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Headline at the Times of Israel: “Obama: US won’t be able to defend Israel if peace talks fail.” Jeffrey Goldberg writes,

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the White House tomorrow, President Barack Obama will tell him that his country could face a bleak future — one of international isolation and demographic disaster — if he refuses to endorse a U.S.-drafted framework agreement for peace with the Palestinians. Obama will warn Netanyahu that time is running out for Israel as a Jewish-majority democracy. And the president will make the case that Netanyahu, alone among Israelis, has the strength and political credibility to lead his people away from the precipice.

In an hourlong interview Thursday in the Oval Office, Obama, borrowing from the Jewish sage Rabbi Hillel, told me that his message to Netanyahu will be this: “If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who?”

But of course Obama is getting Hillel wrong, in letter and in spirit. Hillel famously said,

If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? But if I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?

If I were Benjamin Netanyahu, I would quote Hillel back at him. “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?” Certainly the chief responsibility of the Prime Minister of Israel is to look out for Israel.

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The last eight months of my life have been dominated by creating and running a massively open online course (MOOC) on twentieth-century intellectual history. The course has ended, and I seem to remember that I had a life before all this started. I hope I can get back to it.

The course, one of the first humanities MOOCs, attracted 35,000 students, of whom about 8,000 actually did some of the work. That’s a common feature of MOOCs. My course was offered through EdX, a consortium started by MIT and Harvard. It’s a nonprofit committed to courses being free. So, a lot of people sign up on impulse, or just to explore.

The audience wasn’t what I had expected to encounter. Three-fourths of the students were from outside the United States. More than half already had bachelor’s degrees. Almost ten percent had PhDs or other doctoral level degrees.

The amount of work involved in putting this together was immense. I quickly learned that effectiveness in the classroom isn’t the same, at all, as effectiveness in a video format. A pause, a glance down, a look around—all those seem thoughtful in the classroom but incompetent on film. I couldn’t just lecture from PowerPoint (really, in my case, Keynote) slides or notes; I had to script everything. I didn’t realize that until filming had started. So, throughout the month of May, I stayed up writing scripts until 1 or 2 in the morning, woke up at 6 to go over the day’s scripts, got on the bus at 8, filmed from 9 to 1, and then worked on scripts for the next day. By the end of the month I was exhausted. The videos contain some stupid mistakes (like mistranslating Kampf, or mistaking Manet for Monet) as a result of performing on very little sleep.

Once filming ended, editing began. For five months, I collected images—about 5,000, overall—to be inserted into the videos. All had to be documented for copyright and permission purposes. I had a part-time undergraduate assistant to help. He was terrific. But I should have had one or two others as well. The video production team I worked with was fantastic.  I nicknamed the video editor “Little Miss Lightning” for her astounding speed and accuracy with Final Cut Pro. My student assistant worked on multiple choice quiz questions and discussion questions, which I then edited. Bottom line: producing this MOOC took months of really hard work from a team of talented people.

Actually running the MOOC was easier, though the discussion boards require and merit lots of attention, and we were plagued with software problems that inevitably accompany being one of the early courses on a new platform. Many students had little to say on the discussion boards, but, as one might expect from 35,000 people, some were terrific. Reading the top posts was like being in a very high-level seminar.

Some lessons I’ve learned from the experience:

1. Creating a MOOC is much harder than you think. Estimate the time it will take and the assistance you’ll need, and then multiply by three.

2. Starting just four months before the course is to begin doesn’t leave you enough time. Six months is a bare minimum. A year would be better.

3. Reducing a 50-minute lecture to an 8-15 minute video is possible. But it takes some time to learn how to do it.

4. MOOCs can communicate information very effectively. Performance on the quizzes after videos and readings was excellent.

5. Reducing 50 classroom minutes to a 10-minute video leaves out a lot. Some of it probably doesn’t matter. But two things probably do. (a) You can give students the bottom line, but you don’t really have time to explain how you got there. So, you can teach students what people thought, what happened, etc. But it’s much harder to teach them why they thought that, why that happened, etc. (b) You can’t explore alternative explanations, possible objections, and the like in any depth. So, the video presentations feel rather one-dimensional; the classroom experience feels many-dimensional.

