• Balancing Act

    IN HIS NOVEL ""1984,'' GEORGE ORWELL DEFINES ""doublethink'' as the ""power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.'' There was, in this sense, something deeply Orwellian about last week's orgy of self-congratulation over the balanced-budget agreement. President Bill Clinton hailed it as a ""historic'' moment ""when we have put America's fiscal house in order again.'' Republican Senate leader Trent Lott said the two parties ""rose above partisanship and politics.'' House Speaker Newt Gingrich announced a ""great victory for all Americans.'' All this cheering celebrated an agreement that actually delays a balanced budget. ...
  • Poisonous Symbolism

    OUR POLITICS INCREASINGLY SUBSIST ON SYMBOLISM. We argue furiously over policies that purport to advance ""family values'' or to suppress obscenity or to honor some group, when these policies - whether adopted or not - wouldn't affect most intended beneficiaries. These poisonous debates mainly encourage political breast-beating; each side flaunts its own moral superiority. Nowhere is this truer than in matters of race and ethnicity and, in particular, in affirmative action. Indeed, the debate on affirmative action is now almost completely disconnected from the facts. ...
  • Don't Hold Your Breath

    GLOBAL WARMING MAY OR MAY NOT BE THE GREAT environmental crisis of the next century, but - regardless of whether it is or isn't - we won't do much about it. We will (I am sure) argue ferociously over it and may even, as a nation, make some fairly solemn-sounding commitments to avoid it. But the more dramatic and meaningful these commitments seem, the less likely they are to be observed. Little will be done. I wouldn't stake my life on that, but I don't see how it could turn out otherwise. ...
  • The Limits Of The Law

    ONE OF OUR ENDURING NATIONAL ILLUSIONS IS THAT we can correct every injustice or social imperfection by passing a law. What we don't like we'll just make illegal. The impulse has inspired some disastrous social experiments. Remember Prohibition. But the impulse survives, and it has now brought us employment law: all the laws, regulations and court decisions that tell companies how to hire, fire, promote and supervise their workers. The enterprise exudes good intentions - and absurdities. ...
  • Please Do Not Disturb

    WE ARE NOW WITNESSING-- MOST RECENTLY France but also in the United States and elsewhere--the triumph of conservatism. This is or, of course, what you're hearing. "Europe has turned left,' says The Wall Street Journal, noting that 18 of 15 countries in the European Union now have leftish governments. In France, the socialists and communists have just slaughtered the center-right in parliamentary elections. In Britain, Labour defeated the Conservatives for the first time in a genera] election since 1979. The conventional wisdom has got the facts right; what's wrong is the interpretation. ...
  • Is Inflation Really Dead?

    I have a theory that inflation is not quite as dead as it seems, and now is as good a time as any to explain it. Just last week, the Federal Reserve declined to increase short-term interest rates - the standard weapon against rising inflation - because inflation doesn't, in fact, seem to be rising. For the year ended in April, the consumer price index was up a scant 2.5 percent. That was less than the increase for 1996 (3.3 percent) and identical with the 1995 increase. ...
  • Telephone Straddle

    THE FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION IS NOT A social-services agency, but you'd never know it from chairman Reed Hundt. He's an evangelist who's turned a drab subject - deregulation - into a religion. So Hundt was predictably bragging last week that the FCC's latest decrees under the Telecommunications Act of 1996 heralded a new era. The FCC has realized, he said, ""the impossible dream of connecting every single American to the Information Highway.'' It has also lowered long-distance rates for grandmothers and hastened the day of complete deregulation. Hallelujah. ...
  • The Culture Of Poverty

    EVERYONE INVOLVED IN "WELFARE REFORM" COULD usefully read "What Money Can't Buy" (Harvard University Press), a study by economist Susan Mayer of the University of Chicago. Its message is somber: as a society, we are fairly helpless to correct the worst problems of child poverty. This is not a new insight, but by confirming it, Mayer discredits much of the welfare debate's overwrought rhetoric. "Welfare reform" may raise or lower poverty a bit (we can't say which), but neither its supposed virtues nor its alleged vices are powerful enough to alter the status quo dramatically. ...
  • The Trouble With Steak

    WE DON'T EAT MUCH STEAK IN OUR HOUSE. IT shows up every couple of months. There's no complaint from our three children. I admit our eating habits aren't especially interesting. But they may be increasingly typical. We're a tiny part of a great national upheaval: the demise of steak. Time was when a thick steak symbolized our affluence and hardiness. Be American, eat steak. Welcome to John Wayne country. No more. ...
  • Clinton And The Cpi Mess

