Wednesday, January 26, 2011

the king's speech

From today's NY Times and Phila Inquirer you would think Barack Obama had reinvented himself as the "competitiveness" President, the Republicans were angry and divided, and the election was all but forgotten. Nice try, no cigar.

The speech was part of the emerging Democratic strategy for negating the elections and hoping to continue on essentially the same path with minor modifications. The strategy has two parts: (i) cast the Republicans as extremists who are unfit to govern despite their victory, and (ii) recast large-scale deficit spending as an "investment" in the future that only naysayers would oppose. Neither of these has much substance--extremism is a matter of perception and (as tax lawyers know well) almost any expenditure can be recast as an investment--but it has a nice sound to it and offers some hope for recasting the terms, if not the substance, of the debate.

Will it work? In the short term it might: people seem to recoil from dominance by either party (that's probably why Obama's numbers are up) and the demise of Pelosi et al. gives the President more room for maneuver. But in the long run it seems less promising.

Obama's basic problem is not so much the election as that his entire program runs counter to what other Governments (including both states and foreign countries) are doing and what most Americans seem to want. As Rep. Paul Ryan noted in the Republican response, Obama has taken a Government plagued by entitlement-created deficits and created . . . a new entitlement and larger deficits. This simply doesn't make sense to most people, and it's doubtful even the most clever repackaging can change that. He could still get reelected, and even be popular, as a counterweight in a conservative age (see Dwight Eisenhower, Bill Clinton, et al.) But the basic ideological direction of his Administration has been discredited, and that's a hard thing for any speech, however well delivered, to correct for.

Addendum: Time Magazine added to the Obama-hype this week by pairing him on the cover with Ronald Reagan, with whom it said he shared many things, like that they both lived in LA for a couple of years (I'm not making this up). Maybe next week they'll have an article comparing Mubarak with Nasser or Sadat. At least he met them.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

of tiger mothers and not-so-tiger law schools

I'm probably the only blogger who hasn't commented on Amy Chua's book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." Since the book appears to be aimed at a pop rather than academic audience, perhaps it's better that way. But as a lawprof I can't resist a couple of observations. Here goes:

1. What exactly is Amy Chua doing on the Yale faculty? Her online CV shows three books, all with nonacademic publishers, and a handful of articles. One book before Tiger Mother, Worlds on Fire, argued that market capitalism was responsible for spreading racial tension in the world, an argument I would have thought was dead and buried in the 1940s. Could it be that a bit of jealousy for her, well, more substantial colleagues is part of the motive for this latest project?

2. Why would a mixed Chinese-Jewish family want their kids to be raised, culturally speaking, as Chinese? Jews have a fraction of one percent of the world's population and have produced a vastly disproportionate percentage of the world's leading intellectuals. China has one quarter and has produced a dictatorship that fires on its own people. They've also produced an exquisite 3,000-year old culture, of course; but Chua's dictatorial approach represents precisely the worst of their national traditions.

3. Back to Yale--every month seems to bring a new departing faculty member, and the school is slowly but surely squandering its number one rating. Maybe the fact that a substantial portion of its faculty is writing novels, parenting books, etc. instead of serious scholarship has something to do with that?

I don't doubt that many American parents are overly permissive, and Chua's book may prove a needed antidote. And, like other ethnic groups before them, Asian parents have a right to produce neurotic kids who will then overcompensate by spoiling their grandchildren. But they shouldn't mistake immigrant insecurity for national culture, nor claim academic standing for what is essentially popular nonsense.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

rome, arizona, and the spectre of decline

I have never been a declinist, i.e., one who thinks the U.S. is going to pot and we will soon be involuntarily speaking Chinese, Hindi, or whatever the flavor of the decade happens to be. I have seen the country's doom prophesied too many times to take it entirely seriously. Still, a couple of recent events have me thinking, and not necessarily in an optimistic way.

The first is the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, which somehow didn't kill her (this is why people believe in miracles) but did kill several others and left her within an inch of her life. When the event happened, I honestly thought people would take stock for a moment and think about where the country was headed. Instead, after perhaps 72 hours of silence, everyone seems to be using it to reinforce whatever they believed before. I'm not sure which is worse here: the left's rather crude attempt to use it for political purposes (there's not very much evidence the gunman knew or cared about politics) or the right's effort to deny that the tone of, ahem, discourse in the country might not be setting the best example for people who are violent or deranged in the first place. The point is that everyone, or almost everyone, seems to be responding with preconceived notions rather than pausing to reflect: not an encouraging sign.

The second, albeit rather more trivial event--also taking place in Arizona--was last night's BCS Football "Championship" game between Auburn and Oregon (Auburn won 22-19). While the game was exciting at times, it was also sloppily played (reflecting the month or so layoff between the regular season and the overhyped contest); characterized by repeated examples of poor sportsmanship (one Auburn defender made a habit of late hits, which even the announcers couldn't avoid noticing, and a key play involved an Auburn runner continuing to run when the Oregon defenders and everyone else in the stadium assumed the play was over); and interrupted by so many commercials that only with the greatest of difficulty was I able to avoid falling asleep. The game itself was intentionally made available to ten million or more fewer households than in the past, because the shameless plugging and other tie-ins available on ESPN meant more money for the BCS (and ESPN itself) than a traditional network. All this, of course, is subsidized by the taxpayers through the tax exemption for the participating universities and the bowls themselves, although a public interest group is currently challenging the exemption.

I recently got back from Italy, a place where a well-known empire declined, in part, because its sports deteriorated into spectacles [ital. spettacoli] and its politics into violent extremism (there's another Italian word, polemica, which captures the entertaining but largely insubstantial discourse that Italian politics has long been and American politics is becoming). There are a lot of things the United States could learn from Italy: good food, good wine, a slower and more enjoyable pace of life. Unfortunately, it seems to be learning all the wrong lessons.