Entries from February 2009

Raising The Alarm

David Frum February 28th, 2009 at 1:46 pm Comments Off

In a small room in Washington’s National Press Club, a tall man with bright blond hair stands flanked by grim-faced security guards. He is here to screen a short documentary movie — a movie that has caused him to be charged with three counts of hate speech in his native Netherlands and to be forbidden entry into the United Kingdom only two weeks ago.

Here in the United States, the reception is a little different. On Thursday, Geert Wilders showed his movie to members of the U.S. Congress. He has been interviewed on CNN and Fox, and on popular radio programs. He opened his remarks at the Press Club by ironically thanking U. S. immigration authorities for allowing him to visit the country.

Wilders is a member of the Dutch parliament and leader of the small Party for Freedom. Small until now anyway: The hate-charge against Wilders has elevated the Party for Freedom to third place in Dutch polls.

Wilders’ movie, Fitna (from the Arabic word for violent strife) presents graphic images of the violence done by Islamic terrorists, intercut with quotations from the more bloodthirsty passages of the Koran. The movie never had theatrical release, but can be seen on the Internet at for example, fitnamovie.net.

Even before the film’s release, Wilders had become famous as a ferocious critic of Islam and of the Netherlands’ large and growing Muslim minority: almost one million of the country’s 16 million population. He has compared the Koran to Mein Kampf and urged a halt to all migration from Muslim countries.

Left-wing Dutch groups have for years urged the prosecution of Wilders under the Netherlands’ hate-speech laws. Dutch prosecutors ignored them. But at last, in January, the prosecutors got their way: a panel of Dutch judges ordered prosecutors to act. Charges were filed, and a case begun.

The prosecution was a bizarre one. At the same time as one branch of the Dutch government was working to send Wilders to prison, the security services were providing him with round-the-clock protection. The Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn and the Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh had both paid with their lives for their criticism of Islam, and the Dutch government was desperate to avoid a third murder.

If there is any irony in the alleged hater being the person in lethal danger, and the supposed victims of hatred being the ones ready to murder, it goes unremarked by the Dutch legal system.

If the prosecution made Wilders famous, his ejection from the United Kingdom elevated him to full celebrity. Two days before Wilders’ press conference, I happened to be in Providence, R. I., and boarded a Southwest Airlines flight back to D. C. at the same time as Wilders himself. He was traveling with an entourage as impressive as a movie star’s. I was chatting with a couple of them as we entered the otherwise almost empty plane — and was suddenly halted by a Transportation Security Administration employee, who scrutinized me as fiercely as an enforcer at a Hollywood nightclub. “It’s OK — he’s with us,” said one of the Wilders group, and I was whisked inside.

At the press conference I asked Wilders: “The polls show your party might finish second if an election were held today. You might someday be prime minister of the Netherlands. If elected– what would you actually do about the extremism problem?”

He didn’t offer much of an answer. He pledged to stand up for traditional Dutch values of liberty and tolerance and to toughen punishment of lawbreakers. His party platform offers few more details. It proposes to suppress Islamic schools, deport criminals who hold dual citizenship back to their countries of origin and ban the burqa in public places. But Wilders himself acknowledges that the Muslims of the Netherlands are not leaving. How will they be assimilated to a society whose tolerant, liberal values so many of them apparently reject?

Wilders is a controversialist, not a legislator or an executive. His speciality is raising an alarm about problems others would ignore — not devising solutions to those problems. European governments have responded to Wilders’ alarm by denying the existence of any problem at all — and using the silence to impugn anyone who dared say otherwise. That response was always doomed to fail. If it fails at a time when banks are failing too, when unemployment is rising and crime is worsening, a man like Wilders may find himself more than a celebrity. He may find himself the elected leader of a bitterly divided country on an angry and unstable continent.

Originally published in the National Post.

The Goldwater Myth

David Frum February 27th, 2009 at 9:59 pm 129 Comments

It’s CPAC weekend – the grand rallying of the conservative clan here in Washington. It’s a season where conservatives from across the country meet to compare notes, share stories, and seek political consensus. The consensus forming this year however is an ominously dangerous one – ominously dangerous to conservatives themselves that is.

Conservatives live in thrall to a historical myth, and this myth may soon cost us dearly.

