The American Scene

An ongoing review of politics and culture

American Babylon

Father Richard John Neuhaus’s last book, American Babylon, appeared two months after his death this past January. My thoughts about the book are in the new issue of The New Atlantis, here.

Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix Is the Catchiest Album of the Year

Maybe the catchiest album ever, actually. (I exaggerate, but only by a little.) My review of the Parisian pop-rockers’ latest, which hits stores today, is now up. Also highly recommended is the new Grizzly Bear album, Veckatimest, which has rightly been generating album-of-the-year talk for months.

O Sotomayor

Does anybody know anything about her other than her vote in Ricci? Because her Ricci vote is really uninteresting – she’s a liberal who upheld the decision by a locality to take an action consistent with trying to avoid being sued for discrimination under the disparate impact standard. The standard is problematic to say the least, but (a) it’s not at all obvious to me that it’s an unconstitutional standard (as opposed to an impossible one – not the same thing); (b) pragmatically, I’m very leery of the conservative strategy of fighting overly-broad equal-protection jurisprudence by broadening such jurisprudence even more so as to police “reverse-discrimination” since such a strategy only deepens the entrenchment of the courts in our lives, and hence increases the politicization of the judiciary; and © the court didn’t need to address the constitutionality of the standard, nor is it plausible that a liberal judge would look for an opportunity to do so when not required to, nor is it plausible that, if required to, a liberal judge would look to overturn it.

Basically, if you want someone who’s eager to have the court strike down very kinds of affirmative action as violations of the equal-protection clause, you want a conservative nominee, and a particular kind of conservative nominee. The idea that anybody Obama was going to nominate was going to be that person is just silly.

So: what else do we know about her?

Things I care about:

- Does she take a more expansive view of the free exercise clause or the establishment clause of the 1st amendment (i.e., is she more likely to strike down government decisions that negatively impact the religiously observant or more likely to strike down government decisions that entangle the government with religion)? Or does she take a narrow view of both (being unlikely to strike down laws for either reason)?

- How does she see the Court’s role in policing the separation of powers? The division of power? Is she going to be deferential to Congress with respect to the scope of Congressional power? The President with respect to the scope of Executive power? Neither? Both? In what circumstances is it appropriate for the Court to be deferential to the legislative and/or executive branches, and in what circumstances is it important for the Court to be more aggressive in providing a check on their authority?

- There is a tension between writing minimal decisions in the “common law” manner, that address only what needs to be addressed and nothing more, which arrogate the least authority to the Court and create the least disruption from any one decision; and writing clarifying decisions that “say what the law is” and thereby provide greater predictability going forward both to the citizenry and to future courts in terms of precedent. How does she decide, in a given case, which way to lean?

- What did she think of Heller?

- What did she think of Kelo?

- Who is her favorite Justice no longer living? Why?

- What, in her view, is the worst decision by the Court still standing as precedent? (No, I don’t expect anyone up for confirmation to ever answer this one.)

- Does she think the “vote count” in the Court’s decisions matters for their ultimate credibility, and the credibility of the Court? Does she believe it is proper or improper to consider the closeness of a decision in terms of her willingness to overturn precedent? How willing would she be to “water down” a decision in order to achieve a larger majority, and under what sorts of circumstances?

- If, as seems likely, much of her time is spent in a tug of war with Justice Roberts, with the flag being Justice Kennedy’s vote, how does she plan to win those tugs of war? (No, I don’t expect anyone up for confirmation to ever answer this one either, but this is certainly the question that should be uppermost in liberal minds for the short term.)

Policy Options in a Dollar Crisis

The Bernanke/Paulson/Geithner/Bush/Obama response to the economic crisis has centered on a massive increase in the Fed balance sheet, large public investment in the financial sector (and select industrial sectors), and a large increase in debt-financed public spending generally. The goal is to avoid a repeat of the Great Depression, with massive deflation, a collapse in economic activity, the failure of much of the banking system, 20% unemployment, and so forth.

