Monday, February 18, 2013

The big picture is hopeful

People who have been around for a while all seem to agree. Never in living memory has the atmosphere on Capitol Hill and in Washington, D.C., generally been so toxic.

I don’t find this to be true out in the hinterland. The country as a whole is divided politically. But it’s not obviously more divided than it was 50 years ago. The toxicity of politics is a D.C. phenomenon. What’s more, the polarization is worse among the elites. It seems that the more education they have, the more polarized people become.

Why is that?

I have a theory. Any period in which there is radical political change is likely to be a period when raw emotions are strained. The reason: political change means we are moving from an old system to a new one. When that happens, people who were wedded to the old system will perceive that they are losing something — a way of life, a shared way of looking at the world, institutions that they relied on.

We are living in such a period. Over the past 30 years the entire world has seen a complete reversal in the political trend of the twentieth century. There was a time, not long ago, when many of us believed that the march toward communism and socialism was inevitable. Country after country moved left. In the first eight decades of the twentieth century, I can’t think of a single place where individual liberty increased — unless you count the aftermath of war in Germany, Italy and Japan.

Collectivism, it seemed, was unstoppable.

Then, in the last two decades of the last century, everything changed. Communism was dismantled almost everywhere. It was not only politically dismantled. Collectivism was intellectually discredited. All around the world, a new wave of thinking emerged — one which saw that the left was wrong. Wrong about everything. Wrong about communism. Wrong about socialism. Wrong about the welfare state.

In country after country, the power of government was rolled back — through deregulation and privatization. It’s hard to exaggerate how fundamental this change has been. When Ronald Reagan was president, not even the most conservative politician would dare talk about privatizing Social Security. This was true in other countries as well. Yet today, more than 30 countries around the world have fully or partially privatized their social security systems. We haven’t done it yet. But we’ve discovered that a presidential candidate can talk about it and still win two elections.

About 40 countries now have a flat tax and tax rates have been generally falling almost everywhere. In Europe, talk of privatizing health, education and welfare was once as taboo as talk of privatizing Social Security was in the US. No longer.

Sweden, once thought of as the model for the modern welfare state, now has a full-fledged school voucher system, has privatized large segments of its health care system and is on the way toward privatization of almost all of its welfare state. Britain, which once boasted that its system of socialized medicine was “the envy of the world” has been privatizing health services for the past decade. Since 2008, National Health Service (NHS) patients have been able to choose any provider (NHS, private for-profit, private non-profit, etc.) they wish for elective care.

The dismantling of the state has not been smooth or even continuous. Some countries have seen reversals. Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador and France come to mind. In our country we have gone from Bill Clinton’s declaration that the era of big government is over to a massive new entitlement created by ObamaCare.

These reversals give people on the left hope that the trend is not inevitable. Rather than being resigned to defeat, they see hope that collectivism might rise again.

A persistent myth is the idea that polarization and toxicity in politics has originated on the right. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Tea Party folks are…well…just plain folks with a point of view. If you want to find real bitterness, go interview the participants of Occupy Wall Street.

Paul Krugman is a New York Times columnist who routinely questions the motives, the ethics and even the sanity of people who disagree with him. You can’t find editorials on the right that come close to his routine level of vitriol.

For the most part, the left in this country feels deeply threaten by events occurring all over the world. Every cherished belief of theirs is proving to be wrong. The institutions they revere are being dismantled.

They’re mad.



Why Downton Abbey riles the Left

One of the first things one notices, if one is a regular viewer of BBC productions, is that Downton is unusually ideologically and religiously balanced. One of the other effects one notices when one watches a lot of BBC is that one starts referring to oneself in the third rather than the first person. But one digresses.

If the viewer is expecting vintage BBC, Downton is full of surprises. This is not PG Woodhouse, with Jeeves the butler easily thinking rings around his Lord. This is not Brideshead Revisted‘s take on the upper classes, packed with alcoholic elders and simmering, repressed homosexuality amongst their offspring. It is not Noel Coward’s Easy Virtue with easy satiric shots at the hypocrisy which arises amongst the upper classes and their dysfunctional patter of religious and sexual…yes there it is again, repression.

