»  Radio Derb — Transcript

        Friday, February 4, 2011

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[Music clip: From Haydn's Derbyshire Marches]

01 — Intro.     And Radio Derb is on the air. This is your Pharaohnically genial host John Derbyshire with all the news of the hour.

Just a shout-out first of all to the innumerable listeners keen to know how my research assistants Mandy, Candy, and Brandy are getting on over there in Turkmenistan. Very well, so far as I can judge. I had a phone call from Mandy the other day, which, with of course her permission, I recorded. Here's what she had to tell me. [Bimbo talk] … That's great, Mandy, thank you very much. I can see that our dear friend President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is taking good care of you all.

OK, vesti la giubba. What's been happening in the world this week?

02 — Egypt between dictatorships.     A half century of reading news and commentary about the Arabs, supplemented by some books like my colleague David Pryce-Jones' excellent book The Closed Circle, has left me with two very strong impressions. One: a rational, orderly, and fair system of government is beyond Arab capabilities. And two: They are the all-time world champions at blaming other people for their problems.

A little history here. So the Ottomans pulled out, the British and French moved in, the Saudis got their own show going, then along came World War Two to stir the pot. The Europeans pulled out, the Jews set up Israel, the Arabs set up kings. Everybody's favorite Arab king was Farouk of Egypt, who was deposed in 1952 and spent the rest of his life, as in fact he'd mainly spent his kingship, cruising up and down the French Riviera chasing girls, putting on weight, and dropping small fortunes at casinos. Farouk died of a heart attack in a pricey Rome restaurant just after finishing dinner — oysters and lamb chops. At his side was a pretty blonde young enough to be his daughter. He was buried in Italy — a nice bit of historical symmetry, as Italy's last king had died and been buried in Alexandria a few years previously.

But I digress. Several of the kings were chased out or murdered. The last king of Iraq, Faisal II, was machine-gunned to death with his family and several of their servants in the courtyard of his palace. His Prime Minister was torn to pieces in public and his remains dragged through the streets of Baghdad to cheering crowds.

By the late 20th century only Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states still had monarchs. The other Arabs were ruled by autocrats of various degrees of brutishness: Saddam, Assad, Mubarak, Gaddafi, Saleh, Nimeiry, and the rest. That's excepting the poor Lebanese, who weren't ruled by anyone much at all.

The U.S.A. had interests in the region. We wanted to keep the oil flowing. We didn't want to see Israel annihilated. We worked with who we found, bribing as necessary. To the Arab in the street this looked like, quote, "the U.S.A. colluding with the Jews to prop up corrupt dictators." Hey, pal: if you'd gotten yourself some non-corrupt non-dictators, we'd have been happy to work with them.

The Arabs really do seem to have a genius for blaming their troubles on other people, though. Now they're going through another cycle of revolt, turning in frustration on those corrupt dictators, those stoolpigeons of the Jews and the Americans, still without any foundation of experience, or even understanding, of what consensual government means or how it operates. They are now probably further from it than ever, having since the 1950s acquired unsustainably large populations and depleted their natural resources.

Liberal democracy is not a possible outcome of these ructions in Egypt. Here's a punter's book on what are possible outcomes, with, since I'm feeling generous, no over for the bookie.

  • Evens: an Iran-Gaza outcome, i.e. religious fanatics take over the place and start arming up for a war against the Jews.
  • Two to one: regime survival: the Mubarak regime, with or without Mubarak, survives the crisis, supported by (a) the common people's desire for a restoration of order under any conditions, (b) the military's desire to continue living the harlot's life — power without responsibility — on U.S. subsidies, and (c) backing from key international playahs, notably the Saudis, the Europeans, and of course us.
  • Five to one: a military coup, some bright young officer in the Nasser-Gaddafi-Saddam mould sweeping away the old order and starting a new cycle of gangster-dictatorship.

From America's point of view there are pros and cons to each.

The big pro of an Iran-Gaza outcome would be we'd no longer be on the hook for the two billion dollar annual bribe we pay Mubarak to behave himself. The con is of course another crazy wild-card actor in the Mideast.

