»  National Review Online Diary

  October 2009


Majesty and importance     Halfway through reading the article on Hillary Clinton's workday in my Sunday Parade supplement, I suffered a nasty attack of saeva indignatio and had to stop reading.

Looking at the thing now, with some soothing medication coursing through my veins, I'm surprised I even made it past the first section.

September 15
6:45 p.m. Iftar Dinner
Two hundred prominent Muslim-American leaders gather at the State Department for iftar, the evening meal when Muslims break their daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan. All enter the glittering Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room for an evening of low-key politicking. Muslims have been seeking a position in American politics commensurate with their roughly 6 million in numbers …

"A position in American politics?" What's that supposed to mean? What it seems to mean in practice is that Muslims want to silence all criticism of their religion, by legal action and threats of violence. And why is Parade using a number at the high-high end of the wide range of estimates of the U.S. Muslim population? Where'd they get that "6 million" from? CAIR? Why is iftar any of the State Department's business, anyway? Why is the celebration of any religious festival the business of any department of the federal government? What else do they celebrate at Foggy Bottom — the Seating of Zotz?

Then, a bit later on:

12:10 p.m. Ceremony for Senegalese Diplomats
For any who doubt the continuing majesty and importance of America in the world, this event is a stunning curative. The U.S. is giving $540 million in aid to Senegal. While that's no big deal to the few Americans in attendance, the 250 Senegalese and African leaders present brim with pride …

With pride? These people are proud that they've wheedled half a bil out of the American taxpayer? They're proud to be beggars?

If, by probity in politics and good sense in economics, and a couple of decades of imaginative enterprise and grueling hard work under fair laws, Senegal's people had raised their country to a level of development at which they could tell Mrs. Clinton to take her charity and shove it, that would be an occasion for pride. It seems to me.

Apparently, since she authorized the publication of this dreck article, Mrs. Clinton is proud, too — proud that she persuaded this delegation of kleptocrats (Senegal ranks no. 85 out of 180 on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index) to accept $540 million of your money and mine.

The writer of the article, Leslie H. Gelb, is more than proud at being the victim of this racket. She takes it as illustrating "the continuing majesty and importance of America in the world." See, we fool Americans used to imagine that the majesty and importance of our nation consisted of stuff like populating the prairie, raising glittering new cities out of barren desert, running a thriving free economy that was the envy of the world, prospering in freedom under sensible laws honestly administered, winning wars, landing on the moon, making movies and writing songs the whole world wanted to enjoy, kids in garages creating entire new industries, diseases conquered, theorems proved, new trails blazed in art and science … Well, that was all wrong! Majesty and importance consist in watching talentless bureaucrats hand over your people's wealth to email scammers.

I can all too easily imagine what those Senegalese "leaders" are getting for my $540 million, but what am I getting? What's the State Department doing, giving our money to these crooks in a time of recession, with millions of Americans struggling to pay bills? The literature on development aid is perfectly clear — I've written on the subject here. Peter Bauer's apothegm of forty years ago about aid being "a transfer of money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries," is as true now as it was then. (For a glimpse of how poor people fare in Senegal, see here.)

The fools of the world, we are the fools of the world.


Wilders on tour     Geert Wilders, leader of the second largest Netherlands delegation (of nine) in the European parliament, won an appeal against the British government's decision to ban him from their country. He promptly went over for a visit, and then proceeded to the U.S.A., where he is on a speaking tour as I write. Here is the text of a speech he made at Columbia University on October 21. Notice the dig at you-know-who:

It is clear that not everyone sees the danger. I quote a prominent American, who recently won a Nobel Prize: "Throughout history, Islam had demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance," and "Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism, it is an important part of promoting peace," and "We celebrate a great religion, and its commitment to justice and progress." End of quote. I strongly have to disagree with this assessment. Islam has nothing in common with tolerance or peace or justice!

