Entries from February 2011

Why the Industrial Revolution Hit Britain First

David Frum February 27th, 2011 at 2:47 am 27 Comments

Last month I (belatedly) read Gregory Clark’s, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World.

One of the key assertions in Clark’s important book is that the industrial revolution occurred in England after 1800 because the English underwent a gradual transformation of their behavior and manners in the period before 1800. Among other changes, the English became notably more peaceable in their daily interactions.

My current audiobook is James Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Johnson was born in 1709, died in 1784. On the elliptical machine this morning, I heard this passage, Boswell quoting Johnson:

‘In the last age, when my mother lived in London, there were two sets of people, those who gave the wall, and those who took it; the peaceable and the quarrelsome. When I returned to Lichfield, after having been in London, my mother asked me, whether I was one of those who gave the wall, or those who took it. NOW it is fixed that every man keeps to the right; or, if one is taking the wall, another yields it; and it is never a dispute.’

“Taking the wall” refers to walking alongside the buildings on a street. That would be the desirable side because more protected from the dirt of the gutters. In the 17th century, the issue of who got that side was settled by the threat of force. By the time Boswell knew Johnson, the issue was settled by tacit agreement. Score one for the Clark thesis.


How Good are Public Sector Benefits?

February 27th, 2011 at 2:40 am 22 Comments

The Wall Street Journal reports:

The showdown in Wisconsin over fringe benefits for public employees boils down to one number: 74.2. That’s how many cents the public pays Milwaukee public-school teachers and other employees for retirement and health benefits for every dollar they receive in salary. The corresponding rate for employees of private firms is 24.3 cents.

Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal would bring public-employee benefits closer in line with those of workers in the private sector. And to prevent benefits from reaching sky-high levels in the future, he wants to restrict collective-bargaining rights.

The average Milwaukee public-school teacher salary is $56,500, but with benefits the total package is $100,005, according to the manager of financial planning for Milwaukee public schools. When I showed these figures to a friend, she asked me a simple question: “How can fringe benefits be nearly as much as salary?” The answers can be found by unpacking the numbers in the district’s budget for this fiscal year:

Social Security and Medicare. The employer cost is 7.65% of wages, the same as in the private sector.


Bush Boycotts Conference with Assange

February 27th, 2011 at 2:32 am 7 Comments

The Daily Mail reports:

George W Bush has cancelled a scheduled appearance at a conference tomorrow because Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is on the same bill.

The former U.S. president was due to attend an education discussion in Denver but today released a statement saying he did not want to share the same forum with someone who has ‘wilfully and repeatedly done great harm to the interests of the U.S’.

Assange is in Britain, where he is fighting extradition to Sweden where he will have to face charges of rape.

He was due to appear today via video conference but it was unclear whether or not it went ahead.

WikiLeaks has released tens of thousands of secret U.S. government and military documents and it is strongly believed that if he is extradited to the U.S. from Sweden, he could face the death penalty.

Spokesman for George Bush David Sherzer said he learned of Assange’s invitation only this week.

He said: ‘Six months ago, President Bush accepted an invitation to speak to the YPO Global Leadership Summit  in Denver on February 26, 2011.

‘This week, upon learning that Julian Assange had recently been invited to address the same summit, President Bush decided to cancel his appearance.

‘The former president has no desire to share a forum with a man who has wilfully and repeatedly done great harm to the interests of the United States.’

Approximately 2,000 members and invited guests from more than 75 countries were due to attend the annual YPO Global Leadership Summit.

Wisconsin Protests Reach 70,000 Strong

February 27th, 2011 at 2:23 am 16 Comments

Boston.com reports:

MADISON, Wis. — With booming chants of “This will not stand!’’ at least 70,000 demonstrators flooded the square around the Capitol yesterday afternoon in what local authorities called the largest protest yet in nearly two weeks of demonstrations.

The protesters rallied against a proposal by the new Republican governor, Scott Walker, that strips Wisconsin public employee unions of much of their bargaining power while imposing sizable take-home pay cuts on state workers by diverting more of their paychecks to fund health care and pension plans.

“We’ve had bargaining for 50 years, and he wants to end it in a week,’’ Al Alt, who has taught school for four decades in Waukesha, said as he paused on a bench after marching around the Capitol with other protesters.

