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The Transformation of Vermont

Take it as a warning or as an illustration of opportunity, but Rick Holmes’s history, in the Fall River Herald, of Vermont’s political transformation is a worthwhile read.

Basically, the interstate highway system brought “flatlanders” to the state for foliage viewing, skiing, and indulgence in a hippy aesthetic.  By the time the indigenous conservatives tried to push back, it was too late:

“The hippies won,” says John Gregg, a Vermont journalist whose office is a short walk from the Connecticut River. In a small enough place, the influx of new citizens, even in modest numbers, can change a state’s political trajectory.

Rhode Island is different, of course.  Our population is a bit bigger, and the particular flavor of progressivism isn’t hippy socialism as much as insider socialism.  An historically different flavor of immigration brought with it a little more cultural conservatism and a little bit less libertarianism.  Moreover, the “influx of new citizens” affecting Rhode Island isn’t the migration of relatively privileged progressives, but rather the deliberately lured clients for the company state/government plantation.

These differences bring with them unique challenges, but in both places it’s too late for an ordinary political campaign to change things.  Instead, we have to change the local culture, which is no easy task when the people who see the right way forward tend just to leave.

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A Reminder for Faith in Our Times

Baylor University history professor Thomas Kidd recently offered a useful reminder of the perspective of Benjamin Franklin, which would be timely for us to consider these days, as a society.  Writing about Franklin’s respect for, but personal ambivalence toward, religion, Kidd goes on:

Then came the Revolutionary War. Its weight, along with the shock of victory and independence, made Franklin think that God, in some mysterious way, must be moving in American history. “The longer I live,” he told the delegates in Philadelphia, “the more convincing Proofs I see of this Truth, That God governs in the affairs of men.”

He repeatedly cited verses from the Bible to make his case, quoting Psalm 127: “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.” Without God’s aid, Franklin contended, the Founding Fathers would “succeed in this political building no better, than the Builders of Babel.” At the Revolutionary War’s outset, as he reminded delegates, they had prayed daily, often in that same Philadelphia hall, for divine protection. “And have we now forgotten that powerful friend?”

My own understanding of how this all works is, in essence, that “God governs in the affairs of men” through our decision to follow Him.  He wouldn’t look upon the Constitutional Convention and say, “Well, fine. If you’re not going to pray, I’ll turn my back on you.”  Rather, the decision to pray or not affected whether the delegates were of unified mind in the direction of goodness, which is God’s hallmark.

The United States has done a great deal of good in the world, albeit with a great deal of darkness mixed in, too.  How things might have gone differently for our country and the world had the Constitutional Convention prayed, we cannot know, but we should take as a warning Franklin’s handwritten astonishment that his fellow delegates “thought Prayers unnecessary!”

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Venezuela Continues Down the Predictable Path of Socialism

In June, I noted how familiar and predictable Venezuela’s deterioration has been, citing Manzoni’s classic novel The Betrothed.  Seventeenth Century government meddling in the Italian economy created starvation-level problems, and naturally, the government looked for scapegoats.

Venezuela has continued along this predictable path.  As Jim Wyss reports in the Miami Herald:

Facing a bread shortage that is spawning massive lines and souring the national mood, the Venezuelan government is responding this week by detaining bakers and seizing establishments.

In a press release, the National Superintendent for the Defense of Socioeconomic Rights said it had charged four people and temporarily seized two bakeries as the socialist administration accused bakers of being part of a broad “economic war” aimed at destabilizing the country.

Yeah… detain bakers and seize their establishments.  That’ll fix the bread shortage!

Watch this short Ami Horowitz report from Venezuela for more Manzoni parallel’s, particularly the part about how the powerful insiders continue to do just fine.  Please, please, folks, could we start learning from history and ignoring those whose main purpose is to deceive us into giving them more money?

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Walking the Narrow Path of Faith

Beginning with mugshot photographs of Russian Christians about to be murdered by the Soviets, John Burgess ponders what freedom means for Christians. He includes some good perspective for believers (Christian and otherwise) who fear the direction our society is headed:

The blessings of relative peace, prosperity, and humane governance in the modern West may further encourage us to think of freedom as the ability or right to fulfill our physical and emotional desires. Yet these desires, in fact, mostly control us. While we may believe that we have freely chosen to pursue what we imagine to be personal well-being and happiness, we are, in fact, driven by pride and sloth. …

Strengthened by spiritual practices and transformed by divine worship, the pure in heart attain spiritual freedom: the freedom to resist powers of evil and to live for God by worshipping him alone.