The pro of regime survival is we wouldn't have to think about the stinking place for another decade or two; the con is, they'd want a big cost-of-living adjustment on that annual bribe, which of course we'd have to borrow from the ChiComs.

The pro of a military coup is that the military is the least religious and most bribable faction in Egypt and has the ethos and the means to impose order; the con is that the cost-of-living adjustment in the bribe we pay them will be twice as big again.

So on balance I'm for regime survival, even at only two to one odds. Go Hosni!

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03 — Yale or jail.     Readers of that immortal classic We Are Doomed will recall the phrase "Yale or Jail" from the chapter on education.

The idea is that every citizen must go to college, get a degree, and become a lawyer or accountant or nuclear physicist or captain of industry. It goes without saying that every citizen is equally capable of this achievement, once we fix the schools, which we shall do any day now.

Those who for some reason do not follow this path will go to jail. Yale or jail, see?

Well, here's a news story from the Washington Post, February 2nd, headline: Why does Fresno have thousands of job openings — and high unemployment? Sample text, quote:

Unemployment hovers at 16.9 percent, but managers at the 7,000-employee Community Medical Centers say they cannot find enough qualified technicians, therapists, or even custodians willing and able to work with medical waste.

End quote. It's the same with any kind of specialized work that requires some skill or technical training. Here's a guy, Claud C. Laval III, who runs a company making filters for a multitude of purposes. As Mr. The Third says, quote: "There are a lot of people with solids in their liquids." Which I guess is … true. Here's what the Washington Post tells us about Mr. The Third's business, quote:

Finding the people he needs — first-rate welders and workers comfortable running computer-controlled equipment — is a constant challenge, he said. "Getting well-qualified, smart people who want to work in an industrial environment is not easy," he said.

End quote. One more example from the Post story: Bob Armey, president of a firm that works on specialty items such as crankshafts, textile rolls and food-processing equipment. Mr. Armey says he can barely find machinists who know how to handle manual machines. When he does, he said, quote:

They have a job making $20 an hour, with health care and pension.

So … 16.9 percent unemployment in Fresno, and no-one knows how to work in a machine shop. Hey, no problem: send 'em all to college to get degrees in Chicana Studies and Queer Legal Theory. That'll soon have the economy humming again. And to juice it up even more, open the border & let a few thousand more Mexican grade-school dropouts in. Just till we fix the schools, you understand. Which will happen real soon, any day now.

04 — Government work from the inside.     Radio Derb reads the blogs so you don't have to. A fair majority of blogs are off-the-wall quirky; and the majority of quirky blogs are silly or certifiably crazy.

There's a select group of blogs, however, that are quirky yet profound. Head of that little cohort is Mencius Moldbug, whose blog is titled Unqualified Reservations, subtitle Reactionary Enlightenment. You can see why I like Mencius Moldbug. "Reactionary Enlightenment" is precisely what we try to bring you here at Radio Derb.

Mencius Moldbug doesn't post often, and some of his posts are just links to kindred spirits, but he's always worth checking. Thursday this week he posted a link to a kindred spirit I'd never heard of before, a blog titled Foseti, F-O-S-E-T-I, whose proprietor is an employee of the federal government in some financial regulatory agency.

Foseti posted, in a question-&-answer format, what it's like to work for the feds. It's good inside stuff, with a very believable balance of positives and negatives.

Sample question:

On a scale of "better than I hoped" to "worse than I imagined," exactly how bad is the bureaucracy — from the other side?

Foseti's answer, quote:

In some ways it's better than I hoped. For example, there are lots of very intelligent and hard-working bureaucrats. A career with the government is the only remaining way to achieve a stable middle to upper-middle class existence in the US. Lots of bureaucrats are happy to trade hard work for great benefits.

In other ways, it's worse than I imagined. For example, it's one thing "to know" that bureaucrats can't be fired. It's a totally different thing to really understand what this means in a work environment. The change in dynamic in the workplace is incredible. I have colleagues who do no work at all for weeks at a time and everyone knows it.