One risk this policy runs, as everybody involved understands, is that it won’t work – that nothing will be sufficient to keep the economy going. That wasn’t a strong argument against trying whatever had a chance of working and, moreover, there’s at least some evidence already for proponents to point to that the global economy is no longer falling off a cliff (whether because the policy worked or because some other response would have worked as well or better is something people will be debating for decades).

The more likely risk, again understood by everybody involved, is that it would work reasonably well – the economy would indeed stop falling off a cliff – but that it risked runaway inflation down the road, and, in the worst case, the potential for a collapse in international confidence in the dollar.

That hasn’t happened yet, of course. So far, the markets have reacted in a fairly orderly fashion to the problems being built in for the dollar. The US equity markets bottomed in early March; since then, their recovery has been highly correlated with the decline in the dollar against all major currencies (EUR most prominently, but also JPY, CAD, CHF, even – dramatically – GBP, in spite of the fact that sterling has the same kinds of problems that the dollar does, only worse), and with a rise in yields on the long bond. So long as this process remains orderly, the big trade our government is doing is likely to turn out well: we do know how to cure inflation, and even if we are slow to respond (as I expect we will be – nobody likes to take away the punchbowl) the results are still unlikely to be worse than a global depression. Moreover, if we use fiscal policy wisely in this period of fiscal expansion, we could take the opportunity to lay the foundation for more stable future growth, both by making smart public investments (e.g., in an upgraded electrical grid) and by reorganizing the tax system to encourage more productive investment (e.g., by eliminating the mortgage interest deduction, enacting 1986-style reform of the corporate income tax, replacing the payroll tax with a value-added tax). If we can raise our real growth rate through higher productivity, that gives us far greater flexibility to tackle inflation down the road while still being able to service our growing debt.

But if we get a true dollar crisis, that calculus no longer obtains. If the United States faces a situation at some point in the near future where we cannot finance our debts from abroad in our own currency, we would be forced into the kinds of austerity measures that created deep depressions in multiple emerging markets in the 1990s. To the extent that our current actions are retrospectively blamed for contributing to that crisis, we’ll regret them even more than we regret allowing the housing bubble to develop in the first place.

That housing bubble, remember, was principally a consequence of money being too easy for too long – i.e., Greenspan keeping interest rates too low for years after the economy began to recover in 2003. (I do want to stress: principally, not exclusively; there’s plenty of room for discussion of the other factors. But absent too much liquidity, those other factors couldn’t have caused the bubble; with too much liquidity, you were pretty much guaranteed to get a bubble somewhere.) There were many signs along the way that housing prices were getting crazy, but the Fed was very reluctant to set out to prick an asset bubble, and so its responses were consistently tamer than, in retrospect, we wish they had been.

Are we similarly going to see a dollar crisis developing slowly, and do nothing about it until it is upon us for fear of jeopardizing the gains we’ve already made through monetary and fiscal stimulus? How would we know whether, in fact, that was happening – now, for instance?

So here are my questions for Ben Bernanke as he looks at the possibility of a dollar crisis in the future:

- What signs are you looking for that such a crisis could be developing, if any? – If you don’t have any good forward-looking indicators, how is that shaping your policy response right now and your willingness to expand the Fed’s balance sheet seemingly without end? – If we find ourselves in the midst of a crisis of confidence in the dollar, what are the policy options open to you to respond and attempt to restore confidence? – Wouldn’t it make sense to give the market some indication of the seriousness with which you take the risk to confidence in the dollar by laying out these policy options in advance?

Post-Memorial Day Action

Memorial Day week provides us a great opportunity to rest and relax, to enjoy the company of friends and food, but also to ask important questions, to dig deep into the what really matters, to ask questions that matter — like, for example: What are the greatest action movies of all time? I ask because, here at a large house on the North Carolina shore, a group of people are watching Terminator 2, which I’d rank, along with Aliens and Die Hard, as one of cinema’s three greatest action pictures. All three movies combine, almost perfectly, gripping story, compelling characters, and relentless, totally jaw dropping, did-you-just-see-that?!! action sequences. They’re genre, yes, but they’re models of the form, operating at the highest possible level. I know these films — particularly T2 — have detractors, but as action movies go, can they really be beat?

