alternate universe occupied by Victor Davis Hanson.

He writes:

A largely center-right country that polls consistently conservative apparently is beginning to think it was had in the election of 2008. A weak McCain campaign, weariness after eight years of Bush, fascination with a charismatic African-American landmark candidate, fright after the September 2008 meltdown, and Obama’s centrist “purple” rhetoric all provided the margin of victory, but apparently not the margin for an intended remake of America in which the daily conditions under which we live and see the world (buying a Chevy, going to the mailbox on Saturday, attending the doctor, viewing Israel, making claims on Medicare, paying taxes, trying terrorists, etc.) would be radically altered in just a year.

Is he implying that President Obama secretly wanted to transform America into a country where people no longer buy Chevy automobiles, pay taxes, try terrorists, receive Medicare, or check the mail on Saturday? That’s transparently absurd, but what else could the paragraph above mean?

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Three Cheers for The Daily Caller

March 31, 2010

In a blog post at Legal Insurrection that describes The Daily Caller as a failure, William A. Jacobson says this:

The mainstream media and left-wing blogosphere (including Huffington Post) are all over every move the RNC and Republicans make, while ignoring and covering up any and all possible problems in Democrat land.

Daily Caller may have earned a news cycle by piling on, but it hasn’t earned any respect. From anyone.

Mr. Jacobson is mistaken on the narrow point — The Daily Caller earned my respect by scooping the competition on a substantive story and following up on it, and I can report that several others I’ve spoken to feel the same way. More importantly, what I take to be Mr. Jacobson’s larger point is wrongheaded. The mainstream media isn’t “all over” every move made by the RNC, and right-of-center outlets do a great service to our side of the political spectrum when they shed light on movement institutions squandering money, exercising poor judgment, or operating under inept leadership.

It’s as if a certain kind of movement blogger doesn’t understand that corruption in conservative institutions hurts the right, while rooting out corruption strengthens it. In the name of ideological loyalty, these misguided souls lavish respect on right-of-center figures who cover for the GOP, apparently blind to the fact that this fraud enables the rot to spread. Spendthrift GOP operatives, corrupt politicians, and intellectually dishonest conservative commentators persist in greater numbers than they otherwise would because people like Mr. Jacobson are married to the narrative that the media is biased against the right, therefore every right-leaning site should criticize the left exclusively.

In reality, folks on the right should be most heavily invested in uncovering deeds that weaken their institutions, and they’re in a far better position to uncover, understand, and report on those deeds than a CNN producer or a Huffington Post columnist. Three cheers for The Daily Caller. I don’t much care for the Republican Party, having long ago lost faith in every partisan institution in America, but lots of folks on the right are invested in the RNC, the organization wields a lot of power, and if it’s squandering its resources, we’re all better served knowing about it.

I see that several big Republican donors seem to agree.

Andy McCarthy Still Won't Acknowledge Innocents at Gitmo

March 30, 2010

Once again, Andy McCarthy has penned a lengthy piece about War on Terrorism detainees at Guantanamo Bay that neglects to mention that many of the people held there were completely innocent. This intellectually dishonest omission — one that I’ve called to his attention on multiple occasions — bears directly on the former prosecutor’s sustained effort to discredit the lawyers who make up what he calls The Gitmo Bar. I can see why Mr. McCarthy writes his articles in this misleading way. How much easier to persuade one’s audience that these lawyers aren’t patriotic Americans when one pretends that all their clients were members of Al Qaeda. Or perhaps Mr. McCarthy is uncomfortable admitting that if he had his way, even the innocent folks released from Gitmo would still be rotting there without lawyers or the right to contest their imprisonment.

In case any readers are confused about why Mr. McCarthy’s views are so dangerous, let us take a detour to Clayton, Michigan, where nine militia members were arrested over the weekend in what Attorney General Eric Holder called “an insidious plot.” As reported by The New York Times:

The court filing said the group, which called itself the Hutaree, planned to kill an unidentified law enforcement officer and then bomb the funeral caravan using improvised explosive devices based on designs used against American troops by insurgents in Iraq.

Why?

The Hutaree — a word Mr. Stone apparently made up to mean Christian warriors — saw the local police as “foot soldiers” for the federal government, which the group viewed as its enemy, along with other participants in what the group’s members deemed to be a “New World Order” working on behalf of the Antichrist, the indictment said.

Plainly, this was a terrorist plot planned by religious extremists. Should you doubt that, imagine what you’d say if Al Qaeda members assassinated a police officer, waited for the long funeral procession with hundreds of cops on motorcycles, and killed dozens of them by exploding the kinds of IEDs used in Iraq. Moreover, if you’re Andy McCarthy, you believe that being American citizens shouldn’t afford a terrorist any additional rights. I haven’t seen Mr. McCarthy call on Eric Holder to declare these people enemy combatants, nor has Marc Thiessen demanded that they be water-boarded, but that is the course those men recommend when terrorists are captured. I’d call them “accused terrorists,” but Mr. McCarthy never makes the distinction — his position is apparently that if the president says you’re a terrorist, it is so, or at least it may as well be so, since you’re an enemy combatant who shouldn’t have any right to an attorney or to challenge your detainment.

Imagine that President Obama actually treated the Michigan suspects in this fashion — that he removed them entirely from the United States criminal justice system, shipped them to Guantanamo Bay, rammed their heads against walls, water boarded them dozens of times each day, placed them in stress positions, stripped them naked to humiliate them, etc. And that this continued for months. What if he detained them for years, never charging them with a crime, or offering any evidence of their guilt save his word and a folder full of documents classified top secret that no one else was allowed to see. If the President of the United States had that power, you might say, he could seize any innocent person on earth, accuse him of being a terrorist, and imprison him for life, or at least until the end of his tenure. He could seize Andy McCarthy himself, and what procedural argument could the man make?