6. The students are likely to be much better than you anticipate. Aim high. The video format is going to reduce the effective level of your teaching anyway. So, aim at college freshmen, as I did, and you’ll probably be producing something below the level of much of your audience.

7. Understand at the outset what you want to do with the course material, and keep good records from the beginning. We decided halfway through to produce videos that could, someday, be sold commercially, though that’s no part of the current plan. That meant identifying the images that were Creative Commons “share alike” and replacing them, which was a lot of extra work. Don’t expect Google Image search to do this for you. Specifying “able to use, share, or modify, even commercially” doesn’t screen out “share alike” images.

8. No one understands the business model underlying MOOCs. Right now MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, my university, and many others are offering MOOCs—which cost more than $100,000 each to produce—-for free, in effect as loss leaders or marketing devices. That’s worthwhile, from a marketing point of view—how much would a university pay otherwise to get a global audience to see their names beside MIT and Harvard under the heading, “Take great online courses from the world’s best universities”?—but it’s not a model that supports a full slate of course offerings. Someone is going to have to figure out how to make some money from doing this, even if it’s just enough to cover the costs of producing the course. I’m confident that it can be done, but no one sees clearly how to do it at this point.

Why am I confident, you ask? Suppose that a life of a course offered this way is five years. (Many are relatively timeless and might last much longer. But assume we want a five-year payback.) Most of the 35,000 who signed up for my course were gawkers who probably wouldn’t have registered if they had to pay even a small amount. So, let’s restrict attention to the roughly 8,000 who did some work. Over five years, that’s 40,000 people participating. The cost of my course was roughly $150,000. So, all the university would have to recover is about $4 per student to make the enterprise viable. Of course, there’s overhead and the time and effort of EdX to consider as well. But it seems likely that $10 per student would suffice. So, financial viability isn’t that far away.

9. The audience for MOOCs is global, which means that there’s great demand for courses with a global content. Mine, designed for students at my university, was too U.S.-centric. That three-fourths of my students would be from outside the United States, and thousands would be from India alone, came as a surprise to me. MOOCs should be designed with that in mind from the beginning.

10. You can assign papers, many of which will be good, and about 5-10% of which will be fantastic, better than anything you’re likely to see from an American college student. Grading hundreds or thousands of papers presents serious challenges, however. And lots of students who participate in discussions and quizzes won’t do them, so assigning papers drastically cuts your completion rate.

I decided that we would be guinea pigs, testing out a new AI grading tool. In the end I had to grade about 500 papers, and the tool graded the rest. We’re researching how it did. The concept is intriguing; the tool is a PDP system, a connectionist network that learns from the papers I grade (on a rubric I designed) and then tries to mimic me. It’s too early to evaluate the results, but initial data are encouraging.

The student reactions to the MOOC have been interesting, and much more varied than those of my in-class students. Overwhelmingly, students have been appreciative and grateful. But there are dissenting voices. I have, as you might expect, a conservative take on twentieth-century intellectual history, and some students—especially European students—find it objectionable. ‘Aghast’ is the word that some of them use to describe their reactions to my praise of Margaret Thatcher, for example. One student was a Stalinist who insisted that my lecture on Stalin was filled with anti-Soviet propaganda. How dare I allege that Stalin had people killed? In a country as large as the U.S.S.R., he pointed out, of course a lot of people die!

I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to do this course. I’m grateful that I teach where I do, and not in Europe. Finally, I’m grateful it’s over!

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The National Association of Scholars recently completed a study of history courses offered at The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University. It’s absolutely on target:

Our findings in this study shed light on a source of Americans’ increasing ignorance about their own history. At the two institutions we studied, the focus on race, class, and gender often tended to crowd out the teaching of other perspectives, and many U.S. history courses failed to provide a comprehensive rendering of U.S. history as a whole. Thematically skewed teaching leads to an incompleteness of knowledge, as recent studies of American history knowledge among students demonstrate. Faculty members at the University of Texas and Texas A&M University teaching U.S. history courses in the semester we studied made assignments that disproportionally favored themes of race, class, and gender [RCG] over all other themes.

