October 6, 2015

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Today’s post could be titled “Becoming Putin’s Poodle.” because that is the title of the first item which is a post from National Review.

The sound you’d be hearing this morning if you live in the devastated city of Homs in Syria, would be Russian jets doing bombing runs against your neighbors rebelling against dictator Bashar al-Assad. 

And not just in Homs. The roar of those Russian jets is being heard around the world; it’s the sound of Vladimir Putin becoming the new alpha male and power broker of the Middle East.

What I dubbed in a recent NR article the Pax Putinica is rapidly taking shape. Just as the earlier Pax Americana was aimed at containing the Soviet Union, so Putin’s new world order is aimed at smashing the U.S.’s influence as a superpower, first in Europe and now in the eastern Mediterranean. 

Our president, meanwhile, is letting it all happen. If Vladimir Putin is the dominant alpha male in the new international pecking order, Barack Obama has emerged as his highly submissive partner. 

There are various reasons why we are being subjected to the humiliating spectacle of an American president, so-called leader of the free world, rolling over on the mat at Putin’s feet. …




And Charles Krauthammer has the keynote address as he reacts to the administration’s “anger” at Putin’s Syria policy. 

If it had the wit, the Obama administration would be not angered, but appropriately humiliated. President Obama has, once again, been totally outmaneuvered by Vladimir Putin. Two days earlier at the United Nations, Obama had welcomed the return, in force, of the Russian military to the Middle East — for the first time in decades — in order to help fight the Islamic State.

The ruse was transparent from the beginning. Russia is not in Syria to fight the Islamic State. The Kremlin was sending fighter planes, air-to-air missiles and SA-22 anti-aircraft batteries. Against an Islamic State that has no air force, no planes, no helicopters?

Russia then sent reconnaissance drones over Western Idlib and Hama, where there are no Islamic State fighters. Followed by bombing attacks on Homs and other opposition strongholds that had nothing to do with the Islamic State. …

… Why is Putin moving so quickly and so brazenly? Because he’s got only 16 more months to push on the open door that is Obama. He knows he’ll never again see an American president such as this — one who once told the General Assembly that “no one nation can or should try to dominate another nation” and told it again Monday of “believing in my core that we, the nations of the world, cannot return to the old ways of conflict and coercion.”

They cannot? Has he looked at the world around him — from Homs to Kunduz, from Sanaa to Donetsk — ablaze with conflict and coercion?

Wouldn’t you take advantage of these last 16 months if you were Putin, facing a man living in a faculty-lounge fantasy world? Where was Obama when Putin began bombing Syria? Leading a U.N. meeting on countering violent extremism. …




WSJ Editors have an opinion.

… Mr. Putin is also showing that Russia is an ally to be trusted, in contrast to an America that abandoned Iraq in 2011 and won’t fight ISIS with conviction. His alliance with Iran gives him leverage throughout the Middle East, and his Syria play may even give him leverage with Europe over Ukraine sanctions. Perhaps he’ll offer to limit the barrel bombs that have sent refugees fleeing in return for Europe easing sanctions. Some quagmire.

Mr. Obama could make Mr. Putin pay a price if he reversed his Middle East policy and revived American leadership. In Syria the U.S. could set up a no-fly zone to create a haven for refugees against Islamic State and Mr. Assad’s barrel bombs. He could say U.S. planes will fly wherever they want, and if one is attacked the U.S. will respond in kind.

In Iraq the U.S. could directly arm the Kurds. And the U.S. could rev up the campaign against Islamic State from more than 11 or so strike sorties a day. This would show a new commitment that might convince the Sunni Arabs that the U.S. is finally serious about defeating the caliphate.

By now we know Mr. Obama will do none of this. He wants America out of the Middle East, so he will gradually find a way to accommodate Russia’s presence in the Middle East and Mr. Putin’s demands. U.S. allies in the region will get the message and make their accommodations with Russia and Iran. The next President will inherit a bigger terror threat and diminished U.S. influence, if not worse. …



Ralph Peters says Putin wants to humiliate the US.

The first thing to understand about Vladimir Putin is that he’s not content just to win. He has to destroy his opponents, foreign or domestic.

His deeds may be despicable and his manners far too crude for the Upper West Side, but the guy is a force of nature, a man who — by sheer strength of will — has used a broken country and its rusting military to change the world. Meanwhile, our astonished president sulks like a high school girl stood up by her boyfriend (“But Vladimir . . . you promised!”).

Now we have reached the point where a Russian general can barge into a US military office in the Middle East and order us to stop flying our aircraft over Syria. Oh, we’re still flying, for now — but you can bet that our flights are restricted and careful to the point of paralysis.

You bet President Obama’s afraid of Putin. Physically, tangibly, change-the-diaper afraid.

And as I wrote in these pages on Monday, the odds are good that Putin will order the shootdown of a US drone or even a manned aircraft, anyway. Why? Because he can.

And he enjoys it. …



Claudia Rosett says Putin’s blitz is a Middle East coup in three acts.

As the world audience contemplates this latest drama in the reshaping of the 21st Century World Order. 

In New York, the United Nations is still lumbering through its Sept. 28th – Oct. 3 general debate. But even with today’s declaration by aging potentate Mahmoud Abbas that the Palestinian Authority will no longer respect the Oslo Accords (did they ever?) the headlines are elsewhere. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin not only stole the UN show, but in Syria — and beyond — is stealing a march on President Obama that makes the current world scene look ever more like the disastrous penultimate year of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. That 1979 run of debacles opened with Iran’s Islamic Revolution, and rolled on to the Soviet Union’s December invasion of Afghanistan — lighting the fuel under the cauldron whence sprang, in due course, a great many horrors, including the Sept. 11, 2001 al Qaeda attacks on the United States.

Obama’s presidency still has more than a year to run (477 days, to be precise), and after more than six years of U.S. global retreat, as we toil through this fourth quarter of “interesting stuff,” trouble is spreading even faster than it did in the Carter era. The threats now rising like a tsunami on the horizon are, arguably, worse.

But let’s focus here on Russia. This week, President Putin has delivered not only a blitz in Syria, but a grand slam on the world stage. Call it a play in three acts. …




Max Boot writes on the disaster that is left to the next president.

Now even if President Obama wanted to take more serious steps to stop Assad — and there is no sign that he does — he would find it increasingly difficult to do so. As General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, recently noted, Russia is building an “A2/AD bubble” over Syria. That stands for anti-access/area denial — military nomenclature for defensive systems such as anti-aircraft missiles that will make it hard for U.S. or Israeli forces to operate in the area.

So, in addition to the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the ongoing killing of the Syrian civil war, the general chaos of Libya, the loss of territory to the Taliban, and the general expansion of Iranian influence, the Obama administration is leaving another legacy to its successor: Growing Russian power in the heart of the Middle East. It makes you wonder why anyone would want to be president, given the size of the mess that Obama’s successor will inherit. …


The cartoonists have a ball.



October 5, 2015

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Spiked On Line celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Simon/Ehrlich wager. We have noted this before; once last January and also four years ago. Our introduction from last January is worth repeating; “Williamson’s reference to the Simon-Ehrlich wager is cause for a detour. The dénouement of that bet was reported by John Tierney in the December 2, 1990 issue of the NY Times Magazine. The whole affair is close to becoming part of the free market canon. So, it is worth repeating. And it is also germane, because an ally of Ehrlich’s was John Holdren, who was picked by President Trainwreck to be his science advisor. Holdren had perfect creds; he is an academic who is usually wrong. Tailor made for this administration, we’d say.”


This is one of the great divides in American intellectual life. The doom-preaching liberal/left is on one side, and free marketers, marveling in human ingenuity on the other. Here’s Spiked on the wager.

… Population catastrophists, however, constantly remind us of Hegel’s alleged observation that ‘If theory and facts disagree, so much the worse for the facts’. This is especially true in current discussions of humanity’s increased consumption of coal, petroleum and natural gas over the past two centuries where alleged problems always trump real benefits. After all, no one should argue over the notion that they made possible the development of large-scale, reliable and affordable long-distance transportation, which in turn paved the way to better and more affordable nutrition by concentrating food production in the most suitable locations. Or that kerosene, heavy oil and natural gas displaced poor quality biomass fuels such as firewood and dung that filled houses with soot, particles, carbon monoxide and toxic chemicals. Or that cars, trucks and tractors removed the need for work animals (and their attending food consumption) while helping address the diseases associated with their excrement and carcasses. Or that refined petroleum products further reduced harvesting pressures on wild resources such as whales (whale oil, perfume base), trees (lumber and firewood), birds (feathers) and other wildlife (ivory, furs, skin), thus helping preserve biodiversity. …

… The fact that past natural climatic events or trends were once blamed on anthropogenic causes such as insufficient offerings to the gods, witchcraft, deforestation, the invention of the lightning rod and wireless telegraphy, cannon shots in the First World War, atomic tests, supersonic flights, nuclear testing and air pollution should also perhaps temper some of the most extreme rhetoric. Or else consider that, not too long ago, countless writers suggested, as the geographer William Dando did in his 1980 book The Geography of Famine, that most climatologists and even a ‘declassified Central Intelligence Agency’ report agreed that because of air pollution, the Earth was ‘entering a period of climatic change’ that had already resulted in ‘North African droughts, the lack of penetration of monsoonal rains in India and seasonal delay in the onset of spring rains in the Soviet Virgin Lands wheat area’. Global cooling, Dando told his readers, was ‘the greatest single challenge humans will face in coming years’ because it would soon trigger ‘mass migration and all-encompassing international famines’.