I'm a tad better-disposed to Islam than Wilders is. In fact I'm fine with it, so long as it stays where it belongs — in Islamic countries. You only have a problem with Islam when you let big numbers of Muslims settle in your non-Muslim country. Why any non-Muslim country would permit this to happen, is utterly baffling to me. It is a simply terrible idea. Good luck to Geert Wilders for standing up and speaking up against it, at great personal cost to himself.


An end to parole?     In last month's diary I grumbled the following grumble:

It is now wellnigh impossible for a convicted felon to serve his entire sentence. Even if he wanted to, I doubt it would be allowed.

A reader from the Old Dominion corrects me:

Mr. Derbyshire — These circumstances differ dramatically from state to state. While parole … is a longstanding institution in many states, there are parole states which impose life-without-parole sentences, and there's a trend toward entirely abolishing parole. I think over a dozen states have done so; I know my own, Virginia, has been one of them for over a decade. The story at that link mainly addresses holdover inmates with pre-1995 convictions; nowadays felons in Virginia serve a minimum of 85 percent of their sentences, and the average felon serves closer to 92 percent.

That's good to know — thank you, Sir. And yet another data point in support of the theory that I am living in totally the wrong part of the country.


Follow Newman!     The Pope's recent decree offering a place in the Church of Rome for disgruntled Anglicans (including U.S. Episcopalians) will of course be devastating to the coherence of what is still called "the Anglican communion" — one of those terms of fudge used to salve the pain of impotence, like "British Commonwealth," or "comprehensive immigration reform".

Anglicanism has been riven for an entire generation now over issues of feminism and homosexuality. Here the Pope has given conservative Anglicans a way out. An Anglican congregation who would rather not be guided by a female or homosexual bishop, now has somewhere to go. The decree doesn't remove all obstacles: married bishops won't be countenanced, and knotty issues of property rights (both the ECUSA and the Church of England own a lot of property) remain. It's a break in the logjam, though.

Being about to enter my sixth year of church non-attendance, I am hors de combat, I guess. Old affections linger, though, and my inclinations as a believer were always conservative — not least because all the best pastors I ever sat in the pews listening to were conservative to a man. (Married man with kids, in every case, I think.)

A lot of the commentary on this topic has speculated about the effect this will have on the Roman Catholic Church itself. A.N. Wilson in the New York Times, for example:.

Now, as the pope looks to put an end to this facet of Britain's character, there are ghosts smiling a little ruefully. For one, the Duchess of Windsor (a.k.a. Wallis Warfield Simpson of Baltimore), denied the opportunity of being queen because the Church of England disapproved of divorce. The Catholic recusants, who huddled in priest-holes rather than acknowledge the monarch as supreme governor of the church, will be smiling a little grimly, too. In time to come, I confidently predict, there will be others smiling ruefully, too — such as the "liberal" Anglicans left behind, who will watch a pope (I guess 20 years from now) ordaining women to the Catholic priesthood.

I don't know about that. I will, though, venture a prediction about the rump of the Anglican and Episcopal churches left behind when all the conservatives have gone. They will become exclusively homosexual. Straight flight has for some years been making gay congregations gayer and straight ones straighter. The straight congregations are of course the more conservative ones, and so the ones more likely to take up the papal invitation. What's left in the "Anglican communion" will be a gay church.


Pitching from the grave.     The laugh tracks on old radio and TV comedy shows (and current ones, for all I know) were spliced in from standard tapes which in some cases were decades old. Some portion of the laughter we were hearing was, therefore, the laughter of people who had been dead for years.

This came to mind the other day. I was watching TV when a commercial came on. It was Billy Mays promoting Fix It. Wait a minute, I thought: isn't the guy dead?

He sure is. So why, four months on, am I watching him on TV pitching a substance that will remove scratches from auto bodywork?

At first thought, it seems slightly disrespectful of the dead. On reflection, though, I approve. In matters like this, I think the wishes of the deceased, and of his family, should have first place in the calculations. I can't imagine Billy would have minded this particular style of afterlife. And speaking as a family man myself, if there is some way I can help support my loved ones after I've gone to join the Choir Invisible, I'm all for it. I know I'm a deplorable reactionary, but to my mind the first rule of life is that a man should take care of his family. If he can even going on doing that after he's passed on, I'll think so much the better of him.

