Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Cruising the Web

Today is the two-hundred year anniversary of Jane Austen's death. She's enjoyed such a resurgence in popularity in our lifetimes that it's hard to remember how she lived and died in obscurity. Her life was a simple one with her friends and family. But, unfortunately, modern biographers are determined to turn her into a modern radical women's activist, as sort of literary Mary Wollstonecraft, even though she was nothing of the sort. Robert Garnett writes about this recent tendency among critics and biographers to create an entirely new Austen more to their political liking despite a total lack of evidence for their arguments.
Rather than betray alienation, her surviving correspondence—mostly to Cassandra—talks of fabrics, caps and pelisses (a type of woman’s cloak); social calls, dinners, and balls; the weather; her mother’s health; and people—often dozens of names. In her 30s, she remarked of a ball: “It was the same room in which we danced 15 years ago!—I thought it all over—& inspite of the shame of being so much older, felt with Thankfulness that I was quite as happy now as then.”

Austen’s assumptions were old-fashioned Tory, her political interests slight. Her novels dramatize not social ills, but individual failings: vanity, greed, pride, selfishness, arrogance, folly. For all her humor and wit, she was a rigorous moralist. Adult life demanded adult behavior: self-awareness, propriety, kindness, good sense. The admirable Colonel Brandon of “Sense and Sensibility” is described as “undoubtedly a sensible man, and in his manners perfectly the gentleman.” Listening to the chatter of a fatuous fop, the heroine Elinor “agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.”

Though making extended visits to London and living for several years in Bath and Southhampton, Austen, like her character Marianne Dashwood, “sighed for the air, the liberty, the quiet of the country.” Yet the world she knew—“three or four Families in a Country Village,” as she puts it in one letter—offered more than enough of human character, high and low, to constitute a moral microcosm. Urged to aim higher, to write a serious historical romance, she replied firmly: “No—I must keep to my own style & go on in my own way.”

That was enough for Austen, and for 200 years it has been enough for readers. But a book out this past May, “Jane Austen, the Secret Radical” reveals that her novels “deal with slavery, sexual abuse, land enclosure, evolution, and women’s rights.” The evidence? “I offer flashes of an imaginary Jane Austen,” the critic admits, “glimpses of what the authoress might have been thinking.”

What might she be thinking today of her rebirth as a discontented oracle bristling with progressive opinions? Out of politeness to the literary theorists, she might adapt a line she used on her sister. “I will not say that your Mulberry trees are dead,” she once told Cassandra, “but I am afraid they are not alive.”
The idea that a literary critic would brag about discussing "an imaginary Jane Austen" indicates how baseless her theory is. But why should that matter. She likes Austen's novels; she's a radical; ergo Austen must have been one also. Evidence can be imaginary since the theory itself is what matters. It resembles a lot of liberal policy proposals - the intent is good, therefore the policy is admirable - forget the unintended consequences of a hiked minimum wage, universal healthcare, or peace with Iran.

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It is so very disappointing that the GOP Senate couldn't come to a compromise on repealing and replacing Obamacare. It's just as we suspected when it was first passed - that it would be close to impossible to repeal an entitlement once people adapted to it. I just wish that these politicians would realize that the choice wasn't between the Senate bill and some Platonic ideal of a health reform package, but between the bill and maintaining the mess that Obamacare has made of our system. Too often people seem to make the perfect the enemy of the good. These senators voted in December 2015 to repeal and replace Obamacare when they knew it was a meaningless vote and Obama would veto it. Now that it is meaningful, they suddenly don't care as much. They had seven years to come up with a bill. Now they have to face voters and go all Emily Litella on their constituents.

Jim Geraghty covers
how predictable politics are these days. He really nails it.
At some point, either today or in the coming days, President Trump will tweet something that will shock and appall his critics, delight his fan base, and get re-tweeted tens of thousands of times. Trump will probably tweet out something is “sad!” or “Fake News” or “the lying media” or a particular media figure. Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski and their roundtable will shake their heads in consternation and stern disapproval. Scarborough will ask what happened to his party — er, his former party.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders or Sean Spicer will stand behind the lectern at the White House and repeat, over and over again, that she or he has not discussed that topic with the president yet. He or she will insist that the president’s tweet speaks for itself. White House correspondents will complain that they’re getting nothing useful or newsworthy out of these briefings. Then they will flip out at the suggestion that the briefings be ended or no longer be on camera....