A spokesman for the Madison police, Joel DeSpain, who provided the crowd estimate, said there had been no arrests during the rallies.

The demonstrators in Madison — joined by sympathy protests in state capitals around the country — were loud but peaceful, according to police.

But there was some unease and confusion over the fate of what has become the heart and soul of the protests: Whether the hundreds of people who have spent the night every night in the hallways, and public areas of the capitol building will be forcibly evicted beginning this afternoon.

Jodi Jensen, a senior official at the state agency that includes the Capitol police, the Department of Administration, said “there will be no more sleeping over in the Capitol’’ beginning at 4 p.m., when the building would be closed overnight for cleaning and maintenance.

From then on, she said, the building will be open during normal daily hours and closed at night. She said the decision was made because of health and safety concerns and that she wasn’t aware of any influence by Walker.

Security Council Refers Libya to the International Criminal Court

February 27th, 2011 at 2:16 am Comments Off

The New York Times reports:

The United Nations Security Council voted unanimously on Saturday night to impose sanctions on Libya’s leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, and his inner circle of advisers, and called for an international war crimes investigation into “widespread and systemic attacks” against Libyan citizens who have protested against the government over the last two weeks.

The vote, only the second time the Security Council has referred a member state to the International Criminal Court, comes after a week of bloody crackdowns in Libya in which Colonel Qaddafi’s security forces have fired on protesters, killing hundreds.

Also on Saturday, President Obama said that Colonel Qaddafi had lost the legitimacy to rule and should step down. His statement, which the White House said was made during a telephone call with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, was the strongest yet from any American official against Colonel Qaddafi.

The Security Council resolution also imposes an arms embargo against Libya and an international travel ban on 16 Libyan leaders, and freezes the assets of Colonel Qaddafi and members of his family, including four sons and a daughter. Also included in the sanctions were measures against defense and intelligence officials who are believed to have played a role in the violence against civilians in Libya.

The sanctions did not include imposing a no-fly zone over Libya, a possibility that had been discussed by officials from the United States and its allies in recent days.

The resolution also prohibited all United Nations member nations from providing any kind of arms to Libya or allowing the transportation of mercenaries, who are believed to have played a part in the recent violence. Suspected shipments of arms should be halted and inspected, the resolution said.

While the sanctions are likely to take weeks to have an effect, they reflected widespread condemnation of Colonel Qaddafi’s tactics, by far the most brutal crackdown in the region since antigovernment demonstrations began.

Susan E. Rice, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, called the resolution “a clear warning to the Libyan government that it must stop the killing.”

But Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, warned Saturday that sanctions would do more harm to Libya’s people than to Colonel Qaddafi.

Earmark Ban Resonates in Congress

February 27th, 2011 at 2:14 am Comments Off

The New York Times reports:

WASHINGTON — The fact that Congress remains a spending disagreement or two away from shutting down the government no doubt strikes some as remarkable. But there is another extraordinary aspect to the fiscal clash unfolding on Capitol Hill: earmarks have disappeared from the budgetary landscape.

It is still sinking in for both those who have lavished money on hometown projects and those who have spent years opposing earmarks that the pork-barrel spending that has driven so many appropriations measures through the House and Senate is, at least for now, at an end.

Even Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, who made battling earmarks a cornerstone of his Congressional career since his election in 1990, said he would not have predicted that Congress could kick the habit.

“Think of this fight we have had for 20 years,” Mr. Boehner said in a recent interview. “If somebody would have asked me, ‘Will you ever get there?’ I would have had my doubts.”

But through a confluence of events, Mr. Boehner and the rest of the anti-earmark crowd did get there; the impact of the decision by leaders of the House and the Senate to ban earmarks for at least the next two years is already being felt.

When House Republicans were searching for cuts to offer Senate Democrats as part of a temporary spending plan to avert a government shutdown, they were able to reach into accounts set aside for earmarks and find nearly $2.8 billion that would have previously gone to water projects, transit programs and construction programs. No earmarks, no need for that money, and the threat of an imminent shutdown was eased.

Lawmakers said the absence of earmarks also allowed for a more freewheeling debate on the House floor during consideration of the Republican plan to slash $61 billion from this year’s budget since Democrats and Republicans were not caught up in protecting the special provisions they had worked so hard to tuck into the spending bill.