Some other quotes taken at random from Foseti's answers. Quote on who runs the government:

I'm suggesting that the bureaucracy runs the show. You might take that to be a bad thing. But, it's important to remember that it's far superior to the alternative. We would really be screwed if Congress was actually running the show.

Quote on accountability:

If someone really really screws up, they will not be given any new work. That's about the extent of accountability.

Quote on the government work ethic:

With few exceptions outside of the ranks of management though, the office is generally cleared out at 5 o'clock.

Quote, on whether progressive values are dominant:

Not as much at the financial agencies — everyone has to understand economics, after all. But still, the answer is basically "yes."

In short, listener, if you didn't want to get a government job before, you'll be mailing in for the application forms after reading that Foseti post, F-O-S-E-T-I dot Wordpress dot com, the February 2nd post. These are our masters.

05 — Arizona-type state laws meet collapsing state finances.     Radio Derb's been crowing this past few weeks about the flood of new proposals and bills in state legislatures on voter I.D., Arizona-style immigration enforcement, birthright citizenship, and allied topics.

Time for a little dash of cold pessimism. News item from The Oklahoman, February 2nd. Headline: Copying Arizona not working for many states. Sample quote:

Lawmakers … might want to see how copying Arizona's law has worked out for other states. The short answer: not very well.

A major reason for this is money — most states are hurting, badly, as a result of the recession and thus have no way to pay for the changes that Arizona-style immigration reform would mandate, such as having police become much more involved in enforcing immigration laws. Oklahoma's treasury is certainly hurting, with a budget deficit of about $600 million forecast for the next fiscal year.

End quote. The moral of the story here is that our nation's debt problems, and the states' debt problems, are increasingly driving policy. Conservatives tend to smile at this. For years we've been urging our legislatures to "starve the beast." Increasingly, as debt issues choke off funding options, they have no choice but to starve the beast.

There's still some leeway on which parts of the beast to starve first, though. The ethnic lobbies and cheap-labor lobbies have up to now based their opposition to immigration law enforcement on arguments from sentimentality and political correctness: "nation of immigrants" and "nativism" have been their key vocabulary items. As awareness of the debt crisis spreads, they have a new arrow in their quiver: "We can't afford it!"

Public policy in an age of dwindling public revenues is naturally going to be a matter of priorities. I'd say that enforcement of our laws and defense of our national sovereignty should be high on the priority list. Unfortunately I don't control any state legislatures …

06 — Public sector pensions.     New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, of all people, is leading a big push against extravagant pensions for city employees. I say "of all people" because, in his nine years on the job, Bloomberg hasn't exactly taken an iron-fist approach to public-sector pay and pensions boondoggles. Matter of fact, during those nine years, city pension costs have risen from 1.5 billion to 8.3 billion — a rise of 453 percent. Not only has that not been an iron fist, it's not even been an aluminum fist. More of a jell-o fist, really.

Like other state and city executives, though, Bloomie's looking into a fiscal pit a mile deep and struggling to find some way to prevent the city falling into it.

If it was just people like sanitation workers and subway motormen we were dealing with here, Bloomberg's job would be easier — though not much easier, and more about that in a moment. But the army of public-sector employees arrayed against him has some elite units: police, firefighters, and prison officers, with high levels of public affection.

The population generally, and conservatives more than most, have warm feelings for these uniformed employees — people who put their lives on the line in the name of social order and public safety. In New York City this has been especially the case since the heroism and the terrible losses that ensued from the 9/11 attacks. There's a lot of sympathy here, and I share it.

But then, look at some of the benefits these services enjoy.

  • Disability pensions that are tax-free, with "disability" very loosely defined.
  • Lots of generous overtime pay; and the ability to boost your retirement pension massively by putting in overtime in your last year or so of emplyment.
  • Full pension on retirement after 20 years service, i.e. in your early forties.

Outside the ranks of high-flying investment bankers, there's nothing remotely like that available in the private sector, even for dangerous jobs in areas like logging, construction, mining, and deep-sea fishing. Much as we may love our cops and firefighters, a lot of us think that our love should have an element of tough love in it. Nobody has to be a uniformed city worker.