The details are startling, even to those of us in other departments on campus:

Major Findings:

  • High emphasis on race, class, and gender in reading assignments. 78 percent of UT faculty members were high assigners of RCG readings; 50 percent of A&M faculty members were high assigners of RCG readings.
  • High level of race, class, and gender research interests among faculty members teaching these courses. 78 percent of UT faculty members had special research interests in RCG; 64 percent of A&M faculty members had special research interests in RCG.

Faculty in the history department have feigned outrage at this criticism, though I remember history and government faculty bragging thirty years ago about how they had tricked the legislature by turning its requirement that students take a year of American history and a year of American government into a license to teach whatever they wanted.

Here’s a view of how this looks from a student’s perspective. This week, I received a message from a student from my fall semester course about what he’s taking this spring. Here is his message, together with my reply:

  • Hey… I’m in US history covering 1492-1865 and am having to read A People’s History of The United States by Howard Zinn which is essentially a sad book about how terrible the United States has been to everyone from the Native Americans, to the Mexicans in the Mexican American War, to the blacks, and the Vietnamese and Koreans and Japanese during world war 2… Basically, the thesis of my history class thus far and to the end of the course is that our country is built upon oppressing other nations and ravaging the world around us through our warped justification of divine right and American Exceptionalism. Similarly, my Sociology class has the same crusade… in fact communism has been presented in a favorable light during sociology and we’ve learned about the U.S. “oppressing” the middle east… Obviously this is a total deviation from your … class in which America was shown in a pretty optimistic and favorable light… So I’m asking you as i try to keep my faith in this country… Should i loathe the United States? What do you think? I feel like a voice in the wilderness holding onto patriotism and the american dream and capitalism and American goodness.

  • Hey, …! Good to hear from you!

    Zinn was a communist, and his book, widely used, means precisely to get the citizens of the US to loathe their own country. The Gramscian march through the institutions has been going on for a long time, and departments of history, sociology, anthropology, English, etc., are deeply infected with this kind of thinking.

    I don’t mean to say that bad things didn’t take place. President Jackson’s treatment of the Cherokees, for example, was an outrage. Internment of Japanese-Americans was an overreaction with a profound human toll. I’ve never understood how we supposedly oppressed the Arab world.

    But the US has also freed slaves, freed hundreds of millions to pursue their dreams, tolerated dissent, expanded civil rights, and fought for the protection of human rights.

    Moreover, I see our failings as *human* failings, not the failings of the US or of capitalism or of whatever else people blame. No society throughout the entire history of the world has been free from crime, oppression, and war. Compared to Nazi Germany, the USSR, Communist China, North Korea, and eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain, the US looks positively magnificent. But those are countries in which the far left has taken control. Far from bringing about the promised utopia, they’ve brought about poverty, hopelessness, enslavement, disrespect for human rights, and mass murder.

    This isn’t just because the wrong people somehow took charge. It’s essential to socialism. If wealth and power are to be redistributed, someone gets to redistribute them, and, guess what? They keep most of it for themselves. The “social justice” schtick is for the rubes.

    If you want a dramatic illustration of the results of free enterprise within a constitutional republic as opposed to socialism within a “people’s republic,” look at this series of photographs from Germany: scenes from East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and, then, the same spots twenty years later, after the fall of the Wall.
    http://www.spiegel.de/fotostrecke/photo-gallery-east-germany-s-transformation-fotostrecke-59943.html

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Alternative Education

Glenn Reynolds writes about the growing popularity of alternatives to traditional public education. He makes an important sociological observation:

This Industrial Era approach (public schools were organized in the 19th century on a Prussian model, explicitly to produce obedient, orderly workers) had advantages. But it also had disadvantages. Like interchangeable parts in an industrial machine, students were treated alike, regardless of their individual characteristics and needs. Square peg, meet round hole.

Putting kids together and sorting by age also created that dysfunctional creature, the “teenager.” Once, teen-agers weren’t so much a demographic as adults-in-training. They worked, did farm chores, watched children and generally functioned in the real world. They got status and recognition for doing these things well, and they got shame and disapproval for doing them badly.