Indeed, with that as our goal, living in times of comfort can be more challenging:

Over the centuries, Christians have often recognized that they are more apt to discover spiritual freedom under conditions of persecution than when they are afforded toleration. When the Church is socially acceptable and when religious affiliation is more a matter of custom than faith, those who call themselves Christians are easily tempted to sell their inheritance of spiritual freedom for the pottage of social privilege and material wealth. This temptation is, perhaps, also ours in America today. A legally guaranteed right to religious freedom may too easily be mistaken for true Christian freedom.

And the key point:

Recognizing that human faith is feeble, Christians over the centuries have generally concluded that they should not seek persecution, even though we should be prepared to accept it.

Persecution, that is, is something neither seek nor avoid. In other words, neither persecution nor comfort should be the basic foundation of our decisions.  We are charged to move toward God, being neither distracted by the attractions of comfort nor intimidated by the promise of pain and difficulty.

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Roger Williams Exhibit Drifting from Its Mission

Such developments as this too often go unchallenged:

Hoping to avoid boring visitors with “the life of a dead guy,” staff of the Roger Williams National Memorial Visitors Center presented a new exhibit Saturday that brought the political leader’s provocative viewpoints into the 21st century.

The exhibit, “New and Dangerous Opinions,” is the center’s first new show in more than 20 years. It draws parallels between Williams’ exile from Massachusetts and modern struggles for equality, seen with the refugee crisis and the Black Lives Matter movement.

If the goal isn’t to maintain awareness about an important “dead guy” and the details of his life, why are we funding it?  Moreover, looking for modern parallels will inevitably turn the exhibit into political propaganda to advance a particular viewpoint and should not be maintained with taxpayer dollars.

One suspects, for example, that the “refugee crisis” is presented in a decidedly left-wing way and that the celebration of the Black Lives Matter movement is not accompanied by any parallel that isn’t encompassed by the progressive, Democrat-helping narrative.  One suspects, for example, that such an exhibit would never lead visitors to see a similarity between Roger Williams’s exile to Rhode Island and Christian small-businesses’ inability to decide what projects they will take for moral reasons.

Again, if taxpayers aren’t funding straightforward maintenance of historical artifacts, then the programs ought to be ended and the money returned to the people.  Let the exhibit designers find some other way to advance the progressive cause and the destruction of Western civilization that isn’t funded with money confiscated from people who’d rather keep it.

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Wisdom from the Bishop’s Mother

Bishop Thomas Tobin shared this memorable moment in a recent iteration of his regular column in The Rhode Island Catholic:

One year, when I was living in Youngstown, I went home for my weekly visit to mom just before Christmas and she asked me to take a tray of her prized cookies across the street to our neighbors. Of course I was happy to comply.

So, I grabbed the tray, put it under my arm like a football, and started out the door. “Wait,” she said, “hold it upright or you’ll crush the cookies.” And then I said something I still remember and regret: “It doesn’t really matter, they’re just cookies.” And she leveled me with this, her voice as stern as I ever heard it: “It matters to me; I made those cookies and I’m proud of them. Hold the tray straight!”

Boom! That’s how a mom corrects a fifty-year-old bishop, pulls him from his pedestal, and puts him in his place.

All that matters matters only because it matters to somebody.  That point is especially appropriate on Christmas Eve, as we await the celebration of God’s gift to us of His self and son.  A humble and humbling moment in a stable two millennia ago is still significant to us today because of to whom it mattered then and because of the millions to whom it has mattered since.