The aforementioned positions, and their sweeping, radical implications are the reasons that Andy McCarthy’s views are dangerous, and also help explain why the Gitmo Bar, which pushed back against these tyrannical claims, represented the interests of the American people. In his piece, Mr. McCarthy alleges that some members of the Gitmo Bar broke the law in the course of representing their clients by unnecessarily, negligently, even maliciously showing them material that would endanger the lives of CIA agents. If that is correct, the lawyers in question should be punished. Unsurprisingly, Mr. McCarthy uses these allegations against specific lawyers he doesn’t name to tar the whole Gitmo Bar, a guilt by association tactic that is both dishonorable and intellectually dishonest.

Criticism as harsh is justified by the opening salvo in Mr. McCarthy’s piece, a display of intellectual malfeasance that combines straw manning, misdirection, and the strange suggestion that The Gitmo Bar would represent former Bush Administration lawyers if it really believed in counsel for unpopular clients. The only consolation in the piece is the realization that its author’s foray into journalism was preceded by his leaving government, where he would’ve been in a position to advance the dangerous views that he cannot adequately defend, or even acknowledge.

When Newsroom Diversity Becomes an Ideology

March 30, 2010

The Washington Post’s ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, has published a piece on newsroom diversity that is long on assertion, short on argument, and largely wrongheaded.

Here’s a fairly lengthy excerpt:

The Post remains a leader in newsroom minority employment. Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli, who is white, took over five months after Coleman’s memo and soon assembled a leadership team perhaps more diverse than that at any other metropolitan newspaper. His top tier of editors is about equally divided by gender and includes three African Americans, one Asian American, another of South Asian ancestry and another of Spanish heritage. All told, journalists of color comprise about 24 percent of the newsroom, comfortably above the ASNE census average of roughly 13 percent in recent years.

But here’s the problem: Minorities are 43 percent of The Post’s circulation area, and a large part of the region is edging toward “majority minority” status. For The Post, being “good on diversity” isn’t enough.

Brauchli and his leadership team acknowledged the same in a note to the staff last Monday. “We are in danger of losing ground if we do not consistently try to recruit the best minority journalists,” they wrote.

Back when newspapers generated huge profits, altruism often drove diversity efforts. Today, there’s an urgent business imperative. For The Post, struggling to regain profitability and retain subscribers, reaching expanding minority audiences represents opportunity — and perhaps survival.

“I think the more relevant you are in your community, the more successful you will be,” Brauchli said in an interview this past week. “It’s axiomatic.” He’s right. Newsroom diversity is about accuracy and relevance. It can yield market penetration and revenue.

“You can’t cover your community unless you look like your community,” said Bobbi Bowman, a former Post reporter and editor who is a diversity consultant for ASNE. (Full disclosure: I sit on its board). “If you have a community of basketball players, it’s difficult for a newsroom of opera lovers to cover them.”

If anyone believed this nonsense, it would be absolutely ruinous for minority journalists. Imagine diversity consultant Bobbi Bowman telling a black reporter, “I’m sorry, your work is good, and I’d like to grant your request to cover Georgetown for the Metro desk, but you can’t cover a community like Georgetown if you don’t look like the people there — either choose a majority black neighborhood or else see if anything is available on the sports desk.” Confronted with that example, everyone is quick to acknowledge that one doesn’t have to look like a community to cover it.

Even the more likely, “We need a black reporter to cover this black neighborhood,” would tend to concentrate minority hires on poor beats, far away from the centers of Washington DC power — and more importantly, removed from whatever beat the reporter’s interests and talents would otherwise suggest. And as someone who worked at a couple midsized dailies where I was one of the few conservative reporters, let me assure you that it’s annoying when people always look to you as if you’re the designated representative for everyone in your identity group.

This isn’t to say that race and ethnicity are irrelevant to the enterprise of journalism. Racial mistrust, language barriers, unfamiliar aspects of immigrant cultures, and insights born of experience growing up in a community all explain why, for example, an Ethiopian American reporter might have an easier time than most covering the Ethiopian diaspora in Washington DC. Of course, saying that is true on average hardly necessitates considering race as a factor in hiring, since candidates, their language skills, the kinds of communities where they grew up, and any other helpful attribute or relevant factor can be judged on an individual basis, and with the beat they’re being hired to cover in mind.

Yes, of course the Washington Post should hire a qualified applicant who can fluently speak a second language, cultivate sources from acquaintances in the old neighborhood, etc. I don’t know any editor who wouldn’t recognize the folly of passing on such an applicant. The problem is that newsrooms won’t look like the communities they serve until applicant pools for jobs that require college degrees also start to look like the population at large, or else newspapers recruit and hire less qualified candidates to meet racial or ethnic quotas.

Consider the availability of DC based Hondurans with a bachelor’s degree, daily newspaper experience, and clips commensurate with the folks usually hired by the Washington Post. It would be amazing if a relatively poor group of relatively recent immigrants were able to produce very many Post applicants, especially since some talented journalists in the community would be attracted to Spanish language venues or television. Without a solid applicant pool, is the community of DC Hondurans better off being reported on by the most talented reporter available, or the most talented Honduran available? Or is any Hispanic presumed to be a better fit than any non-Hispanic? It is difficult to tell, because columns like the one excerpted above tend to offer only vague, sanctimonious imperatives, as if merely caring about diversity, as I do, is enough. But wishing that newsrooms looked like America in a world of racial equality and zero lasting effects of racism doesn’t make it so.

The example of an Ethiopian immigrant neighborhood also helps clarify why it is foolish to gauge success by citing the percentage of “reporters of color” in the newsroom. Is a third generation Asian American who grew up in California better able to cover Ethiopian immigrants or black Americans than a white reporter? Is a black reporter who went to Howard more adept at covering Latino day laborers in Northern Virginia?

Finally, if Mr. Alexander is making an earnest argument about diversity as a business imperative, he should explain why he tells us the overall percentage of non-whites in the Washington Post’s circulation area, rather than adjusting for those fluent in English at a bare minimum, and ideally for home ownership rates, education levels, and whether they grew up in a home with newspapers — variables that any circulation manager would want to know when figuring out which potential readers to target.