The myth is the myth of the Goldwater triumph of 1964. It goes approximately as follows:

In 1964, after years of watered down politics, Republicans turned to a true conservative, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. Yes, Goldwater lost badly. But in losing, he bequeathed conservatives a national organization – and a new champion, Ronald Reagan. Goldwater’s defeat opened the way to Reagan’s ultimate triumph and the conservative ascendancy of the 1980s and 1990s.

This (the myth continues) is the history we need to repeat. If we can just find the right messenger in 2012, the message that worked for Reagan will work again. And even if we cannot find the right messenger, losing on principle in 2012 will open the way to a more glorious victory in 2016.

The Goldwater myth shuts down all attempts to reform and renew our conservative message for modern times. And it offers a handy justification for nominating a 2012 presidential candidate who might otherwise seem disastrously unelectable. Altogether, the myth invites dangerous and self-destructive behavior by a party that cannot afford either.

What happened in 1964 was an unredeemed and unmitigated catastrophe for Republicans and conservatives. The success that followed 16 years later was a matter of happenstance, not of strategy. That’s the real lesson of 1964, and it is the lesson that conservatives need most to take to heart today.

1964 was always bound to be a Democratic year. The difference between Barry Goldwater’s 38.5% candidacy and the 44% or 45% that might have been won by a Nelson Rockefeller or a William Scranton was the effect on down-ballot races.

Republicans lost 36 seats in the House of Representatives in 1964, giving Democrats the biggest majority in the House any party has enjoyed since the end of World War II. Republicans dropped 2 seats in the Senate, yielding a Democratic majority of 68-32, again the most lopsided standing in any election from the war to the present day.

This huge congressional majority – call it the Goldwater majority –  liberated President Johnson from any dependence on conservative southern Democrats. In 1964, only 46 Senate Democrats voted for the great Civil Rights Act; 21 opposed. Without Republican support, the Act would not have passed. (And indeed while 68% of Senate Democrats voted for the Act, 81% of Senate Republicans did.)

While dependent on southern Democrats, President Johnson had to develop a careful, pragmatic domestic agenda that balanced zigs to the right (in 1964, Congress passed the first across the board income tax cut since the 1920s) with zags to the left (the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 which created Head Start among other less successful programs).

Then came the Republican debacle of November 1964. Goldwater’s overwhelming defeat invited a tsunami of liberal activism. The 89th Congress elected in 1964 enacted both Medicaid and Medicare. It passed a new immigration law, opening the way to a surge of 40 million newcomers, the overwhelming majority of them from poor Third World countries. It dramatically expanded welfare eligibility and other anti-poverty programs that together transformed the urban poor of the 1950s into the urban underclass of the 1970s and 1980s.

Suppose history had taken a different bounce in 1964. Suppose somebody other than Sen. Goldwater had won the Republican presidential nomination. Suppose his narrower margin of defeat had preserved those 36 Republican seats in the House – or even possibly gained some seats. (The big Democratic gains in 1958 and 1962 were ripe for a rollback in 1964 – and indeed were rolled back in 1966, when the GOP picked up 47 seats in the House and 3 in the Senate.)

Under those circumstances, the legislation of 1965 might have looked a lot more like the more moderate legislation of 1964. The Voting Rights Act would surely have passed, and so too would some form of health insurance measure for the poor – a measure supported by the American Medical Association and health insurers as well as by congressional liberals. But Medicare might never have happened, or might have taken a less costly form. The immigration bill might have been more carefully written so as to achieve its declared purpose: eliminating racial discrimination in immigration without expanding the overall number of immigrants from the modest level prevailing in the 1950s and early 1960s.

True, the liberal triumph of 1964 set in motion the train of disasters that laid liberalism low in the 1980s. But those disasters followed from choices and decisions that liberals made – not from some multiyear conservative grand strategy for success in 1980. It was not Goldwater who made Reagan possible. It was Carter. Had Carter governed more successfully, the Goldwater disaster would have been just a disaster, with no silver lining. And there was nothing about the Goldwater disaster that made the Carter failure more necessary, more inevitable.

And anyway, as the years pass, the consequences of Reagan’s victory look more temporary and provisional, at least in domestic policy – while the consequences of Goldwater’s defeat look more enduring and more consequential. The Reagan tax cuts are long gone. Medicare is still here.

