Monthly Archives: August 2008

The selection of Joe Biden, for all his merits, was something of an anticlimax, and the Obama campaign is mostly to blame. It overmanaged the announcement. The ponderous stagecraft of the delay in releasing the decision and all the teasing of the press (a good thing in its own right, by the way: we deserve to be teased) were intended to supply a burst of excitement as the convention began. Also, the promise to let campaign supporters who registered their cellphone numbers get the news first by text message has doubtless done wonders for the Obama database. (Not that most of them did get the news first that way, of course; unless they turned off TV and radio and stayed up into the early hours on Saturday, glued to their phones.) In any event, Biden had been so widely tipped that the fanfare fell flat. Oh, right, fine, Joe Biden.

He is a good choice but an unadventurous one–despite the fact that his verbosity and rapid-response opining can get him into trouble. (The Republicans have put a “Biden gaffe clock” on their website.) His knowledge and experience of foreign affairs fill a perceived gap in the Obama campaign, and his pugilistic style is something else the campaign can use. But it doesn’t fix what has been going wrong, which is the apparent failure of Barack Obama to connect with uncommitted voters. Biden does connect: he has that common touch. But if Obama cannot do that for himself, having a partner who can will not be good enough.

Sometimes I wonder where I would be without Theodore Dalrymple, the retired prison doctor and pseudonymous essayist with a particular genius for dyspeptic commentary on the state of Britain. He most often appears in the excellent City Journal. I regard him as a public service. I can outsource (he would put that word in inverted commas) what would otherwise be an occasional outburst of dismay at the country’s cultural decay, knowing that nobody could do it better. Oddly enough, I find him very soothing, but the main thing is that I think he allows me to stave off becoming an angry old man a little longer.

Britain is the worst country in the Western world in which to be a child, according to a recent UNICEF report. Ordinarily, I would not set much store by such a report; but in this case, I think it must be right—not because I know so much about childhood in all the other 20 countries examined but because the childhood that many British parents give to their offspring is so awful that it is hard to conceive of worse, at least on a mass scale. The two poles of contemporary British child rearing are neglect and overindulgence.

Consider one British parent, Fiona MacKeown, who in November 2007 went on a six-month vacation to Goa, India, with her boyfriend and eight of her nine children by five different fathers, none of whom ever contributed financially for long to the children’s upkeep. (The child left behind—her eldest, at 19—was a drug addict.) She received $50,000 in welfare benefits a year, and doubtless decided—quite rationally, under the circumstances—that the money would go further, and that life would thus be more agreeable, in Goa than in her native Devon.

Reaching Goa, MacKeown soon decided to travel with seven of her children to Kerala, leaving behind one of them, 15-year-old Scarlett Keeling, to live with a tour guide ten years her elder, whom the mother had known for only a short time. Scarlett reportedly claimed to have had sex with this man only because she needed a roof over her head. According to a witness, she was constantly on drugs; and one night, she went to a bar where she drank a lot and took several different illicit drugs, including LSD, cocaine, and pot. She was seen leaving the bar late, almost certainly intoxicated.

The next morning, her body turned up on a beach. At first, the local police maintained that she had drowned while high, but further examination proved that someone had raped and then forcibly drowned her. So far, three people have been arrested in the investigation, which is continuing.

About a month later, Scarlett’s mother, interviewed by the liberal Sunday newspaper the Observer, expressed surprise at the level of public vituperation aimed at her and her lifestyle in the aftermath of the murder. She agreed that she and her children lived on welfare, but “not by conscious choice,” and she couldn’t see anything wrong with her actions in India apart from a certain naivety in trusting the man in whose care she had left her daughter. Scarlett was always an independent girl, and if she, the mother, could turn the clock back, she would behave exactly the same way again.

It is not surprising that someone in Fiona MacKeown’s position would deny negligence; to acknowledge it would be too painful. But—and this is what is truly disturbing—when the newspaper asked four supposed child-rearing experts for their opinions, only one saw anything wrong with the mother’s behavior, and even she offered only muted criticism. It was always difficult to know how much independence to grant an adolescent, the expert said; but in her view, the mother had granted too much too quickly to Scarlett.

Even that seemed excessively harsh to the Observer’s Barbara Ellen…

Incidentally, here is a good column on almost the same subject by George Will.

Paternalism is the restriction of freedom for the good of the person restricted. AIPCS [American Indian Public Charter School] acts in loco parentis because Chavis, who is cool toward parental involvement, wants an enveloping school culture that combats the culture of poverty and the streets.

He and other practitioners of the new paternalism — once upon a time, schooling was understood as democracy’s permissible, indeed obligatory, paternalism — are proving that cultural pessimists are mistaken: We know how to close the achievement gap that often separates minorities from whites before kindergarten and widens through high school. A growing cohort of people possess the pedagogic skills to make “no excuses” schools flourish.