Mark Levin Part II: The Dispatcher Is Dispatched

It began when I criticized Mark Levin, prompting David Frum and Rod Dreher to pile on. Enter Dan Reihl, who defended Mr. Levin. Incredulous, I challenged Mr. Riehl to a debate, offering an opening salvo here, and welcoming his rebuttal.

That’s when things got interesting — Mr. Levin himself responded (don’t miss the comments on that post), though I fear that he hasn’t done himself any favors by doing so. The argumentative approach he uses is striking given that he is a trained lawyer, intelligent enough to know the difference between a fallacious argument and a sound one. Even so, his initial defense against Rod Dreher is that “I don’t know Dreher and as best I can tell, most nobody does.” It’s the same nonsensical distraction that Mr. Levin used when he debated David Frum: your platform isn’t very big, therefore you’re obviously wrong. Needless to say, Mr. Dreher’s fame hasn’t any bearing on the matter at hand, nor does my obscurity (though I suspect that Mr. Levin won’t soon forget my name).

I’ll now restate the original criticisms made of Mr. Levin, and reprint his responses so that the reader can consider them.

Criticism # 1

It relates to the following exchange:

LEVIN: Answer me this, are you a married woman? Yes or no?
LEVIN: Well I don’t know why your husband doesn’t put a gun to his temple. Get the hell out of here.

Mr. Levin’s critics contend his behavior in that exchange is hateful, destructive of healthy political discourse, and likely to alienate people from conservatism. He offers several rebuttals in the course of his post and subsequent comments. Let’s take them one by one.

Mr. Levin writes:

Oh my. How brutish of me.
You would have thought I had spent the last 25 years befriending the likes of Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers, or had driven the car that ended Mary Jo Kopechne’s life. But no, those are the leaders of the Democratic Party.

A transparently irrelevant argument — as if the good or bad behavior of Democrats has any bearing on Mr. Levin’s behavior.

Another defense offered by Mr. Levin:

Rod wonders, among other things, “Think about what WFB would say about Levin’s rhetoric. I bet he’d be embarrassed by the low-class schlock of it all.” Well, Rod, WFB is a hero to all sound-thinking conservatives. But I do recall an exchange between Gore Vidal and Bill Buckley in which Buckley called Vidal a “queer.” Maybe Rod missed it while doing his vast research for his post about me. Well, here it is. Buckley was a brilliant and complex man, unlike Rod. He was also a fighter who knew his adversaries, unlike Rod. It was certainly wrong and offensive for Buckley to say what he did; yet Rod intones Buckley to admonish me. He wants readers to think Buckley would stand with him and against me. How cheap and pathetic.

Hmmm. As a friend of mine noted in an e-mail, John Judis wrote in his Buckley bio that WFB “felt ashamed at ‘having blown his cool’ and having ‘misbehaved on the air.’” Perhaps Levin noticed that hectoring guests—and challenging their spouses to top themselves—was not a tactic he often deployed while hosting Firing Line.

Still later, Mr. Levin offers a different defense of the “gun to his temple” remark:

Ok, let’s debate your point Conor. I told the caller she way extremely annoying. That is what any sensible person would have understood the comment to mean. Now, you don’t like it. You don’t like the way I said it. So what? If you were a dear friend or someone I knew and admired, I might think about it. But you are none of those things. I don’t know who you are and I don’t care if you don’t like it. My purpose was not to win over converts or represent the Republican Party. It was to dispatch this caller as I chose to. As for appealing to people, if I say I have a very large following in broadcast and print media, the likely response would be, “well, what does that have to do with the substance of my criticism.” So, you will have created your own maze of logic by shifting points.

I’ve no doubt that Mr. Levin found the caller annoying, and meant to communicate that fact to her. The criticism is that he chose a needlessly hateful way to dispatch her — human beings owe one another better than that, and vitriol of that kind is destructive to public discourse. I’m not sure why Mr. Levin thinks his lack of admiration for me bears on the rightness of that criticism.