That the perspective put forward by the likes of Julian Simon or the social and environmental benefits of fossil fuels remain mind-boggling to a general audience is to be expected. That so many well-meaning academics and public intellectuals remain enthralled by scenarios of doom after two centuries of debates in which the depletionists’ projections were repeatedly crushed by human creativity is more puzzling. …




Joel Kotkin thinks 2016 will be the “energy election.”

Blessed by Pope Francis, the drive to wipe out fossil fuels, notes activist Bill McKibben, now has “the wind in its sails.” Setting aside the bizarre alliance of the Roman Catholic Church with secularists such as McKibben, who favor severe limits of family size as an environmental imperative, this is a potentially transformational moment. 

Simply put, the cultural and foreign policy issues that have defined U.S. politics for the past have century are increasingly subsumed by a divide over climate and energy policy. Progressive pundits increasingly envision the 2016 presidential election as a “last chance,” as one activist phrased it, to stop “climate change catastrophe.” As this agenda gets ever more radical, the prominence of climate change in the election will grow ever more obvious.

The key here is that the green left increasingly does not want to limit or change the mix of fossil fuels, but eliminate them entirely, the faster the better. The progressive website Common Dreams, for example, proposes eliminating fossil fuels within five or six years in order to assure “reasonable margin of safety for the world.”

This new militancy is a break from the recent past, when many greens embraced natural gas and nuclear power as practical, medium-term means to slow and even reverse greenhouse gas growth. But the environmental juggernaut, deeply entrenched within the federal bureaucracy and pushed by a president with seemingly limitless authority, is committed increasing to the systematic destruction of one of the country’s most important, and high-paying, industries. One goal is to demonize fossil fuel producersalong the lines of the tobacco industry.

The pope’s intervention has bolstered the tendency within the environmental movement not to allow any challenge to its own version of infallibility. This, despite discrepancies between some models of climate changeand what has actually taken place. …

… So will climate change be an effective issue for the Democrats next year? There is room for skepticism. In 2014 Steyer and his acolytes spent some $85 million on “green” candidates, only to fail impressively. Geography and class work against their efforts, driving longtime working and middle-class Democrats, driving voters in places like Appalachia, the Gulf Coast and some areas of the Great Lakes increasingly out of the Democratic Party.

It is not even certain that Millennials, faced with diminishing prospects for good jobs and home ownership, will prove reliable backers of a draconian climate agenda. One recent survey suggested that young voters are actually less likely to identify as “environmentalist” than previous generations. 

Like extreme social conservatism on the right, climate change thrills the coastal “base” of the Democratic Party, but threatens to lose support from other parts of the electorate. Despite the duet of hosannas of both the hyper-secular media and the Bishop of Rome, a policy that seeks, at base, to reduce living standards may well not prove politically sustainable.





You’ve heard of peak oil. Here’s a WSJ OpEd on “peak car.”

Many environmentalists hope, and oil producers worry, that we’re entering a post-car era spearheaded by tech-savvy, bike-path-loving, urban-dwelling, Uber-using millennials—leaving behind generations of automobile owners whose thirst for gasoline seemed limitless. …

… Now J.D. Power finds that millennials are the fastest growing class of car buyers. Edmunds reports that millennials lease luxury brands at a higher rate than average. Nielsen reports millennials are 40% more likely than average to buy a vehicle over the coming year. Tesla-inspired hype aside, overall electric-car sales are down 20% this year, with SUV sales up 15%.

Urban dwellers? The latest Census reveals a net migration of millennials from the city to the car-centric suburbs is already under way. And it’s just starting: A survey sponsored by the National Association of Home Builders finds 66% of those born since 1977 say they plan to live in a single-family suburban home. …




Five Thirty Eight posts on the difficulty forecasting our recent Atlantic hurricane. Forecasting models can’t work two days out, but greens think they can forecast decades out.

… But here’s the problem: The hurricane models don’t necessarily have a good grip on either the “blocking” (that high pressure preventing the storm from turning back to sea) or the “trough” (the low pressure drawing the storm toward the coastline). Homenuk told me that the models can “struggle with the intricate details of this blocking.” They aren’t used to seeing high pressure this strong in the Atlantic this time of year, and minor changes in blocking can make a major difference in the track of a storm. Livingston said the models that show Joaquin coming into the coast, such as the GFS, have the storm “sufficiently captured by the incoming trough.” That means they predict that the low pressure pulling it in to shore will prevail. Model outcomes such as the Euro, on the other hand, have the storm too far south for the trough to drive it back into the coastline. …

October 1, 2015

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If you trade a five year old car for a new one, be prepared for a shock. Computer systems in cars have become ubiquitous. Last Sunday’s NY Times had a long piece on the benefits and risks. For example, VW’s code writers taught the engine’s computer to sense when an emissions test was taking place and then alter the exhaust to pass the test.

Shwetak N. Patel looked over the 2013 Mercedes C300 and saw not a sporty all-wheel-drive sedan, but a bundle of technology.

There were the obvious features, like a roadside assistance service that communicates to a satellite. But Dr. Patel, a computer science professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, flipped up the hood to show the real brains of the operation: the engine control unit, a computer attached to the side of the motor that governs performance, fuel efficiency and emissions.

To most car owners, this is an impregnable black box. But to Dr. Patel, it is the entry point for the modern car tinkerer — the gateway to the code.

“If you look at all the code in this car,” Dr. Patel said, “it’s easily as much as a smartphone if not more.”

New high-end cars are among the most sophisticated machines on the planet, containing 100 million or more lines of code. Compare that with about 60 million lines of code in all of Facebook or 50 million in the Large Hadron Collider.

“Cars these days are reaching biological levels of complexity,” said Chris Gerdes, a professor of mechanical engineering at StanfordUniversity.

The sophistication of new cars brings numerous benefits — forward-collision warning systems and automatic emergency braking that keep drivers safer are just two examples. But with new technology comes new risks — and new opportunities for malevolence.

The unfolding scandal at Volkswagen — in which 11 million vehicles were outfitted with software that gave false emissions results — showed how a carmaker could take advantage of complex systems to flout regulations. …

… And as the Volkswagen case has shown, these complexities create openings for automakers to game the system. Software in many of the German carmaker’s diesel engines was rigged to fool emissions tests. The cars equipped with the manipulated software spewed as much as 40 times the pollution allowed under the Clean Air Act during normal driving situations. Volkswagen executives admitted to officials in the United States that diesel cars sold in the country had been programmed to sense when emissions were being tested, and to turn on equipment that reduced them.

The German automaker got away with this trick for years because it was hidden in lines of code. It was only after investigations by environmental groups and independent researchers that Volkswagen’s deception came to light.

Errors in software, too, can be notoriously difficult to identify. …





The car computer piece above was technical enough to require some humor now. We have Andy Malcolm, but before that, American Spectator published the transcript of President Trumps’s first presser.

Jorge Ramos: President Trump, on your deportation plan…

President Trump: I didn’t call on you.

Jorge Ramos: I represent Univision. I have a right…

Trump: Excuse me. Wait until my lawsuit against Univision gets to the Supreme Court.

Jorge Ramos: By then you’ll have your sister on the Supreme Court.

Trump: She’s smart, very smart. And she knows I love women and I’m in favor of women’s health. Mexican women. All women. Sit down, or I’ll appoint Ann Coulter U.S. Ambassador to Mexico.

Ramos: I have a question. What about your plan to deport eleven million or more…

Trump: Sit down, or the Secret Service will remove you.

Ramos: I’m a fully credentialed American citizen.

Trump: You have an accent. And you’ve never been nice to me. Besides, Helen Thomas asks the first question. Where’s Helen? …

… Reporter: Now, about the future. You did not have a vice presidential running mate…

Trump: Because, obviously, I’m irreplaceable. The Democrats ran a candidate for vice president because they didn’t have confidence in their nominee. …




Here’s Late Night from Andy.

Meyers: Kellogg’s announced today that it will spend $450 million to expand food distribution to Africa. Though sadly, it was reported Tony the Tiger was gunned down by a Minnesota dentist.