House Intelligence Committee ranking member Adam Schiff (D., Calif.) will declare that the latest revelation is “deeply troubling,” “extremely important,” “very significant,” and “profoundly disturbing,” and that he will want that person — whoever is in the news — to testify before the committee.

There will be a rumor that Senate Republicans will be close to a deal on health care. And then there will be rumors that they don’t have the votes. And then there will be talk that with just a few more tweaks, they could reach 51 votes, and that it should be done before the shortened August recess. Or right after.

At some point, liberals will gather in large numbers to protest the president, the administration, congressional Republicans, and the existence of the Right in general. They will give heated, angry speeches about how all of this must end. They will cheer and chant. And then they will go home, and someone else will pick up the litter they leave behind.

Some liberal pundit you’ve either never heard of or barely ever heard of before will write something that appears to endorse violence against Trump, his family, GOP congressional leaders, or conservatives in general. The liberal pundit will insist they never meant that, and that it was only a joke or only sarcasm. Conservatives will scream for that person’s firing; liberals will insist that a controversial political statement should not cost someone their job. Then a few weeks later, a conservative figure will do the same and most people will instantly reverse their positions.

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A new report makes
the future of Social Security looks even worse than thought.
The new report projects the same bleak future for Social Security as last year's report did. As of 2034, Social Security's trust fund, which is already full only of IOUs, will even run out of theoretical money. At that point, under current law, benefits would be scaled back to match whatever annual amount is being paid in through Social Security payroll taxes. And that amount will be significantly less than what today's taxpayers are expecting for tomorrow. Over a longer time frame of 75 years, the program is on pace to come up $12.5 trillion short of what beneficiaries expect to be paid.

The 2034 deadline might seem far away, but it isn't. The longer Congress waits to act on this, the more painful the eventual fix, or the wrenching failure will be. If Congress were to act immediately to cover the gap, it would either have to increase the rate of the regressive payroll tax by 22 percent, or reduce everyone's benefits by 17 percent. Either way, the heaviest relative burdens would fall on the poor. In the case of an employment tax hike, it would also sharply reduce low-wage employment opportunities, given that the tax makes up a larger share of the employer's labor cost.

Meanwhile, each year that passes, tax hikes or benefit cuts needed to put the program on stable long-term footing become more and more harsh.
George W. Bush tried to do something about Social Security after he won in 2004, but he was shot down by both parties. Paul Ryan is willing to tackle it, but there isn't enough support across the board, including from Trump, do tackle this. We can have blue ribbon commission after commission make recommendations, but there aren't enough politicians with the moral courage to bite the bullet and do what needs to be done.

What a way to run a school district! New York City is requiring principals hire teachers who have been placed in the Absent Teacher Reserve or, as it's commonly called, the "rubber rooms," for teachers who have been put on leave, but couldn't be fired because of their union contracts.
Some teachers are there because their last school closed. But trained, licensed teachers in ATR can apply for vacant positions in 1,700 other public schools. If a teacher can’t find another job in such a large system, there’s probably a good reason principals don’t want him.

Three years ago schools Chancellor Carmen FariƱa vowed “there will be no forced placement of staff.” But now she would effectively mandate that schools take teachers they initially rejected. This includes teachers who end up in ATR because they drink too much, have abused students, or for some other misconduct that renders them unfit for the classroom.

The underlying problem is a tenure system that makes it all but impossible to fire teachers after they’ve spent four years on the job. Those suspended for misconduct continue to receive pay, pension contributions and benefits as disciplinary hearings stretch on and on, sometimes for years. Unions have the power each year to approve or reject the arbitrators who decide misconduct cases.

Under this rigged system, New York fired a mere 61 of its 78,000 teachers over a decade, the American Enterprise Institute found in 2014. Each teacher in ATR costs taxpayers about $100,000 a year, so no wonder many have declined the city’s $50,000 buyout offers.