In any case, we don't stop buying an author's books after he's dead. We don't take down pictures from the walls of our art galleries when the artists pass away. Elvis Presley's recordings, I believe, made more money after August 1977 than they had before. Jolly good luck to him — to his estate, I mean. Why balk at watching a pitchman's work just because he's no longer with us? Pitching products is sort of an art form, too, isn't it? A minor one, to be sure, but a very American one.

In any case, Billy was what my mother used to call a bucker-upper — one of those people who just make you feel good. There are never enough of those to go round, so why retire one on the picayune excuse that he is no longer corporeally among us? I nearly walked into Billy once in the streets of Manhattan. He was setting up to film one of his pitches. He was literally larger than life — a big man, perfectly proportioned, but all scaled up. He didn't know me from Adam, of course, but he beamed at me reflexively as I maneuvered round him, and I felt better for hours afterwards.

As it happens, the same day I caught Billy on TV, 'Er Indoors had been complaining about a tiny scratch on the fender of her new Toyota. I called the number on the screen, and am now the proud owner of a tube of Fix It, pitched to me by a dead guy. I dunno, it seems right somehow.


Health care: the argument from libertarianism.     Just two points on health care, one from libertarianism, one from fatalism.

From the libertarian angle:  A major (surely) cause of high health-care costs is that U.S. health care is carried out at the nexus*  of two powerful guilds, the doctors and the lawyers. Both groups have lengthy and expensive training to justify / pay off. Neither is going to yield an inch of ground to quite simple things that might greatly reduce health-care costs: automation, drug-access liberalization, tort reform.

The automation aspect is one that doesn't get much attention. A lot of what doctors do — and a lot of what lawyers do, too, come to think of it — can be done by gadgets and "expert systems" (computerized diagnosis or legal research based on vast databases). Parapundit has a running theme on this:

In 10 years time diagnosis will be far more automated. Cheap microfluidic devices will check blood, stool, urine, saliva for orders of magnitude more indicators (e.g. gene expression levels, many pathogens, and cancer cells) and expert systems will analyze the results. We ought to embrace such a future in order to slow spiraling medical costs that are holding down living standards improvements.

Yeah, well, perhaps we ought to, but shall we? Not if the doctors and liability lawyers have anything to say about it. Someone has to manufacture and market those gadgets and those systems, and they will have some level of error — a lower level than human practitioners, probably, but quite enough for the John Edwardses to get rich from. Knowing that, why would anyone go into the business of manufacturing those things?

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* "Connection, interconnection, tie, link,"  from Latin nectere, to bind, which is also the root for "annex" — Webster's Third. Once in a while I write a word then stop dead, struck by the thought: "Am I really sure I know what that word means?"  All too often the answer is No. Then I go look it up. Not a bad habit for a writer.


Health care: the argument from fatalism.     It's hard not to think that we all expect too much from health care.

In Kipling's short story "In the Pride of His Youth," Dicky Hatt makes an ill-advised marriage at age 21. A month later he goes off to a low-level clerical post in India, leaving his wife impregnated. He wants to bring her out to join him, but his salary isn't sufficient. She has the baby. The baby gets sick. Then …

 … came the news that the baby, his own little, little son, had died and, behind this, forty lines of an angry woman's scrawl, saying the death might have been averted if certain things, all costing money, had been done …

The underlying assumption there is that if you can't afford good medical care, you will have to do without, and may die.

This was a universal assumption until just a couple of generations ago. (Kipling's story itself is not so very long ago. My Dad's father, whom I can remember — he bought me my first cricket bat — was seventeen years old when that story was published.) You got what health care you could afford, supplemented often by charity. To my Grandfather, the idea that a poor person should have access to first-rate medical attention would have been as counterinuitive as the idea that he should have a butler, a cook, and a gardener.