Fallon: With Hillary Clinton on the show the other night, security was very tight. The Secret Service was here all day sweeping the halls, the offices, the hard drives. It was very tight.

Conan: Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady said he thinks it would be a great if Donald Trump was President. Which is really weird, because Brady doesn’t like things filled with too much air.

September 30, 2015

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More embarrassment for our foreign policy occurred this weekend at the UN. Bret Stephens writes on the “unteachable president.”

… Mr. Obama believes history is going his way. “What? Me worry?” says the immortal Alfred E. Neuman, and that seems to be the president’s attitude toward Mr. Putin’s interventions in Syria (“doomed to fail”) and Ukraine (“not so smart”), to say nothing of his sang-froid when it comes to the rest of his foreign-policy debacles.

In this cheapened Hegelian world view, the U.S. can relax because History is on our side, and the arc of history bends toward justice. Why waste your energies to fulfill a destiny that is already inevitable? And why get in the way of your adversary’s certain doom?

It’s easy to accept this view of life if you owe your accelerated good fortune to a superficial charm and understanding of the way the world works. It’s also easier to lecture than to learn, to preach than to act. History will remember Barack Obama as the president who conducted foreign policy less as a principled exercise in the application of American power than as an extended attempt to justify the evasion of it.

From Aleppo to Donetsk to Kunduz, people are living with the consequences of that evasion.




NY Post OpEd says we have “turned Putin into the world’s most powerful leader.”

The baton was officially transferred Monday to the world’s new sole superpower — and Vladimir Putin willingly picked it up.

President Obama (remember him?) embraced the ideals espoused by the United Nations’ founders 70 years ago: Diplomacy and “international order” will win over time, while might and force will lose.

Putin, too, appealed to UN laws (as he sees them), but he also used his speech to announce the formation of a “broad international coalition” to fight ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

“Similar to the anti-Hitler coalition, it could unite a broad range of forces” to fight “those who, just like the Nazis, sow evil and hatred of humankind,” he said.

And who’d lead this new coalition? Hint: Moscow has always celebrated the Allies’ World War II victory as a Russian-led fete.

Oh, and if anyone wondered which Syrian players the coalition would rely on as allies, Putin made it clear: “No one but President [Bashar al-]Assad’s armed forces and Kurd militia are fighting the Islamic State.”

That, of course, isn’t Obama’s view. …

… That’s how Putin seized leadership from America.

And that, to borrow from Obama’s speech, is bad for Syria, where the war will continue as long as Assad remains in power. It’s bad for Europe and Syria’s neighbors, which have no idea what to do with that war’s refugees.

And it’s bad for America. Because sooner or later, after more bloodshed and under even worse conditions than now, our next president will be called upon to retake the leadership baton from Putin. And that could prove tricky.





That was the views from the WSJ and the NY Post. How about a man writing for Foreign Policy who worked in Dem administrations?

… Indeed, according to recent reports like this one in the Washington Post, Obama, for his part, is still reportedly trying to figure out what the heck his next halfway measure should be in Syria — should he dial up more tweets from the NSC or perhaps give another speech about how bad the options are in that country? Certainly, his U.N. address on Monday did not offer any clear answers — about anything. (For those of you who missed it, here is a summary of Obama’s U.N. remarks: “Good morning. Cupcakes. Unicorns. Rainbows. Putin is mean. Thank you very much.”) 

Perhaps I am being unfair. Despite the fact that our efforts against IS are clearly not working, cooked intelligence notwithstanding, and that the extremist group is actually gaining strength in important ways (see this weekend’s New York Times story), it may be that this is all part of a grand plan on the part of the U.S. president. He wanted out of the region. He did not want to put U.S. boots on the ground. He wanted someone or a group from the region to pick up the slack. 

And that’s exactly what he’s getting. … 

… When my guests at Foreign Policy’s most recent Editor’s Roundtable podcast discussed which world leader had done the best job of advancing his or her country’s international influence during the Obama years, it was a near dead heat between Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Putin for the top spot. The No. 3 position went to the head of a quasi-state, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In other words, the big winners were U.S. adversaries who took advantage of the lack of resolve, vision, and unity among the leaders of the West to enhance their own standing and that of the state or aspirant state they represented. 

But this was not a partisan podcast hit job. Two members of the panel (myself and Rosa Brooks) served in Democratic administrations. Instead our conversation, for what it’s worth, was more a recognition of what is perhaps the moral of the more troubling elements of the Obama foreign–policy tale to date: In geopolitics, as in physics, nature abhors a vacuum.





Anne Applebaum makes the point that the Russian people suffer because of the victories our weak president has handed to him.

… In fact, Putin does not have the military muscle to project genuine influence into the Middle East. He won’t be able to build up his forces stealthily, as he did in Ukraine. Nor does he get anything of material or strategic importance out of his alliance with the embattled Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad. But he will attain the appearance of influence, and that’s all that matters. It could certainly be useful abroad: Together with his appearance at the U.N. for the first time in a decade and his long interview with Charlie Rose, it might — indeed, almost certainly will — help draw U.S. and European attention away from the humanitarian disaster he has created in eastern Ukraine, and help lift the sanctions that are dragging down the Russian economy and hitting the wallets of some of his closest friends.

But the appearance of influence is even more useful at home. You and I might assume that the prospect of a Russian street revolution is far-fetched, but Putin, having watched what happened in East Germany in 1989 from his KGB office in Dresden, and having then watched what happened to Moammar Gadaffi in 2011, clearly worries about it quite often. To stave off this fate, his state-controlled television rumbles on constantly about the fecklessness of Europe and the corruption of America — just in case any Russians are tempted by the lure of democracy — as well as the total chaos that his policies have helped foment in Syria. The arrival of Russian troops, some in transit directly from the Ukrainian border, is designed to reinforce this message: Putin is ready to help another dictator reestablish dictatorship, reassert control and imprison all of his enemies, in Syria and, if needed, in Russia too. …

… Of course, the Syrian people aren’t really the point here — and the Russian people aren’t either. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been bad for his countrymen and bad for his country — for its economy, its image, its influence — and a tragedy for Ukraine. Expect the same kind of outcome from his incursion into Syria too.




Another intellectual lightweight is providing cover for presidential weakness, vacillation and fecklessness. Richard Epstein writes on the “cardinal sins of Francis.”

During his whirlwind tour of the United States, Pope Francis used his speeches to the U.S.Congress and the United Nations to articulate his views on the family, human life, violence, the environment, social justice, and many other issues. No one doubts the sincerity of the Pope’s pursuit of goodness. And surely no one disagrees with his condemnation of aggression and hatred against the young, the vulnerable, and the poor. But too often, his political naiveté got the better of him. As a result, many of his controversial pronouncements, if rigorously implemented at the policy level, would pose a threat to overall human welfare. Specifically, his ideas about violence, the environment, and markets deserve a critical look.

The Pope responded tepidly to the epidemic of violence rocking the world today. These are not good times. The massive slaughter of Muslims, Christians, and others in Syria and across the Middle East has spawned a refugee problem of unparalleled proportions, along with the systematic destruction of cultural artifacts and religious shrines in Palmyra and elsewhere. It is all well and good for the Pope to demand that the more fortunate aid refugees in their time of need. But the reality is that the refugee crisis will never be solved unless resolute action is taken to fix the problem at its source, which could mean developing a coherent military program to meet force with force.

Here, though, the Pope goes wobbly by saying that the use of force against the Islamic State might be justified if done on a multilateral basis—a sure recipe for impasse and drift, even as thousands more are killed or sent packing until some collective response is found. …

September 28, 2015

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Pope pronouncements have filled the media for days. Pickerhead was reminded of an interview with Saul Bellow where an attempt was made to draw him out on a controversy de jour. Bellow, not about to join in, replied, “I am against all the bad things and for all the good things.” It is the same with Francis who is beginning to resemble Chauncy Gardiner in Being There.

Kevin Williamson starts off our look at the pontiff.

… So much of the world is Pope Francis that he communicates via Twitter (@pontifex, if you are inclined), by which means he recently sent out a request that is characteristic of the man and his public style: “I ask you to join me in praying for my trip to Cuba and the United States. I need your prayers.” The response to this request, particularly from the right, was dispiriting. “I pray for those in Castro’s dungeons whose suffering you callously ignored. Screw you, Peronista pontiff,” wrote one critic. “He’s forfeited his moral authority.” Others, apparently unaware of the actual ministry of Pope John Paul II, averred that Pope Francis’s sainted predecessor would never have met with Communist thugs like the Castros. In reality, Pope John Paul II visited Poland many times when it was under Communist occupation, and met with Wojciech Jaruzelski, the brutal Soviet proxy who ruled Poland at the time, who had imposed martial law, imprisoned some 10,000 political opponents, and murdered at least 100 for good measure. The pope had some hope that Jaruzelski, who had been baptized in the Catholic Church, eventually would come around. He did, in his way. At Jaruzelski’s funeral Mass, one of the first men he had thrown in prison, Solidarity leader Lech Wałesa, knelt in the front row.