The upper classes at Downton aren’t repressed, they’re restrained. They are not inbred, intellectually backward fools; they are intelligent and thoughtful. As a general rule they treat their servants well, care about their welfare and are generally respected by them in turn. They are, in a word, admirable. And for a period drama, that treatment is, in a word, surprising. And surprise is an essential element of compelling drama.

Films and series about Edwardian upper caste manners which portray the genteels uncharitably are boring, like the steady, unending (until one turns the switch off) hum of a fluorescent lamp.Downton Abbey is what George Gilder would call the entropic disruption to the background noise of revolt against the old world. To portray Lord and Lady Grantham as anything other than drunks, fools, hypocrites or either sexpots or sexual glaciers (or best of all, alternately both) is itself an act of cultural rebellion.

That’s arguably why the left is bashing Downton Abbey. The New York Times Art Beat column has reported that British critics are ‘torching’ Downton Abbey. Apparently Downton Abbey is snobbish, culturally necrophiliac (and if you don’t yet know what that word means, I suggest you leave it that way) and its popularity in the United States is due to the rise of the Tea Party movement and conservative opposition to the death tax. Even worse, creator Julian Fellowes is the holder of a Tory Peerage. Definitely not the right sort of people.

Now at first glance one might think that all of this goes a bit too far, dragging politics in where it has no proper place. But on second look, the left’s reaction is understandable. Julian Fellowes and they are on the opposite side of something. But it’s not that Fellowes is on the right, and they on the left. It is that Fellowes is in the middle and they on the far left. Downton Abbey is not an apologetic for the old order. It just gives them a fair shake.

Lord Grantham is admirable, yes, but wrong on many things. He makes a pass at one of the house maids. He flies off the handle at Bates unfairly. He foolishly squanders the family fortune on a bad investment. He expresses bigoted views towards Catholics (of which Fellowes, a practicing Catholic, must surely disapprove). Most tragically, he lets his upper class solidarity lead to a medical decision which may have led to the death of his daughter.

But, in general, Lord Grantham is a faithful, intelligent, decent and benevolent. The world has to change; he knows it, but he wants the world to change more slowly than it wants itself to change. His wife and children are not in general wiser than he (which marks the show as distinct from almost all TV advertisements set in families), but they are sometimes wiser than he…just like in life.

Fellowes seems to be saying that the old order had its day; it was good, though not perfect, during its time. It deserves a decent burial and a fond memory. And he also seems to be saying that change for change’s own sake is just as destructive as preservation for preservation’s own sake. Liberation of women, good. Growth of an all-encompassing set of regulatons, bad. My friend John Tamny (editor of this page) has given a good account of Fellowes’ political philosophy as expressed in his novels

But Downton Abbey is also a rejoinder to the current rage (in both senses) of class warfare. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal:

“I think the—well, not even the subtext, the supertext—of ‘Downton,’ is that it is possible for us all to get on, that we don’t have to be ranged in class warfare permanently—that for the general public, the fact that people are leading different lives with different economic realities and different expectations is perfectly cope-able with.”

 “If you can’t deal with that,” he continues, “then your life would be unlivable. And I think politicians try to encourage us to think in a hostile sense [of] people who have a different circumstance to our own. Which I find very unproductive and uncreative.”

So Downton Abbey‘s message is an anti-class warfare one. The fact is that the spirit of the critics is hard left, and maybe that’s why Downton Abbey makes them so angry, because the success of the series shows that this group does not speak for America.

It also shows something equally important to the future of our culture: that there is no inherent need for good TV to be left of center. Stories sympathetic to virtue, preservation of property and admiration of nobility and of wealth can be told beautifully and to wide audiences, and I suspect they will be more and more in the future.



A choice example of government "investment"

And so do the taxpayers of Timmins:  A tourist attraction celebrating country-pop singer Shania Twain has officially become a $10-million money pit of taxpayer dollars.

The Shania Twain Centre in this northern Ontario community permanently closes its doors today, barely a dozen years after its grand opening, and will be demolished to become part of an open-pit gold mine.