Mr. Levin also says that his purpose wasn’t to win converts or represent the GOP. But his purpose is irrelevant to the question of whether his behavior hurts the ideological movement with which he affiliates himself. It is probably most harmful to conservatism insofar as Mr. Levin’s legion listeners mimic his off-putting, illogical approach to public discourse. As one of his listeners states in comments, “He has taught me how to go to battle against the enemy.”

Finally, Mr. Levin’s sizable audience is testament to his popularity among people who already self-identify as conservatives, not his ability to persuade new folks to switch their ideological allegiance. Grasping the distinction is hardly akin to navigating a maze.

Criticism #2

This concerns the following exchange on Mr. Levin’s show:

HOST: My God. He’s so smart. His own party voted against him on Guantanamo Bay. How stupid was that, Cindy? His own party refused to fund the closing of Guantanamo Bay.
CALLER. Yeah but you know he can just move those people over here anyway. He’s already doing it with the one guy.
HOST: Yeah, sure, he can do whatever he wants. Let me ask you a question. Why do you hate this country?
CALLER: No, I love this country.
HOST: (angrily shouting) I SAID WHY DO YOU HATE MY COUNTRY! WHY DO YOU HATE MY CONSTITUTION? WHY DO YOU HATE MY DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE? You just said it. He can blow off Congress. He can do whatever he wants, right?

In this exchange, Mr. Levin berates the caller for asserting that Barack Obama can move Gitmo detainees to the United States, even though Congress objects to the transfer. His logic seems apparent: the caller is saying that President Obama can “blow off Congress” and “do whatever he wants,” therefore she is anti-American and anti-constitution — she’d just give President Obama whatever power he wants to transgress against the rule of law.

What a weird argument for Mr. Levin to make, I thought. A person opposed to executive power might well argue that it’s anti-Constitution to say the president can move detainees, Congress be damned. As I noted in my original post, however, “the host is weirdly blind to the irony that he himself thinks a wartime president possesses the power to house detainees where he sees fit… by the host’s own standard of executive power—not to mention Dick Cheney’s standard — President Obama possesses the inherent power to close Gitmo, what Congress says be damned.” How could Mr. Levin berate a caller as anti-American for articulating his own view of executive power, albeit applied to a new president?

Well. Here’s how Mr. Levin responded to my criticism:

Where did I say the president does not have the power to move the prisoners to the United States? The reason they were housed at GITMO was because of a 1950 Supreme Court decision (Eisentrger) in which Justice Jackson made clear that the court had no jurisdiction over detainees held outside the United States. I have written at length about it. The issue of the Constitution, the nation, and the Declaration relates to the danger moving terrorists into this country would pose to the country, a fact that even the Democrat-controlled Congress somewhat understands, and is the reason they voted down Obama’s $80 million request to shut GITMO. And, yes, Conor, I believe such a mindless position is unpatriotic. That may offend you, but it seems you are easily offended, except by your own accusations.

Is it just me, or is Mr. Levin clearly fudging what the exchange with the caller was really about? After all, he stated on his show that the caller is anti-American and anti-Constitution not for thinking that Obama SHOULD move Gitmo detainees to the United States, but because she thought HE POSSESSED THE POWER TO DO SO. “You just said it. He can blow off Congress. He can do whatever he wants, right?” What Mr. Levin claims after the fact makes no sense given the language that he used.

Having established that, let’s assume the point he meant to make is his latest offering. As far as I can tell, Mr. Levin’s position is now as follows: Under the Constitution, President Obama possesses the inherent power as Commander in Chief to move Gitmo detainees to America — and if he exercises that inherent constitutional power, he is anti-constitution.

To sum up, I think that all of the original criticisms I made about Mr. Levin stand, that his efforts to rebut them are so obviously weak that any independent observer would regard them as failures, and that he is additionally guilty of shamelessly using transparently fallacious rhetorical techniques to attack his interlocutors rather than addressing their arguments. As I hope this exchange demonstrates, one can argue civilly and logically, and nevertheless systematically devastate the credibility of opposing arguments.