It’s important for Republicans to absorb and remember this history as they prepare to make their next political choices. Right now, Republicans are gripped by a strong martyr complex. They want to stand up for their beliefs, damn the consequences – in fact the worse the consequences, the more it proves the rightness of our beliefs. If this mood persists further into the 2012 cycle, we will pay a heavy price. 2010 is already shaping up as an inhospitable year for Republicans, especially in the Senate, where the map favors the Democrats. 2012 could be much better – unless we doom ourselves by our own bad choices.

It is this alternative possibility of success or failure down the ballot as well as up that makes it so urgent to disenthrall ourselves of the 1964 myth. Goldwater’s defeat was a prelude to nothing except defeats on the floor of Congress in 1965-66. As the next presidential cycle begins, our priority should be to identify presidential candidates who can run strongly in every region of the country – not because we expect to win every region of the country, but because we want to help elect Republican congressional candidates in every region of the country. Our present strategy is one that is paving the way not merely to another defeat at the presidential level, but to a further shriveling of our congressional party –and an utterly unconstrained Obama second term that will make LBJ’s ascendancy look moderate and humble in comparison.


What Did I See At Cpac?

February 27th, 2009 at 9:58 pm 57 Comments

The hatred of professionalism. Tucker Carlson mildly suggests that conservatives need more than their feelings. That, whatever you think of the bias of the New York Times, they at least care that they spell your name correctly, and they actually do something: gather news. 

He was booed and challenged by the audience of course.

Joe the Plumber was the star of the day. I haven’t confirmed this, but I was told he recently briefed a group of Republicans on his trip to Gaza.  I don’t care what your foreign policy is: Joe the Plumber shouldn’t be informing it. 

All day, the message I got was this: The movement enjoys being hated by its enemies, more than it cares about its own goals. It is populist, and irresponsible. A little popularizing is good, a little political theatre is good.

CPAC is just unpleasant. And it is not just the elites flattening the ambitions of the people, it is the people dumbing down their own elites. Well-adjusted people, even if they feel alienated from certain parts of American society don’t wish to be hated by society. People who want to advance some goals, want more responsibility, not less. I hate that CPAC seems to give credibility to Adorno: that conservatives have defective personalities.

Obama’s Trillions

February 27th, 2009 at 11:48 am 2 Comments

The Obama Administration formally launched its budget blueprint yesterday. They did a masterful job of cultivating the press in pre-release preview commentary and by and large got a favorable hearing. Too bad, ambulance because this budget plan falls short in so many ways. My reflections on the plan:

1.      How it works. The budget architecture is simple. There are a bit over $2 trillion in deficit reduction that come from (a) “cutting” Iraq/Afghanistan to $50 billion a year from an illusory baseline of hundreds of billions of dollars per year, sales and (b) enacting a cap-and-trade climate policy that auctions carbon emissions permits beginning in 2012. The remainder is over a trillion dollars of tax increases on upper income individuals (higher rates, healing higher capital gains taxes, taxation of carried interest) and businesses (ending deferral of overseas earnings, etc.) to fund additional spending (notably in education and energy) and tax credits (“making work pay,” EITC, etc.) for lower-income individuals – including those that have no income tax liability. There is also the “health care reform” gambit that I will discuss below. 

2.      Philosophy. This is a tax and spend budget document. As noted above, the spending reductions are largely illusory, the tax increases are real, and the redistribution is transparent. This should surprise nobody. President Obama had a liberal Senate track record, campaigned by promising budget goodies to a large number of constituencies, made raising taxes on productive individuals and their businesses a commitment, and explicitly promised low-income transfers.

3.      It’s risks. This budget has enormous political and economic risks. As noted above, the spending reductions are illusory. In addition, the cap-and-trade revenues are an incredible political lift. There has never been a climate bill that auctioned 100 percent of the permits. There has never been a climate bill that passed the Senate. There has never been a climate bill that has been voted on the floor in the House. In short, there has to be an incredible shift in the history for this to happen in a timely enough fashion to get the $700 billion. Odds are that it won’t happen and the deficit will be higher.

Notice as well that the tax hikes on individuals and businesses are both politically difficult. The business community will react vociferously to ending deferral and the battle on taxing productive Americans and small businesses will be fierce. They are also economically dangerous. What if the economy is not strong by 2011? When the Obama Administration was defending the long-lived spending from the stimulus bill that arrived in 2011, 2012 and 2013, the argument was that the economy might still need stimulus. If so, why is it a good idea to hit it with a massive tax hike? In short, these revenue increases are risky.