But those were heroic times. These are piddling times.

Pope Francis has an irritating (and more than irritating) habit of saying ignorant and destructive things about economics and public policy, and conservatives, myself included, have not been hesitant to criticize him for this. Nor should we forbear — the pope has no special expertise, and no special grace, in these matters, and, like any leader of a large and significant organization, he needs to hear criticism and the forcible presentation of different points of view. …

… Barack Obama is a failed president, a practitioner of a deeply destructive, distorted, self-interested, and vanity-driven brand of politics, and every instinct he exhibits tends toward detriment, privation, and chaos. But the fever-swamp version of his presidency — that he is a foreigner, a closet Islamist, a man singularly bent upon the destruction of the United States of America — is wrong. President Obama is himself certainly no exemplar of treating political disagreements with charity of spirit — he is quite the opposite — but his failings need not be our failings.

We conservatives want liberty, for ourselves and for the world. On that front, Pope Francis, unlike some of the great men who have walked before him in those fisherman’s shoes, does not appear to be a man who is going to be a great deal of help. But what do we want liberty for? For the things of this world alone, or for something more? That, despite his lamentable adventures in political economy, is more Pope Francis’s game.

And he asks us for our prayers. Maybe the appropriate prayer is wisdom for the pontiff, and humility for his critics — for me and you and the rest of us.




Stephanie Slade, an editor of Reason, thinks if Francis wants to help the poor, he should embrace free markets. 

He has been called the “slum pope” and “a pope for the poor.” And indeed, it’s true that Pope Francis, leader to 1.3 billion Roman Catholics, speaks often of those in need. He’s described the amount of poverty and inequality in the world as “a scandal” and implored the Church to fight what he sees as a “culture of exclusion.”

Yet even as he calls for greater concern for the marginalized, he broadly and cavalierly condemns the market-driven economic development that has lifted a billion people out of extreme poverty within the lifetime of the typical millennial. A lack of understanding of even basic economic concepts has led one of the most influential and beloved human beings on the planet to decry free enterprise, opine that private property rights must not be treated as “inviolable,” hold up as the ideal “cooperatives of small producers” over “economies of scale,” accuse the Western world of “scandalous level[s] of consumption,” and assert that we need “to think of containing growth by setting some reasonable limits.”

Given his vast influence, which extends far beyond practicing Catholics, this type of rhetoric is deeply troubling. It’s impossible to know how much of an impact his words are having on concrete policy decisions—but it’s implausible to deny that when he calls for regulating and constraining the free markets and economic growth that alleviate truly crushing poverty, the world is listening. As a libertarian who is also a devout Roman Catholic, I’m afraid as well that statements like these from Pope Francis reinforce the mistaken notion that libertarianism and religion are fundamentally incompatible. …

… “The problem is [Pope Francis] doesn’t clearly make distinctions between capitalism and trade and greed and corporatism,” like the kind he would have seen in Argentina, CatholicUniversity’s Richards says. “My sense is he’s skeptical of what he thinks capitalism is, but also that he hasn’t made a careful study of these things.” 

Evidence that the pope is working with an inaccurate picture of what capitalists really believe comes from Evangelii Gaudium, wherein he wrote that we exhibit “a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.” Richards thinks Pope Francis fundamentally misunderstands Adam Smith’s key insight: that even if the people who “wield economic power” are narrowly self-interested, the market will orient their behavior in a way that benefits others. 

“Now as a matter of fact we live in a fallen world, and so the question is: What is the best economic arrangement to either mitigate human selfishness or even to channel it into something socially beneficial?” Richards asks. “Precisely the reason I believe in limited government and a free economy is because it’s the best of the live alternatives at channeling both people’s creativity and ingenuity, but also their greed.” 

The pope doesn’t see it that way. From his perspective, either you support unfettered capitalism or you care about poverty. Among free marketeers, he says dismissively, the problems of the poor “are brought up as an afterthought, a question which gets added almost out of duty or in a tangential way, if not treated merely as collateral damage.” But that is a deeply uncharitable characterization of those who see things differently than he does. The people I know who invest their time and talent into defending economic freedom do so not in spite of the effect we think a capitalist system has on the least among us, but because of it. As John Mackey, the co-founder of Whole Foods (a company that’s a leader in philanthropic giving), argues in a recent interview with Reason, one of the strongest moral arguments for capitalism is that it alleviates poverty. 

That’s not to say we shouldn’t still be working to transcend our fallen nature. Within a free society there’s plenty of space, for those who are so inclined, to heed Pope Francis’ appeal—to be less materialistic, more selfless, truer disciples of Christ. In fact, I’ve argued that only a liberalized economic order grants people the autonomy to choose for themselves to be generous. If you don’t have the freedom to accumulate treasure, how can you possibly share it with the world?




Bill McGurn wishes there was some economic wisdom in the Vatican.

… the poor fare much better in places such as Hong Kong, Taiwan or Korea, where markets and competition are relatively open, than they do in Latin America or Africa, where competition is far more limited. To put it another way, it isn’t global competition that makes nations poor but their isolation from it.

Why do critics such as Pope Francis have such a hard time seeing this? A big part is that they misconstrue the nature of market competition. They want what the pope calls a “cooperative economy.”

But competition in a free market is not like competition in a boxing match, where the outcome is one winner and one loser. It’s about sellers vying to please a third party: the customer. This is why capitalists do not think of themselves as pro-business. To the contrary, capitalists insist that businesses must earn their success by competing to please customers.

Look at it this way. Brazil has a state-run, quasi-monopoly called Petrobras, the largest company in South America. The government shields it from competition on the grounds that the people of Brazil will benefit.

But who have actually benefited? Prosecutors say it is Petrobras execs, who grew rich on kickbacks, and the Working Party politicos they are said to have bribed. Anyone really want to argue that Brazil’s downtrodden are better off with an economy that protects Petrobras at the expense of competitors who might offer workers more jobs and customers better products?

Or what about Venezuela, where Hugo Chávez nationalized huge chunks of the economy and appropriated the property of foreign companies. Are we surprised that Venezuela’s richest woman turns out to be the late Chávez’s daughter?

Come to think of it, what about Argentina? The pope’s native land used to rank among the world’s wealthiest. Today it is a synonym for crony capitalism—and decline. …




Thomas Sowell says the left has its pope.

… In 1900, only 3 percent of American homes had electric lights but more than 99 percent had them before the end of the century. Infant mortality rates were 165 per thousand in 1900 and 7 per thousand by 1997. By 2001, most Americans living below the official poverty line had central air conditioning, a motor vehicle, cable television with multiple TV sets, and other amenities.

A scholar specializing in the study of Latin America said that the official poverty level in the United States is the upper middle class in Mexico. The much criticized market economy of the United States has done far more for the poor than the ideology of the left.

Pope Francis’ own native Argentina was once among the leading economies of the world, before it was ruined by the kind of ideological notions he is now promoting around the world.




Almost four years ago the December 22, 2011 edition of Pickings was devoted to the spirit of enterprise. All of it is worth another look, but one selection about a Russian youth who would grow to become their equivalent of a four-star general is reproduced here. It is a good example of the human urge to trade and create enterprise that would be hampered if not demolished by the policies proposed by this foolish pope.  

“All of the above reminded Pickerhead of ”Years Off My Life” - the autobiography of a Soviet General – Aleksandr Gorbatov. It is an unvarnished tale that describes his time in the GULAG before he was rehabilitated on the eve of The Great Patriotic War. Gorbatov ended the war as the Soviet Commandant of Berlin and retired with four stars.

It is his youth that interests us today. Harrison Salisbury reviewed his book for the NY Times in 1965.”

… But the finest quality of Gorbatov’s book is its sheer humanity. As he describes his life as a youngster – superstitious, religious, strong-willed, ambitious, clever – he sounds again and again like young Gorky. Russia was a hard school at the turn of the century, whether you were a youngster in Nizhni-Novgorod like Gorky, a miner’s apprentice in the Donbas like Khrushchev or a peasant’s son in the Palekh country. If you survived it you could survive almost anything …

At the age of eleven, after finishing his schooling, the young Gorbatov started a small trading business to help his family. It is that story you’ll see below.


And we found lots of cartoonists who share our views.

September 23, 2015

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Mummies know best. They are giving up the secrets of heart disease three thousand years ago. Financial Gazette has the story.

IN 2008, Greg Thomas, a cardiologist from California, was in Cairo for work. While there, he visited the EgyptianMuseum of Antiquities with another cardiologist, Adel Allam of Al Azhar University in Cairo.