    WE COULD CONCEIVABLY GET PAST THE CONTROVERSY over the consumer price index (CPI) with some presidential leadership, but there's been none. Clinton has been absent, and the whole episode shows him at his worst. The man is a compulsive follower. He's a genius at sniffing the public mood--and then going with it. All politicians do this, but Clinton does little else. He seems incapable of leading public opinion and disguises his timidity with soaring rhetoric and strategic silences. ...
  • Crackpot Prophet

    WE ALL RECALL HOW MICHAEL JORDAN DID IN baseball. He bombed. He couldn't make it into the majors, let alone become a superstar. Even at the AA Birmingham Barons, he batted a miserable .202 (88 for 486, with 114 strikeouts). There's an insight here. Call it the Jordan principle: genius doesn't travel well. Applying the Jordan principle to George Soros--the fabulously successful investor who is among the world's wealthiest men-we find that getting rich doesn't make you an economic philosopher. In Soros's case, just the opposite: as a seer, he's a crackpot. ...
  • Not A New Cold War

    WE CANNOT REPLAY THE COLD WAR WITH CHINA. The cold war pitted two systems against each other. This contest of political ideas and economies suited the American psyche, which prefers to see countries as good or evil. The Soviets accommodated our moralism by barricading themselves from the world economy and democratic societies. The Chinese are not isolating themselves--just the opposite--or promoting an alternate global ""system.'' China may or may not ultimately threaten American interests. But it cannot be treated as a separate force that, somehow, will be ""contained.'' ...
  • The Joy Of Deregulation

    DEREGULATION IS ONE OF THOSE CLUMSY WORDS THAT have crept into our language in the past decade. Before that, only a tiny band of economists and academics used it. But now it's tossed about casually, because we've had so much of it. All sorts of industries have been ""deregulated.'' What are we to make of this? Well, plenty. We've had enough experience with it to draw some conclusions. And the main one is: it works. ...
  • Justice Among Generations

    THE BEST THING WE COULD DO WITH LAST WEEK'S report from the Advisory Council on Social Security is to forget it. The report brims with bad ideas from all along the political spectrum. None of the three proposals to invest vast amounts of Social Security funds (ultimately trillions of dollars) in the stock market is worth adopting. All would "nationalize" the stock market more than "privatizing" Social Security--with unpredictable and, possibly, damaging consequences. And all obscure the central issue posed by an aging America. It's generational justice: how much burden should the old place on the middle-aged and the young, whose taxes mainly pay for government retirement benefits?Sooner or later, cuts in Social Security and Medicare are unavoidable, because the alternatives--huge tax increases or peacetime budget deficits--are worse and probably politically unacceptable. In general, we know what to do: raise retirement ages, tax Social Security benefits fully, shift Medicare toward ...
  • Europe's New Nutty Money

    I HAVE ALWAYS AVOIDED WRITING ABOUT SOME SUBJECTS--despite their importance--because they seem technical and irrelevant to Americans. One of these has been Europe's plans to create a single currency (the Euro) by 1999. It's a lunatic idea but, to be honest, one that I thought would collapse of its own stupidity. Unfortunately, it hasn't, and so here goes. I write about it now not because it's bad for Europe (an old notion) but because it may also be bad for the United States and everyone else. ...
  • Imperfect Vision

    IT'S A MARK OF OUR PROGRESS AGAINST INFLATION THAT the greatest need now is measuring it. Once in double digits, it's so low that we're not sure what it is. The Boskin Commission--named after its chairman, Michael Boskin--brings us closer to a better reading. The commission of five economists says that the consumer price index (CPI) overstates inflation by 1.1 percentage points a year. The precise size of the overstatement is less important than the fact that it is large and persistent. It burdens the federal budget, distorts our economic record and creates uncertainty about the future. ...
  • Can Clinton Do A Nixon?