It matters a great deal that we read writing by people from different racial and ethnic communities, by women and men, and by any other identity group whose cultural experiences one hopes to better understand. Ta-Nehisi Coates explains one black perspective better than any white guy could — and John McWhorter explains another one, and WEB DuBois still another. Typical newspaper writing is perhaps the written format where folks from any background are least able to meaningfully bring their perspective to the work. Let’s be honest, the average newspaper story is fleeting, merely adequate in its writing, and produced on such a tight deadline that merely getting the facts correct is difficult enough.

There is a case to be made for diversity in newsrooms, and if you’re running an all white newspaper in a multicultural town, you’re probably doing something wrong. But no one is helped by peddling diversity mantras that betray an utter failure to grapple with a difficult issue. Furthermore, should the Washington Post newsroom grow more diverse in future years — and I hope that it does — let me be the first to assert that the minority staffers should be covering Congress, Bethesda, and the University Club as often as sitting on the Metro desk or reporting on Southwest DC. Mr. Alexander would probably say he’d never suggest otherwise, but when you approvingly quote someone saying, “If you have a community of basketball players, it’s difficult for a newsroom of opera lovers to cover them,” it’s fair enough to wonder if you’re also saying the opposite. Of course, this whole exercise presumes that basketball and opera themselves are inherently racial rather than cultural phenomena, which is also wrong.

What Professor Reynolds Got Factually Wrong

March 27, 2010

Here is a CNN clip that reports on President Obama celebrating Passover 2009 in the White House. I vaguely remembered seeing it at the time, and found myself reminded of it by Professor Glenn Reynold’s latest controversial blog post. “Possibly Obama just hates Israel and hates Jews,” he writes. “That’s plausible — certainly nothing in his actions suggests otherwise, really.”

Other bloggers are criticizing Professor Reynolds for intemperance. But I think the objectionable thing here is the obvious factual inaccuracy. There are lots of actions President Obama has taken that suggest that he doesn’t hate Israel and Jews. Being the first president to host a passover Seder in the White House is one action that “suggests otherwise.”

Or consider candidate Obama’s 2007 speech to AIPAC:

Our job is to never forget that the threat of violence is real. Our job is to renew the United States’ efforts to help Israel achieve peace with
its neighbors while remaining vigilant against those who do not share this vision. Our job is to do more than lay out another road map; our job is to rebuild the road to real peace and lasting security throughout the region.

That effort begins with a clear and strong commitment to the security of Israel: our strongest ally in the region and its only established
democracy. That will always be my starting point. And when we see all of the growing threats in the region: from Iran to Iraq to the resurgence of al-Qaeda to the reinvigoration of Hamas and Hezbollah, that loyalty and that friendship will guide me as we begin to lay the stones that will build the road that takes us from the current instability to lasting peace and security.

A speech before a pro-Israel group that asserts loyalty to Israel and friendship with Israel — that suggests President Obama doesn’t hate the country. Of course, we needn’t go all the way back to 2007. Last week, President Obama described recent disagreements with Israeli leaders as follows: “Friends are going to disagree sometimes.”

Surely having seen just the evidence in this post, Professor Reynolds can at least acknowledge that some things in President Obama’s actions suggest that he doesn’t hate Israel.

So will he publish a correction?

In closing, it is worth a look at Professor Reynold’s entire original post:

WHY HAS BARACK OBAMA TREATED NETANYAHU SO RUDELY? “Obama would never treat the president of Equatorial Guinea that way.”

Possibly Obama just hates Israel and hates Jews. That’s plausible — certainly nothing in his actions suggests otherwise, really.

But it’s also possible — I’d say likely — that there’s something else going on. I think Obama expects Israel to strike Iran, and wants to put distance between the United States and Israel in advance of that happening. (Perhaps he even thinks that treating Israel rudely will provoke such a response, saving him the trouble of doing anything about Iran himself, and avoiding the risk that things might go wrong if he does). On the most optimistic level, maybe this whole thing is a sham, and the U.S. is really helping Israel strike Iran, with this as distraction. The question for readers is which of these — not necessarily mutually exclusive — explanations is most plausible.

It is possible, given the way this post is written, that Professor Reynolds didn’t make a factual mistake — that he never actually believed that President Obama has never done anything to suggest he doesn’t hate Jews and Israel, but that he used that rhetoric in a post anyway because he decided to privilege the pithiness of his rhetoric, even at the expense of accuracy.

The Tone of David Frum

March 26, 2010

Jonah Goldberg offers astute praise of David Frum in this post, which is worth reading in full, but given my interests I think the criticism he levies is more interesting.

If I were convinced by his analysis — and I am not — I still wouldn’t argue my points the way he does. If you think Rush, Beck, Hannity, Palin, et al. are bad for conservatism, that’s fine. If you think that the Right is too committed to tax cuts or that its emphasis on social issues is hurting it with the young and the affluent, that’s totally reasonable (if not necessarily persuasive or dispositive). But time and again David seems to relish and glory in the GOP’s “failures.” And this makes no sense to me.

It seems like the day before yesterday Frum was putting steel in the spine of the GOP on immigration, gay marriage, etc. If he really believed those things then and he believes his new analysis about the GOP now, then he should at least be remorseful about the changing times and the need for the party and movement to moderate. He should be saying things like “I wish I was wrong, but we have to face reality.”

He should be celebrating when his thesis has been disproved (as it was, to one extent or another, in every off-year election of the last 12 months). He should be saying, “As much as I disagree with how Rush says X, I have to concede on the merits he’s right about X.” And he should both cheer and revisit his thesis when serious social conservatives win without compromising their beliefs (as happened in the McDonnell election).