They came across the mummy of King Merneptah, a pharaoh who lived 3,200 years ago. The description on Merneptah’s case said he had suffered from atherosclerosis, the buildup of plaque on artery walls. Both men were sure this must be wrong. How could an ancient Egyptian have had heart disease, when most of the risk factors for the disease – obesity, unhealthy diet, smoking and lack of exercise – did not then exist? But could they prove it?

Thomas, a professor at the University of California, Irvine and Allam discussed how they could find out more about Merneptah’s arteries. They theorised that any arterial plaques might still be visible on a CT scan, a computerised x-ray technology that produces 3D images. Plaques contain calcium, which degrades slowly – a key reason that bones endure for so long.

After months of negotiation with officials, the pair began scanning the museum’s mummies (ironically, Merneptah was excluded, as Egyptian archaeological officials ruled that royal mummies could not be part of the project). What they found surprised them: many showed clear signs of fatty buildup in their arteries. When the results are adjusted for age (pre-modern people had shorter life-spans, so most of the remains are of people who died in their 40s or younger), the rate of atherosclerosis was about the same as it is for people in modern society, around 40%. …




From Discovery we’re treated to a photo of a seal surfing on the back of a whale.

Robyn Malcolm was on a whale-watching boat of the coast of Eden in southern New South Wales when the boat came upon a pod of humpback whales and other marine mammals feeding on small baitfish.

Malcolm told Fairfax Media in a interview that she saw amazing whales coming out of the water as they were feeding. There was a lot of activity and everything was happening so quickly that Malcolm didn’t realize what she’d photographed until later.

“It was when I went back through the photos that I realized that I’d actually captured the seal on top of the whale,” she said.

NSWNational Parks and Wildlife whale expert Geoff Ross told the Brisbane Times that the last time he heard of such an unusual coupling was when a seal was trying to get away from a killer whale. “…the seal hopped on the back of the pectoral fins of a humpback whale,” he said. …




The Atlantic has a brief history of levees.

The levee is a technology fundamental to human civilization.  Artificial embankments were designed for the earliest cities, along with the first known draining systems and wells. In the ruins of great Bronze Age civilizations, lost now for thousands of years, the imprints of advanced networks of raised earth can still be traced.

Artificial levees in America predate the founding of the United States itself. Before European colonization, Native Americans made raised-earth structures along the banks of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

Levees can be made of mere mud and sand, yet still bedevil today’s engineers. They have been in use for millennia, yet still they fail. And in many ways, the story of the levee’s design and failure is a parable about the eternal battle between technology and nature.

Two of the best-remembered levee disasters in the United States both decimated New Orleans, once after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and again after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. (The former was immortalized in a 1929 blues tune, “When the Levee Breaks,” that was covered and popularized by Led Zeppelin four decades later.) Local history, though, reveals a much longer record of levee failures; the region has always known anxiety about the integrity of manmade embankments.

Newspaper archives are filled with accounts of surging waters, submerged plantations, quicksand, and close calls. In the Great October Storm of 1893, women were saved from drowning, the story goes, only when their long hair wrapped around tree limbs. “Down the bayou we are used to dealing with sudden adversity,” the poet Martha Serpas wrote in 2010. “We calibrate history by big hurricanes.” …




According to an article in Smithsonian, cypress trees can help suppress wildfires.

It’s been a brutal summer for wildfires in the American West. In the hottest year to date, flames are bearing down on northern California, western Washington has scorched, and more than 5 million acres burned across Alaska. 

As the wildfires smolder, across the pond, researchers from Italy and Spain are looking at a particular tree’s natural resistance to fires, and how that might be used to temper these disasters. They have found that cypress trees ignite seven times slower than other tree species that are native to the same area.

“The peculiar flammability traits of cypress are not a real mystery,” says Gianni Della Rocca, the lead author on the study published in the Journal of Environmental Management. “The physical, chemical and biological characteristic of this species makes it not immediately prone to fire. It means that cypress burns, but it takes longer to catch fire than other Mediterranean species.” 

The group conducted a series of tests on the Cupressus sempervirens species, which is native to the Mediterranean. In a lab, at the particle level, Della Rocca says, “a wide set of bench-scale calorimetry techniques were used to test the flammability parameters of live crowns and litter samples.” Then, in the field, they planted live green barriers. They will test the barrier’s fire resistance as soon as the trees mature, to see if what they found in the lab holds up in the wild.

Across the board, all the characteristics they saw in the cypress trees indicate that they’d help fight wildfires of moderate intensity. The tree’s needles and dead litter that falls to the ground are spongy and hold water for a long time, for one. The widely-spaced structure of the tree’s crown slows down air circulation, and the space between its branches reduces the speed at which a fire spreads. Cypress sap also happens to be less flammable than the resin from other trees. …




Statistically speaking, Five Thirty Eight says movies are about to get good again.

The end of September is approaching, which is fantastic news for moviegoers: It’s the season of good, Oscar-worthy films.

The Hollywood calendar isn’t really rocket science. Summer is the time to put out blockbusters (or blockbuster wannabes). Studios release movies that could potentially score awards — “Oscar bait” — toward the end of the year, so the films are fresh in awards voters’ minds. And typically, the holiday season is also ripe for a few big movies — recently the preferred release time for big-budget fantasy films, such as “The Hobbit” and other “Lord of the Rings” movies, or sci-fi films such as “Avatar” and the forthcoming “Star Wars” reboot.

Unfortunately, that means studios fill in the rest of the year with the movies that aren’t such certain bets — aka mostly schlock. The first four months of the year, January through April, see undependable weather conditions in major population centers that could force people indoors and away from theaters. September is the worst financial month of the year for studios, on average. That probably has something to do with school starting up again; the Motion Picture Association of America reported that, in 2014, 42 percent of tickets were sold to people 24 and younger.

This can be observed by simply plotting out box office receipts per month as a percentage of the yearly total, like so:

But it’s about to be October! That means not only that studios will make a little more money, but also that the really good movies — the kind that win Oscars — are about to come out. …

September 22, 2015

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Mark Steyn is annoyed.

As the week ended, Obama’s palace guard in the American media were demanding that every other Republican candidate distance himself from Donald Trump’s failure to correct, among thousands of attendees at his events, one who apparently is under the reprehensible illusion that the President is a Muslim.

Any candidate who plays this game with the Obamamedia is a fool. Assuming for the sake of argument that the questioner is genuine and not a plant (like, say, the 14-year old all-American schoolboy clockmaker who didn’t make a clock at all and is the son of a belligerent Muslim activist and perennial Sudanese presidential candidate whose brother runs a trucking company amusingly called Twin Towers Transportation), putting all of that to one side, there are several entirely reasonable responses one could make to the gentlemen of the press:

1) Unlike Hillary Clinton’s under-attended “rallies”, a voter doesn’t have to undergo a background check or sign a piece of paper pledging to support her in the election before being permitted into a Republican candidate’s presence. So at our campaign events there are all kinds of people with all kinds of views – and it goes without saying I won’t agree with them all. If you find that odd, maybe you’ve been covering Hillary too long.

2) Why does one Republican candidate’s “scandal” get hung around the neck of every other guy’s? I’ll answer your question to me about Donald Trump’s gaffe after you ask Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee and Joe Biden about Hillary Clinton’s server and how she handled Benghazi. Till then, get lost.

3) In the normal course of events, the President – who is supposed to serve as president of all the people, not just the half of the country that voted for him – should command a certain respect. But this particular president has compared the members of the loyal opposition to terrorists and to the more hardcore Iranian ayatollahs. And none of you media bigfeet huffing and puffing about lèse-majesté gave a crap about that. So, if you’ll forgive me, as someone designated a terrorist and ayatollah by Obama, I’m disinclined to rise to defend the President’s amour propre. Go hector someone else. …




Furthermore, a blog named Personal Liberty says you can blame the president and Hillary for the refugee crisis in Europe. 

Over the weekend, another 34 refugees died trying to flee the war-torn Middle East and escape to Europe. They drowned when the boat they were on capsized as they were trying to make it from Turkey to Greece.

So far this year, nearly 400,000 desperate migrants have made it safely to Europe. An estimated 3,000 people died along the way, including Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy whose lifeless body was found on a Turkish beach. He, his mother and his 5-year-old brother all drowned when their boat capsized.

An even more horrifying story came out of Austria, where smugglers abandoned a refrigerated truck alongside the highway. When the doors were finally forced open, authorities found the bodies inside of 71 people who had suffocated, including that of an 18-month-old girl.

The humanitarian crisis is absolutely horrific. And frankly, the blame for it can be laid squarely at the feet of President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. As Fred Hiatt put it in The Washington Post, the Obama administration has presided “over a humanitarian and cultural disaster of epochal proportions.” …




PJ Tatler quotes Ralph Peters who says 2,000 years of Christian civilization have been destroyed on this president’s watch.