Unfortunately, powerful factions fiercely oppose the flourishing. Among them are education schools with their romantic progressivism — teachers should be mere “enablers” of group learning; self-esteem is a prerequisite for accomplishment, not a consequence thereof. Other opponents are the teachers unions and their handmaiden, the Democratic Party. Today’s liberals favor paternalism — you cannot eat trans fats; you must buy health insurance — for everyone except children. Odd.

Valuable columns by Tom Friedman and David Ignatius. Friedman concentrates on the error of Nato expansion, and the consequent humiliation of Russia, which has now come back to bite us.

[S]ince we had finally brought down Soviet communism and seen the birth of democracy in Russia the most important thing to do was to help Russian democracy take root and integrate Russia into Europe. Wasn’t that why we fought the cold war — to give young Russians the same chance at freedom and integration with the West as young Czechs, Georgians and Poles? Wasn’t consolidating a democratic Russia more important than bringing the Czech Navy into NATO?…

No, said the Clinton foreign policy team, we’re going to cram NATO expansion down the Russians’ throats, because Moscow is weak and, by the way, they’ll get used to it. Message to Russians: We expect you to behave like Western democrats, but we’re going to treat you like you’re still the Soviet Union. The cold war is over for you, but not for us.

I don’t think we fought the cold war to give young Russians freedom, actually, but put that aside.

The conventions matter either a lot or not much, and it is difficult to say which, not just before the event but also after. Thank you to Larry Sabato for clearing that up. (Seriously, it’s an interesting article: indispensable pre-convention prep.)

Recent history suggests that there is a better than even chance we’ll be misled by the post-convention bounces in 2008. Yet forests will be lost to produce the newsprint for the stories about the overarching significance of 2008′s post-convention bounces. And the “tubes” that comprise the internet (in the immortal description of now-indicted Alaska U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens) will be clogged with breathless analysis of the same numbers.

Well of course. That’s why we’re here.

An interesting piece by Kathleen Parker, who was deeply offended by the Saddleback “interrogation”. (Thanks to Loretta, a recovering Catholic of this parish, for prodding me to blog about this.)

At the risk of heresy, let it be said that setting up the two presidential candidates for religious interrogation by an evangelical minister — no matter how beloved — is supremely wrong. It is also un-American.

For the past several days, since mega-pastor Rick Warren interviewed Barack Obama and John McCain at his Saddleback Church, most political debate has focused on who won…

The winner, of course, was Warren, who has managed to position himself as political arbiter in a nation founded on the separation of church and state. The loser was America.

It’s a fair point. Speaking as an atheist–but one who feels no desire to convert others to my lack of faith–I was indeed struck by the anomaly of my finding the event both interesting and informative, much more so than the other TV debates, even though the religious trappings ought to have made me uneasy. Parker continues:

His format and questions were interesting and the answers more revealing than what the usual debate menu provides. But does it not seem just a little bit odd to have McCain and Obama chatting individually with a preacher in a public forum about their positions on evil and their relationship with Jesus Christ?

What is the right answer, after all? What happens to the one who gets evil wrong? What’s a proper relationship with Jesus? What’s next? Interrogations by rabbis, priests and imams? What candidate would dare decline on the basis of mere principle?

Both Obama and McCain gave “good” answers, but that’s not the point. They shouldn’t have been asked. Is the American electorate now better prepared to cast votes knowing that Obama believes that “Jesus Christ died for my sins and I am redeemed through him,” or that McCain feels that he is “saved and forgiven”?

In the end, I think Parker has chosen the wrong target. If presidential candidates profess faith, and promise to be guided by it in office, then their faith is a legitimate and indeed necessary area of inquiry. And I think Warren is to be congratulated on his courteous and informative probing. It is an error, in my view, to say this violates the principle of separation of church and state. The aim of that principle is not to stifle faith (or lack of it) but to assure that no one faith (or lack of it) is granted an official licence to stamp out the competition. This is a very frequent confusion. Nothing in the Saddleback event threatens anybody’s religous freedom.

The proper target for Parker’s displeasure, it seems to me, is the great American public, which insists that its leaders be God-fearing types (or at least say they are). That is certainly a species of intolerance; but the remedy is not to shroud candidates’ faith in silence. Parker says:

And while, yes, everybody has some kind of worldview, it shouldn’t be necessary in a pluralistic nation of secular laws to publicly define that view in Christian code.

Perhaps not, but it certainly is necessary that they define it in plain English–and if that worldview includes the belief that Christ died for our sins, then I for one want to know that, and to understand what (if anything) it implies about the candidate’s likely conduct.

Otherwise detained when it was first broadcast, I only got around to watching the Saddleback Church encounter (video; transcript) last night.