“This is a completely new experience, and a good one,” said Representative Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who had lost scores of attempts on the House floor to strip earmarks from spending bills.

While spending on earmarks is a tiny portion of the budget, critics like Mr. Flake and Mr. Boehner said they played an insidious role in pushing up federal spending through what is known in legislative terms as logrolling.

Top members of the Appropriations Committee might, for instance, grant a lawmaker’s request for a few million dollars for an important project back home. That lawmaker would then be obligated to support the entire multibillion-dollar bill despite possible reservations. Woe to the person who gets an earmark and then opposes the bill; chances for a future earmark would be somewhere between zero and none.

“You get millions for an earmark and end up voting for billions of dollars that you may oppose,” said Steve Ellis, a vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a government watchdog group.

Obama: Qaddafi Must Step Down

February 27th, 2011 at 2:09 am 1 Comment

The Huffington Post reports:

WASHINGTON — Ratcheting up the pressure, President Barack Obama on Saturday said Moammar Gadhafi has lost his legitimacy to rule and urged the Libyan leader to leave power immediately.

It was the first time Obama has called for Gadhafi to step down, coming after days of bloodshed in Libya. Gadhafi has vowed to fight to the end to keep his four-decade grip on power in the North African country.

“When a leader’s only means of staying in power is to use mass violence against his own people, he has lost the legitimacy to rule and needs to do what is right for his country by leaving now,” the White House said in a statement, summarizing Obama’s telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Until now, U.S. officials have held back from such a pronouncement, insisting it is for the Libyan people to decide who their leader should be.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Libyans “have made themselves clear.”

“Gadhafi has lost the confidence of his people and he should go without further bloodshed and violence,” she said in a separate statement. “The Libyan people deserve a government that is responsive to their aspirations and that protects their universally recognized human rights.”

Are the Rich More Republican?

February 26th, 2011 at 2:29 pm 15 Comments

I don’t want to spend my whole life on this red state/blue state thing, but I recently follow this Instapundit link and came across the following comment from lawyer and conservative blogger John Hinderaker:

Most rich people who are politically active are liberals, and the Democratic Party gets much more of its support from the wealthy than the GOP.

I’m like, huh? Do people really believe this? Let me take this in three parts.

1. Data. From the 2010 exit polls:

2010exits.png (I was thinking of making a graph but I like the direct feel of a screencap.)

And it’s not just 2010. You can see this in decades of pre-election and exit polls. And it’s not just voting. Political contributions from the richest Americans are generally more likely to go to Republicans than Democrats. In particular, the probability of being a conservative Republican goes up sharply with income.

Just to break this down more carefully: the claim that “most rich people who are politically active are liberals” might possibly be true–after all, the term “politically active” isn’t clearly defined–but I don’t see any evidence of it. Looking at wealthier Americans, rich campaign contributors, whatever, we see much stronger support for Republicans and conservative causes than for Democrats and liberals.

There are some exceptions (as in 2008 when Obama beat McCain in the vote and much more so in funding) and on some particular issues such as gay rights, but overall the pattern is clear.

2. Common sense (or, as we call it in political science, “theory”). Wealthier people tend to be more economically conservative; lower-income people are more likely to support taxes on the rich. This is no surprise: of course it makes sense that if you have more money you’ll have more sympathy with the argument that people should keep what they earn, and if you have less you’ll be more likely to favor redistribution. The correlation between income level and economic ideology is weak (we have graphs in Red State, Blue State making this point), but it’s not zero. Nor would you expect it to be.

3. Demonizing the rich. The above quote is from a conservative blog. At first sight, the view that politically active rich people are mostly Democrats could be comforting: the idea, perhaps, is conservative rich people are busy with their jobs, their families, being productive and enjoying life, while liberal rich people are discontented and can’t resist trying to use the political process to get their way. But the data don’t support this story. So why take that position at all? Why not say that richer people tend to have economically conservative views for good reasons? And that if you’re rich, it might make sense to participate a bit in politics to stop the government from doing things you don’t like?

That is, why can’t Hinderaker take the same reasoning that he uses for the Koch brothers and apply it more generally to rich people? This would have the virtue of being coherent with an economically conservative ideology and also consistent with survey data from campaign contribution records.