The Islamic State has managed to destroy two thousand years of Christian civilization in the Middle East in just a couple of years, Lt. Col. Ralph Peters noted on The O’Reilly Factor last week. And he placed the blame squarely on President Obama’s cowardly, feckless, incompetent foreign policy. …

… The archbishop of Canterbury recently warned British Prime Minister David Cameron that his government’s refugee policy was discriminating against Christians because Christians are not among the refugees being helped in UN camps. They’re not in the UN camps because they fear persecution from radicalized Muslim refugees.




Kevin Williamson puts on his old copy desk hat and shows how the NY Times distorts the news. This is a little long, but it illustrates how the real story gets turned on its head.

MEMO FROM: Copy desk

TO: New York Times Foreign desk

RE: Diaa Hadid for AM international; mark-up attached

HEAD: Jewish Man Dies as Rocks Pelt His Car in East Jerusalem [ED: “As rocks pelt his car”? How exactly did the rocks go about doing this? Are these special angry Palestinian rocks that get up off the ground and hurl themselves at Jews? Unless we’re talking about The Rock, in which case he’s going by “Dwayne Johnson” these days, I don’t think a rock is capable of committing an act of violence on its own.]

BYLINE: Diaa Hadid

DATELINE: Ramallah, West Bank, 14 September 2015

COPY:  The man was identified in local news reports as Alexander Levlovich, 64. His death was reported as the police and Palestinian youths clashed [ED: Is it the case that the police and the Palestinian youths “clashed,” or is it the case that the police tried to stop violent crimes from being committed? Do the police “clash” with bank-robbers or muggers?] for a second day at Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, amid tensions [Who is tense about this? Are Jews experiencing “tension” over being allowed to move about freely for the purposes of having dinner?] over increased visits by Jews for Rosh Hashana. The two-day holiday began at sundown on Sunday. …




Here’s the NY Times article Williamson referred to above.

A Jewish man died early Monday morning after attackers pelted the road he was driving on with rocks as he was returning home from a dinner celebrating Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, the Israeli authorities said. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called an emergency meeting to discuss rock-throwing, mostly by Palestinian youths.

The man was identified in local news reports as Alexander Levlovich, 64. His death was reported as the police and Palestinian youths clashed for a second day at a contested holy site in Jerusalem, amid tensions over increased visits by Jews for Rosh Hashana. The two-day holiday began at sundown on Sunday.

A statement from the Israeli police said the assailants were throwing stones on Sunday night on a road that runs between a Palestinian and Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem. The police said the stone-throwing “led to a self-inflicted accident,” as the man lost control of the car and smashed into a pole. …

September 21, 2015

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We suffered long years with a foolish president and now have to endure a similar pope. George Will writes; 

Pope Francis embodies sanctity but comes trailing clouds of sanctimony. With a convert’s indiscriminate zeal, he embraces ideas impeccably fashionable, demonstrably false and deeply reactionary. They would devastate the poor on whose behalf he purports to speak — if his policy prescriptions were not as implausible as his social diagnoses are shrill.

Supporters of Francis have bought newspaper and broadcast advertisements to disseminate some of his woolly sentiments that have the intellectual tone of fortune cookies. One example: “People occasionally forgive, but nature never does.” The Vatican’s majesty does not disguise the vacuity of this. Is Francis intimating that environmental damage is irreversible? He neglects what technology has accomplished regarding London’s air (see Page 1 of Dickens’s “Bleak House”) and other matters. …

… Francis’s fact-free flamboyance reduces him to a shepherd whose selectively reverent flock, genuflecting only at green altars, is tiny relative to the publicity it receives from media otherwise disdainful of his church. Secular people with anti-Catholic agendas drain his prestige, a dwindling asset, into promotion of policies inimical to the most vulnerable people and unrelated to what once was the papacy’s very different salvific mission.

He stands against modernity, rationality, science and, ultimately, the spontaneous creativity of open societies in which people and their desires are not problems but precious resources. Americans cannot simultaneously honor him and celebrate their nation’s premises.




Noah Rothman sees the president’s minions throwing Hillary under the bus.

The central mission of Barack Obama’s White House in the waning days of his administration is to communicate to the public that none of this is his fault. Their search for figures toward which this administration can shift blame for the suboptimal state of affairs is growing increasingly frantic, self-sabotaging, and reflective of an undisciplined political operation in the midst of a spiraling crisis.

Given the increasingly dire state of geopolitical affairs, securing exonerations for Obama’s conduct is a particularly urgent imperative on the foreign policy front. The resurrection of the Islamist militant threat in the Middle East is perhaps the most glaring failure of this administration. The largely pacified Iraq that Barack Obama inherited is a boiling cauldron of bloody sectarian warfare. Even the most stalwart member of the president’s thinning clique of apologists would today concede that the withdrawal of every last American soldier from Iraq in 2011 was shortsighted. They contend, however, that the president had no choice. Proud Iraqi negotiators prevented this White House from securing a mutually satisfactory agreement that secured legal immunity for American soldiers tied his hands. Nonsense. This excuse has been thoroughly dispelled in reports that clearly indicate the administration was only prepared to accept full and total withdrawal in order to fulfill a political objective Obama set for himself in 2008. …

… As is the wont of this pathologically defensive administration, they have gone about looking for blame-worthy figures outside the ever-shrinking circle of Obama loyalists. “The finger, it says, should be pointed not at Mr. Obama but at those who pressed him to attempt training Syrian rebels in the first place,” New York Times reporter Peter Baker revealed, “a group that, in addition to congressional Republicans, happened to include former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.” …

… As the primary executor of Barack Obama’s hideously failed approach to preserving U.S. interests abroad and executing American grand strategy in his first term, Hillary Clinton’s record as secretary of state is a liability. She has chosen the Syrian crisis as the way in which she can create distance between herself and this president in order to inoculate herself against attacks on his foreign policy record. It is testament to the shortsighted and thin-skinned nature of this administration that even this mild criticism cannot be tolerated. They would handicap their party’s successor before they would suffer even a modest critique.

The campaign is only just beginning. There is a reason why a political party has secured three consecutive terms in the White House only once in the post-War era. The voters are hungry for a change, and, presuming she is the nominee, Clinton will have to distance herself from the president if she is to win a general election next November. It’s not clear that Barack Obama’s capacious ego can take it.



Our favorite, Scott Walker, has gone down in flames. David Harsanyi suggests a cabinet job for him – Secretary of Labor.

As he’s still a relatively young man, I imagine there are a multitude of things Scott Walker can still achieve in his life. But being president is not going to be one them. And it’s nothing to be ashamed of. We’re all endowed with certain gifts and hindered by certain realities. I will never be George Will. Scott Walker will never be Ronald Reagan. Or even James Polk. … 

… Walker could put to use his formidable experience fighting off union bosses. Having already dealt with the pressure of facing a well-funded special interest, and winning (on numerous times), Walker is more qualified on this front than anyone else running. If he wants to make a difference, it might be his best chance. …




And Matthew Continetti posts on Carly. 

There’s one story out of the CNN Republican debate, and that’s Carly Fiorina. The cable network expanded the ranks of GOP candidates to include her in the primetime debate, and she made the most of the opportunity. She did what no one thought was possible: She beat Donald Trump in the television game with her retort to his comments about her physical appearance. And she did more than that: She gave crisp, strong, visceral answers on questions regarding national security, abortion, and the economy. Conservative audiences have been thrilled at Fiorina’s appearances for months. Tonight she showed the nation that she is articulate, capable, passionate, and fearless. She displayed more thumos than many of the men on stage.

Fiorina has a fascinating speaking style. She’s clipped, emphatic, almost rote in her delivery. But it comes across as though she’s entirely committed to telling you what she’s thinking at any given moment. I can’t think of a more affecting statement from a politician I’ve heard than the one she gave on the Planned Parenthood scandal. When you combine that with how she destroyed Donald Trump when she was asked to comment on his remarks about her appearance, I expect the Republican audience of this debate to move to her in swarms. …




Jonathan Tobin says Trump can blame himself for his current problem.

This isn’t something that will hurt Donald Trump much among his populist base. But the kerfuffle over Trump’s failure to correct a questioner that claimed President Obama was a Muslim and not even an American is a club that the mainstream media will beat him with for the rest of the presidential campaign. Blaming a candidate for the prejudicial or even crazy comments made by their supporters is unfair. Less unfair but part of the political game is the way candidates are judged by their responses to outrageous questions that don’t put sufficient daylight between their positions and those of the persons expressing a controversial opinion. But in this case, the candidate can only blame one person for the fact that a prejudiced nativist birther would steel his thunder: Donald J. Trump. The criticisms for his failure to correct or rebuke the questioner have some traction because only a couple of years ago, no one was doing more to promote wacky theories about the president’s birth or his faith than Trump. …



Roger Simon knows what Trump should have said.