I am not sure why Jonah Goldberg demands that conservatives who disagree with movement orthodoxy craft prose that is dripping with regret. Perhaps he can explain the value that emotional posturing adds. I do know that Mr. Frum’s writing often does nod to regret at conservative failures in just the way Mr. Goldberg seems to want, that his core project is expressed in prose that is hardly “giddy” at conservative failures, and that even in his infamous Rush Limbaugh take-down piece notes:

I’m a pretty conservative guy. On most issues, I doubt Limbaugh and I even disagree very much. But the issues on which we do disagree are maybe the most important to the future of the conservative movement and the Republican Party: Should conservatives be trying to provoke or persuade? To narrow our coalition or enlarge it? To enflame or govern? And finally (and above all): to profit—or to serve?

Huh. Frum acknowledges broad agreement with Limbaugh, and then notes areas where they disagree — it’s almost as if he did exactly what Jonah Goldberg accuses him of never doing.

As I’ve previously written in an open letter to Jonah Goldberg, I am a fan of his work — but one thing Mr. Goldberg and I disagree about is the posture that right of center writers should take. This was demonstrated most starkly when he noted a willingness to “do my part” in the spin wars. Demanding that dissident conservatives criticize the movement with palpable regret is a less egregious position, and perhaps Mr. Goldberg is merely trying to say that Mr. Frum would be more convincing to movement conservatives were his rhetoric less tone deaf to their feelings.

On the other hand, there are lots of folks who read the comments on Sarah Palin’s Facebook page, the less thoughtful cheer-leading posts at The Corner, and “friendly” commentary at sundry other venues in movement conservatism, and come away frustrated by the group think, sycophantic tone, the spin, and suspicious of whatever is written. I know a lot of independent minded folks who are friendly to the tenets of conservatism and libertarianism, but who can’t stand the movement — and for these folks, it is writers like Mr. Goldberg who are sometimes tone deaf, and “ruffle some feathers by putting things baldly” writers like Mr. Frum who are a breath of fresh air. Since Mr. Frum wants to ally dissident conservatives with new converts to the movement, I suspect that the tone he takes is strategically the right one.

Actually AEI Folks Have Been Weighing in On Health Care

March 26, 2010

I am usually a great fan of Bruce Bartlett’s work, and if rumors are true that the American Enterprise Institute now associates itself with Marc Thiessen, I question the judgment of the specific people there who recruit and approve new personnel, given that devastating critiques of his poorly reasoned book prove it to be factually inaccurate.

It is for these reasons that I took note when Mr. Bartlett wrote the following (emphasis added):

As some readers of this blog may know, I was fired by a right wing think tank called the National Center for Policy Analysis in 2005 for writing a book critical of George W. Bush’s policies, especially his support for Medicare Part D. In the years since, I have lost a great many friends and been shunned by conservative society in Washington, DC.

Now the same thing has happened to David Frum, who has been fired by the American Enterprise Institute. I don’t know all the details, but I presume that his Waterloo post on Sunday condemning Republicans for failing to work with Democrats on healthcare reform was the final straw.

Since, he is no longer affiliated with AEI, I feel free to say publicly something he told me in private a few months ago. He asked if I had noticed any comments by AEI “scholars” on the subject of health care reform. I said no and he said that was because they had been ordered not to speak to the media because they agreed with too much of what Obama was trying to do.

It saddened me to hear this. I have always hoped that my experience was unique. But now I see that I was just the first to suffer from a closing of the conservative mind. Rigid conformity is being enforced, no dissent is allowed, and the conservative brain will slowly shrivel into dementia if it hasn’t already.

I know almost nothing about AEI. Though I am predisposed to believe that every Washington DC based think tank is somewhat intellectually corrupt, I’m pretty sure Mr. Bartlett’s experience wasn’t unique, and I am certain that the conservative movement as a whole handles dissent poorly, followup reporting persuades me that the particular boldfaced passage above is inaccurate (whether it accurately quotes Mr. Frum or not I have no idea), and is unfair to AEI.

For example, AEI Scholar Glenn Hubbard co-authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed on health care as recently as February. The AEI blog has tons of health care writing, much of it recent and discussing the reform effort that just succeeded. I could cite TV appearances and other articles too, but why bother? It’s already evident that there were plenty of comments from AEI folks on the subject of health care (more are linked below).

To sum up: The implication in Mr. Bartlett’s piece is that lots of people at AEI favored most aspects Obamacare — so many people, in fact, that AEI scholars were ordered against commenting on the subject at all. But lots of people at AEI did write publicly on the subject. Put another way, even if a few pro-Obamacare scholars had been silenced, Mr. Bartlett’s piece would be inaccurate as written. Perhaps he misheard Mr. Frum, or else Mr. Frum was mistaken or speaking imprecisely. I’ve followed the work of both men, and I’ve never known either to lie, so I presume there is some good explanation for the mistake.

Were any AEI scholars told to shut up about health care? Was there unspoken pressure? I sent an e-mail to all the folks listed on the think tank’s Web site, offering anonymity to anyone who requested it. I remain willing to expose even a partial vindication of Mr. Bartlett’s charge.

As yet, however, I’ve gotten only a lot of replies like this one from Charles Calomiris:

In all the years of my association with AEI no one ever suggested, much less ordered, that I say or not say anything. Quite the opposite; I was specifically told never to expect any guidance and I was guaranteed it in advance, which is why I was comfortable being involved with AEI for many years. The culture of AEI is completely contrary to attempts at control of academic thinking or speech. Freedom of thought is sacrosanct. I can tell you from personal knowledge that in many other think tanks in Washington that is not the case. At AEI, however, it is hard to imagine that these accusations could be true.

Or this one from Jack Calfee:

I have long admired Frum’s work, although I confess to not having paid much attention to his critiques of Republicans and conservatives. Speaking as one of the AEI health policy scholars, however, the notion that we have been muzzled on health care reform is bizarre. So many op-eds, so many AEI pubs, so many media appearances and interviews and quotes . . . I have to wonder whether David was quoted correctly on this point.

Or this one from Sally Satel:

I have never, ever been instructed/hinted/cajoled on what to say or write.

Or this from Edward Blum:

It has been my experience that AEI does not censor, discourage, or micromanage the work of its scholars and fellows or how they communicate with the press.