In contrast, the tax credits and spending that the revenue will be transferred to are already on the books courtesy of the “stimulus” bill. Odds are that all the revenue will not show up, all the spending and transfers will not go away, and deficits are higher.

In short, there is nothing but upside political and economic risk to this budget. Deficits could be $1 trillion as far as the eye can see, debt will continue to pile up, our international creditors will get antsy, and a potentially-struggling economy will be festooned with a burden of excessive spending.

4.      ­Meeting its goals. The Administration has made a great show of its “honest” budgeting. Some credit is certainly due, but I think this has been overdone. Nobody was fooled when the Bush Administration left Iraq and Afghanistan out of its budgeting or by pretending that the doctors would get huge cuts in payments for treating Medicare patients. The Obama Administration does show these items, but do we really believe that the costs will be $50 billion in 2011 and beyond? What is the difference between a “plug number” of $50 billion and a plug of $0? Either the budget shows the intended policy or not. Similarly, do we really believe that docs will never get a payment increase? And why is $250 billion the right number for the remainder of the financial bailout? Yes, the budget has a number for nearly everything, but the numbers themselves matter and not all of these are particularly informative.

The other major goal is to cut the deficit in half – to $533 billion – by 2013. As noted above, I think this is at risk. But it is also sensible to ask: is this the right goal? After all, taking the budget at face value, the economy is projected to be fine by 2013 (unemployment down to 5.2 percent), revenues will have recovered (and been raised substantially), and we will still have a deficit of one-half a trillion dollars? Given the looming debt explosion from the entitlement programs and the residual debt from the Bush years and the economic meltdown, a more aggressive target is in order.

5.      Health Care Reform. The budget creates a $650 billion “reserve fund” for health care reform. Essentially, this is a commitment from the Administration to Congress that says “if you do health care reform, we will support shifting about $300 billion in other (largely health care) spending into health care and raising about $350 billion in new taxes.” Put aside the difficulty of paring back the deductibility of mortgage interest and charitable deductions and assume for a moment that this gives Congress money to spend on health care reform.

Now, I am a firm believer that we need health care reform, and I agree with the Administration’s notion that health care reform is part and parcel of taking on the Medicare and Medicaid entitlement explosion. But there are two parts to health care reform: (a) lowering the health care bill for individuals and the nation as a whole, and (b) providing financial assistance (insurance) to help cover individuals bills. It makes sense to undertake the reforms that will lower the overall bill (changes in practice patterns, better treatments for chronic diseases, etc.) and plow the savings into expansions in private health insurance. That is “cost reforms first” and “coverage expansion second.” This will work, but will be a slow and difficult process.

The health care reserve fund sends the wrong message and likely will lead to immediate coverage expansions – indeed the political pressure will be for budget-busting “universal” coverage – and coverage expansion centered in government programs. It would likely lead to even larger budget pressures; perhaps so large that it undercuts the momentum of reform and sets the U.S. back yet another decade in dealing with its most pressing domestic policy issue. That would be a serious misstep on the path to reform; one hopes that the Obama Administration will be flexible and serious about bi-partisanship in working with Congress on this issue.

Now the attention turns to Congress and how much it follows the lead of the new Administration. The Congressional Budget Office will put out its price tag for the new budget (look for it to conclude deficits are larger than advertised) and Congress will have to wrestle this aspirational document back to political reality.

Bobby Jindal Will Never Be President

February 27th, 2009 at 11:48 am 33 Comments

It was a dud – that’s the consensus on Bobby Jindal’s response to the President’s address. Indeed, online the criticism has been heated. He’s been panned by Republicans and Democrats, order dismissed by commentators, nurse and even mocked on late-night television. Needless to say, many of his fans – count the Weekly Standard and Rush Limbaugh among them – insist that he shouldn’t be underestimated. 

This raises a larger question: can Gov. Jindal move past last Tuesday’s performance and get elected President?

Handicapping the White House race is an American pastime. Even though the Mall has barely been cleaned up from the last inaugural ceremony, people have begun contemplating the next President. And, yes, much ink has already been spilled on Gov. Jindal’s future prospects. 

