»  National Review Online Diary

  November 2010

Cruising: the blanket apology     Highlight of the month was of course the National Review post-Election cruise. I got re-acquainted with some old friends and made some new ones. I don't recall ticking anyone off, but some of the evening events continued well past the (for me) critical third-drink stage, so it's hard to be sure.

I therefore offer the following blanket apology. If at any point on the cruise I forgot your name, disagreed with you too vehemently, fell asleep while you were telling a joke, scoffed at your profession, insulted your state, mocked your religion, groped your wife, vomited in your lap, punched you on the nose, pitched your significant other overboard, or stepped on your blue suede shoes, I am truly sorry.

And to those cruisers who purchased permitted me to gift them with my book: THANK YOU!

The shabby Caribbean     I must admit that I enjoyed my shipboard time much more than my shore time. I'm just not much of a tourist. This puts me at odds with Mrs. Derb, who is always keen to sample whatever is on offer, from souvenir stores to snorkeling expeditions. For the sake of marital harmony I allow myself to be dragged along on these adventures with only the barest minimum of passive-aggressive resistance displays. I thus got to see some of the Caribbean (not for the first time).

Overall impression: You can keep it. The people harvesting the tourist dollars were of course very pleasant, and at least one of them (hey there, Pájaro!) plainly took real pleasure in his work and left an impression of genuine friendliness and hospitality. People like that make getting off the ship seem almost worth the trouble.

Net-net, though, if you're not in the rich-folks compounds or at one of the up-market tourist spots, the Caribbean is a shabby place.

Grand Turk is worse than shabby — it's a slum. NASA used to have some tracking facilities there, but they were decommissioned in 1984 and now are just rotting away undeveloped, fences sagging and concrete crumbling.

Cozumel's better, and — as the locals hasten to assure you within 15 seconds of being introduced — "Not like the rest of Mexico!" but still not a place you'd want to live unless you had a ton of money. Even the climate isn't that great. The last hurricane that came through Cozumel, our guide told us casually, "took off all the roofs." Hmm, that could be an inconvenience.

The water really does have that lovely turquoise color, though. I'll say that for the place.

Cruising for health     A cruise ship is the healthiest place you can be. Imagine an outbreak of, say, stomach flu on a cruise ship. With a high proportion of oldsters on board, there would likely be a death or two, and consequent lawsuits. Even without that the cruise line would lose millions from the publicity.

They are not going to let this happen. The crew on these ships are trained rigorously in hygiene. All surfaces are scrubbed and inspected constantly. Food with the least mark of un-freshness will sleep with the fishes. The air quality is likewise closely monitored: Legionnaire's Disease is another nightmare for the owners.

So strong are these obsessions that seasoned cruisers whisper dark tales of people taken ill on board ship who mysteriously vanish — hustled away to an airtight room somewhere in the bowels of the vessel. I haven't yet heard a version in which the invalid's cabin itself disappears, as in one telling of the classic "Paris Exposition" urban legend, but if there is not currently such a story going round, I am sure there soon will be.

The downside of all that hygienic purity is that one's immune system, seeing that there is nothing for it to do, does an automatic power-down. It's still slumbering when you reach dry land at the end of the cruise and get on a plane to go home. Now, the cabin of a plane is one of the least healthy places on earth. Passing from cruise ship to plane cabin is like going from an iPod assembly room to the Congo basin. Result: I spent much of the post-cruise week moaning and coughing in bed with a savage bad cold. (That's the reason for no Radio Derb last week — sorry, RD fans.)

Morality and the law     A reader has invited me to get into a debate with Victor Davis Hanson on the subject of Victor's November 26 essay "Is Illegal Immigration Moral?"

I'll give it a shot, but obliquely. I disagree with VDH that "ultimately it is a complicated moral issue." Seems to me that ultimately it's a simple legal issue.

Illegal immigration is illegal. Persons found to be resident here illegally should be swiftly and humanely deported to their home countries. If they have children here, those children should be deported with them; and if those children have citizenship, it should be revoked, just as in any other case where citizenship was obtained via an illegal act.

It may be true, as the open-borders cant has it, that we can't deport all illegals. So what? We can't ticket everyone who violates the speed limit; but we ticket as many as we can catch, and the knowledge of that keeps the rest of us mindful of the speed-limit laws. Deporting any illegal we find would have a similar magnifying effect, leading many others to self-deport.

With all respect to VDH, whom I admire as a scholar and a gentleman, I think it's a distraction to moralize the issue. Our job as commentators is to remind public officials of their duties and obligations under the law, to stiffen their spines so that they perform their statutory duties conscientiously and impartially. Appeals to morality don't accomplish that. If anything they militate against it.