    IT MAY BE THAT SOCIAL SECURITY AND MEDICARE ARE TO Bill Clinton what China was to Richard Nixon: a chance to make a policy reversal that will be blessed by history. The analogy with Nixon is apt, because the political taboos that once applied to China now apply to Social Security and Medicare. Before Nixon visited Beijing in 1972, no one (least of all Democrats) could suggest talking to the Chinese without being branded a commie stooge. The old taboos vanished when Nixon, a rabid anti-communist, dined with Mao Zedong. People might still disagree on China, but at least there could be open debate. Disputes could be acknowledged and discussed. ...
  • The Spirit Of Adam Smith

    ADAM SMITH (1723-1790) IS A MAN FOR OUR TIME--OR ought to be. This is less because he championed free markets than because he cared about so much more than free markets. What concerned Smith was constructing a decent society. Free markets were only one means to that end. Government was another, and Smith constantly probed the proper roles for government and the market. Smith was long on wisdom, short on self-righteousness. We could use his spirit today, because we seem to have arrived at the opposite mix: surplus self-righteousness and scarce wisdom. ...
  • Sounds Great, Won't Work

    I AM ALL FOR PARENTING. WITH THREE CHILDREN (AGES 6, 9 and 11), homework, soccer games and car pools are the most important parts of my life. But my commitment to parenting stops well short of enthusiasm for the ""parental rights'' amendment now proposed for the Colorado state constitution. The amendment's architects regard it as a trial run. If it's approved in November, parental rights would go national in a big way. A recent poll shows voters favoring the amendment 54 to 26 percent. Too bad. ""Parental rights'' is a swell slogan, but it would make lousy social policy. ...
  • Roosevelt Romanticized

    WHY AREN'T MODERN PRESIDENTS MORE POPULAR? One reason is Franklin Roosevelt. We are now observing Roosevelt History Month, and FDR--the only man elected to the White House three times, let alone four--is being celebrated as the father of contemporary liberalism. This is true, though less so than popular wisdom holds. What Roosevelt actually created was the modern presidency. He set a performance standard that no one since has reached and, ironically, that Roosevelt himself did not attain. But compared with the Roosevelt myth, all his successors have suffered. ...
  • The Debate We Need ...

    THE DEBATE WE NEED ABOUT GOVERNMENT ISN'T happening, and the fault lies largely with Bob Dole. President Clinton is running a campaign of insults and not ideas (ugly commercials mixed with self-congratulation), but who can blame him? He's got the lead. Only Dole could inject intellectual vigor into the campaign, and he hasn't. Everything he says seems stale and disconnected. Last week he bemoaned the economy's sorry state in a speech to the Detroit Economic Club--and two days later the Census Bureau reported that household incomes jumped 2.7 percent in 1995. ...
  • Confederacy Of Dunces

    THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER BEGAN A 10-PART SERIES last week entitled ""America: Who Stole the Dream?,'' which will attract attention. The thesis is simple: Big Government and Big Business are relentlessly reducing living standards and job security for most Americans. The series, by Donald Barlett and James Steele, portrays living in America as a constant hell for all but the superwealthy. This seems overdrawn, because it is. It's junk journalism, and the intriguing question is why a reputable newspaper publishes it. ...
  • A Secret Agenda?

    BILL CLINTON'S LATEST SELF-APPOINTED ROLE IS AS America's futurologist. He's been telling us -- at the Democratic convention, in a new book and in interviews -- that he's building ""a bridge'' to the 21st century. To The Washington Post he brags that he's overseeing America's transition into a ""global economy and a global information age.'' He suggests that he deserves to be compared to Theodore Roosevelt, who tempered America's adjustment to industrialization a century ago. Does anyone believe all this presidential blab? ...
  • The Next Food Crisis?

    WE CAN SOMETIMES LEARN A GREAT DEAL FROM things that don't happen. The present farm situation is a case in point. For those who haven't been paying attention, corn and wheat prices are now near record levels and could go higher. Just last week, the Agriculture Department cut its estimate of the 1996 U.S. corn crop by 4.7 percent. We are already hearing warnings about a dangerous new spurt in retail food prices or, worse, the onset of a prolonged era of global food scarcity. I am skeptical that such a ""food crisis'' looms, and if these grim forecasts don't materialize, it will speak volumes about how the farm economy actually operates. ...
  • Memo To Dole: It's Not 1980

    BOB DOLE SEEMS CAUGHT IN A time warp, convinced he can re-create Ronald Reagan's first triumph. But this is not 1980, and Bill Clinton is not Jimmy Carter. In 1980, Americans did not vote for Reagan's promised tax cuts so much as they voted against Carter's double-digit inflation and his handling of the Iranian hostage crisis. People were frightened. In 1979 and 1980, prices routinely rose 1 percent a month. The ABC News election exit polls asked voters which ""one or two'' issues determined their choice. Inflation led at 38 percent (47 percent among Reagan voters); America's ""position in the world'' followed at 33 percent (Reagan voters: 45 percent). Tax cuts lagged badly at 12 percent (Reagan voters: 16 percent). ...
  • The Message From 1896?