What are Bloomberg's chances of getting some concessions here? I'd say not good. Here's my basis for saying that. I ride the Long Island Railroad into the city & back. It's just a commuter railroad: these employees are not required to rush into burning buildings or face down armed robbers. Do you know what proportion of railroad employees retire as disabled — including paper-pushers in the back offices? Ninety-seven percent. This was uncovered two years ago by the New York Times in a report that caused a big stir out here on the Island.

So what's happened in the last two years? Nothing, nada, zip, zilch, nothing. Nothing will happen. We've had politicians here on Long Island running on a platform to reform these abuses. Those politicians got wiped out at election time — slandered, vilified, shouted down, and out-funded by the public-employee unions, who back each other up.

That's just railroad employees. They don't even have the kind of emotional connection with voters that cops and firefighters have; yet they can crush opposition easily.

So what chance does Bloomberg have scaling back the privileges of New York uniformed employees? None whatsoever, is my guess. The private-sector workers of New York will be living in tents and eating the bark off the trees in Central Park before city workers yield one inch on reform of their benefits.

07 — Sudan referendum.     So: does the South want to secede? Should they be allowed to?

No, this is not a replay of American history. This is the Sudan — a big ol' African country just south of — hey, whaddya know? — Egypt. Arab Muslims in the North, black-African Christians in the South, civil war been going on sporadically since the 1950s, millions of dead and displaced persons. As Radio Derb reported last week, even George Clooney thinks it's time to call it a day on the notion of these two peoples living together in one nation.

So we've been having this referendum in South Sudan on whether to secede, this referendum being one of the conditions in a peace deal stitched up five years ago by various international organizations. The referendum lasted all through the second week of January. An official result is due next week, but there's not much doubt the vote was overwhelming for secession.

So there's a new country being added to the U.N. roster shortly. What are they going to call it, though? Several names have been proposed: the Nile Republic, Azania — that should get a smile from Evelyn Waugh fans — the Kush Republic, and Juwama have been considered. Nobody seems to favor "Confederate States," I guess that's been ruled out. Most of the inhabitants seem to favor just calling it "South Sudan," which seems pretty boring to me; but perhaps these folk have had enough of "ineresting times" … Who could blame them?

08 — Obamacare in limbo.     Whither Obamacare? Opponents of the law scored a huge victory this Monday when federal district judge Roger Vinson struck down the individual mandate — that is, the part of the law that says you have to buy health insurance. Judge Vinson also ruled that the mandate is not "severable," which means that if it is unconstitutional, then so is the whole two thousand page shebang.

Setting aside the particular issue of health care, Judge Vinson's ruling is a welcome blow against the carefree use of the Commerce Clause to justify any and all federal legislative action, however intrusive. Here is the Commerce Clause as written, actually Article I, Section 8, Clause 3 of the U.S. constitution. Section 8 opens with the words "The Congress shall have Power." and follows with a bunch of clauses to do this, to do that, to do the other. The third clause reads, quote:

To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes;

What does "interstate commerce" mean, though? If National Review is paying me to broadcast to you using a microphone I purchased in another state, is National Review engaging in interstate commerce? Clearly there's a feast here for legal hair-splitters. More to the point, who gets to decide — the legislature, or the judiciary?

After Franklin Roosevelt's intimidation of the Supreme Court, the power to decide Commerce Clause issues was mostly yielded to Congress. That went on through to the 1990s, when the Rehnquist Court started to push back. The key moment was United States vs. Lopez in 1995, when the Supremes struck down a 1990 law prohibiting firearms in schools, outside certain conditions. However undesirable firearms in schools might be, said the court, they had nothing to do with interstate commerce.

Judge Vinson's ruling is in the same excellent tradition. It's not just a judicial pushback against abuse of the Commerce Clause, either: it's also a pushback by states against federal power, just as that afore-mentioned flood of state bills on immigration and voter I.D. issues is a pushback against federal inaction on important issues.

There may be more to come. States are desperate to cut what they can from their expenditures, and one huge item is Medicaid. My own state, New York, is looking at a ten billion dollar budget shortfall this year, and it's hard not to notice that Medicaid is over a quarter of state expenditures — 27½ percent. (The national average is 22 percent.)