Many have an opinion – yet practically no one has attempted a substantive analysis.

Here on FrumForum.com, I’m pleased to offer a definitive analysis drawing on data going back to the 1960s. Based on this, I come to a clear conclusion: Bobby Jindal will not be elected President in 2012 – or any other time. 

Why? The data is clear. Practically no one who offers the minority party response to the Joint Sessions or SOTU addresses achieves high office – or practically any Washington office.

A quick google search suggests this coveted speaking slot, first created in 1966) may be the death of political careers. Consider recent orators. J.C. Watts, Tom Daschle, Xavier Becerra, Steven Largent, Gary Locke, where are you now?  (Well, we know where Locke is, but Commerce seems to be a retirement job for forgotten politicians.) 

In the last 3 decades, only one speaker has made it to the White House: a young governor who spoke in 1985. But Gov. Clinton didn’t give the sole response. In the early years of the minority party response, several people often weighed in. (In 1985, Democrats offered up a handful of Democratic voters, with the discussion aided by various party luminaries, including Mr. Clinton.) Even ignoring the difference between the 1970s responses (which largely reflected the party hierarchy) and today’s responses (where the party chooses a “star”), more than 80 people have been tapped to speak after the President, and just 2 have eventually succeeded the President.

Hyperbole aside – I don’t think this really is a definitive analysis but it is historically interesting – this raises an interesting question: why is it that the speech after the Speech is usually such a dud? 

Here are some reasons:

1. The strategic error.  The President spends weeks on the speech.  His opponent tries to compensate by delivering a pre-written response.  How do you react to a speech you haven’t heard before with prepared text?  Answer: poorly. The resulting speeches are thus overly general, filled with cliches, and somewhat flat. Gov. Jindal made this error. 

2. The structural problem.  The President speaks to Congress; a governor – not part of that governance structure – can’t really respond fittingly.  He’s telling Washington what to do while not being in Washington, or wanting to tie the hands of his beltway colleagues. Is it really possible for Gov. Jindal to credibly but vaguely criticize the stimulus and the budget?

3. The tactical error.  President Obama, like most Presidents before him, was substantive; Gov. Jindal, like most people responding to the President, talked about himself, attempting to introduce himself to the nation.  But that tactic looks inevitably light-weight – particularly now, in the middle of a recession after a sober address on the economy. 

4. The ambivalence problem – in this case, Gov. Jindal’s.  Was he introducing himself to New Hampshire primary voters?  Core Republicans who will donate to his PAC?  Middle Americans for November 2012?  Or was he really critiquing the President?  The young Republican agonized over this; in the end, he couldn’t ultimately decide (and thus the jarring Reaganesque rhetoric, pseudo-presidential tone, and psychobabble).

Unlike several other writers for this blog (including its editor), I’ve never been a White House speechwriter and thus can’t offer up constructive ideas on how to respond to the President after a big Congressional address. Perhaps I’ll make a simpler suggestion: the post-speech speech itself is over-rated and ambitious pols should decline the opportunity. 

With that in mind, Gov. Palin had a good week – not in what she did, but what she didn’t. Who says she isn’t smart? 

Apologies Now Being Accepted

February 26th, 2009 at 9:37 pm 10 Comments

John McCain took a lot of criticism last year from conservatives who thought he wasn’t sufficiently conservative on questions of the judiciary and the Constitution – this despite a great speech on judges and the rule of law (which annoyed a lot of the right people to annoy) and one on property rights and his repeated commitment to appoint “clones” of Justices Roberts and Alito. 

Granted, generic he may not have been the most “conservative” candidate in the race, help whatever that means, generic despite his consistent quarter-century pro-life voting record, his strong belief in federalism, and his obsession with controlling Federal spending, to say nothing of his standing virtually alone in calling for the surge and victory in Iraq. But today, John McCain is due more than a few apologies from conservatives who didn’t think he met their litmus tests.

Yesterday, when the Senate was discussing the bill that would give voting rights in the House to the District of Columbia (and add an additional seat for Utah), Senator McCain tried to stop debate by calling for a constitutional point of order to consider the profound constitutional issues at stake in the bill. Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution provides that only States may have representatives in Congress. For the record, he was debating in strong yet respectful terms his close friend and supporter, Senator Joe Lieberman – exactly the kind of interaction the Framers intended when they established the Senate. (McCain’s motion unfortunately lost, 62-36.) 

