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October 2008 Archives

October 2, 2008

Bailout Stories--Skeel

One reason the current financial crisis seems so mystifying is, I think, the absence of a simple, coherent story that explains what the crisis is about. The Enron and WorldCom scandals earlier in the decade could be distilled to a plausible story about greed and the failure of the accounting firms and other gatekeepers who are supposed to police Wall Street. With the current crisis, by contrast, three main narratives seem to be competing for attention. And each is deeply flawed.

The first, which has been offered by Senator Bernie Sanders and others, attributes the crisis to Wall Street greed, and demands that Wall Street be punished and ordinary Americans helped. Wall Street greed certainly is a major factor in the crisis, most visibly in the pushing of exotic, mortgage-related securities that now have come back to haunt many financial institutions. But the greed story has at least two problems.

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October 4, 2008

Where are the Burkeans?--Stuntz

Along with Friedrich Hayek, Edmund Burke is among the intellectual fathers of American conservatism.  Hayek taught conservatives to love freedom.  Burke taught conservatives to respect tradition even when its rationale seems obscure, for tradition often represents the accumulated wisdom of generations past.

 

Burke gave us another set of ideas that seems to have fallen by the wayside in contemporary American politics, and in contemporary American conservatism:  the value of prudence and judgment in public life, and along with those virtues, the merits of republicanism rather than plebiscitary democracy.  Written in 1777, Burke's letter to his electors at Bristol remains the classic statement of the elected representative's duty:  to exercise his best judgment--to bring all the knowledge and experience he has to bear on the votes he must cast.  The negative form of the proposition is just as important:  elected representatives must not be mere wet fingers testing the political winds.  Such representation amounts to voting by poll numbers and focus groups.  If that is representative democracy in action, the adjective has disappeared and the noun is doing all the work.  One might as well drop the middleman, and simply vote for legislation by phone-in poll.

 

Over the course of the last week, House Republicans--allegedly, the keepers of the conservative flame in the federal government--have behaved in a manner that should leave all true Burkeans appalled.

 

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October 9, 2008

C.S. Lewis and the Financial Crisis--Skeel

I suspect I'm not the only one who feels vaguely guilty when I'm not thinking about or talking about or trying in some small, inept way to do something about the financial crisis. Everything else seems secondary. How can we go about our ordinary lives in a time like this?

Some of the most helpful answers I've heard come, as is so often the case, from C.S. Lewis. Speaking to university students at the height of World War II in an essay called "Learning in War-Time," he asked how they could continue studying "when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance?" Lewis points out that, because times are never truly "normal," if we took the assumption that we should stop our ordinary activities when things are amiss to its logical conclusion, we would never engage in ordinary activities.

He then argues that the seemingly frivolous activities in which we engage are part of what makes us different from animals: people "propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache: it is our nature."

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October 12, 2008

Is Government Ownership the Right Strategy?--Skeel

We now have yet another switch in the Treasury's strategy for stabilizing the markets. Plan A with the $700 billion rescue plan was to use the money to buy some of the questionable mortgage-related securities that are held by the nation's troubled financial institutions. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson now wants to take a direct stake in the banks, to buy stock rather than simply buy some of banks' assets.

The most obvious reason for the shift is that, unless the government overpays, buying a bank's questionable securities doesn't necessarily improve its balance sheet. It replaces one asset- the securities- with another one- cash. If the government buys stock, on the other hand, the cash directly increases both the bank's assets and its net worth, potentially increasing the likelihood the bank will remain solvent.

That's the good news. But there are at least two potential problems.

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October 13, 2008

Teachers, Professors, and Obama Buttons--Skeel

Stanley Fish has an interesting op-ed in this morning's New York Times about whether a school or university can prohibit its teachers from wearing a button advocating a particular candidate in the classroom. Fish argues that such a rule would be upheld under the First Amendment, and he suggests that such a ban would be appropriate given that a teacher's views can have a coercive effect on students- shaping, for instance, how they answer an exam question.

I don't think I would be enthusiastic about a formal ban on buttons at the college or graduate school level (in elementary or high school, on the other hand, I would be inclined to ban them from classrooms). But I also don't think professors should wear them, for precisely the kinds of reasons that Fish suggests.

But this raises an interesting question. Given that ninety percent or more of the buttons would be Obama buttons, given the well-documented political tendencies of teachers and professors, does it really matter whether they announce this with a button?

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October 18, 2008

Is the Era of Big Government Back?--Stuntz

Everyone seems to think so, thanks to the financial crisis.  I wonder.  I have a short article about to come out in The Weekly Standard suggesting otherwise.  The link is here.

 

Early in his first Administration, Bill Clinton turned to his economic advisers and said: "we're all Eisenhower Republicans here"--because the need to bring down the deficit was driving his budget and tax policies in directions he didn't like.  Seems to me, the forces driving a future President Obama or McCain in the same direction will be a good deal stronger in 2009.

October 26, 2008

The California Anti Gay Marriage Referendum--Skeel

Reading the daily updates on the prospects of the California Anti-Gay Marriage referendum, I find myself quite conflicted. Like the two presidential candidates, I am not in favor of gay marriage, but I have long been troubled by the tenor of the campaigns to stop gay marriage (and even more about the campaigns against gay rights generally), which have often seemed unloving, to put it charitably. Two thoughts on the gay marriage issue.