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Ignorance of Ourselves: The Lesson Never Learned

Reading Richard Ebeling’s brief summary of the economic misadventures of the Roman Emperor Diocletian (244-312 AD), the striking lesson is how stunningly we fail to learn the lessons of history, with Venezuela’s being a recent example:

Michael Ivanovich Rostovtzeff, a leading historian on the ancient Roman economy, offered this summary in his Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire(1926):

“The same expedient [a system of price and wage controls] have often been tried before him [Diocletian] and was often tried after him. As a temporary measure in a critical time, it might be of some use. As a general measure intended to last, it was certain to do great harm and to cause terrible bloodshed, without bringing any relief. Diocletian shared the pernicious belief of the ancient world in the omnipotence of the state, a belief which many modern theorists continue to share with him and with it.”

Finally, as, again, Ludwig von Mises concluded, the Roman Empire began to weaken and decay because it lacked the ideas and ideology that are necessary to build upon and safeguard a free and prosperous society: a philosophy of individual rights and free markets.

Ebeling details that there is much more to the error than simple price controls.  One underlying theme, however, of which we can’t lose sight is the hubris of the central planner.  As with quantitative easing, the planners don’t see themselves as flailing around looking for some solution.  They really think they’ve got a workable idea.  They aren’t entirely dismissive of the risks; they just think the risks are minimal.

And for the most part, the piece they’re missing is the likely response of the people.  Ebeling peppers his essay with descriptions of people’s reactions to Diocletian’s heavy-handed economic policies, and they all seem obvious.  We can guess, though, that they weren’t obvious to Diocletian.  If only he’d been able to imagine what he would do if he were in the position of his subjects.  If our own elites could do the same.

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The End Result of a Deliberate De-Education About Our Culture

Notre Dame Professor Patrick Deneen taps into an area of thinking that I’ve been spotting with more frequency.  To my observation that we have no excuse for repeating errors that have been known for millennia, Deneen might respond (emphasis in original):

Our students’ ignorance is not a failing of the educational system – it is its crowning achievement. Efforts by several generations of philosophers and reformers and public policy experts — whom our students (and most of us) know nothing about — have combined to produce a generation of know-nothings. The pervasive ignorance of our students is not a mere accident or unfortunate but correctible outcome, if only we hire better teachers or tweak the reading lists in high school. It is the consequence of a civilizational commitment to civilizational suicide. The end of history for our students signals the End of History for the West.

During my lifetime, lamentation over student ignorance has been sounded by the likes of E.D. Hirsch, Allan Bloom, Mark Bauerlein and Jay Leno, among many others. But these lamentations have been leavened with the hope that appeal to our and their better angels might reverse the trend (that’s an allusion to Lincoln’s first inaugural address, by the way). E.D. Hirsch even worked up a self-help curriculum, a do-it yourself guide on how to become culturally literate, imbued with the can-do American spirit that cultural defenestration could be reversed by a good reading list in the appendix. Broadly missing is sufficient appreciation that this ignorance is the intended consequence of our educational system, a sign of its robust health and success.

To my suggestion that progressive government is setting up a sort of “company state” in which everything is ordered toward the business model of providing government services and making others pay for them, Deneen would add (emphasis added):

Regardless of major or course of study, the main object of modern education is to sand off remnants of any cultural or historical specificity and identity that might still stick to our students, to make them perfect company men and women for a modern polity and economy that penalizes deep commitments. Efforts first to foster appreciation for “multi-culturalism” signaled a dedication to eviscerate any particular cultural inheritance, while the current fad of “diversity” signals thoroughgoing commitment to de-cultured and relentless homogenization.

Maybe his most important addition, however, is Deneen’s glimmer of hope:

On our best days, I discern their longing and anguish and I know that their innate human desire to know who they are, where they have come from, where they ought to go, and how they ought to live will always reassert itself.

That’s a difficult longing to fulfill.  As Plato noted all those centuries ago, people once deluded in such a way “deem him their worst enemy who tells them the truth,” and powerful forces in our society will give them every opportunity and excuse not to evaluate their sense that something’s missing.

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The Familiar Sound of Venezuela

Reading through a New York Times description of the food riots underway in Venezuela, now that the country’s been destroyed by socialism, I’m struck by some obvious juxtapositions that are well separated in the text.  Paragraph 1:

With delivery trucks under constant attack, the nation’s food is now transported under armed guard.

Paragraph 29:

Down the coastal road in a small fishing town called Boca de Uchire, hundreds gathered on a bridge this month to protest because the food deliveries were not arriving.