Or this from Rick Hess:

i’m curious about the sourcing of the Bartlett claim. i certainly never heard any such thing.

i do know that in my own field (K-12 and higher education), no one at AEI has ever attempted to steer, stifle, or influence my writing or speaking. this is particularly relevant, as much of my own work has been flagged over the years as heartburn-inducing by Bush administration proponents of No Child Left Behind and conservative proponents of school choice. indeed, AEI scholars writing on questions of education– including Charles Murray, Lynne Cheney, Christina Hoff Sommers, Mark Schneider, Andy Smarick, and myself have consistently reflected diverging and oft-contradictory views regarding policy, practice, and aims in our written and spoken work.

indeed, i’ll simply say that in my eight years at AEI I have felt far less intellectually constrained (through formal clearance mechansims or informal social norms) than i did in my previous role as a professor of education and government at the University of Virginia.

Does anyone at AEI have a different experience to relate? The offer of anonymity remains, even if you’re someone who already wrote me expressing a different opinion on the record. Meanwhile, all the folks who ran with the Bruce Bartlett angle — I’m looking at you, Howard Kurtz — should note that whatever else happens at AEI, good or bad, it is undeniably the case that various folks there have been commenting on health care.

Incidentally, the think tank is foolish to lose the talents of David Frum.

UPDATE: Just before the health care vote an AEI staffer sent this e-mail to the organization’s media contacts:

The following AEI health policy scholars will be available to comment on health care vote developments over the weekend (for additional
information, please contact Veronique Rodman at vrodman@aei.org or 202.841.8295):

Joseph (Joe) Antos is the Wilson H. Taylor Scholar in Health Care and Retirement Policy at AEI. He previously served as Assistant Director
for Health and Human Resources at the Congressional Budget Office. Mr. Antos’s research focuses on the economics of health policy, including Medicare reform, health insurance regulation, and the uninsured. He can be contacted at jantos@aei.org.

John E. (Jack) Calfee is an economist who studies health care policy, the pharmaceutical industry, and the Food and Drug Administration
(FDA). He previously worked at the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Economics. Mr. Calfee also writes regularly for AEI’s Health Policy Outlook series. He can be contacted at jcalfee@aei.org.

Scott Gottlieb, M.D., a practicing physician, has served in various capacities at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and as a senior
policy adviser at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. At the FDA, Dr. Gottlieb was a senior adviser for medical technology;
director of medical policy development; and, most recently, deputy commissioner for medical and scientific affairs. He can be contacted
at scott.gottlieb@aei.org.

Robert B. (Bob) Helms has served as a member of the Medicaid Commission as well as assistant secretary for planning and evaluation
and deputy assistant secretary for health policy at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). He has written and
lectured extensively on health policy and health economics, including the history of Medicare, the tax treatment of health insurance, and
compared international health systems. He can be contacted at rhelms@aei.org.

Thomas (Tom) Miller is a former senior health economist for the Joint Economic Committee (JEC). While at the JEC, he organized a number of hearings that focused on reforms in private health care markets. He studies health care policy, health insurance, and regulation and has
testified before Congress on issues including the uninsured, Medicare prescription drug benefits, and health insurance tax credits. He can
be contacted at tmiller@aei.org.

ANOTHER UPDATE: I have confirmation from a couple people at AEI that Marc Thiessen will indeed be blogging there. This is remarkable. Seriously, anyone who cares about intellectual honesty at AEI should inform themselves about the substandard, factually inaccurate work produced by this man. I am not talking about simple mistakes in op-eds or blog posts. I am talking about even his book length work, which is devastatingly rebutted here and here.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: David Frum writes, “Did AEI muzzle healthcare scholars? I fear that in reproducing in print a private conversation from some months ago, Bruce Bartlett made a transmission error. I did not report as fact that scholars were laboring under any restrictions. What I did say was that AEI was punching way below its weight in the healthcare debate. I wondered, not alleged, wondered, whether AEI scholars were constrained by fear of saying something that might get them into trouble. To repeat: this was something I asked many months ago in private conversation, not something I allege today in public debate.”

That solves that.

Do read Mr. Frum’s full statement if you’ve followed the larger story about his being fired from AEI.

Finally, Mark Steyn writes, “Jonah, Stephen, Charles, John et al: A reader accuses me of not having ‘the guts’ to weigh in on the Frum/AEI split. Actually, life’s too short to get caught up in a dispute between Bruce Bartlett and Conor Friedersdorf, and that would still be true if I live to 112.” I note the remark only because it is bizarre to characterize the Frum/AEI question as a dispute between Bruce Bartlett and I. What does that even mean?

A Post About David Frum

March 25, 2010

A PCC is a conservative who yearns for the goodwill of the liberal elite in the media and in the Beltway—who wishes, always, to have their ear, to be at their dinner parties, to be comforted by a sense that liberal interlocutors believe that they are not like other conservatives, with their intolerance and boorishness, their shrillness and their talk radio. The PCC, in fact, distinguishes himself from other conservatives not so much ideologically—though there is an element of that—as aesthetically.

— Tunku Varadarajan, describing David Frum in The Daily Beast

On the subject of David Frum, I’ve got a lot to say, and I’ll begin by disclosing a personal story. In January 2009, I had a particularly bad day: the Washington DC based web magazine where I worked folded; and immediately afterward, I got a call informing me that my mom had been diagnosed with cancer, and would soon undergo a significant surgery. I am unsure how Mr. Frum heard about the magazine closing, but he e-mailed to ask if I would call him. On doing so, he offered condolences on a professional disappointment — a nice gesture, especially since I had precious little to offer him as a professional contact, and wasn’t a friend — and when I revealed why the lost job hadn’t been much on my mind, he spoke to me for perhaps twenty minutes longer, conducting himself in a most gentlemanly fashion.