Since then we have all — yes, me too — internalized the idea that you shouldn't be denied important medical care just because it costs more than you can afford. A good thing, too, most people — yes, me too — will say. But in internalizing that idea, we have uncoupled health care from ordinary economic incentives. All of us can now get our hands on something we could no way afford to pay for. This is better than the old dispensation — watching your infant die because you could not afford the necessary — but economics is a stern master, and if you defy its fundamental principles, you can get into trouble, just as you can by trying to defy the law of gravity.

We may, of course, co-operate in smearing out the things we can't afford across a pool of insured. Then, if the actuaries do the math right, we may be able to afford intensive medical procedures. If insurance is voluntary, though (or even, to judge from auto insurance, if it's not), a lot of people won't bother. When one of those people needs heroic medicine, we are back at the problem of denying care that the patient can't afford.

Of course I don't want to go back to the days of poor Mrs. Hatt. On the other hand, a little more fatalism about our lot in life might cut some of the nonsense out of the health-care debate. "Everyone is to have an equal share in everything," says a character in a play (in my book). The name for that is socialism … which does not work.

And yet, see above, the alternative to some degree of socialism in medical care is, that people will die because they can't afford treatment — a thing that very few of us are willing to countenance.

The liberal answer to this dilemma is to deny there is any dilemma. "Everyone is to have an equal share in everything." Cost isn't a problem as we'll use government money, of which the supply, as everyone knows, is infinite!

The conservative answer should include some element of realistic fatalism about the human condition. That's what conservatives are best at.


Taxes, taxes     Letter from my accountant:

Form:                 MTA-5 — Estimated Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Mobility Tax Payment
Due Date:          November 2, 2009
Remittance:       Make a check payable to Commissioner of Taxation and Finance in the amount shown …

What fresh tax hell is this? I asked Google.

The Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Mobility Tax covers employers whose quarterly payroll exceeds $2,500 and self-employed workers whose net earnings for the tax year are over $10,000. The rate of .34 percent applies to people who work in the five counties of New York City or Rockland, Nassau, Suffolk, Orange, Putnam, Dutchess and Westchester counties.

The tax will help finance the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which increased base fares in May for New York buses and subways and on suburban rail routes in June amid a growing deficit. The MTA has proposed a capital budget of $28.1 billion for 2010 through 2014, according to a draft report.

I do, as a matter of fact, use MTA facilities (railroad, subway) a few times a month. Even if I didn't, though — and I know self-employed people here who don't — I'd still have to pay the darn tax. So it's really a proximity tax. We out here in the further suburbs are being taxed for living too close to New York City.

And what on earth is the logic behind this tax? If the buses and subways aren't getting enough revenues, raise fares again. Employers and the self-employed pay fares, just like other riders. Now we have to pay a tax too. (And of course employees will pay the tax, though indirectly, via their employers. For them, it will be invisible and so comparatively painless.)

The logic is, of course:  "We don't want to raise fares too much, so we'll raise fares just a bit, and make up the difference with a new tax that will (a) fall on a lot of people who don't get to vote in the New York City mayoral election, and which (b) won't be noticed by employed people."

Politicians are scum.


Tweedleson and Tweedleberg     Speaking of which …  This upcoming mayoral election in New York City is presenting voters with a conundrum. The choice is between the incumbent, Michael Bloomberg, and city Comptroller (which is to say, CFO, more or less) Bill Thompson. Mark Asch sums up the candidates pretty well, after some comments about Thompson's stint on the city Board of Education, 1994-2001:

The good news is that Thompson was an effective administrator in the NYC Democratic machine mode. The bad news, of course, is that Thompson was an effective administrator in the NYC Democratic machine mode. (Whereas with Bloomberg … the good news is that he's a benevolent dictator, and the bad news is that he's a benevolent dictator.)

At first sight this is a Tweedledum-Tweedledee contest. Both candidates are tax-and-spend liberals; Nicole Gelinas gives the grisly details in her October 27 column. Bloomberg has gotten some things done (improved policing, bullied the educrats), and that's not nothing, in a job where getting anything done is remarkable. He's squealed like a pig for the public-sector unions, though, and the worst thing you can say about Thompson is that he will likely squeal louder. (The Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Mobility Tax came out of the state's Senate Finance Committee. I don't know what input the city had to it; but in his position as Comptroller, likely Thompson is at least as much to blame as Bloomberg.)