Make it more difficult and expensive to bring food, and food will be harder to get.  More stunning is how familiar it all seems.  The scenes of destruction of the very infrastructure necessary to produce, transport, store, and sell food are like something out of Manzoni’s description of the Milan bread riots of the Seventeenth Century in The Betrothed.  And it’s not just the people’s counter-productive behavior.  Here’s the Times:

In response, [President Nicolas] Maduro has tightened his grip over the food supply.  Using emergency decrees he signed this year, the president put most food distribution in the hands of a group of citizen brigades loyal to leftists, a measure critics say is reminiscent of food rationing in Cuba. …

At the same time, the government also blames an “economic war” for the shortages.  It accuses wealthy business owners of hoarding food and charging exorbitant prices, creating artificial shortages to profit from the country’s misery.

Here’s Manzoni (page 232 of the Penguin Classics printing):

People forget that they have feared and predicted the shortage, and suddenly begin to believe that there is really plenty of grain, and that the trouble is that it is being kept off the market.  Though there are no earthly or heavenly grounds for that belief, it gives food to people’s anger and to their hopes.  Real or imaginary hoarders of grain, landowners who did not sell their entire crop within twenty-four hours, bakers who bought grain and held it in stock — everyone in fact who possessed or was thought to possess grain was blamed for the shortage and for the high prices …

… [The magistrates] fixed maximum prices for a number of foodstuffs, they decreed penalties for anyone who refused to sell at those prices, and passed one or two other regulations of that kind.  But all the official measures in the world, however vigorous they may be, cannot lessen a man’s need for food, nor produce crops out of season.  The measures actually taken on this occasion were certainly not calculated to attract imports from other areas where there might conceivably be a surplus. …

… [Grand Chancellor Antonio] Ferrer was behaving like a lady of a certain age, who thinks she can regain her youth by altering the date on her birth certificate.

We have centuries… millennia… of lessons.  Right now, we can learn once again from Venezuela.  I fear too many people lack the basis to make the obvious connections.

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Terrorism and Confidence

Over the weekend, I attended a conference at the Portsmouth Institute themed “Christian Courage in a Secular Age.”  For the second session on Saturday afternoon, Knights of Columbus executive Andrew Walther talked about genocide of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East.  He noted, in particular, the challenge of getting Westerners to acknowledge that it’s possible for Christians to be a minority.  After all, the narrative of the Western Left is that Christians are the oppressive majority.

After his talk, an audience member identifying himself (if I recall correctly) as a civil rights attorney made an accusation, masquerading as a question, that one might charitably characterize as tangential:  Does the Knights of Columbus intend to pressure the United States to pressure Israel to cave to the Palestinians and thereby resolve the problems of the Middle East?

In stark contrast, my co-contributor Andrew Morse followed this question, asking whether the United States should look to the cultural confidence it exhibited in bringing down the communism of the Soviet Union as a model for handling the Middle East.  In subsequent conversation, I suggested that something more would be needed, because Russia’s cultural experience had more shared assumptions with Western Europe and the United States than the predominantly Islamic Middle East has with any of us.

With the Soviet Union, we could largely rely on the confidence to compete.  With the Middle East, there really isn’t a competition, at least inasmuch as there is no agreement about the direction of the race, so to speak.

Waking up Sunday to the horrible news of an apparent terrorist attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando, it came home to me how tangled and tripping our politics have become.  Much of the initial reaction I saw online associated the attack with internal Western culture wars rather than the accelerating series of terrorist attacks.  If you want an archetype, look to the disgusting cover of the New York Daily News.

In some respects, cultural confidence grows out of a sense of our own strength, as a people and as individuals.  The Left wants to weaken a core aspect of our culture that gave a set of principles about which to be confident — a constitutional republic founded on the assumed assent to the basic Judeo-Christian moral framework — not the least because it made us successful and strong.  The Left also wants to to weaken us as individuals, not the least when it comes to security, making us dependent on government under the Left’s control for our safety and self defense.

Maybe those who sympathize with the Left should start asking what it was about the United States that made us a country in which religious traditionalists could share the land with sexual radicals — that leaves many of us seeing this attack as a reason for unity of purpose and renewal of our shared heritage in opposition to its enemy.  Charging forward with the fundamental transformation of our nation is sure to be fatal.