Warren did a very nice job. I hope the network moderators were taking notes. No self-aggrandizement, no moronic gimmicks, no ceaseless quest for the gotcha moment. He asked good, searching questions in a spirit of urgent reflection, curiosity and goodwill. So it can be done.

I agree with the take of most commentators: Obama came across as thoughtful–but to a fault. His answers were too long and inconclusive. He came over as smart, interesting and admirable, but indecisive. McCain was just the opposite: direct, peremptory, energetic, impatient to take charge.

If this event were all I knew of the two candidates, I would prefer Obama, though with reservations. McCain crossed the line between concise and simplistic (not to say bombastic) too many times. Obama’s answer to the question, “At what point does a baby have human rights?”–”That’s above my pay grade”–was an evasion. (What would I have said, I wondered? Words to the same effect. Luckily I’m not running for president.) Then it got worse, as he talked about “theological perspective”, “scientific perspective” and (eek) “specificity”. Oh dear. McCain’s immediate answer, “At the moment of conception,” was as crisp and clear as you could wish. Problem is, that answer has implications which I am certain that McCain, consistent though his record may be on abortion, is not willing to confront. If it’s a choice between (a) handwringing over specificity and (b) dogmatic certainty on an issue that (in my view) does not support it, I’ll reluctantly take (a).

As for the politics, surely McCain won. Much to my surprise, given some of his recent outings, he seemed much more presidential. So I agree with David Gergen:

Heading into the candidates’ appearances on Saturday night at Saddleback Church, the conventional wisdom in politics was Barack Obama should have a clear upper hand in any joint appearance with John McCain — one the young, eloquent, cool, charismatic dude who can charm birds from the trees, the other the meandering, sometimes bumbling, old fellow who can barely distinguish Sunnis from Shiias.

Well, kiss that myth goodbye.

McCain came roaring out of the gate from the first question and was a commanding figure throughout the night as he spoke directly and often movingly about his past and the country’s future. By contrast, Obama was often searching for words and while far more thoughtful, was also less emotionally connective with his audience.

Also see this piece by Dick Polman at the Philadelphia Inquirer:

The same stylistic gap – cerebral versus visceral – was evident at several other points in the forum, again to Obama’s potential disadvantage. Such as the exchanges about the nature of evil.

Warren asked Obama: “Does evil exist, and if it does, do we ignore it, do we negotiate with it, do we contain it, or do we defeat it?”

Obama’s response: “Evil does exist. I mean, we see evil all the time. We see evil in Darfur. We see evil in parents have viciously abused their children and I think it has to be confronted. It has to be confronted squarely and one of the things that I strongly believe is that, you know, we are not going to, as individuals, be able to erase evil from the world…Now, the one thing that I think is very important for us is to have humility in how we approach the issue of confronting evil, but, you know, a lot of evil has been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil…And I think one thing that’s very important is having some humility in recognizing that, you know, just because we think our intentions are good doesn’t always mean that we’re going to be doing good…”

One hour later, Warren asked McCain the same question about evil and what we should do about it. McCain’s response began this way:

“Defeat it.”

Jim Fallows, though, makes a very good point. This was a pair of interviews, not a debate. Who knows where the discussion of human rights and abortion would have gone if the candidates had been able to challenge each other–if Obama had been able to test McCain on the implications of his certainties, and say, “Is it really so simple?”. Perhaps that would have made things even worse for Obama, or perhaps not. We shall see. The approaching presidential debates will be even more important that I had supposed. Shame they will be back in the hands of the TV professionals.

So far, reaction in the US to Russia’s invasion of Georgia has been all Vladimir Putin could have wished. Exhausted in every way by its experience in Iraq (a failure not much mitigated by recent progress there), its authority and sense of purpose quite depleted, the US looked slower and less decisive than Europe in its initial response, and that is saying something.

It took repeated prodding from presidential contender John McCain to draw President George W. Bush’s attention from the Beijing Olympics to the fact that Russian forces were overrunning the territory of a US ally. Then, as the White House slowly geared up its rhetoric, dispatched the secretary of state to Tbilisi and began talking vaguely of repercussions, both the administration and the goading Mr McCain were accused of war-mongering hysteria by liberal commentators and even by some conservatives.

The remainder of this column can be read here. Please post comments below.

I am not devoting myself full-time to following the iterations of the candidates’ tax plans–as you will soon see, that way lies insanity–but I was interested to see the article by Jason Furman and Austan Goolsbee, Obama’s top economists, in today’s WSJ. It says, among other things, that “the top capital-gains rate for families making more than $250,000 would return to 20%” and that “the tax rate on dividends would also be 20% for families making more than $250,000.” (Both rates are currently 15%.)