But once they were segregated by age in public schools, teens looked to their peers for status and recognition instead of to society at large. As Thomas Hine writes in The American Heritage, “Young people became teenagers because we had nothing better for them to do. We began seeing them not as productive but as gullible consumers.”

When one thinks about the effects of the teenager on our culture at large, the point becomes even more significant. As recently as the 1950s, the dominant culture—as expressed in movies, TV shows, music, theater, and news media—was by and for adults. By the 1960s, that had changed, and our culture became a youth culture, one in which the dominant trends are determined by what appeals to teenagers. The youth culture takes its direction from the preferences of young people who are isolated from the responsibilities of the adult world, get status and recognition from one another, and thus are highly manipulable. The Gramscian march has succeeded as well as it has not only because the Left has concentrated on institutions of cultural transmission but because we have constructed a stage of life during which the influence of such institutions is disproportionately large. We have allowed schools, films, the music industry, and other means of cultural transmission to shape our children, consigning parents, grandparents, and the world of work to the back seat.

This was my primary concern in deciding to homeschool my own children. I wanted to spend more time with them than the standard pattern allows. I didn’t want teachers and peers to get six-to-eight hours a day with my children, while I got a few hours in the evening when everyone was tired. I didn’t want my kids raised to become obedient line workers; I didn’t want them to be indoctrinated with Leftist claptrap. And I didn’t want them steeped in a secular view of the world that turns religion into a matter of personal taste. So, I kept them at home, where we were able to keep up with what they needed to do to be on pace with their public-school peers in two or three hours a day. The other hours? They were able to investigate things they cared about. For one, that was mostly math, science, and computers. For the other, it was baroque music. And they were able to spend a lot more time than their peers just being kids.

Alternatives are coming to higher education in the form of massively open online courses. Indeed, I’ve been blogging so little over the past few months because I’ve been working on turning a course I teach on the 20th century into a massively open online course. I’ve been filming classes, editing the results, and posting them on YouTube as a way of getting ready for a more official and concentrated effort. Thinking about an online course opens up a realm of possibilities. A traditional university course is structured around 50-minute or 75-minute segments, into which the content has to be poured. In an online version, things don’t have to be structured that way. They can be segmented however the subject matter demands. That might involve 2-5 minute definitions of key terms, 5-10 minute discussions of a particular issue, 10-20 minute explorations of a topic, etc. The point is that packaging courses online can lead to innovations with real educational advantages. Will online courses be as good as on-campus courses? They might turn out to be better.

The public schools have by and large decided to follow the music industry in fighting technological innovation, clinging bitterly to an outmoded business model. Ecxpect the same for most of higher education. But a few far-sighted institutions (including, fortunately, my own) are seeing the possibilities and deciding to adapt. Meanwhile, those seeking educations at all levels are voting with the their feet—or, more accurately, with their computers, which put a world of information at their fingertips.

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More on That Agenda

The Washington Examiner has a lot more on Obama’s second-term environmental agenda:

Here are just a few of many examples cited by Inhofe of costly new Obama-inspired regulations that EPA will impose on the economy after Nov. 6:

• Greenhouse gas regulations, including the infamous “cow tax.” The EPA will finalize proposed regulations that will virtually eliminate coal use in electricity generation, thus driving consumer electric bills sky-high. This cluster of new regulations will also impose an annual fee on farmers for every ton of greenhouse gases emitted by their animals. The EPA estimates that 37,000 farms and ranches will have to pay on average a $23,000 annual “cow tax.”

• New regulations will so severely reduce permissible ozone emissions that the EPA estimates the cost to the economy will be $90 billion per year. Other studies put the cost as high as $1 trillion. Split the difference between the estimates, and the result still means the loss of millions of jobs.

• New Tier III regulations will cut permissible sulfur emissions by two-thirds. That will add as much as 9 cents to the cost of a gallon of gas, according to Inhofe.

• The EPA’s new coal ash regulation will cost as much as $110 billion over two decades and destroy more than 300,000 jobs, mostly in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Missouri.

 

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The Second Term Agenda

Ed Morrissey and Rich Lowry have noticed that Obama has not laid out any vision of what he might do in a second term as President. They think he’s put his energy into attacking Mitt Romney rather than developing and explaining a second-term agenda. They’re right to notice that Obama is making no positive case for his reelection, but wrong, I think, to believe that he doesn’t have one. Lest this sound conspiratorial, all one has to do is look at the agenda of various regulatory agencies to understand what Obama’s second term might look like.