If one favors voting rights for the District, the proper recourse is a Constitutional amendment, such as Congress itself proposed in 1978. But only 16 of the 38 States necessary chose to ratify it. So now Congress is trying a different way, albeit one that would only affect the House and not the Senate.

And what do you know, John McCain has read his Constitution. 

Yes, John McCain is a conservative and a constitutionalist. He meant what he said in the campaign last year. 

Apologies now being accepted.

Dialogue With Deniers: Schrder In Tehran

February 26th, 2009 at 9:36 pm 1 Comment

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder used the occasion of his four day visit in Tehran last week to criticize Iranian Holocaust denial. “The Holocaust is a historical fact, for sale ” Schröder is reported to have said in a speech to the Iranian Chamber of Industry and Commerce, stuff “and it makes no sense to deny this unparalleled crime.” This was perhaps intended as friendly advice, diagnosis since Schröder evidently does not believe that the Iranian government’s Holocaust denial or its associated threats against Israel are any reason to curtail relations with Iran. The venue that Schröder chose to make his remarks is revealing in this regard. As it so happens, Schröder is the Honorary Chair of the Near and Middle East Association (NUMOV): a German business association that seeks to facilitate German-Iranian trade and that opposes sanctions against Iran.  (For some related comments by NUMOV managing director Helene Rang, see here.) 

Schröder’s trip was ostensibly undertaken as a “private visit,” but it is known to have been coordinated with the German Foreign Ministry. While in Tehran, Schröder met with many of the public figures most closely connected to Iranian Holocaust denial: starting, of course, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has declared outright that the Holocaust is a “myth.”  The meeting was preceded by a warm handshake. (See here.) Schröder also met with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and the Speaker of the Iranian Parliament Ali Larijani. In December 2005, in remarks reported by the Italian news service AKI, Mottaki described Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial as the official “view of the [Iranian] government.” If Europe is interested in having a dialogue with Iran, Mottaki was quoted as saying, “it has to learn to listen to our opinions and take them into account.” One year later, Mottaki gave the opening address at an international conference in Tehran that brought together some of the world’s most notorious Holocaust deniers on the invitation of the Iranian government.

As for Larijani, just three weeks ago – and at the Munich Security Conference of all places! – he again defended Iranian denial of the Holocaust, saying that there could be “different points of view” on the matter (source: Focus). A photographer of the German wire service dpa captured Larijani and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier sharing a moment of apparently great mirth at a conference reception. Steinmeier is the Social Democratic candidate for chancellor in the upcoming German elections. He was previously one of Gerhard Schröder’s closest advisors as the head of the Office of the Chancellery from 1999 to 2005. 

In June 2008, Larijani’s brother Mohammad, himself a former deputy foreign minister of Iran, sparked controversy in Germany by calling for the “end of the Zionist project” – a euphemism for the elimination of Israel – at a “Transatlantic Conference” in Berlin. The theme of the publicly-funded conference was the search for “common solutions” in the Middle East. Conference organizer Bernd Kubbig would subsequently defend his invitation of Larijani by noting that it was none other than the Foreign Ministry of Frank-Walter Steinmeier that had recommended Larijani to him (source: Financial Times Germany).

Schröder’s trip to Iran represents that nec plus ultra of Germany’s much-vaunted “dialogue model,” which is supposed to compare so favorably to the well-known intransigence of the erstwhile American administration. It is, as if, Ahmadinejad and Larijani, on the one hand, and Schröder and Steinmeier, on the other, were having a “dialogue” on whether or not the Holocaust occurred. Moreover, the outcome of this “dialogue” – or whether there even is an outcome – appears to be irrelevant to the continued pursuit of German-Iranian cooperation. “The relations between Tehran and Berlin are too important to be overshadowed by a subject such as the Holocaust,” Iranian Ambassador to Berlin, Aliresa Sheikh-Attar, was reported as saying by the German state news agency Deutsche Welle. Apparently, Tehran’s German interlocutors agree.