Understand that I hardly knew Mr. Frum. I’d met him perhaps thrice in person, always in a room full of people. Even now I’ve met him perhaps six times. Upon calling me that day, I am certain he didn’t expect me to say that my mother had cancer — what does one even say to a professional acquaintance in that situation, beyond a mumbled, “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.” I still don’t know, because I can’t remember what Mr. Frum said, except that it consoled me greatly at the time, reassuring without being prying or presumptive: It was a polite, well-mannered, graceful, kind-hearted gesture, and it demonstrates two things. 1) The way Mr. Frum conducts himself isn’t intended to ingratiate himself to Washington DC’s liberal elite — he regularly demonstrates social graces on all sorts of occasions utterly unconnected with politics. 2) Probably Mr. Frum isn’t aware of how much he raised my spirits that day, which is another way of saying that being a gentleman — and striving to avoid shrillness, intolerance and boorishness — are commendable virtues and bedrocks of civil society. It is execrable to make civility into a vice, let alone an ideological signifier, as if most Americans don’t value these things regardless of their political beliefs, or benefit from a world where they are practiced.

Of course, David Frum is uncivil sometimes. I recall a line in Newsweek about Rush Limbaugh’s dimensions and manifold personal flaws that he phrased somewhat more harshly than was necessary (talk radio hosts bring out the worst in all of us), I’ve seen him scrap in the blogosphere, as so many of us sometimes do, and I object strongly to some of his rhetoric during the Bush era, when he questioned the motives of Iraq War opponents. But it is to his credit that he tries and usually succeeds in tempering the bad impulses that shadow us all in political argument. And it speaks poorly of anyone who criticizes not his rare failures, but his constant effort to resist them. What normal person wants to be like a boorish, mercenary talk radio host, for goodness sake? Since when are these qualities how conservatives define themselves “aesthetically”?

Other critics say that Mr. Frum is egotistical, disloyal, arrogant, self-important. Beyond the fact that these same people unselfconsciously laud Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity — self-important folks with out-sized egos if ever there were any — it is noteworthy that these criticisms are always offered as though they refute the arguments Mr. Frum is making about a given issue, or a politician, or conservatism, or the future of the Republican Party. It is an intellectual coward or a fraud who tries to discredit ideas by pointing out the alleged, totally irrelevant personality flaws of their advocates.

Love him or hate him, Mr. Frum has been around Washington DC a long time. He possesses knowledge on political history, policy, and politics that is broad and deep. He has an especially curious mind, and a willingness to flout the conventional wisdom, which influences him less than most people. Were movement conservatives less childish, irrational, and defensive in the face of dissidents, they’d learn something — even when he is wrong, he often raises worthwhile points that inform my thinking, much as I might disagree with his ultimate conclusions.

And God knows I think Mr. Frum is catastrophically wrong on some issues. He is nevertheless a factually careful, intellectually honest advocate for what he believes — and if you don’t think that matters, go read Andy McCarthy, Marc Thiessen, and Victor Davis Hanson, men whose every blog post is riddled with glaring errors, whether of logic, fact, or omission. Muse on what their ilk does to public discourse, and if your musings are persuasive, expect that they’ll ignore them in direct proportion to their inability to persuasively rebut.

To my dismay, Mr. Frum agrees with these men, if not their least defensible rhetoric, on certain matters related to the War on Terrorism. Unlike those writers, I respect Mr. Frum’s work despite our disagreement, not for its politeness, but because it has rigor, and he regularly ventures before intelligent critics to defend his beliefs against the strongest counterattacks they can offer. Can you imagine any of The Corner’s least thoughtful War on Terror hawks debating Andrew Bacevitch on Bloggingheads? Or doing an interview like this one? It is uncomfortable to defend ideas, especially unpopular ones, against their most penetrating critics, and Mr. Frum willingly does that.

When New Majority was renamed FrumForum, Mr. Frum was mocked for naming the site after himself. I cannot look inside the man. For all I know, this was motivated by pure egoism. Even if that were so, however, it would still be the case that he possesses enough humility to grapple with critics and publish writers with whom he forcefully disagrees — and as a reader, that is the only kind of humility that I require from the publishers, editors and writers I read. The most objectionably arrogant sites on the right are the ones that do nothing but cheer-lead an ever shrinking circle of ideologically pure allies who presume that they possess all the answers, and that anyone who disagrees with them should be subjected to mockery and character assassination.

I hesitate to raise foreign policy at length, because Mr. Frum is an astute advocate for a hawkish approach that I’ve come to regard as catastrophically misguided — it is one more reason I’m glad his focus lately has been domestic matters — but here goes anyway, because that interview linked above contains a passage that I’d like to comment on. It begins when the interviewer accuses the Bush Administration of a long list of crimes.

“I think it is very hard to argue that there was anything that the Bush administration did that was as far a departure from the law as the Roosevelt administration’s destroyers-for-bases deal with Great Britain…” Mr. Frum responds.

Guernica: “Departure from the law”?

David Frum: Something illegal. Remember the destroyer-for-bases deal in 1940?

Guernica: No.

David Frum: Okay, well look it up. I think that just about everybody at the time argued that it was almost certainly illegal. But it was a war. And in retrospect, you know the law that prevented that was a kind of mistake. Or Abraham Lincoln, using presidential authority to suspend habeas corpus.

Guernica: So protecting an undercover CIA operative’s identity is a mistake?

David Frum: One of the things that Jane Mayer, who is obviously no softy on the administration, says at the beginning of her book, is, By comparison with previous wartime administrations, the Bush administration’s illegalities were admittedly—and now I’m gonna forget the exact term she used—trivial or small. But she begins her whole book, which is an accusation of massive lawlessness, saying that if you compare it with other administrations during wartime, these things look pretty trivial. Um, that doesn’t mean they’re okay, if they’re illegal. It just means that people need to have some context in which they judge these things.

There is something that really bothers me about this argument. Abraham Lincoln led the country through a Civil War that claimed more lives than all other American conflicts combined, threatened the very existence of the Union, and determined the fate of the slave population. FDR confronted the Axis powers, a force that credibly threatened to take over the world even as its European half perpetrated a horrific genocide.