    WE TAKE YOU BACK A CENTURY: A HUNDRED years ago, William Jennings Bryan delivered his ""cross of gold'' speech -- denouncing the gold standard -- at the Democratic National Convention and embarked upon what became a fateful political campaign. When it was over, not only had Bryan lost the presidency to William McKinley, but his defeat began nearly four decades of Republican domination. Until 1932 there was only one Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson, and Republicans controlled the Senate in all but six years and the House in all but eight. The election of 1896 triggered one of America's great political ""realignments.'' ...
  • Why America Creates Jobs

    HENRY STIMSON, THE U.S. SECRETARY OF WAR IN WORLD War II, once observed that a capitalist country going to war had ""better let business make money out of the process or business won't work.'' America followed that advice and won the war. Stimson's insight still applies in its peacetime version: modern capitalism won't work if markets aren't left fairly free. America abides by that axiom and, as a result, is a powerful job machine. Europe doesn't -- and is a puny job machine. The mystery is that so many economists can't understand this.The huge job gap between the United States and Europe is, of course, well known. From 1979 to 1995, Western Europe created less than one job for every two new workers: 10.3 million jobs for 21.5 million added workers. Unemployment jumped from 5.7 percent to 11 percent. Meanwhile, the United States created 26 million jobs, absorbing 95 percent of new workers. The unemployment rate -- though fluctuating over the business cycle -- hasn't drifted up. It...
  • Immigration And Poverty

    AS A NATION, WE ARE IMPORTING POVERTY. THAT IS the clearest consequence of the surge in immigration that began in the early 1970s. I do not say this to be alarmist or to advocate any type of immigration legislation. I say it merely to highlight an important truth that's usually overlooked in our political discussions of other social issues, ranging from poverty to the lack of health insurance. We deceive ourselves by discussing these matters as if immigration has had little effect on them.The silent assumption is that the population is static. If poverty hasn't declined, then something must be making it harder for people to escape poverty. If more people lack health insurance, then insurance must be much less available. If income inequality has risen, then something must be widening the gap between the ""haves'' and ""have-nots.'' But the population isn't static. Many people at the bottom are immigrants, and because they arrive poor, they instantly aggravate all these problems. They...
  • The Endless Road 'Crisis'

    EVEN BEFORE THE AUTO AGE, AMERICANS HAD A ""CRISIS.'' At the turn of the century, writes historian Bruce Seely, there were ""good road associations'' in 18 states plugging for improved highways. Little wonder. In 1896 only 7 percent of America's 2.1 million miles of roads were paved. But these agitators were mainly disgruntled bicyclists, not motorists. Given this tradition of grousing, no one should be surprised that this month's 40th anniversary of the Interstate Highway System is an odd mixture of celebration and complaint. Take it all with a boulder of salt.Almost everything we ""know'' about highways is warped. We've got environmentalists insisting that the highway lobby scarred the landscape with cement and suburban sprawl. Wrong. Then there's the highway lobby itself: that collection of road contractors, automakers, truckers, oil companies and the AAA. It sees the interstates as the best thing since the Ten Commandments but also asserts that highways are rapidly crumbling,...
  • Is There A Savings Gap?

    BY THE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM, WE AMERICANS ARE A slothful lot. We overconsume, undersave and underinvest. Compared with the frugal Germans and Japanese, we are ruinously self-indulgent. They invest; we shop at the mall. They build factories; we buy videogames. Legions of economists and their political patrons, across the political spectrum, have preached this gospel and promoted various ""pro-saving-and-investment'' plans as cures. Well, the sermon stinks: the ""savings gap'' is mostly make-believe. ...
  • Who Lost The Budget?

    LET'S TRY TO SETTLE THIS QUESTION BEFORE ELECTION rhetoric clouds judgments and confounds memories: who lost the balanced budget? Last fall, it seemed within grasp. Congress had passed a plan to reach balance by 2002. Though critical, President Clinton seemed to be edging toward a compromise. I thought (and wrote) that a deal would happen. It didn't. Who gets the blame? Actually, everyone. Here's how I apportion it: ...
  • Dole's Risky Opportunity

    ELECTIONS OUGHT TO ENGAGE THE ISSUES THAT shape our future. By that standard, the campaign of 1996 already looks like a bust. Everyone talks of balancing the budget and reducing government without mentioning spending for older Americanswhich is the decisive issue affecting the budget and government's size. America needs a new generational compact: one that recognizes that the elderly are healthier and wealthier than ever before and that government programs should be revised accordingly. Only Bob Dole can compel this critical debate, and he should. ...

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