Thursday, May 13, 2010

Flight of the Intellectuals

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks historian Paul Berman, a man of the Left, wrote a book titled Terror and Liberalism in which he punctured the pretensions of his fellow liberal intellectuals for their fascination with terrorism and their reluctance to think ill of the people who perpetrate it.

Now Berman has come out with a follow-up book titled The Flight of the Intellectuals which, I understand, picks up where his first book leaves off.

I haven't read the second book yet but I have read Terror and Liberalism and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the strange relationship between liberalism and radical Islamism and the motives behind this infatuation.

I also urge readers to read through an interview Berman does with journalist Michael Totten on the themes of his two books. It's an extraordinary piece. Berman has his predilections and prejudices but he is one of the most fair-minded people I've ever encountered. He didn't like George Bush much at all, and that certainly comes through in the interview, but he doesn't hesitate to give Bush credit for his clear-sightedness in the war against Islamic terrorism.

Here's an excerpt taken from a portion of the interview in which Berman and Totten are talking about the mindset of a certain group of liberal intellectuals who are willing to celebrate tyrants if the tyrants are anti-American. Berman observes that:

[T]here's another idea that appeals to many people, which is based not on our own feeling of superiority, but on our own inferiority. We look at ourselves in the Western countries and we say that, if we are rich, relatively speaking, as a society, it is because we have plundered our wealth from other people. Our wealth is a sign of our guilt. If we are powerful, compared with the rest of the world, it is because we treat people in other parts of the world in oppressive and morally objectionable ways. Our privileged position in the world is actually a sign of how racist we are and how imperialistic and exploitative we are. All the wonderful successes of our society are actually the signs of how morally inferior we are, and we have much to regret and feel guilty about. So when we look at the world, we should look at it in a spirit of humility and remorse, and we should recognize that other people have been unfairly treated.

We should recognize the superiority of those other people over ourselves. Money-wise, we may be richer. But, morally, the other people are richer. And so, we should despise ourselves, and we should love the other people -- the people who possess qualities so superior to our own as barely to be human. And then, filled with those very peculiar ideas, we set about looking for messianic figures who might express the superior culture of the other people, and might lead the human race to a higher stage of development. And if someone objects to this analysis, we say, oh, we inferior Westerners are incapable of understanding the mysterious thought-patterns of those other people, so who are you to judge?

The interview is a little long, but it'll be the most intellectually profitable 15 minutes you'll spend today.


Death Spiral

Newsweek's Robert Samuelson discusses the causes of the crisis in Greece, and what he describes sounds eerily like the situation the United States will find itself in about four years. The problem is fewer workers supporting more and more non-workers and a profligate spending binge leading to ever increasing budget deficits.

Here's an excerpt from Samuelson's column:

Budget deficits and debt are the real problems; and these stem from all the welfare benefits (unemployment insurance, old-age assistance, health insurance) provided by modern governments.

Countries everywhere already have high budget deficits, aggravated by the recession. Greece is exceptional only by degree. In 2009, its budget deficit was 13.6 percent of its gross domestic product (a measure of its economy); its debt, the accumulation of past deficits, was 115 percent of GDP. Spain's deficit was 11.2 percent of GDP, its debt 56.2 percent; Portugal's figures were 9.4 percent and 76.8 percent. Comparable figures for the United States -- calculated slightly differently -- were 9.9 percent and 53 percent.

There are no hard rules as to what's excessive, but financial markets -- the banks and investors that buy government bonds -- are obviously worried. Aging populations make the outlook worse. In Greece, the 65-and-over population is projected to go from 18 percent of the total in 2005 to 25 percent in 2030. For Spain, the increase is from 17 percent to 25 percent.

The welfare state's death spiral is this: Almost anything governments might do with their budgets threatens to make matters worse by slowing the economy or triggering a recession. By allowing deficits to balloon, they risk a financial crisis as investors one day -- no one knows when -- doubt governments' ability to service their debts and, as with Greece, refuse to lend except at exorbitant rates. Cutting welfare benefits or raising taxes all would, at least temporarily, weaken the economy. Perversely, that would make paying the remaining benefits harder.

But we shouldn't worry. Eat, drink, and be merry. Revel in hope and change. Enjoy American Idol. No great superpower lasts forever. After a while, all governments spend themselves into oblivion. Those among our elites who so admire Europe and European ways can take comfort in the fact that we're on course to follow them right down the drain.


Elena Miers Kagan

When George Bush nominated Harriet Miers to the Supreme court the firestorm of protest was so hot that she withdrew her name from consideration. Ms. Miers, it was argued from both the right and the left, had almost no relevant experience to qualify her for the court. Surely, many observers opined, there must be others more qualified than Ms Miers who was awarded the nomination, it was widely suspected, simply because she was a friend of George Bush's.

Well, now Barack Obama has nominated a woman, a friend of his, with no judicial experience and little courtroom experience to be the next Supreme Court Justice. Elena Kagan has no written body of work upon which anyone can base an assessment of her qualifications. She is Barack Obama's Harriet Miers - and also his dopplegänger - with one exception. No one among congressional Democrats thinks her selection is anything less than "superb" as Senator Leahy inexplicably declared.

When Bush nominated Miers, Republicans let him know how disappointed they were that he didn't select the best candidate in the field. He eventually came to his senses and gave us the brilliant Samuel Alito instead. When Obama nominated Kagan, on the other hand, Democrats all lined up to praise the nominee, but none of them can say exactly what it is they're praising her for. It's certainly not her qualifications to sit on the highest court in the land. I guess they feel that in the age of Obama qualifications for high office are just so 20th century.