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The End Is Not the End

Sometimes, comfort has to come in strange ways, and today, it comes from this paragraph in Glenn Reynolds’s most recent USA Today essay:

Of course, collapse isn’t, as Tainter notes, always so bad. When the Western Roman Empire collapsed, ordinary people were often better off because they were freed from the empire’s oppressive taxes and regulations (like the rules that sons of soldiers, civil servants and workers in government factories, among others, must enter the trades of their fathers). Many people in the provinces welcomed the barbarians. The new governments were actually better at what governments are for, as Tainter writes: “The smaller Germanic kingdoms that succeeded Roman rule in the West were more successful at resisting foreign incursions (e.g., Huns and Arabs). … The economic prosperity of North Africa actually rose under the Vandals, but declined again under Justinian’s reconquest when Imperial taxes were reimposed.” Likewise, Venezuelans will probably be better off when they eventually get a new government. They could hardly be worse.

I will say that I think we’re vulnerable on this count, in the United States.  Nations founded on a particular heritage or ethnic makeup don’t lose their identity during regime change, but we’re founded on a governing idea.  When that idea goes away (or when it went away) the identity, and the nation it defined, is (or was) gone, too.

But life goes on.  Some of the choices change, of course.  Those who grew up expecting to make decisions about vacations and what kind of cars to buy must instead make decisions about how much to stand up for their rights and freedom.  When a nation is, at its core, an idea, anybody can keep that idea alive — even as a memorial candle kept burning in some dim basement — until the world is ready for it again.  That too is a decision.

The long threads of human society, leading through our ancestors and us, then into the murky future, continue.  We just refine our understanding of our priorities and adjust our plans.  Our current circumstances are really nothing new in our society’s experience; we’re just living through a period of madness and decline.

As the song goes, “When the cities are on fire with the burning flesh of men, just remember that death is not the end.”

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A Lesson of Venezuela and the U.S. Primary Race

For a good, long while, I’ve offered the optimistic view about Rhode Island: that at some point of collapse prior to the adjective, “utter,” the people would awaken and insist that the corrupt games have to stop, aided by those in leadership positions whose consciences would no longer allow them to look the other way.  Any level of collapse is painful, of course, but reality and solutions are close enough to the surface, throughout the United States, that a reparable slash or broken bone should be a sufficient lesson to change behavior.

News out of Venezuela and reflections on the presidential primary are leading me to question my optimism.  On the former, Kevin Williamson gives a concise summary of the condition:

If you truly believe that Venezuela is suffering from electricity shortages because its economy is so successful, you should ask yourself why it is suffering from a toilet-paper shortage, too. And a shortage of rice, milk, cooking oil, and other basic foods. And water.

To which I’d add this from Richard Fernandez:

The lights didn’t go out in Caracas all at once.  The wiring was stolen bit by bit; the turbines had been neglected year by year; the engineers had departed plane by plane until Earth Day came down like a shroud and without apparent end.  Rioting and looting is now reported to be spreading as only 15 days of food are said to remain.

Read both essays and ponder that blithe assertion that “it can’t happen here.”  We’re watching it happen here.  Fernandez suggests Venezuela fell prey to the “curse of plenty,” wherein “easy money attracts the wrong kind of leaders and incentivizes the wrong kind of public behavior.”  A region can have easy money by sitting on a cornucopia of natural resources, or it can be a small state in a wealthy region of an economically dynamic country.

The reality is that most people just want things to continue as they are and perhaps improve incrementally, which makes them susceptible to herding in bad directions that serve special interests.  Head this way, and a loud, scary noise urges us back to the herd; meanwhile, the corral and slaughterhouse aren’t quite visible up ahead.

As the wrong leaders and wrong behavior make things more difficult, fewer people are willing to step forward in opposition, and fewer good people want the role of leadership even if they can get it.  Potential heroes are vilified, and the public’s confusion is exploited.

In this mix of diminished choice and distortion, politicians have no competition or too much, leading to uncontested seats or split votes that allow victory with relatively small pluralities of support.  Both special interests and cults of personality can therefore amass winning numbers.  Rhode Island elects a Chafee and then a Raimondo, while backing a Bernie and a Trump for president.