In contrast, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks — awful as they were — killed fewer than 4,000 people, posed no existential threat to America or any other Western nation, and afforded an opportunity to respond at a time and place of our choosing. Of course, the Bush Administration didn’t know all of that back then. It would be forgivable if they overestimated the threat posed by Al Qaeda terrorists immediately after 9/11.

But all these years later, it is a weak defense indeed to say that the Bush Administration was no worse than Lincoln or FDR. Imagine if you figured out the differences in lives lost now versus then, or the seriousness of the threat to American peace and prosperity now versus then — were the Bush/Cheney team sent back in time to preside over either the Civil War or World War II, and told to multiply their post-9/11 lawbreaking according to the proportional difference in national security threat level, they’d have to either cancel the experiment or lead the country into dictatorship.

Put another way, if torture and asserting the right to indefinitely hold American citizens without trial on the sole authority of the president is the response to 4,000 dead, what’s the response to 40,000 dead? I don’t mean to be glib even talking hypothetically about an attack that killed 40,000, but I must confess that much as I fear that prospect, and how much it would directly damage our nation, I am even more frightened of what our politicians would do in its aftermath.

I am reasonably certain that Mr. Frum would have serious objections to what I’ve just written. I am as confident that if I pitched him a piece worth running at his Web site, he’d run it (I’ve never been paid to write anything there, nor do I expect I ever will be), that if I ran into him on the street or at a party, he’d be unfailingly polite, and that if I sought his counsel on some personal matter (and again, I don’t expect to ever do so), he’d listen and help if he could.

It’s a shame that Mr. Frum has been asked to resign from AEI. I don’t have any knowledge of why exactly that happened, but given the intellectual corruption endemic to so many Washington DC think tanks, I can’t help but assume the worst. As a self-interested consumer of political commentary, I hope Mr. Frum finds new opportunities that expand his output and his audience — I expect that I’ll be touting some of his insights and forcefully railing against others for many years to come. And unlike so many Washington DC based writers, I am confident that he’ll continue writing what he believes irrespective of financial and career implications. In that narrow sense, I judge that he’s too arrogant to do otherwise.

And let me add that every writer should possess that kind of arrogance.

(Also, I like David Frum’s bookshelf. Wish he’d write more of those!)

Time horizons

March 23, 2010

Sure, the nature of the blogosphere privileges quick takes, instant analysis, and opinions that are subject to revision, but watching the health care process from start to finish, and the way it’s been covered in the political blogosphere, I am struck by the short time horizon of so many posts — some of the most plugged in politicos kept reporting on the horse race at a given moment, and extrapolating with great confidence that the bill is definitely not going to pass, or that some parliamentary procedure definitely is going to be used… and then a few days pass, and the prospects for the bill’s passage is completely changed, the expected procedures are completely different, the particular talking points are somewhat tweaked. If the political blogosphere covered basketball games, we’d not only be told about shots, makes, and misses, but every rotation of the ball on the way to the hoop. “He shoots, the ball appears to be on course, it’s getting closer and still seems like it’ll make it, I give it a 90 percent chance of going in, IT HITS THE BACK RIM, it didn’t make it, it definitely appears as though it may bounce out, it’s going to bounce on the rim a second time, now it’s perched on the lip and may go in or out — an instant poll of the crowd confirms that 75 percent of people think it’ll wind up a miss — my God it’s actually falling into the basket, this moment it is falling through the net, it’s a basket!”

One objection to excessive horse race coverage is that it crowds out stories on the substance of a bill. My understanding of how this legislation passed is more sophisticated than my understanding of how its provisions are going to unfold. But I am objecting now for another reason — I’ve just been inundated ever since Barack Obama won the presidency with all kinds of health care reform details that neither I nor anyone else needed to know. Especially the analysis that turned out to be completely wrong, because everyone was trying to be first to say that the legislation was definitely dead, or else still alive. There is zero accountability when folks are wrong about these predictions — why would there be? It’s not as though wrong guesses betray a lack of knowledge — but the fact that no one knows the future doesn’t stop everyone from cluttering up my Google Reader with posts that could as easily be unwritten. Just wait a day and see if the prediction actually plays out, then report it!

I am all for health care legislation predictions like the ones Megan McArdle just offered, because it’s useful to go on record about what one expects a bill to do, and to lay out weaknesses that maybe could be addressed, but when it comes to all the posts everyone wrote about whether the bill is dead or not, whether an amendment is going to pass, etc., why not just report that it exists and leave its passage or defeat as something to report after the fact? Sure, if you knew the future, it might be useful to know everything a bit early, but these predictions and pronouncements are so often wrong that being misled is a more frequent outcome than getting a jump on the news.

You Will You Will Rock Us

March 23, 2010

Well, if you can buy a 3/4 solitaire blue diamond engagement ring for 405.00, and you go give plasma twice a week making 60 or more a week on that, you can do the math on how long it would take to save up for that ring. Not long. And most people above the age of 18 can give plasma. Where there is a will, there is a way. And it shows some serious commitment to do something like that, plus imbues the ring with a WHOLE lot more meaning.

— A commenter at Slate

In a recent Dear Prudence, the advice column published at Slate, the question at issue concerns diamond rings:

I am very much in love with my girlfriend of four years and want to spend my life with her. There is one thing preventing me from popping the question: the diamond ring. My girlfriend is not overly superficial but has made it clear that she needs a “moderately good-sized ring.” I am young, in graduate school, and have no money. I would have to take out a loan to buy her what she desires. In the long term, money won’t be the issue, so my objections to buying an engagement ring are mostly philosophical: 1) Buying a diamond ring seems like buying a woman. 2) If we are equal partners, what is she buying me? 3) Diamonds fuel conflict around the world. 4) They are expensive yet inherently worthless. I have told her how I feel, and she sees my point but has indicated a ring is necessary. I can’t imagine proposing to her without one. Should I wait to propose and in the meantime try to change her mind, just buy her a stupid ring already, or take this impasse as an indicator of future conflict and move on with my life? (I don’t know if I could do the last one.)