Several English-language news reports (including reports in the International Herald Tribune and in the Jerusalem Post) suggested that Schröder was in Iran to engage in lobbying on behalf of the Russian energy giant Gazprom. Schröder is the chairman of the supervisory board of Nordstream, a Russian-German joint venture to transport Russian natural gas to Germany. According to Iranian sources, however, Schröder was supposed to “meet Iranian Oil Minister Gholamhossein Nozari to discuss Iranian gas exports to the European Union.” The Iranian gas would presumably be transported via the rival Nabucco pipeline: an EU-sponsored pipeline project that is designed to reduce European dependence on Russian natural gas and that is widely acknowledged by experts to make no economic sense without Iranian participation. (On Nabucco, see my March 2008 report “Nabucco Follies”.)

The Real Cowards

February 26th, 2009 at 9:36 pm 9 Comments

“Mr. Gibbon, online You can’t understand black people! We are too raw – - R – A – W – RAW!” 

This was said to me as I tried to get my athletes settled down on a bus ride across the city before our first race. One of them had thrown a full Styrofoam cup of soda out the window at a pedestrian. Others were cussing and carrying on and demanding the bus driver turn up the speakers.

“You a white racist bitch!” said a girl when I began discussing Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address. She stormed out of the room, slamming and breaking the door. 

“Some of the kids say you’re racist,” said the black history teacher to me.

Baffled to hear that this non-sense was going around and had gotten to this teacher, I asked why they thought this. 

“I don’t know – it was something you said – didn’t come off right. You have to be very careful.”

Those things happened last year and were part of my introduction to city school teaching and were the most realistic forms of diversity training a rural white guy could ever have imagined. I didn’t know how to react when I was accused of racism or told I didn’t understand the students I was paid to teach in a school with a 99% black student body. 

When I started here, I was put into a huge room – Room 303 – and given a few wishes of good luck. I had no resources – worksheets, teacher guide books, overhead projector – nada; the desks were full of graffiti and strewn across the room. The one window was broken and didn’t fit in the pane. There was a broken blackboard that didn’t fit on the easel it came with. I almost broke a finger setting it up. I was scheduled to teach 11th grade, which actually did come with a textbook, and 12th grade, which did not. I was told to make up a curriculum a few days before school started.

For some reason, there was a stack of novels left in this room I inherited: Richard Wright’s Native Son. I had enjoyed this book thoroughly in high school. I remembered being unable to put it down as I read the final section before Bigger gets sent to the electric chair. I chose to teach the book to my students. 

This went very poorly. The themes of race, class and stereotypes seemed much more poignant to me than, I thought, to my students. Many were very low readers, so I had to explain every last thing in the book to make sure they understood it. They must have thought, who the hell does this white guy think he is? Coming into my house and teaching me about racism and the difficulties of living in the inner city!

In trying to discuss the book’s themes, I bumbled and stumbled, but we plowed our way through it. I probably did sound racist – patronizing even. I felt so ridiculous. At the very least, I felt very cognizant of my own white skin in a place where there was very little. Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder accused the country of being cowardly when it comes to dealing with race. Was he wrong? 

We are a very special country in that we believe all children, regardless of race, creed or income level have an inherent right to an education. But we fail so many children, especially minorities, in subpar schools, because we expect and get less from them and are so used to it. And with the value we place on an education in our country in terms of job opportunities and higher education, it seems even worse than if we flat out denied certain groups of people the opportunity to learn and relegated them to specific jobs. Caste systems are horrible, obviously, but don’t people know that we cast kids out of opportunity for advancement when we put them in abysmal schools? If we’re going to make this a society where everyone has an opportunity to succeed, we can’t let schools in certain areas fall apart. Schools just five or six miles up the street from here achieve at collegiate levels.

The school system in this city is a big fat lie. The stats are juked every year to show some tiny bump in reading scores when everyone knows the ugly truth – a few “good schools,” predominantly white schools, are factored into the overall city school average, thus bumping up the scores on whole. The school I teach in and this system as a whole is a mockery that doesn’t get mocked enough by the press, politicians or academics. Perhaps they are afraid of being called racist. 

When you teach 100 kids in a day and only one of them is white, it’s hard to not believe this is a black/white thing. When you get reading tests back from these same 18 year-old seniors telling you they read at grammar school levels, it’s hard to not believe it’s a black/white thing.