The logical solution would be to make it easier to fire bad teachers, but Mayor Bill de Blasio is a wholly owned union subsidiary. Poor students will bear the real cost of his rubber-room rebound as their education suffers with a subpar teacher—or worse. No wonder tens of thousands of parents have put their children on waiting lists for charter schools that are free to hire and fire teachers on the merits, not by union diktat.
This is what happens when the teachers' unions have more sway in a school district than common sense or the good of the students. Forcing administrators to hire rejected teachers is more important than ensuring teacher quality in the classroom. I gave up tenure to teach at the charter school where I teach now. But one benefit of not having tenure is that, if a poor teacher is hired at my school, that teacher doesn't have tenure either and can be let go. Regular public schools don't have that flexibility.

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This is interesting. Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations has been looking into newly classified CIA documents to refute the commonly-held belief that the CIA during Eisenhower's administration were behind the coup that overthrew Iran's Mossadeq and stalled the shah. I know that that is what I had learned and what the textbooks all say. As Takeyh points out, modern Americans, particularly Democrats, have been apologizing for our role in the coup. The documents were just released and it seems that the US had a much more passive role than usually depicted.
Even before Western intelligence services devised plots against Mossadeq, his party the National Front started to crumble. The middle-class elements of the coalition, anxious about their declining economic fortunes, gradually looked for an alternative to the premier. The once-reliable intelligentsia and the professional classes were chafing under Mossadeq’s authoritarianism. A number of smaller political parties that had been associated with his movement were also contemplating their exit. Even more ominous, the armed forces, which had stayed quiet despite Mossadeq’s purges, grew vocal and began to participate in political intrigues.

Among Iran’s factions, the clergy would play the most curious role. As it has with most historical events, the Islamic Republic has whitewashed the role that the mullahs played in Mossadeq’s downfall....

As large landowners, the mullahs distrusted governments prone to carving out their property. As reactionaries, they disdained female equality in all its forms. And as guardians of tradition, they were averse to modernization of Iran’s educational sector.

Still, it was the mayhem on the streets rather than the National Front’s legislative goals that most disturbed the clerical class in the summer of 1953. They feared that continuing disorder would empower the Communist Tudeh party and might even lead to displacement of the monarchy by a radical leftist regime. The clerical oligarchs were comfortable with the deferential shah and soon began to shift their allegiances.
The new documents show that the clergy played a much bigger role than usually thought and the CIA only got involved once the anti-Mossadeq forces had already plotted a coup. The first attempt failed and a subsequent coup succeeded. Theodore Roosevelt's grandson Kermit Roosevelt was in Iran to oversee the plot and then wrote his memoirs and, apparently, exaggerated his own role.
That is the origin of the story that the CIA was responsible for overthrowing Mossadeq.
The purveyors of the traditional narrative of the coup chose to ignore all this and insist that despite the sour mood in Washington, Kermit Roosevelt persisted and eventually succeeded in overthrowing Mossadeq. This account is based largely on Roosevelt’s sensationalist book, Countercoup: The Struggle for Control of Iran. But the book is the product of Roosevelt’s exaggerated imagination and does much to embellish his role at the expense of describing the actual course of events. The fact is that the second—successful—coup was largely an Iranian initiative. The CIA station in Iran continued its reporting activities and was involved in disseminating the shah’s decree dismissing Mossadeq. But it is hardly a nefarious act to publicize a legal ruling by a monarch discharging his prime minister.
The released documents undermine a lot of Roosevelt's characterization of the coup. Read the whole story since you probably won't be seeing it in future histories of this period.

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I have been attending a workshop sponsored by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. It's been a very moving and depressing experience to learn about the tens of millions of people who suffered and died under communist regimes. The most moving moment was when they brought in Joseph Kim, a defector from North Korea to speak to us about his life. His TED talk about his experiences is below. His father died of starvation and his mother and sister had escaped into China where his mother had to sell his sister to a Chinese farmer to be married so she could survive. She came back to North Korea but was killed trying to cross the border again. That left Joseph as a 12-year old to live on the streets in North Korea begging and stealing food for four years. Then he decided to try to escape and succeeded in getting to China where he had to hide out for several months because China would send North Korean refugees back where they would assuredly be killed or sentence to a labor camp. But he found American missionaries in China who arranged for him to become a refugee to America where he was taken in by a foster family. He didn't know English and had only had a few years of elementary education in North Korea. But he worked hard to learn and went to college and is now in graduate school studying ethics and philosophy.

We hear about the conditions in North Korea, but hearing Joseph's experiences really personalized the everything and brought home what it means for children and families. It really made us all sense how extremely lucky we are here in this country.