You can't make stuff this up. It just wouldn't be believable. For those of you who are not up on their Ontario geography, the city of Timmins is located about seven and a half hours north of Toronto. It has a population of 43,165 and the current temperature is -34 celsius. I don't even want to know what the windchill is. The main industry is gold mining. The city's two most famous ex-residents are Myron Scholes (of Black-Scholes fame) and Shania Twain. In fairness it should be noted that Mr Scholes left Timmins at the age of ten to move to the bright lights of Hamilton. Shania left after graduating high school.

I'm guessing that's why Myron got the Nobel and Shania only got a Juno.

Apparently the city coughed up $5 million to build the Shania Twain Centre, while a provincial agency kicked in the rest. The Centre has run a $1 million loss over the last dozen years. The local authorities are blaming the closure of the centre on a lack of marketing and a failure of support from local residents. The centre never attracted more than 15,000 visitors in a given year. The property has now been sold to a mining concern for $5 million dollars.

So let's do some elementary math. There are 43,165 residents in Timmins. The original estimates were that 50,000 people a year would come to the Shania Twain Centre. So once everyone in town has visited the Centre once, why would they go back again? How many times can you gaze in awe at Shania's first guitar? How many people in Timmins like Shania Twain? This would mean that for the Centre to be a viable concern it would need to attract visitors from out of town.

To visit Timmins.

The nearest major towns are Kirkland Lake and Cochrane. The nearest major city is Sudbury. Recall that most people in southern Ontario consider Orillia to be the edge of civilization. Most Torontonians consider Steeles Avenue to be the edge of civilization. Who the hell is going to travel hundreds of miles to visit a museum about a country music singer? They do that for Elvis. But Elvis is Elvis and Graceland is in Memphis. Timmins is not Memphis. There are other things to do in Memphis. In Timmins it's the Shania Twain Centre and then it's the open pit gold mine.

There might be many laudable reasons to live in Timmins. There might be many very fine people in Timmins. But unless you intend on living in Timmins there isn't much of a reason to visit. At least Windsor has a casino. Sudbury has a huge nickel and a gigantic smoke stack. The business case for this cente was not well thought out.

I bring this story to your attention not to mock the good people of Timmins. At least not directly. Their political leadership has spent millions of dollars, which no doubt could have been better spent elsewhere, on a tourist attraction for a city that no sane tourist would willingly visit. Yes, I know Shania Twain is huge. But if Jesus had been born in Timmins I doubt the crowds would have been much larger. Say what you will, but at least Bethlehem is warm.

There is no private investment firm, excepting perhaps one seeking a massive tax write-off, which would invest $10 million in so ludicrous a project. Yet it seems, with something which for bureaucrats approaches insouciance, the provincial and municipal governments forked over a considerable fortune to build a musically themed white elephant. If government officials cannot figure out that Timmins is not a good tourist destination, what makes anyone think they're clever enough to run a health care system? Or a school system? Or a transit system?

Much of the Canadian economy is littered with white elephants and grossly inefficient public services. The Shania Twain Centre is a small fiasco in the larger disaster that is the modern Canadian state.



South Korea Unveils New Missile

South Korea staged large military training and disclosed that it has a new cruise missile capable of hitting any target in North Korea.

"The cruise missile being unveiled today is a precision-guided weapon that can identify and strike the window of the office of North Korea's leadership," ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok told reporters."

Comment: As they said on the 13th, the South Koreans wasted no time demonstrating that they are not technologically behind the North in weapons design and development. That is probably also true of nuclear weapons development. South Korea is not known to have an active  weapons program, but it operates 23 nuclear reactors at four power generating stations that produce about 30% of its electricity requirement. It also exports reactors. It certainly has the know-how or can find it quickly, should it need it.

As for the Hyunmoo, South Korean authorities first disclosed the existence of the Hyunmoo (Eagle) III series of cruise missiles in April 2012, after the failure of the first North Korean satellite launch in the Kim Jong Un era. Today they showed its versatility, with film clips of launches from a surface ship and a submarine.

Last April the South Korean defense sources indicated it had a range of 930 miles, which is more than enough to reach any installation in North Korea and some in China. The Hyunmoo III C reportedly has a range of 1,500 miles.

The claims of accuracy are not exaggerated. Some news reporters have called it a ballistic missile. South Korea has short-range ballistic missiles, but what it showed today is a cruise missile, "similar to the US Tomahawk," according to one description.




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