The outcomes are always predictable, and yet it seems impossible to correct course.  Small improvements require so much personal sacrifice of effort, while the status quo rumbles on effortlessly.

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When the Federal Government Turns Against Voters

Hans Von Spakovsky checks in on the legal battle over efforts by the Obama administration and various progressive activist groups to prevent states from ensuring that people registering to vote are citizens.  Note this:

If these allegations are true (and based on the history of the Voting Rights Section during this administration, they may well be), then the Eric Holder–run Justice Department was actively engaged in blocking an independent bipartisan federal agency from allowing a state to verify that only citizens are registering to vote.

Given the behavior of President Obama on a variety of regulatory and administrative fronts, as well as my observations about New England governments’ desire to change their populations to better suit the people in power (and their employees), it’s absolutely reasonable to conclude that politicians, mainly in the Democrat Party, want to import a large client class on which they can rely to counter any contrary votes from actual Americans.

When Americans read history (a category whose small number is, no doubt, a large part of our present problem) and wonder that those of previous eras did not see the clear and obvious trends, they should look around the landscape of current events for the clear and obvious actions that largely go without comment, much less criticism, from those we entrust to keep an eye out for us.

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What Kind of Leaders Will Providence College Create?

So Providence College President Reverend Brian Shanley did make his college’s race-grievance agitators wait for a bit, and his resolution wasn’t so much a capitulation as a diplomatic delay, but I worry about the attitude we’re teaching the current generation of college students:

After a 13-hour sit-in outside President Rev. Brian J. Shanley’s office, about 50 Providence College students protesting what they called “anti-blackness and racism on campus” ended their demonstration when Shanley agreed to make progress on the demands.

Senior Mary-Murphy Walsh, one of the sit-in’s organizers, said late Tuesday night that Shanley “did promise today that he would do everything in his capacity. We will see within 20 days, we will see what he comes up with.”

From what outside readers can tell, the students’ complaints have mainly to do with an off-campus party and a number of unconfirmed incidents over which the college cannot be expected to have any control anyway. At best, the organization can only offset the inappropriate behavior of individuals (if that behavior actually exists) with handouts to special interests, although the protesters’ demands go as far as rewriting the Western Civilization curriculum, which may be tantamount to rewriting history, and mandating “cultural-sensitivity training,” which is essentially forced reeducation, in contrast to, say, forums for public discussion of different views.

To the young protesters — shown in the Providence Journal photograph enjoying the comfortable area outside the president’s office, with its conditioned air and complimentary wifi — there is no such thing as differing views. The intellectual landscape consists of their worldview surrounded by inexcusable racism and failure to capitulate.

Complaining that Shanley didn’t rush back from Florida to address a minor he-said-she-said incident off campus, Providence NAACP representative Pilar McCloud said:

“By staying away and coming back at his scheduled time, to me it’s an open handed slap in the face and the students already had a list of demands for the president prior to that,” McCloud said. “This incident is just the icing on the cake.”

“Nothing gets resolved, nothing gets done and people feel like they are not being respected or heard,” she added. “So what did you expect them to do? It is their God given right to express themselves. PC, as much as they would like to, can’t take that away from them.”

Note what McCloud is saying, here. The students’ “right to express themselves” entails a requirement that others prove that they are “respected or heard,” which is proven by acceding to a list of demands. Failure to respond to the children’s stomping feet is “an open handed slap in the face.”

Again, what happens when these students leave the comforts of the expensive university setting? What happens to them, and what will they do to our society?

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Government’s Role in Housing Bubble Memory Holed

Having not seen The Big Short, I don’t know whether the problem originates with the movie or with Providence Journal business editor John Kostrzewa’s review of the movie, but it’s discouraging to observe that the federal government’s role in creating the housing bubble has been airbrushed out of history:

For years, bankers made mortgages that they bundled together, called mortgage backed securities, that they sold on the bond market to investors. The bankers used the proceeds from the bond sales to lend more money to home buyers. Simple, so far.

But the process became corrupted when predatory lenders made mortgages to people who put no money down, had low credit scores and no income, at teaser rates that adjusted sharply upward after a couple of years. The mortgages, called subprime because of the risk, were bundled and then repackaged by Wall Street bankers who collected big fees when they sold the bonds. Corrupted ratings’ agencies gave the bonds high marks.