First, the EPA. It’s already claimed the right to regulate carbon emissions. That’s going to accelerate in a second term. Obama promised in 2008 to get rid of coal as an energy source; that’s going to happen early in a second term. (Austin Energy is trying to sell its interest in a coal-fired plant—a move that makes no economic or environmental sense—because they fear that soon the plant will be worthless.) As Obama promised, electricity rates in much of the country will skyrocket. The EPA is going to mandate that coal generation be replaced by renewable energy sources, which are roughly ten times as expensive as running coal plants. They’re also far less reliable. The result: electricity costs are going to soar to three-to-four times their current level, and the electricity grid is going to become far less reliable. Brownouts and blackouts are going to become frequent occurrences. It’s not easy to run on the agenda.

The EPA is also going to crack down on fracking and refining, doing its best to impede the domestic energy industry. That will drive up the price of gasoline—Secretary Chu wants it to double again, to $8-10 a gallon—which will devastate the economy, adding significantly to the price of everything that has to be shipped to market, which is just about everything. Heating oil, natural gas, and other energy sources will all become more expensive. This will have important foreign policy implications, too, keeping us dependent on foreign oil and maintaining a large flow of funds from the U.S. to Saudi Arabia and other countries of the Middle East.

Since this will hit the poor and middle class most of all, expect moves to expand welfare programs. We’re already spending over a trillion dollars a year on welfare. Expect to see that soar further. Subsidies for public transportation boondoggles, such as California’s high-speed rail system, are also going to expand.

All this will make the federal deficit even larger than it is now, with alarming economic implications. Expect Obama to propose tax rates like those Hollande is proposing in France, as well as a Value-Added Tax. An economic crisis will hit soon enough, and Obama is going to use it to impose draconian tax rates, not just on the rich, but on all those who manage to have a job after other elements of his agenda are implemented.

This just scratches the surface, but you get the idea. He does have a second-term agenda. It’s just that these aren’t very effective bumper stickers:

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The Democrats have removed reference to God—specifically, to God-given rights—from the Democratic Party Platform. They’ve also removed recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

This is hugely important, and not for the reasons that most people think. The first is not just an expression of secularism, which has been integral to the Democratic Party for decades. It’s a full embrace of Rousseau, and a thorough and official rejection of Locke and Jefferson. The Democratic Party, by its own declaration, is no longer a party that endorses a conception of natural rights. It no longer takes its inspiration from the American Founding. It holds that all rights are creations of government. It holds, in other words, that no rights, no dignity, no value inhere in us as human beings. Together with its loud advocacy of abortion rights, it makes it clear that it embraces what the Pope refers to as the culture of death. It is the intellectual heir of the French Revolution, not the American Revolution.

The second tilts the party’s platform sharply toward the Arab side of the Arab-Israeli dispute. But it does much more. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. If it isn’t, what is? The administration won’t say. The Democratic Party cannot recognize simple facts as facts. It refuses to accept as real anything it does not desire. It is now officially embraces denial.

Of course, that’s not a surprise. A party that, once every four years, pretends to be pro-military, to value American strength and exceptionalism, and to expand opportunities for the poor and middle class without having any plan to improve economic growth or reform out-of-control entitlements is already in denial—if it’s not simply a con.

At least they’re saying something new.

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Politics without Foundations

“Why,” Beverly Gage and Steven Hayward ask, “is there no liberal Ayn Rand?” Arguably, there are several: Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, John dos Passos, and John Steinbeck—though none inspires the devotion that Rand’s followers feel for her. But their real question isn’t about literature. It’s about philosophy. The conservative movement rests on a series of great thinkers: Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, Burke, Mill, Hayek, von Mises, etc. Where are the intellectual foundations of the Left?

Gage herself provides an answer:

Once upon a time, the Old Left had “movement culture” par excellence: to be considered a serious activist, you had to read Marx and Lenin until your eyes bled. For better or worse, that never resulted in much electoral power (nor was it intended to) and within a few decades became the hallmark of pedantry rater than intellectual vitality.