Yet the mayor is supposed to be limited to two terms. Bloomberg bought and bullied his way out of that, and seems to dream of being Mayor-for-Life. Nobody much likes the idea of a guy who believes himself indispensable. Nobody much likes Bloomberg anyway. He has a high-pitched whiny voice that sets everyone's teeth on edge, and an eat-your-greens bossiness towards the private lives of New Yorkers. As a fan of term limits and possessed of a deep congenital allergy to being bossed around, I'd vote for Thompson if I could vote, and grit my teeth for four years of a lousy mayoralty. Hey, there'd be some good stinky news stories to write about.


Chairman Mao is dearer to us …      … than our own parents. So little children in mainland China were taught to say during the Great Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. Perhaps Anita Dunn, the White House Communications Director, feels the same. At any rate, she gushed over the late Chairman when giving a high school commencement address back in June.

In 1947, when Mao Tse-tung was being challenged within his own party on his plan to basically take China over, Chiang Kai-shek and the nationalist Chinese held the cities, they had the army. They had the air force. They had everything on their side, and people said, "How can you win? How can you do this? against all of the odds against you." And Mao Tse-tung said, "You fight your war, and I'll fight mine."

Glenn Beck took that and ran with it, and quite right too. Lefty nostalgia for nation-wrecking communist tyrants should have been shamed out of polite society decades ago. This Dunn person works in the White House? Heaven help us!

At the same time, Ms. Dunn's critics have perpetrated some minor, but ticketable, linguistic offenses. A true disciple of Lenin, Mao had no hesitation in murdering people — indeed, entire classes of people — whom he felt were standing in the way of revolutionary progress. You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs, you know. Yet in the case of the 25 or 35 million people who died in the "Mao famines" of 1959-61, the high probability is that Mao did not intend their deaths. They died as a result of his terminally stupid policies — rural communization and the Great Leap Forward — so he was certainly responsible at some level; and on the evidence of his doctor, Mao never expressed any regret or remorse over their deaths. Still, "murder" is not the correct term here. Writers telling us that Mao murdered 50 or 60 million people are telling a partial truth. He probably murdered, in the strict sense — i.e. with malice aforethought — fewer than twenty million. The rest was manslaughter.


People's Republic of Pollution     And then there is the China he left behind, which is polluted. Very polluted.

This was no one's idea of a comprehensive survey — and informants still working in China asked me not to use their names — but I was struck by three recurring themes. The first one was, It's really bad!  As a foreign-trained doctor in Beijing put it, "Just using your eyes, you know this can't be good for anybody" …

That's from James Fallows' piece in the current Atlantic Monthly. The good news in the piece is that you will survive a couple of years in China with no permanent damage:

There is no folklore of a Chinese burden comparable to Gulf War syndrome or Agent Orange, sickening waves of foreigners long after their in-country exposure. I asked about large companies, universities, and government missions that sent outsiders to China. In each case I heard that a handful of people got sick early and asked to leave, but most grumbled, had respiratory problems — and seemed to be okay later on.

Good news for expats, anyway. Not so much for the Chinese themselves … And meanwhile, we Americans have to drive cars made of tinfoil, load what remains of our manufacturing industry down with more taxes, and paint our roofs white — to Save the Planet, you know. Pah!


Math Corner     Having made a pig's ear of the solution to August's puzzle (correct solution here), I left you with none last month. Apologies for that.

Here's a wee exercise in the fascinating mathematics of demography, courtesy of a reader.

The Androsocian tribe practices the following population limits: Each couple is entitled to have one boy child. No limit on number of girls. However, as soon as a boy is born, no more children! So, what will be the male/female ratio in the population, and what will be the average family size? (Assume zero childhood death rate, no twins, etc.)