First, gay marriage strikes me as a much better issue to leave to the states than abortion, the other hot button issue on which it is often proposed. If states had varying laws on gay marriage and other family law issues, as they currently do, people could make their decisions where to live based in part on a given state's rules on these issues if the issues are particularly important to them. To be sure, this approach would only work if a state's marriage or partnership rules were limited to that state and states that chose to recognize them. This raises some tricky constitutional issues, but my impression (subject to correction by those who are more expert in constitutional law that I am), is that any constitutional impediments are not insurmountable and that it's essentially what we have now.

This leads to the second thought. What if the new president proposed "minimum standards" legislation on the gay partnership and marriage issues?

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October 29, 2008

Health Care and the Election--Stuntz

Health care may be the most heavily covered domestic issue in the current presidential race.  But the coverage has been lousy.  E.g.:  If I understand correctly, McCain's health care proposal would make employer-provided health insurance much more costly (by taxing the relevant benefits), but would also make individually purchased health insurance much cheaper (by providing a substantial tax credit).  Is it a good idea to shift from employer-provided care to the purchase of insurance by individuals and families?  You won't find the answer in the New York Times or on cable news shows.

 

I can think of one reason why the answer might be a resounding "yes."  We're entering an economic slowdown.  Anything that spurs job creation is a big plus.  And shifting the cost of health care away from employers makes the creation of medium-to-high-income jobs substantially cheaper.  That has to be good news for the economy, and good news for the competitiveness of American businesses.

 

Could be, there are good responses.  And maybe the issue has been well covered, and I've just missed it.  If not, this may be one more piece of evidence that the press is in the tank for Obama.  Seems to me, this is a lot more important than Sarah Palin's clothing budget.

October 31, 2008

The Pulpit Initiative--Skeel

A month ago, 33 pastors around the country preached sermons that overtly endorsed a candidate (usually John McCain) as part of Pulpit Freedom Sunday and the Pulpit Initiative organized by Alliance Defense Fund, a prominent Christian legal fund. The Pulpit Initiative is designed to challenge a tax law that takes away nonprofit status if a church or other nonprofit organization endorses a political candidate. (Here's a link to an article about the challenge).

My biggest question is why challenge this law, and why now? This is very much an evangelical initiative, but the evangelical churches I'm familiar with rarely if ever talk about the merits or demerits of particular political candidates. When I first heard about the initiative, I wondered if it might designed less to protect white Protestant churches than to force the IRS to investigate black churches, which historically have mixed politics and religion much more freely. But from what I know about the Alliance Defense Fund, I can't imagine this was their motivation.

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McCain or Obama?--Stuntz

This Stuart Taylor column captures half of my frustration with this presidential election. Taylor argues that, if Obama governs as a centrist, he could have a spectacularly successful presidency. If he governs from the left, Taylor says, he will fail as badly as George W. Bush did governing from the right.

Most of Bush's mistakes were not due to ideology, but that's a quibble. Taylor's basic point is sound.  The country is centrist, not leftist.  Problem is, Obama's track record is more left than center.  Based on the candidates' records, the centrist in this race is John McCain.

But McCain has a problem of his own:  He seems unable to persuade anyone who isn't already on his side.  Watching and listening to his stump speech reminds me of the times I watched Bob Dole on the campaign trail in 1996.  That wasn't a pretty sight.  Like McCain now, Dole then was a wise old man who had run for president one too many times; either through old age or too much time in the Senate, he had lost the ability to persuade voters, much less inspire them.  And were McCain to win on Tuesday, he would have to do a lot of persuading in order to govern with a left-leaning Democratic Congress and a public nearly half of which would be enraged at a third consecutive Republican victory.

So one candidate has a genuinely rare talent for inspiring followers from a wide range of backgrounds--but that candidate's ideological stance is hard to pin down.  His political past suggests he's a leftist; his campaign rhetoric suggests he's somewhere near the political center.  Trusting the rhetoric over the record seems to me dangerous.  The other candidate has a far more impressive record--but an almost Bush-like inability to convince those not already in his camp.  One might lead in bad directions; the other may be unable to lead at all.  Not an easy call for centrists like Taylor, and like me.

Good News on the Cancer Front--Stuntz

On Wednesday of this week, I heard that the latest round of films were clean--no tumors in my lungs or in my abdomen. Lungs and livers are the places advanced-stage colon cancer likes best. The fact that they appear to be cancer-free now doesn't mean I'm cured, not by a long shot. But it does raise the odds, if only by a little, that I'll be around for awhile longer. For me, that's very good news.

Not long ago, a wise friend told me that the key to navigating cancer treatment is not to get too high when the news is good, and not to get too low when it's bad. That's good advice: there are many twists and turns in this road, enough so that good or bad news is likely to be followed, sometime, by its opposite. Even so, I can't help experiencing a measure of joy about this latest development. Maybe--just maybe--I'll live to hold a grandchild, or see my sons, ages 20 and 18, graduate from college. If not, that's OK; I don't feel cheated: many, many people in this sad world suffer much worse and deserve much better than I. Good medical news is no moral entitlement--not something I'm supposed to have. The feeling is more akin to a child's wonder at the packages under the tree on Christmas morning. I remember that feeling well; it seemed as though my whole body smiled. It feels that way now. Even if there are no more such presents, thanks be to God for this one.