The New Left reinvented that heritage in the 1960s. Instead of (or in addition to) Marx and Lenin, activists began to read Herbert Marcuse, C. Wright Mills, and Saul Alinsky. As new, more particular movements developed, the reading list grew to include feminists, African-Americans, and other traditionally excluded groups. This vastly enhanced the range of voices in the public sphere—one of the truly great revolutions in American intellectual politics. But it did little to create a single coherent language through which to maintain common cause. Instead, the left ended up with multiple “movement cultures,” most of them more focused on issue-oriented activism than on a common set of ideas.

There is an intellectual tradition behind the contemporary Left, stretching back to Plato’s Republic and including Hegel, Marx, Lenin, Gramsci, Marcuse, Alinsky, etc. But it’s a deeply totalitarian tradition. It’s the political philosophy that dares not speak its name in an election season, for it would garner few votes, and for good reason.

The real intellectual vacuum underlies not the Left as such but people who style themselves liberals, but not socialists—i.e., I’m guessing, most Democrats. Where are their intellectual roots?

Hayward points out that there are some:

Even leaving aside the popularity of fevered figures such as Noam Chomsky, one can point to a number of serious thinkers on the Left such as Michael Walzer, or John Rawls and his acolytes, or Rawls’ thoughtful critics on the Left such as Michael Sandel.  However, the high degree of abstraction of these thinkers—their palpable distance from the real political and cultural debates of our time—is a reflection of the attenuation of contemporary liberalism.

He’s right about the attenuation, but wrong, I think, about the reason. It’s not just that these thinkers are highly abstract; so are Plato and Aristotle. It’s not that they don’t take part in contemporary debates; neither did Aquinas and Hegel. It’s that they don’t tap into anything deep or abiding about the human condition.

For about a decade I team-taught a course on Contemporary Moral Problems with a prominent philosopher of language. He argued the liberal side of each issue; I argued the conservative side. I had no shortage of philosophical material on which to rely. He and I both assumed, since liberalism is supposedly the position that informed, intelligent people occupy, that there were similar philosophical foundations for liberalism. We were both astounded that there were not. For someone who seeks to be a liberal, but not a totalitarian, there is Rousseau, on one interpretation of his thought. And that’s about it.

Of course, there are people trying to provide such intellectual foundations. But we were startled at how thin their theoretical constructs really are. Any competent philosopher can think of a dozen serious objections to Rawls before breakfast, even on hearing his views for the first time. We base our conception of justice on what people would do if in some hypothetical situation satisfying certain constraints? Really? The actual circumstance, the actual history, what people actually want and need—these don’t matter at all? Why that hypothetical situation, anyway? Why those constraints? Would people really reach agreement? Would they even individually come to any “reflective equilibrium” at all? And why would people choose those principles of justice? Is there actually any research indicating that people would choose those principles? People would divide liberties into basic ones, which matter, and others, which don’t? Everything in the end rests on the welfare of the least advantaged in society? Who’s that? Mental patients and prisoners, probably. So, we’re to judge a society solely on how it treats its mental patients and prisoners? And the welfare of everyone else in society ought to be sacrificed to improve their lot even a tiny bit? Why think, moreover, that liberalism maximizes the welfare of the least advantaged? Rawls speaks as if well-being is static, as if we can speak simply of what happens at some equilibrium state without worrying about dynamic aspects of the economy or of a person’s life trajectory. But that leads him to confuse well-being at a moment with well-being over a life. An extensive welfare state might maximize the well-being of the least advantaged at the lowest points of their life trajectories without thereby maximizing their long-term well-being. In fact, preventing people from experiencing real lows might undermine their well-being as measured over a life.

I don’t mean to pick on Rawls especially; the same is true of other liberal theorists. Their theoretical constructs don’t connect with deep-seated features of human nature or of human societies. Their theoretical assumptions seem arbitrary and open to overwhelming objections.

That’s why most liberals can’t conduct political discussions at a very high level. They have no one to read who can give them an intellectual foundation for their political views. They therefore have no way to justify their claims that taxes on the wealthy are too low, or that health care, or contraceptives, or anything else ought to be provided as a matter of right, or that our current welfare system is too stingy, etc. Still less do they have any theoretical basis on which rest foreign policy decisions.