Lots of married couples, including my grandparents, my parents, and many of the least superficial, most admirable people in my life, needlessly squandered hard earned money on diamond engagement rings. So I am not saying that there is anything wrong with folks who buy diamonds, except that they’re mistaken in that one instance.

Admittedly, diamonds are every bit as sparkly as one could wish. “Ooh, pretty,” people occasionally say upon looking at them.

On the other hand, most diamond buyers engage in minor financial irresponsibility when they make their purchase; help enrich some of the most exploitative, emotionally manipulative corporations in the world; are at least mildly complicit in the ongoing female status game that is “oh, let’s see/let me show you the rock;” and make themselves party to a violent, destabilizing, completely unnecessary commodities market.

Somehow that calculus makes diamonds a subject that reasonable people disagree about. Not that diamond engagement ring sycophants offer persuasive counterarguments — they tend to “see your point,” and insist that a diamond ring is necessary.

To be fair, there is the small matter of tradition. For tens of years, it has been a time honored practice to imagine that diamond rings are as old as marriage itself, fall for the same De Beers propaganda as your grandparents, and glory in “diamonds are forever” faux traditionalism (even as you arrange far more significant aspects of your marriage in ways that folks 50 years ago would find totally foreign).

Were I re-writing Dante, I’d put the terrible men responsible for De Beers in a circle of hell several levels below the big tobacco executives of yore for bringing this culture about.

But I am a pragmatist and an empiricist who recognizes the radical, counter-intuitive, decidedly minority nature of my position. Lots of intelligent, wonderful people whose moral instincts I generally admire buy diamonds. I am therefore forced to agree with Prudence when she tells the advice seeker that so long as it isn’t a conflict diamond, there isn’t an insurmountable moral case against bling. Put another way, guys sympathetic to my position shouldn’t lose the love of their life standing on principle.

In fact, so long as the guy in the question is cool marrying someone with moderate status anxiety — that’s probably the best case scenario for a woman who demands a certain size diamond — I’d say that Prudie is probably being excessively anti-diamond:

I hope your graduate studies are in something more remunerative than philosophy, not only so you can eventually buy your girl a ring, but because philosophy doesn’t seem to be your strength. Let me take your objections one by one: 1) Oh, come on. 2) Oh, come on. 3) There are “conflict-free” diamonds. 4) Many valuable things are inherently worthless. But despite my objections to your objections, in general I agree with you. (As I would, since I don’t have, and didn’t want, an engagement ring.) I find it ludicrous to consider going into debt to buy a piece of jewelry. If you can’t painlessly write a check for a ring, you can’t afford it. And I find it distasteful to think that a woman who wants to marry her boyfriend wouldn’t consider herself engaged unless he shows up with a substantial rock. If you’ve been together for four years, and are ready to be married, then you both should be ecstatic to take that step, even if it means she has to have a naked ring finger for a while. Propose to her and tell her that you’re hoping the two of you will build a happy, even prosperous, life together and that when you’re more financially secure, you will happily get her a ring she will enjoy. I agree with you that it seems nutty to break up over your “philosophic” objections to a ring. And I hope she’s not so “overly superficial” that she would refuse your proposal because it lacks sufficient carats.

Perhaps rejecting a ringless proposal would signify superficiality, but maybe not, since superficial women tend to choose guys who are already rich, rather than talking poor grad students into lavish purchases. It could be that this woman foolishly chose the kind of friends who’ll mock and denigrate her if she’s ringless; perhaps her co-workers will unintentionally make her feel very uncomfortable if they find out she is engaged and doesn’t have a ring; there are sundry explanations other than superficiality, many of them grounded in the awful culture of diamonds in America.

Disagree about diamonds? Read this, and tell me if you still do. How I hope that one day matters are reversed, a la fur coats, and it is folks who do wear diamonds who are looked down upon by their girlfriends. This despite the fact that some of my best friends are diamond owners! Hey, if I win you’ll still have a way to cut glass.

UPDATE: Okay, I assume and hope that this isn’t a common sentiment, but I can’t resist posting one more Slate commenter’s take:

I hope you can read this message on time. It seems to me you really do not get the REAL issue with the ring, and why just a band wouldn’t do. It is true, as some other have mentioned before me, any women would think sweet things of you for the next 60 years if you give them a nice ring. The reason for this sweet thoughs are not thoughs of pure white romantic love, nor hot passionate fire fuled love. It is not that your bought her as a woman, as some women indeed like the feeling of being possesed a sign of their feminity (gosh, protect me from that thoughts), nor the fact that you prooved your love by doing a great sacrifice you can almost not afford, or even if you prooved you are worthy of getting married to due to your wealth, or at least promise of future wealth.

The real reason, and I mean the REAL reason why we all want largest available ROCK is to because we want it as a weapon. A social weapon. We want to able to scratch with ethernal jelousy and envy the heart of our current future female friends and enemies, so, even when we will turn into a fat, ordinary, ugly and old woman in the next 60 years, we could always, always make an subtle movement with the hand, reach something, wave good bye, just anything, so the light catches an edge, deflects on one or two faces of the stone, just make a sparkle or bling, just for a instant. But that instant, brief as a blink, is enough for us to remember our capacity to be at the same level of most females of our class. May be even dismiss all smaller stone ringers. That subtle moment will last a tenth of a second. But in our hearts the power will remain constant as well as our sweet thoughts of you giving, for giving us that power or illusion of power. Diamonds are forever. As for a suggestion, if you decide not to buy the ring, you run a high risk of getting a no for an answer, specially if your girlfriend is very close to female friends with potentially large stones. If she even says yes, then she might stay with you forever, but you would need to buy the ring eventually, and THEN forget about buying a new car before the ring. Alternatively, it would be easier to not buy the ring if you move to another city, where the acknowledgement of the stone by her friends would be diminished.