Morality is too squishy a business. Discussions founded in morality too easily degenerate into sanctimony, into "I'm a nicer person than you are!" one-upmanship, especially in the soft, emotional, girlified present state of our culture. Far too much of our public policy is already based not on data and logic but on romantic fantasies, hysterical fads, and hot flushes.

The people's officials should enforce the people's laws. If they won't do so, they should be impeached by the people's representatives. If we hold fast to those principles, we live in a constitutional republic. If we let go of them we live in a realm of chaos and uncertainty, in which unscrupulous people seize privilege for themselves by fraudulent appeals to low emotion — a rule not of laws, but of men. Is that how we want to live?

The hidden issue     Furthermore the endless talk about illegal immigration, concerning which there is really nothing to talk about, prevents us getting to grips with legal immigration, where there is actual policy to be made.

Not that you'd think there's any policy to be made. Official dogma on both the Left and the Right is that the 1965 Immigration Act and its subsequent slight adjustments were the absolute last word on this topic, creating a legal immigration regime of seamless splendor and unimprovable perfection that should stand unquestioned and untouched for ever, in saeculae seculorum, world without end, amen.

How this dogma got established in immigration is a bafflement to me. In any other policy area it would be thought preposterous. How it ever got established among conservatives, given that the prime mover of the 1965 Act was über-liberal Edward M. Kennedy, is a double bafflement.

In fact our legal immigration regime is badly flawed in all three of its principal components.

•  Family unification. There is no reason in logic or humanity why settlement should be granted to parents, adult siblings, or adult children of citizens. Spouses and dependent children only, please.
•  Skills. A skill should be deemed to be in short supply when the wages on offer for that skill are rising steeply. Even that should only be a necessary condition for importing skilled foreigners, not a sufficient one. If the wages on offer for, say, web designers are rising fast, young Americans will flock to web-design courses to get some of those high wages. This is called a "market solution."

I'm not convinced of the need to permit any settlement by foreigners on a "needed skills" basis, though perhaps some exceptions might be made for skills like foreign-language translation. There is a widespread suspicion among ordinary Americans that the lobbying for "skills" visas by outfits like Microsoft is based not on any genuine skill shortages but on a desire for cheap labor. That suspicion seems to me entirely justified.

If there's a shortage of something, the price will rise. Let's at least see clear signs that the price is rising before we agree there's a shortage. Then let's discuss whether immigration is the best answer to the shortage.
•  Humanitarian. I'm not quite as stone-hearted as the CIR guy, who suggests zero as an appropriate figure for settlement on humanitarian grounds (see under "Refugees"), but I'm close. There are cases — I'd guess a few dozen per annum — where I think settlement might reasonably be allowed for humanitarian reasons. I'd put Elián González in that category, for example, contra Mark Steyn, Pat Buchanan, Peter Brimelow, and several others whose opinions I respect and usually agree with.

By and large, though, humanitarian immigration is just what the CIR guy says it is: "A giant scam." The world is full of sob stories, as any bartender will tell you. We don't have to make them all America's business. We don't have to make any of them our business. This is our country. We can allow or forbid settlement rights in any way we collectively please.

Agree with me or disagree, it would be nice if we could raise these topics in public. We live, however, in a nation which has only recently, after a titanic decade-long struggle, been able to bring itself to discuss illegal immigration in anything like a calm tone of voice. One of the reasons for all that agonizing has been our national passion for moralizing about everything.

It seems to me that our policy debates would be more fruitful, and the resultant policies more sensible, if we did less moralizing and more cold calculating. The proper sphere of morality is private action. Public policy needs data, calm sense, and a green eyeshade.

The great British Conservative Prime Minister Harold MacMillan was once asked what his government would do to help the British people find a sense of purpose in their lives. Replied MacMillan (who was a pious Anglican): "If people want a sense of purpose they should get it from their archbishop. They should certainly not get it from their politicians."

Now there was a man who had things in their proper places.

Dame Joan Sutherland, R.I.P.     A fellow opera fan demands to know why I didn't record the October 10 passing of Dame Joan Sutherland in last month's diary. Uh … because I forgot.

I was a huge fan of the lady — so much so, I put her in a novel. I came to opera quite late in life, and Sutherland's was one of the first voices I heard. I was thereupon, as the psychologists say, "imprinted."

If you want to know what the fuss was about, here she is singing Ah, fors' è lui from La Traviata just as well as it can be sung.

An exceptionalism too far     Here it is, that annual letter from my health-insurance middleman. Next year I'll be paying $923.96 a month to cover myself, the Mrs., and two teenage kids. Note that I, though not the other three Derbs, am covered by Medicare at an additional $110 a month. Note also that my coverage goes through a big-company retiree health package, with the company paying 40 percent of the cost.