 

UPDATE: Instalanche! Thanks, Glenn!

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The President says he wants the wealthy to pay their fair share. What would that be? He never says. How would one decide whether a given level of taxation is fair? He never says. Neither do his supporters, who are remarkably calalier about the theoretical foundations of their policy positions.

Let’s start by asking, Who pays how much now? And let’s consider not just federal income taxes but payroll taxes as well. Here are the numbers Ross Kaminsky has derived from the Congressional Budget Office report for 2008 and 2009:

In 2009, the highest quintile (top 20 percent) of earners, with household incomes over $223,500 before taxes, took in 51 percent of the nation’s income but paid 68 percent of all individual federal taxes. The middle quintile — the oppressed middle class, earning between $64,300 and $93,800 — took in 14.7 percent of America’s income but paid only 9.4 percent of federal taxes. And the lowest 20 percent of earners, making less than $23,500, brought home 5 percent of the nation’s income (much of which was transfer payments from the rest of America) but paid only 0.3 percent of federal taxes.

The effective federal tax rates for these groups were: 1 percent for the lowest quintile, 11.1 percent for the middle quintile, and 23.2 percent for the highest quintile.

These are average, not marginal, tax rates. That’s an important distinction, because the history of tax rate changes over the past fifty years has shown that raising the marginal rate does not necessarily raise the average rate; indeed, it can decrease it as people find ways of sheltering income.

Obama’s defenders claim that his “You didn’t build that” remark meant merely that everyone builds on the work of others and therefore owes something in taxes. How do they reconcile that with the fact that the bottom half of the population now pays no federal income tax at all? Don’t those people owe something, too? Are Obama’s supporters willing to follow their own logic? And since the top quintile already pay more than 23% of their income in taxes, why does what Obama said, on their interpretation, have any implications at all for tax rates on the affluent?

To return to the original question: If 23% isn’t enough, how much would be enough? And how do you intend to bring that about?

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Presidential Plunder

Throughout human history, people have had to worry about plunder. Foreign tribes might attack and plunder their villages, stealing their goods and perhaps even their women and children. Pirates might plunder their ships. Their own leaders might plunder them through excessive taxation or seizure of lands.

The Obama administration, bringing that old concept into the 21st century, has excelled at exactly one thing—plunder. Its signal achievement has been the plunder of the public treasury for private gain. The “stimulus” package spent more than $3,000 for each man, woman, and child in America, and what did we get? “Roads and bridges”? Dams? Canals? Power plants? Ships? Aircraft? We got nothing. The money went into the pockets of Obama’s supporters and contributors.

The plunder has been repeated with each subsequent year’s spending, which has increased over and above the extra trillion for the “stimulus.” More than $3,000 from each of us, each year, for absolutely nothing.

Solyndra is a case study in how Obama and his minions plunder the rest of us. More than $500 million went into that company, which famously went bankrupt. How much will the taxpayers get back from bankruptcy proceedings? About $24 million. Against every rule, policy, and precedent, the loan guarantees were structured so that the federal government was last in line to collect anything in case of bankruptcy. The White House was fully aware of that, of the associated risks, which set off alarm bells. So who is collecting?

The main private equity firm here is Argonaut Ventures. This company was put ahead of US taxpayers in recovering funds in the event of a bankruptcy in direct violation of standard Energy Department policy, a fact that administration officials subsequently scrambled to justify.

Argonaut is the investment arm of the George Kaiser Family Foundation. Despite being called a foundation, GKFF is not a nonprofit in the conventional understanding of the term, but an exotic variation that allows the wealthy to park their assets tax-free. The foundation’s namesake is a major fundraiser of President Obama’s. He was often a guest in the White House and even discussed Solyndra with officials there.

Argonaut Ventures? What was that story about the Golden Fleece?

Sadly, Solyndra is only one of many similar instances of plunder. That’s one reason why Obama’s “You didn’t build that” remark has had such power. It points directly at what might be the theme of the entire administration:

ALL YOUR WEALTH ARE BELONG TO US!

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