Good to have that confirmed. Three weeks ago, the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center (which produces the most authoritative independent appraisals of the campaigns’ fiscal proposals) used new rates of 25%, not 20%, to calculate the numbers most of us have been using lately. It had inferred those tax rates from the Obama campaign’s statements and revenue projections.

The thrust of the Furman/Goolsbee article is that Obama would cut taxes overall relative to current policy, while shifting the burden from people on middle and lower incomes to the rich. Cling to that: it might be true. Unfortunately, although the piece is full of numbers, I don’t see an estimate of that net tax change, a figure of some interest. And the campaign still isn’t saying how much, or even whether, the payroll tax for families on more than $250,000 a year will rise. The campaign says it is considering options in the 2-4% range, worker and employer combined. I don’t know if the effects of that change should be included in the estimate they forget to give of the net tax change. Presumably not, because the article says this bold effort to shore up Social Security would not be activated for a decade or more.  That makes two interesting announcements. (Does it also imply a third term for President Obama?)

The article doesn’t say much about spending–except to promise that Obama would cut it, to pay for his net tax cut. Do Democrats realize that Obama is promising to cut public spending overall? This was news to me. The big-ticket item on the spending side, of course, is health care. Obama’s website explains how the costs of his health reform, estimated at a surprisingly modest $50 billion-65 billion a year, will be met: “The Obama plan will realize tremendous savings within the health care system to help finance the plan. The additional revenue needed to fund the up-front investments in technology and to help people who cannot afford health insurance is more than covered by allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire for people making more than $250,000 per year, as they are scheduled to do.” Ah, there you’ve lost me. The tax plan promises a net tax cut. The revenues from taxing the rich more heavily will be more than spent on cutting everybody else’s taxes. There’s no surplus left over to set against the cost of health care reform. There’s a shortfall.

The article also says: “Overall, in an Obama administration, the top 1% of households — people with an average income of $1.6 million per year — would see their average federal income and payroll tax rate increase from 21% today to 24%, less than the 25% these households would have paid under the tax laws of the late 1990s.” I need to find the footnotes for that one. The Tax Policy Center, in tables refreshed today, says that the average federal tax rate on the top 1% of tax units (including business income and the estate tax) would rise by 7.2 percentage points to 35.6% by 2012, fully phased in. That is a hefty rise.

The TPC’s July 23rd document described Obama’s then-proposed tax increases on upper-income earners as “enormous”. But obviously that assessment will need to be updated.

I don’t think so. Read this piece by Josh Green and the accompanying haul of documents from inside the Clinton campaign. This is the candidate who ran on management expertise–on “actions speak louder than words”, on the ability to get things done. Hillary, it appears, is a pitiful manager.

Clinton ran on the basis of managerial competence—on her capacity, as she liked to put it, to “do the job from Day One.” In fact, she never behaved like a chief executive, and her own staff proved to be her Achilles’ heel. What is clear from the internal documents is that Clinton’s loss derived not from any specific decision she made but rather from the preponderance of the many she did not make. Her hesitancy and habit of avoiding hard choices exacted a price that eventually sank her chances at the presidency.

Joe Klein accuses Robert Kagan of warmongering.

When a column starts off like this:

“The details of who did what to precipitate Russia’s war against Georgia are not very important. Do you recall the precise details of the Sudeten Crisis that led to Nazi Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia? Of course not, because that morally ambiguous dispute is rightly remembered as a minor part of a much bigger drama.

“The events of the past week will be remembered that way, too.”

..the author has got to be a neoconservative pushing for the next war. In this case, it’s Robert Kagan, girding for a new twilight struggle with the Sovi…uh, sorry: that was a couple of twilight struggles ago…Russia.

I don’t follow. Kagan’s main point is simply that Russia remains a dangerous and assertive rival to the West.

Historians will come to view Aug. 8, 2008, as a turning point no less significant than Nov. 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. Russia’s attack on sovereign Georgian territory marked the official return of history, indeed to an almost 19th-century style of great-power competition, complete with virulent nationalisms, battles for resources, struggles over spheres of influence and territory, and even — though it shocks our 21st-century sensibilities — the use of military power to obtain geopolitical objectives. Yes, we will continue to have globalization, economic interdependence, the European Union and other efforts to build a more perfect international order. But these will compete with and at times be overwhelmed by the harsh realities of international life that have endured since time immemorial. The next president had better be ready.

If I wanted to criticise that view I think I’d say it was too much a statement of the obvious, rather than attacking it as insanely militant. As Klein himself acknowledges,

To be sure, Russia’s assault on Georgia is an outrage.

And yet, he continues

But it is important, yet again, to call out the endless neoconservative search for new enemies.

I cannot see that underlining the significance of an outrageous (in Klein’s own view) Russian assault on a US ally (Georgian soldiers serve in Iraq) constitutes a desperate search for new enemies. What a strange reaction to these events.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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