I’m not trying to suggest that Hinderaker is trying to mislead, merely that he is confused. It’s an instructive confusion, however, in that it points (to me) to a confusion in ideology.


Qaddafi’s Private Thug Army

February 26th, 2011 at 12:31 pm 11 Comments

Mercenaries are in the headlines again, this week in the madness and insanity that is Qaddafi’s Libya.

My initial thoughts when I first saw this was that the north African nutjob had a cadre of Eastern European professional soldiers as a sort of Varangian Guard, but as it turns out Qaddafi’s personal foreign legion are basically a pack of thugs from Zimbabwe:

Tooling around in Tobruk, looking for some ass to kick.

 

Suspected African mercenaries stand in a room in a court in Benghazi as they are held by anti-Qaddafi protesters, February 24, 2011


If these guys are anything like any and every African soldier I ever trained, worked with or encountered on the battlefield; they’ve all got malaria, half of them can’t read or write, and their only understanding of the Law of Land Warfare is that they’re breaking every law in the book. No matter how hard you train them, in contact they revert to the “spray-and-pray” school of gunfighting and the safest place to be when they’re shooting at you is right out in the middle of the street because they can’t hit the broad side of a barn from the inside.

A dead Zimbabwean, formerly in the hire of Muammar Qaddafi


These are savages, capable of the most horrific atrocities. To call them barbarians is an insult to all barbarians everywhere and the only thing professional about Qaddafi’s mercenaries is the fact that they’ve been doing what they’re doing for a prerequisite period of time. Their knowledge of tactics or gunnery starts at the buttstock of their Kalishnikov and ends at the business end.


Amongst Africans, the term “mercenaries” has mystic, almost supernatural connotations


Despite the public’s fascination with the subject, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about the term “mercenary”. Most people consider a mercenary to be a soldier that serves merely for wages. According to this broad definition, practically every member of every standing, professional army in the world is a mercenary – and I’ve actually heard American soldiers referred to in this vein.

A more selective definition is found in Webster’s Dictionary: “a mercenary is a soldier hired into foreign service serving merely for pay or sordid advantage.” According to this criteria, every foreign national serving in the U.S. military – including yours truly – is a mercenary.

According to the definitions found within the Hague and Geneva Conventions; a mercenary is a professional soldier hired by a foreign army, as opposed to a soldier enlisted in the armed forces of the sovereign state of which he is a citizen, and is “motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain and, in fact, is promised, by or on behalf of a party to the conflict, material compensation substantially in excess of that promised or paid to combatants of similar ranks and functions in the Armed Forces of that Party” (Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Convention of August 1949).

Non-conscript professional members of a regular army are not considered mercenaries even though they get remuneration for their service. Under this definition, even members of the French Foreign Legion and the Gurkha Regiment are technically not mercenaries under the Laws of Land Warfare, even though they meet many of the requirements of Article 47 of the 1949 Additional Protocol I, they are exempt under clauses 47(a)(c)(d)(e) and (f). Journalists tend to describe these soldiers as mercenaries regardless.

There ARE mercenaries out there; I have known a few. Adventurers, guns-for-hire, some of them I even consider professional counterparts, but more often than not their activities are of questionable legal or ethical nature. I myself have been called a mercenary but this is a stretch. I retired honorably from the military, and I work in the security profession. I am certainly not a criminal, and there are some things that I simply will not do for pay. The notorious Thahan Phran (ทหารพราน; literally “Hunter Soldiers”) – an irregular light infantry force which patrols the borders of Thailand – are considered mercenaries, although they are technically part of the Royal Thai Army, and they certainly are not foreigners.

Thai Thahan Phran soldier on security perimeter.


The private security contractors in the hire of the U.S. Department of Defense or State Department are not mercenaries; they are technically no different than the private security manning the gates at government facilities throughout the United States.  They are  not mercenaries any more than postal inspectors are considered federal law enforcement.

On the other hand, Qaddafi’s goons ARE mercenaries, although I consider them professionals only in that they serve for pay. And in view of the way these brigands are conducting themselves, they are not soldiers any more than the Khmer Rouge or Hitler’s SS were. “Uniformed organized crime” is how I refer to this kind of scum.

Originally published at STORMBRINGER.


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Why the Right’s Beck Backlash is not Enough

February 26th, 2011 at 11:18 am 47 Comments

Conor Friedersdorf writes:

Is the right turning against Glenn Beck?

