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May 2005

In response to the hundreds of--O.K., O.K., one or two--questions I've received about my increasing crankiness toward Liberals, allow me to offer this anecdote.

On Saturday I attended the high school graduation of my younger daughter. There were a half dozen student speakers, all of whom were mercifully brief, and most of whom were entertaining, even. But the featured speaker, the commencement speaker if high school graduations have such, was a former teacher at the school, now pursuing a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies.

He declared, "It's almost a cliche, but each generation is supposed to leave the world better." He then paused dramatically, grinned, and remarked that his generation had failed to do this because "the wheels came off around 1980". He then almost yelled, "But you can fix this. Heck, as long as you don't take pictures of yourselves next to naked prisoners, you'll do much better."

This was a high school graduation ceremony. But apparently our Renaissance scholar found it just another opportunity to demonstrate the Liberal tendency to be smug, arrogant, and rude.

I wish the noted philosopher Eric J. Cartman had been there. He would have known what to say.

Robert J. Samuelson argues against undue economic pessimism in "Sputnik Scare, Updated":

Every complex economy is more (or less) than the sum of its parts. What matters is not just how much we save -- but how well we invest. . . .

The Sputnik syndrome is an illusion. It transforms a few selective economic happenings -- a satellite here, a Toyota there, poor test scores everywhere -- into a full-blown theory of economic inferiority or superiority. As often as not, the result is misleading. We are now going through this process with China and India. Their entry into the global economy is a big deal, with some obvious pluses and minuses for us. As they get richer, some of their talent that once came our way may stay home (especially if we make getting U.S. visas harder). On the other hand, good ideas that originate in Bangalore or Shanghai will soon benefit people everywhere -- just as good American or Japanese ideas have before. . . .

On being overtaken, history teaches another lesson. America's economic strengths lie in qualities that are hard to distill into simple statistics or trends. We've maintained beliefs and practices that compensate for our weaknesses, including ambitiousness; openness to change (even unpleasant change); competition; hard work; and a willingness to take and reward risks. If we lose this magic combination, it won't be China's fault.

Matt Miller, author of the Two Percent Solution, argues in a New York Times op-ed that all would be well in K-12 education if we doubled the pay of teachers in poor schools. It would be a significant understatement to say that I'm skeptical about such a plan. But this was funny:

And there are environmental benefits, too; if a young couple thinks they could jointly earn $250,000 as teachers, we may well end up with two fewer lawyers!

A bit on the politics of Wal-Mart.

If the attacks on Wal-Mart sound a bit familiar, they should. The same unions orchestrated similar campaigns against Publix Super Markets when the Lakeland chain challenged union grocers in Atlanta, and Food Lion Inc. when it moved into a union market in Washington, D.C.

Partha Dasgupta applies some economics to Jared Diamond's new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. The result is not pretty:

The more important reason why Diamond’s rhetoric doesn’t play well any longer is that it presents only one side of the balance-sheet: it ignores the human benefits that accompany environmental damage.

Victor Davis Hanson applies some history. The result is not pretty:

Diamond’s natural determinism and condemnation of the West’s pathological means of exploitation are nothing new, but represent a synthesis of the previous pessimisms from Marx and Toynbee to Paul Ehrlich and Kirkpatrick Sale. Most scholars, however, would accept the notion that societies like those of the Egyptians, Romans, Aztecs, or Ottomans — civilizations that, unlike those of Diamond’s tiny settlements at Pitcairn Island or Vineland, had millions of inhabitants — at some period in their growth, evolution, and maturity inevitably declined; whether abrupt or insidious, such breakdowns were largely due to government overcentralization and rigid bureaucracy, affluence and leisure among a bored elite, high taxation, and depopulation in the countryside — all of which made rulers insensitive to change and unable to react rapidly to the radically new stimuli of invasion, novel religions, internal dissent, and, yes, occasional natural challenge.

In contrast to this broad historical picture, most of Diamond’s examples are slanted: They involve fragile, mostly isolated or island landscapes that witnessed colonists, renegades, or adventurers who sought in their greed or ignorance to put too many people in the wrong place.