Notice that this “simple, so far” story makes no attempt to explain why so many investors believed they could leave somebody else holding the bag.  No mention of the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, with their implicit government backing.  No mention of the federal Community Reinvestment Act, and its push for more and more of these subprime loans.  No mention of Democrat President Bill Clinton and his administration’s elimination of banking regulations that partitioned banking and investment.  Definitely no mention of the reality that the government managed a surplus under Clinton mainly because he essentially privatized the creation of national debt.

We just get a tale of cartoon private-sector villains who brought down the world out of greed.  History of this sort is dangerous because the solutions that seem reasonable after the revision are likely to draw us right back into the arms of the real troublemaker.

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Another Lesson We Seem Never to Learn

After Kenneth Colston’s inclusion of The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni, during his talk at the 2015 Portsmouth Institute conference, I put the book on my reading list.  The relevance to the conference was Pope Francis’s saying in an interview that he had read the book three times and was preparing for a fourth reading.  “Manzoni gave me so much,” he said.

One chapter in, the novel has given me some hope that Manzoni placed a light bulb in the pope’s mind on a topic for which it may prove very important to have light in the coming years.  With the narrative set in northern Italy, just under the Alps, at around the time that the Pilgrims were settling in to their new home across the Atlantic Ocean, the civic culture that Manzoni describes gives the impression of a fully formed variation of a type of tyranny that is hardening anew in our own age:

… We do not mean that there was any lack of laws with penalties directed against private acts of violence.  There was a glut of such laws in point of fact.  The various crimes were listed and described and detailed in the most minute and long-winded manner. The penalties were of insane severity, and as if that were not enough, they were almost invariably subject to augmentation at the whim of the magistrate himself, or of any one of a hundred subordinate officials. …

… If [the proclamations] had any immediate effect, it lay principally in the addition of many new harassments to those which the pacific and the weak already suffered from their tormentors, and an increase in the violence and the cunning shown by the guilty; for their impunity was an organized institution, and had roots which the proclamations did not touch, or at least could not shift.  There were places of asylum; there were privileges attached to certain social classes, which were sometimes recognized by the forces of the law, sometimes tolerated in indignant silence, and sometimes disputed with empty words of protest. …

… With the appearance of each proclamation designed to repress men of violence, those concerned searched among their practical resources for the most suitable fresh methods of continuing to do what the edicts prohibited.

What the proclamations could do was to put stumbling-blocks in the way of simple folk, who had no special power of their own nor protection from others, and harass them at ever step they took.  For the proclamations were framed with the object of keeping everybody under control, in order to prevent or punish every sort of crime; and so they subjected every action of the private citizen to the arbitrary will of all kinds of officials.

This perspicuous observation applies to any number of issues, particularly those near and dear to the hearts of progressives, including among others campaign finance, environmental regulation, and general economic/business policy.

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Progressive Economics Tend Toward Givers and Receivers, Not Earners

Being a lover of long-term economic graphs, I found this ZeroHedge post intriguing.  The theme of the post is the disappearance of the middle class, which (as one chart shows) no longer accounts for half of the country’s population and (as another shows) no longer holds more wealth than upper-income households.

The animated graphic from FT is worth watching through a few times.  The first take-away is that much of the middle class has smoothed out upwards since 1971, but with a huge boom at the very top of the income scale (as a percentage of all adults).  It’s the animation that tells the historical tale.  The ’70s didn’t see much growth, and the ’80s saw about a one-percentage-point increase among the rich.  Bill Clinton’s ’90s turned into a big boom for the rich, while George Bush’s ’00s pretty much held them steady. In the wake of the economic collapse, the first three years of Barack Obama’s presidency saw a decrease at the top with more than a recuperation since then.

Scrolling down to the next chart reveals at least part of the reason.  The early ’70s saw the end of 30 years of income growth for the bottom 90% of earners, and it hit a ceiling with the death of the gold standard.  Money was no longer tied to some finite good, so government policy could be truly redistributive, without being bound by anything of actual value.  The bottom 90% have stagnated or drifted down, since then, while the top 1% have taken off.  One bump came in the mid-to-late ’80s, but Clinton’s banking and mortgage policies cut the reins.