That familiar question “Is Obama a Muslim?” came up once again at a New Hampshire Trump rally Thursday night when a man (supporter? plant? who knows?)  shouted out to the candidate, looking for approbation, that Barack Obama is a Muslim and “not even an American.”  The man added, ”We have a problem in this country — it’s called Muslims.”

Trump did nothing at the time to disabuse the man of this notion and the candidate has since taken considerable heat for his nonresponse from just about every quarter, including that paragon of justice and honesty Hillary Clinton. The Donald, as is his wont, has declined to apologize for what Mrs. Clinton called his “hateful rhetoric.”  He has gone so far as to tweet that he had no responsibility to respond. “If someone made a nasty or controversial statement about me to the president, do you really think he would come to my rescue.  No chance!”

Good point, but it raises the question: Is Obama a Muslim?  The answer is no.  But what is he then?  Is Obama a Christian, as Jeb Bush asserted in an attempt to make Trump look bad after Thursday’s dustup? Not a chance.  Obama is about as pure a post-modern agnostic as you can find.  He’s about as Christian as your average gender studies professor at Swarthmore.

Religion is for the president a convenience, an instrument of power.  As evidence of his Christianity he presents twenty-year attendance at Jeremiah Wright’s church, which was and is no more than a front for extreme, self-destructive black nationalism amplified by screechy anti-American propaganda, about as Christian an institution as the White Citizens’ Councils.  (Oprah Winfrey didn’t quit by accident).  After acceding to the presidency, Obama has hardly ever gone to church.  It interferes with his golf game or just about anything else.  The family didn’t even make it on Easter. …

… Although it’s perhaps a bit too complicated, or even apocalyptic, for the campaign hustings, here’s how Trump should have answered the man’s question.  Is Obama a Muslim?  No, but he’s something even worse — a transnational progressive.

On second thought, such complex ideological talk is obviously not Trump’s style.  But there is someone running for the presidency with the intellectual chops, guts and speaking clarity to explain something like this to the public — Carly.

September 20, 2015

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Thought provoking post from Craig Pirrong at the Streetwise Professor titled “You May Not Be Interested In a Clash of Civilizations, But A Clash of Civilizations Is Interested In You.” 

Cast your eyes around the world, and they are likely to land on a scene of conflict and chaos. In the Middle East, obviously, from pillar (Libya) to post (the Persian Gulf). In the center of Eurasia (Ukraine). In the South China Sea and the DMZ. The world situation has not been this fraught since the 1930s.

If you are like me, you crave an explanation. You could do far worse than start with Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Huntington’s article and subsequent book of the same title unleashed a storm of furious criticism when it came out in 1993. But standing 22 years later, Huntington looks prescient, and many of his critics look like utter fools.

The best evidence of this is to look at the antagonists in the most important cockpits of conflicts.

Start with Ukraine. Putin has explicitly invoked the idea of “a Russian world” and has justified his actions in Ukraine and elsewhere as a legitimate defense of Russian people, language, and culture from the assaults of his enemies, especially in the West. Putin and other Russians tirelessly invoke contrasts between Russian civilization and European civilization in particular.

Putin and Russians generally think they are in a Clash of Civilizations.

Next consider China. China’s leadership too views China as a great civilization that was oppressed by others (Westerners, Japanese), and which is now assuming its proper place in the world. …

… Obama is clearly a progressive, so understood. His most consistent trope in responding to conflict, with Putin or the Islamists, is to say that history will leave them behind; that they are swimming against the tide of history. Obama said this to Putin about Ukraine: he just said it about Syria: he has said it about Isis. His policy towards Iran is predicated on the belief that once Iran is readmitted in into the community of nations, it will become a Normal Country, and discard its Islamist civilizational mission.

So part of the failure of many of those in the West to believe in the Clash of Civilizations is rooted in a worldview that such conflicts are an atavism that will disappear as the world progresses to some homogenous end state in which all existing differences are dissolved.

But that’s not the only part. Another part is a paradox of Western civilization. The West’s distinguishing characteristics include skepticism, criticism and doubt. That very skepticism, criticism and doubt have led many (especially on the left, but also many on the right) to conclude that Western civilization is flawed, corrupt, defective, and certainly not superior to any other civilization, and hence not worth fighting for. Thus, the self-criticism that defines Western civilization prevents many in it from fighting for it. In this respect too, Obama is an exemplar. …

… We are arguably in the midst of a new world war, though one that is fortunately, for now anyways, not as cataclysmic as the two that preceded it. But it is a different type of world war not only because of its lower intensity, but because it is not a war between two dominant blocs. Instead, it is a multipolar war with at least four major civilizations jostling at various points around the globe. This multipolarity makes the struggle less predictable, and far more confusing. It will only become more so unless the West, and in particular the US, realizes the nature of the ongoing conflict, and reengages accordingly.

A phrase often attributed to Trotsky (probably wrongly) seems apt here: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Rephrased: you may not be interested in a Clash of Civilizations, but a Clash of Civilizations is interested in you. If we don’t awaken to that reality, we are destined to be the losers in that clash.



September 6th’s Pickings posted on the president’s “vacation from history.” Craig Pirrong referred above to Samuel Huntington’s 1993 Clash of Civilizations. Here it is. It provides the historical context of our country’s failure to understand and to lead.

World politics is entering a new phase, and intellectuals have not hesitated to proliferate visions of what it will be — the end of history, the return of traditional rivalries between nation states, and the decline of the nation state from the conflicting pulls of tribalism and globalism, among others. Each of these visions catches aspects of the emerging reality. Yet they all miss a crucial, indeed a central, aspect of what global politics is likely to be in the coming years. 

It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will be the battle lines of the future. 

Conflict between civilizations will be the latest phase of the evolution of conflict in the modern world. For a century and a half after the emergence of the modern international system of the Peace of Westphalia, the conflicts of the Western world were largely among princes — emperors, absolute monarchs and constitutional monarchs attempting to expand their bureaucracies, their armies, their mercantilist economic strength and, most important, the territory they ruled. In the process they created nation states, and beginning with the French Revolution the principal lines of conflict were between nations rather than princes. In 1793, as R. R. Palmer put it, “The wars of kings were over; the ward of peoples had begun.” …

… DURING THE COLD WAR the world was divided into the First, Second and Third Worlds. Those divisions are no longer relevant. It is far more meaningful now to group countries not in terms of their political or economic systems or in terms of their level of economic development but rather in terms of their culture and civilization. .. 

… CIVILIZATION IDENTITY will be increasingly important in the future, and the world will be shaped in large measure by the interactions among seven or eight major civilizations. These include Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African civilization. The most important conflicts of the future will occur along the cultural fault lines separating these civilizations from one another. … 

… The Cold War ended with the end of the Iron Curtain. As the ideological division of Europe has disappeared, the cultural division of Europe between Western Christianity, on the one hand, and Orthodox Christianity and Islam, on the other, has reemerged. The most significant dividing line in Europe, as William Wallace has suggested, may well be the eastern boundary of Western Christianity in the year 1500. This line runs along what are now the boundaries between Finland and Russia and between the Baltic states and Russia, cuts through Belarus and Ukraine separating the more Catholic western Ukraine from Orthodox eastern Ukraine, swings westward separating Transylvania from the rest of Romania, and then goes through Yugoslavia almost exactly along the line now separating Croatia and Slovenia from the rest of Yugoslavia. In the Balkans this line, of course, coincides with the historic boundary between the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires. The peoples to the north and west of this line are Protestant or Catholic; they shared the common experiences of European history — feudalism, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution; they are generally economically better off than the peoples to the east; and they may now look forward to increasing involvement in a common European economy and to the consolidation of democratic political systems. The peoples to the east and south of this line are Orthodox or Muslim; they historically belonged to the Ottoman or Tsarist empires and were only lightly touched by the shaping events in the rest of Europe; they are generally less advanced economically; they seem much less likely to develop stable democratic political systems. The Velvet Curtain of culture has replaced the Iron Curtain of ideology as the most significant dividing line in Europe. As the events in Yugoslavia show, it is not only a line of difference; it is also at times a line of bloody conflict. …

… THE WEST IS NOW at an extraordinary peak of power in relation to other civilizations. In superpower opponent has disappeared from the map. Military conflict among Western states is unthinkable, and Western military power is unrivaled. Apart from Japan, the West faces no economic challenge. It dominates international economic institutions. Global political and security issues are effectively settled by a directorate of the United States, Britain and France, world economic issues by a directorate of the United States, Germany and Japan, all of which maintain extraordinarily close relations with each other to the exclusion of lesser and largely non-Western countries. Decisions made at the U.N. Security Council or in the International Monetary Fund that reflect the interests of the West are presented to the world as reflecting the desires of the world community. The very phrase “the world community” has become the euphemistic collective noun (replacing “the Free World”) to give global legitimacy to actions reflecting the interests of the United States and other Western powers. … 

… Almost invariably Western leaders claim they are acting on behalf of “the world community.” One minor lapse occurred during the run-up to the Gulf War. In an interview on “Good Morning America,” Dec. 21, 1990, British Prime Minister John Major referred to the actions “the West” was taking against Saddam Hussein. He quickly corrected himself and subsequently referred to “the world community.” He was, however, right when he erred.  