Yet it's not the expense I mind so much as the complexity. Why does it all have to be so darn difficult? My premium notice comes with a sheaf of "advisories," all written in Administranto:

If you go 63 continuous days or longer without prescription drug coverage that's at least as good as Medicare's prescription drug coverage, your monthly premium may go up by at least one percent of the Medicare base beneficiary premium …

On and on for pages and pages and pages. I suppose there is someone somewhere who has the time and patience to master this gobbledygook, but it ain't me.

There has been a TV ad airing recently that I find obnoxious. It shows two oldsters out walking, a man and a woman. The woman is of course the more knowledgeable of the two. (This is an iron rule in TV commercials — indeed, in TV generally.) She lectures the man about the new rules for prescription drugs in Obamacare. If you're in the donut hole [? don't ask me], she tells him, you can save up to 50 percent on your drug costs! The man expresses surprise and gratitude at her having imparted this valuable information to him. From the lofty heights of feminine wisdom the woman then discharges a friendly reproof: "You've got to keep up!"

I'm sitting there watching this, thinking to myself: That guy's at least 70. Why does he still have to "keep up"? Shouldn't there be some age at which you don't have to "keep up" any more?

Imagine someone born in 1925, who dropped out of high school before World War Two, worked hard for half a century, served his country and paid his taxes, and is now entering his third decade of retirement with gout, emphysema, diverticulitis, and incipient Alzheimer's. Should we really be expecting this citizen to "keep up" in the sense intended by that commercial — to spend his dwindling time on earth obsessing over the bureaucratic minutiae of Medicare Part D? And should we be expecting him to make an informed decision thereon?

There are many ways to ration a service. You can ration it by expense, excluding those who can't afford it. You can ration it by fiat, excluding applicants according to some set of rules administered by gatekeepers. Or you can ration it by complexity, paving the access path to it with tests of intelligence, patience, and persistence, thereby excluding applicants who are less well-equipped with those attributes.

That third method is the one you end up with in a society run by and for meritocrats — lawyers, accountants, economists, and other exam-passing grinds. Of the three methods, it seems to me to be the slyest, the most dishonest. I'd actually prefer either of the other two. In fact, as fiddling with healthcare bills, rules, options, and plans takes over more and more of my life, I find myself increasingly receptive to a plain single-payer system.

A skeptical emailer recently posed the following question to me: "Is there any advanced nation anywhere in the world with a lobby of any significant size pressing for a healthcare system modeled on the one we have in the U.S.A.?" I've never had the energy or financial incentive to research an answer to that question, but I think I know it anyway. American exceptionalism can be taken too far.

The politicization of mortgage lending     This article in the November 26 New York Post, about an outer-borough street turned shabby by foreclosures, offers a glimpse of the self-destructive dogmas that form the foundations of the Diversity Palace.

Desiree Figueroa and her family … lost their home at 172 Blackford Ave., and now rent across the street.

She passes the home she and her husband paid $445,000 for in 2008, which later was sold by the bank for $345,000.

"It hurts, but I got over it," she said. "Let someone else deal with that damn mortgage."

In retrospect, she says she really couldn't afford the mortgage — and she says the bank should have known that. "I blame the bank. They see a sucker coming in."

No, Ma'am. What the bank actually saw coming in was a person who would sue them for "discrimination" if they denied her a mortgage. They dealt with Mrs. Figueroa accordingly.

From the 1990s on, and especially from George W. Bush's asinine 2002 speech ("We want 5.5 million more homeowners by 2010 — million more minority homeowners by 2010 …") on, mortgage lenders were under clear notice that they'd be in trouble with the feds if they didn't scrap rational risk-assessment standards. They duly scrapped them, and the result followed.

The evil and sentimental Diversity ideology led to the politicization of mortgage lending. That in turn led to the housing crisis and subsequent financial ructions.

Let's ask the question: (a) Just how much of a factor was Diversity ideology in driving the implosion?

My responses would be:  (b) I don't know, (c) Surely some, and (d) How odd that no respectable commentator has shown any interest in researching (a).

Math Corner     The solution to last month's puzzle is here.

For this month's puzzle, a reader draws my attention to the following passage in Chapter 2 of Charles Murray's book Real Education. Charles is trying to illustrate what "below average" actually means when it comes to academic ability. For this purpose he borrows a number of test questions from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the program used by the federal Department of Education to track student accomplishment. Murray:

 … Now consider some items that more specifically identify what it means to be below average in math as an eighth-grader.

Example 2.  Amanda wants to paint each face of a cube a different color. How many colors will she need?

    (A) Three    (B) Four    (C) Six    (D) Eight

Twenty percent of eighth graders did not choose C. Approximately 27 percent did not know the right answer.

Charles is quite correct; but how did he get from the 20 percent of the penultimate sentence to the 27 percent of the last one?