As I’ve said before, fiscal, monetary, and regulatory policy under Obama have only solidified the tendency to make the well-being of the rich investor class and established players the core basis for policy decisions while shoring up political power by simply giving things to those toward the bottom of the scale.

This scheme wouldn’t work out well under any circumstances, but with the explosion of automation, it’s going to be a recipe for economic disaster, civic unrest, and lost rights.

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Reasoning Needed in Race Discussion

In its Sunday edition, the Providence Journal continued its destructive and divisive vanity project stoking racial unrest.  This time, the subject is the different proportion of “people of color” in law enforcement and the courts as opposed to the population.  Once again, the ostensible act of journalism doesn’t deign to present anything that might be considered an opposing — or even skeptical — voice.  This is activism, pure and simple, and reporter Katie Mulvaney offers a helpfully concise example of the utter lack of reasoning that the activism requires:

While the makeup of the state’s population continues to change, the complexion of its power structure, including those who enforce, dictate and argue the laws, remains largely the same. It is predominantly white, even as children of color now make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s youth population.

If the absurdity of those two sentences doesn’t hit you in the eye like social-justice-warrior spittle, think about it for a moment.  The “makeup of the state’s population” is changing — meaning that people with darker skin tend to be recent arrivals or very young.  The racial proportions of people in higher positions within law enforcement and the courts is not comparable to “the state’s youth population.”  To match the population at large with a pool of older people within a limited range of personal accomplishment in a specific professional field, the hiring process would have to be so skewed as to constitute overt racism.  That’s what the activists want.

Also consider the age of folks who would be entering that range of their careers.  When they were young adults, choosing a course in life a quarter-century ago, two of the iconic songs in rap/hip-hop were N.W.A.’s “F*** Tha Police” and Body Count’s “Cop Killer.”  Those songs may (or may not) have been authentic voices of the black experience in America, but shouldn’t they be considered, a generation on, while navel gazing about the skin color of police and judges?

“When you go in anywhere, you would like to come in and see yourself,” said [barber and activist Dewayne “Boo”] Hackney, 42. That means at City Hall, the State House, courtrooms, police departments. “You tend to relax more when you see yourself on the surface.”

That sort of thinking is what needs to change.  If cops were cops and judges were judges, then young black men and women interested in those careers would be cops and judges, not black cops and black judges.  We would see ourselves in each other, even on the surface. Unless the activists want apartheid, even in a perfectly balanced justice system, some people will draw an arresting officer or a judge of another race.

Activist journalists continue to focus on race as if it is not just on the surface.  Suggest that we should move toward an understanding that race is, in fact, superficial, and the likes of WPRO reporter Steve Klamkin will insinuate that you’re advocating for genocide.

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A Job Is a Powerful Incentive

Steven Frias takes another instructive look at Rhode Island’s political history:

The scramble for patronage began. Under Green, about one-third of legislators were given state jobs while they served in the General Assembly. The trading of votes for jobs became apparent. One Republican senator was given a state job after he voted to confirm Green’s department directors. House Republican Leader Walter Curry was given a Superior Court judgeship after he assisted Green in getting most of his legislative agenda through the House of Representatives. The three senators on the recount committee were rewarded with state jobs, one of them a District Court judgeship.

The most important political event in 20th century Rhode Island history, the Coup of 1935 may have been furthered by the promise of state jobs for state legislators.

Read the whole thing.  One can only hope that, as the picture of Rhode Island corruption becomes clearer and clearer the opportunity for change will get better and better, but it’s going to take concerted effort and a news media that is more disgusted by the corruption than by the Republican brand.  (That’s not to say that the party or, especially, particular Republicans are the answer, but the news media tends to lump everybody who isn’t an insider with the GOP for the purposes of bashing them.)

The problem isn’t just job trading, though.  It’s contract trading, welfare trading, policy trading, access trading, and any other kind of trading that politicians can turn into a buck.  And if that sort of corruption isn’t inevitable with a liberal/progressive style of governance (which I think it is), then it’s at least inextricably interwoven in Rhode Island.

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