Western domination of the U.N. Security Council and its decisions, tempered only by occasional abstention by China, produced U.N. legitimation of the West’s use of force to drive Iraq out of Kuwait and its elimination of Iraq’s sophisticated weapons and capacity to produce such weapons. It also produced the quite unprecedented action by the United States, Britain and France in getting the Security Council to demand that Libya hand over the Pan Am 103 bombing suspects and then to impose sanctions when Libya refused. After defeating the largest Arab army, the West did not hesitate to throw its weight around in the Arab world. The West in effect is using international institutions, military power and economic resources to run the world in ways that will maintain Western predominance, protect Western interests and promote Western political and economic values. 

That at least is the way in which non-Westerners see the new world, and there is a significant element of truth in their view. Differences in power and struggles for military, economic and institutional power are thus one source of conflict between the West and other civilizations. Differences in culture, that is basic values and beliefs, are a second source of conflict. V. S. Naipaul has argued that Western civilization is the “universal civilization” that “fits all men.” At a superficial level much of Western culture has indeed permeated the rest of the world. At a more basic level, however, Western concepts differ fundamentally from those prevalent in other civilizations. Western ideas of individualism, liberalism, constitutionalism, human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law, democracy, free markets, the separation of church and state, often have little resonance in Islamic, Confucian, Japanese, Hindu, Buddhist or Orthodox cultures. Western efforts to propagate each ideas produce instead a reaction against “human rights imperialism” and a reaffirmation of indigenous values, as can be seen in the support for religious fundamentalism by the younger generation in non-Western cultures. The very notion that there could be a “universal civilization” is a Western idea, directly at odds with the particularism of most Asian societies and their emphasis on what distinguishes one people from another. … 

… Western civilization is both Western and modern. Non-Western civilizations have attempted to become modern without becoming Western. To date only Japan has fully succeeded in this quest. Non-Western civilization will continue to attempt to acquire the wealth, technology, skills, machines and weapons that are part of being modern. They will also attempt to reconcile this modernity with their traditional culture and values. Their economic and military strength relative to the West will increase. Hence the West will increasingly have to accommodate these non-Western modern civilizations whose power approaches that of the West but whose values and interests differ significantly from those of the West. This will require the West to maintain the economic and military power necessary to protect its interests in relation to these civilizations. It will also, however, require the West to develop a more profound understanding of the basic religious and philosophical assumptions underlying other civilizations and the ways in which people in those civilizations see their interests. It will require an effort to identify elements of commonality between Western and other civilizations. For the relevant future, there will be no universal civilization, but instead a world of different civilizations, each of which will have to learn to coexist with the others. 

September 17, 2015

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Just how bad a deal a college education has become was evident in data released by the government. NY Times has the story.

Colleges give prospective students very little information about how much money they can expect to earn in the job market. In part that’s because colleges may not want people to know, and in part it’s because such information is difficult and expensive to gather. Colleges are good at tracking down rich alumni to hit up for donations, but people who make little or no money are harder and less lucrative to find.

On Saturday, the federal government solved that problem by releasing a huge new set of data in a website called College Scorecard, detailing the earnings of people who attended nearly every college and university in America. Although it abandoned efforts to rate the quality of colleges, the federal government matched data from the federal student financial aid system to federal tax returns. The Department of Education was thus able to calculate how much money people who enrolled in individual colleges in 2001 and 2002 were earning 10 years later.

On the surface, the trends aren’t surprising — students who enroll in wealthy, elite colleges earn more than those who do not. But the deeper that you delve into the data, the more clear it becomes how perilous the higher education market can be for students making expensive, important choices that don’t always pay off. …

… The Department of Education calculated the percentage of students at each college who earned more than $25,000 per year, which is about what high school graduates earn. At hundreds of colleges, less than half of students met this threshold 10 years after enrolling. The list includes a raft of barber academies, cosmetology schools and for-profit colleges that often leave students with few job prospects and mountains of debt.

But some more well-known institutions weren’t far behind. At BenningtonCollege in Vermont, over 48 percent of former students were earning less than $25,000 per year. A quarter were earning less than $10,600 per year. At BardCollege in Annandale-on-Hudson, the median annual earnings were only $35,700. Results at the University of New Mexico were almost exactly the same. …




We’ve been flogging the increase of student debt for years. Now, even some house organs of the left see the danger. Here’s The New Republic.

… An infamous study on student debt by Jesse Rothstein of the University of California, Berkeley, and Cecilia Elena Rouse of Princeton looked at the results of a highly selective university replacing loans with grants. It concluded “that debt causes graduates to choose substantially higher-salary jobs and reduces the probability that students choose low-paid ‘public interest’ jobs.”

Let’s imagine two scenarios. In the first you have high student loans, so you work for a corporation in the private sector for high wages. And in the second you have virtually no student loans, and you work for less wages in a job focused on the public interest, say as an educator or at a nonprofit. In both cases your student loan payment would be the same as a percentage of your income. The Brookings result would hold. However your lifetime choices will have radically changed as a result.

We see this with other lifetime measures, such as how entrepreneurial people are. A recent study by Brent W. Ambrose of Pennsylvania State University, and Larry Cordell and Shuwei Ma of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, found “a significant and economically meaningful negative correlation between changes in student loan debt and net business formation for the smallest group of small businesses.” This makes sense. You can keep your high student loan burdens low if you stay with an established employer. But if you strike out on your own, you’ll have less and more volatile income when you start. This is harder to manage with student loans, which also impacts your credit rating. Again, we can see the short-term student loan burdens staying the same, even though lifetime choices are much more limited as a result. …

… This has major consequences for people’s ability to build wealth. Indeed, much of the current energy in analyzing student loan burdens are looking at this longer dynamic, and how it interplays with the ability for people to amass savings. As Richard Fry of Pew found, using the same data set as Brookings, “households headed by a young, college-educated adult without any student debt obligations have about seven times the typical net worth ($64,700) of households headed by a young, college-educated adult with student debt ($8,700).” Fry also finds that those who took out loans are less satisfied with their financial situation compared to people without loans. Similar results have been investigated and found by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. 

This, in turn, has major consequences for how young people will ultimately transition into adulthood. According to Dora Gicheva of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, student debt decreases the long-term probability of marriage by a significant amount. In a result that should make social conservatives gasp, Gicheva found that an additional $10,000 in loans decreases the probability of marriage by at least 7 percentage points. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that young student debtors are retreating from those traditional markers of adulthood, homeownership and owning a car. These effects reflect the long-term consequences of student debt on a young person’s economic security just as much, if not more, than their monthly bill. …




And Kevin Williamson gives his views on the student loan scandal.

… As usual, the policy-making class worries most about the people who most closely resemble it socially and economically. But the report finds that the people coming out of selective schools have an average loan debt at graduation of only $23,000, while their degrees provide an average annual wage premium of $20,000. “For most people who graduate from top-tier schools,” Dynarski writes, “debt is easily managed.”

We have been having a very strange debate about income inequality in the United States for the past several years, one focused almost exclusively on the status of the hated “1 percent” or super-rich segments within it. From an economic point of view, this is deeply stupid: If Lloyd Blankfein takes a $100,000-a-year pay cut next year, that isn’t going to translate into two $50,000-a-year jobs for dropouts from P.S. 154 in the Bronx. But from a political point of view, concentrating on the 1 percent makes a great deal of sense to progressives: It is not, after all, conservative-dominated institutions run by Republican-affiliated unions that have failed the poor, the black, and the brown in practically every city in the United States.

The Left’s answer to the challenge of targeting our expenditures toward those Americans who most need them is to subsidize another round of loans, which will pass through Little Moonbeam on their way to her $150,000-a-year women’s-studies professor and the university’s $800,000-a-year president. That’ll show those rich people!

The M.F.A.s (Master in Fine Arts) can take care of themselves. So can those six-figure administrators and millionaire teachers’-union bosses. Meanwhile, the people who actually need our help get nothing.




To top off our week Andrew Malcolm is here with late night humor.

Fallon: President Obama will appear on “Running Wild With Bear Grylls” later this year. The episode features Obama roughing it on a golf course that hasn’t been mowed for a couple of days.

Meyers: In an interview Trump says he’s not crossed the line of appropriateness. You can read Trump’s entire interview in this month’s issue of ‘Juggs’ magazine.

Conan: A new study claims first grade students get nearly three times more homework than they should. This is according to the study’s lead researcher, Timmy.