This week in Commentary, Peter Wehner became the latest conservative commentator to call out the Fox News host’s absurd ramblings. He joined Bill Kristol, who criticized Beck’s coverage of the uprising in EgyptRich Lowry, who piled on, andMatthew Continetti, who called Beck’s oeuvre “nonsense” last summer.

That brings us to their fellow conservative Jennifer Rubin, who writes for The Washington Post. “What should thoughtful conservatives do? I’ve said it before, but it is especially relevant here: Police their own side,” she advised this week. “Rather than reflexively rising to his defense when questioned about Beck, why don’t conservatives call him out and explain that he doesn’t represent the views of mainstream conservatives? Conservative groups and candidates should be forewarned: If they host, appear with or defend him they should be prepared to have his extremist views affixed to them.”

As a Beck critic who criticized the creepy aspects of his on-air personality even when he was touting awesome Friedrich Hayek books, I’d love to see more folks in the conservative movement adopt Rubin’s attitude. But they won’t. One reason is that it’s difficult to condemn Beck in isolation. Acknowledging that his show is indefensible—that’s the core of her critique—means confronting the fact that Fox News under Roger Ailes knowingly broadcasts factually inaccurate and egregiously misleading nonsense every day. How many conservatives are willing to stipulate that?

It also means departing from the conservative movement’s standard approach to its entertainers: It’s verboten to criticize anyone on “your own side” in an ideological conflict many see as binary.

What an outsider like me sees now are conservatives in The Weekly Standard and Commentary orbit who mostly didn’t speak up against Beck until his half-baked theories started to cut against their deeply held foreign policy views. That’s actually understandable. It’s a lot easier to spot absurd rhetoric and appreciate how damaging it can be to public discourse when its subject is a matter dear to us. But Rubin is asking conservatives who don’t share her foreign policy views to appreciate Beck’s pathologies. Sure, a Rich Lowry will take Kristol’s side in a short blog post pegged to a specific feud. It’s going to be very difficult, however, to persuade conservatives to start regularly evaluating Fox News and talk radio on the substance of the rhetoric offered, and policing its absurdities.

The point is driven home by the fact that most commentators newly awakened to Glenn Beck’s flaws haven’t even begun to confront the pathologies running through the stuff put out by the rest of the right’s most popular entertainers. Don’t get me wrong. I very much admire what Rubin wrote and agree that conservatives must start speaking up when the words uttered by prominent allies don’t reflect their values. But does she appreciate that merely repudiating the most blinkered, offensive, transparently untrue rhetoric would require a radical change in how the right conducts itself?

Those writing as if Beck is an extreme outlier in the conservative world should use their newly opened eyes to survey the rhetorical landscape. Yes, his style is singular, and his conspiracy theories are particularly colorful. But is his brand of conspiratorial nonsense really any more blinkered than some of what’s uttered by other conservatives in good standing? Take Rush Limbaugh, the most popular voice in the conservative movement. Lately, he’s taken to making derogatory comments about the first lady’s weight. In the wake of the Tucson shooting, he said of Democrats, “What Mr. Loughner knows is that he has the full support of a major political party in this country.” He claims that in Barack Obama’s America, it’s OK for black kids to physically assault white kids on school buses and that the whites victimized in these crimes are thought to have gotten what they deserved. He regularly uses bigoted words and imagery to stir racial controversy. And here is an abridged list of the people he has labeled racist in the past several years: Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Sonia Sotomayor, Van Jones, Democrats generally, the mainstream media, and the NFL.

Or consider Andrew Breitbart.

Best known for publishing a misleadingly edited video that made Shirley Sherrod appear racist, he says he became a conservative because of the unfair treatment Clarence Thomas received during his confirmation hearings, which makes it very weird that he tweeted this: “If male boss u knew 4 years, hired u job-2-job, gave u raises/promotions & worst infraction was PubicCoke, you know a saint.” His newest obsession is proving that Barack Obama is implicated in a “stealth reparations movement”. He is implicated in destroying the reputation of Juan Carlos Vera. Most relevant to the Glenn Beck fiasco, Breitbart is the proprietor of Big Peace, a strange foreign affairs website that regularly publishes material every bit as blinkered and conspiratorial as a Beck monologue.