I’ve had to accept my many shortcomings here and have come to grips with the fact that race is an issue that can’t be ignored. I am “culturally sensitive” to the troubles and travails of my students, but we have an understanding now that I expect the best from them whether its behavior or academics. These are basics that go beyond racial debates. Schools must be a place where American citizens are developed into productive and respectful members of society. 

Race affects how we’re asked to teach students and what we are supposed to teach them, but it shouldn’t ever affect what we expect of them. We must expect greatness because this is the burden we’ve put on ourselves in this country in our determination to educate every child, rich or poor, black or white. With this expectation comes the responsibility of taking on the burdens of the poor, which often have much more to do with basic necessity than of higher learning. So we can argue for vouchers and charter schools, but at the end of the day, the poor will be with us and we just can’t forget about them. 

We need to call the achievement gap what it really is. White kids are succeeding at a much higher rate than minorities in this country. Minority areas are the ones suffering the greatest when it comes to unemployment and dependency on government assistance. The correlation between the failed systems is so apparent, yet we continue to talk around the real issue – race and expectations of all students. Teacher education programs are geared towards teaching methods for “diverse learners.” I argue all the time in my program that we need to worry more about teaching kids, period. If we’re always worrying about what method it takes to teach diverse learners, we’ll never teach anything.

We can’t have a public education system that consistently gets greater output from one group and expect to have as productive a country as we’d dream of. The achievement gap is a glaring and disturbing and embarrassing reality in America. 

A lot of people think failed schools in areas that aren’t near them have no bearing on their lives, but I’ve seen up close that it’s false. What happens in our schools – high income and low income, black and white and Latino alike, needs to be known. Let’s call it what it is. You’re not a racist just because you expect that kids of all colors can succeed; I think this is as common sense as conservatism can get.

Too Tricky?

David Frum February 26th, 2009 at 2:25 pm 5 Comments

Ezra Klein over at the American Prospect disputes this last blogpost of mine. He offers three points in reply. Answers to each in turn:

[David Frum] says that the Obama administration plans to “use the revenues generated by cap and trade to pay for health care tax credits for lower-income people.” That’s not true. The revenues from cap and trade will be used to fund the $800 Making Work Pay tax cut, which is a refundable income-tax credit. It has nothing to do with the health care plan.

He’s right, I’m wrong. I scrambled my notes and inserted an erroneous “health care” before the correct “tax credits.”

He says that cap and trade “only generates revenue if American utilities emit more carbon in future years than they have done in past years.” Again, not accurate. Imagine I pass a law taxing potatoes at the rate of one dollar a potato. This year, Americans eat a billion potatoes and I make a billion dollars. Next year, they eat a half billion potatoes and I make a half billion dollars. A half billion dollars is still more than I made when I wasn’t taxing potatoes.

 The big decision in cap and trade is whether existing emitters have to pay to retain the right to emit – or whether they will be capped at present levels and only pay if they exceed those levels. During the campaign, candidate Obama endorsed the first and more radical idea, and Ezra is assuming that this campaign trail idea is the one that will become law. Not so fast.  The bill actually introduced in Congress by Henry Waxman in 2007 allowed existing emitters to continue their emissions at only gradually reducing levels over multiple years in future. The 2007 bill is the basis for the bill taking form in Congress right now. My description of the revenue effects of the actual law is almost certainly closer to what Congress will produce than Ezra’s. 

Finally, Ezra argues that taxes on carbon 

 fall on users of electricity [only] if the corporation passes them on to the users of electricity. They will do this to some degree. Probably not 100 percent, as that would be a fairly sharp price increase. But it’s important to remember that the tax only falls on users of electricity insofar as people use electricity

Since the corporations in question are (above all) regulated electrical utilities, they will of course pass on the price in full. Indeed, that’s the idea. If the utilities swallowed the tax, rather than passing it on, there would be no effect on consumer behavior – which is the main point of the cap-and-trade regime after all. Yes people can escape the tax by using less electricity. But the tax is still falling on them – they are just feeling its effects in a different form, by reducing their consumption. They are still worse off, just worse off in a different way. And again: that’s the point.

(Sorry – I know Ezra will say that the point is to persuade the utilities to rely on windmills instead. But that’s energy fantasy, not energy policy!)


Tricky Obama? You Have No Idea!

February 26th, 2009 at 6:56 am 14 Comments

Revealed here the secrets of the president’s rhetorical success: he’s hypnotizing people. Literally.