A lot of that comes from federal aid, to be sure; but a lot doesn't, and there's no sign of any increases in federal aid on the horizon. What there is a sign of, right there in the Obamacare package, is new mandates on states that will send their Medicaid bills soaring.

To cut Medicaid costs, the states have to tighten up on eligibility requirements; but Obamacare loosens them. Once it goes into full effect in 2014, everyone making less than 133 percent of the federal poverty level will be eligible for Medicaid relief. There is no way the states can afford this, and no way the feds will be able to afford to help them afford it. It's not going to happen.

Bottom line: Obamacare is not going to happen. Obama can swing away all he likes, but his signature social program will end up either in the judicial rough or the fiscal sand-trap.

09 — Miscellany.     Time now for our closing miscellany of brief items.

Item:  One of the more deplorable characteristics of the age we live in is the endless seeking of reasons to take offense, an urge that now afflicts all nations and classes and political factions. I should really get in on this while it dominates the zeitgeist, but I just don't have the gene. I'm hardly ever offended by anything. If someone tells me I'm an ugly, low-class, opinionated jerk with bad teeth, my natural reaction is to murmur: "Well, you may be right," and book an appointment with my dentist. Everybody else seems to thrill at the prospect of taking indignant offense at something or other. Here, for example, is the government of Mexico complaining about a British TV show, Top Gear, where celebrities discuss automobiles. Reviewing a Mexican car, the Mastretta, one of the show's presenters opined that, quote, "Mexican cars are just going to be lazy, feckless, flatulent, overweight, leaning against a fence asleep looking at a cactus with a blanket with a hole in the middle on as a coat," end quote. He went on to describe Mexican food as re-fried vomit, and then said he didn't anticipate any complaints from the Mexican embassy since the ambassador was most likely asleep. OMG! To date there have been diplomatic exchanges, questions in Parliament, a formal apology by the BBC to the Mexican ambassador, a possible censure motion in the Mexican Senate, boycotts and demonstrations. For crying out loud, the man was only making a joke. When did everyone get so touchy? I'm glad to report, though, that at the time of going on air here, it looks as though war between Britain and Mexico can probably be averted. I leave you to ponder by yourselves the audacity of a British comedian making jokes about other countries' food.

Item:  Did I mention flatulence there? Everybody's favorite news story of the week was the one from Malawi — you know, the African nation where Madonna goes for her fashion accessories — that the government there wants to make it illegal to break wind in public. Not just in elevators, mind — you could understand that — but in any public place. President Bingu wa Mutharika wants his courts to, quote, "mould responsible and disciplined citizens," and I guess passing gas is iresponsible and undisciplined. I dunno, Mr. President. "Better an empty house than a bad guest," was the rule I was taught. In any case, there are going to be grave evidentiary problems here. Everyone knows the difficulty of identifying a culprit with this particular transgression. In my house it's usually the dog. Well, let's hope this kind of legislation is just a passing fad. [Groan]

Item:  Back in August 2008 we reported on work at the University of Berkeley towards invisibility — bending light around objects so that they disappear. Well, the Brits have taken up the challenge. Here's a report from the University of Birmingham over there, that they've created a special light-refracting mineral that does the trick, though so far the biggest thing they've been able to make disappear is a paper clip. That strikes me as pretty unimpressive. My living-room is made entirely of material that can make a TV remote disappear.

Item:  Back to Egypt for a moment. Remember "stuff happens"? That was Donald Rumsfeld commenting on the disorder that followed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003. A key feature of that disorder was the looting of precious antiquities from Iraqi museums. I wrote a column about it, arguing that it was on balance a good thing, as the looted items would end up in the West where they'd be much safer. That got me screeched at by the likes of Keith Olbermann and Andrew Sullivan, but I still think I was right. The episode came to mind this week with these reports of attempts to loot Egyptian museums. Let 'em loot, I say: those precious antiquities, after passing through a few hands and a few benjamins being exchanged, will end up in some much safer place under much better care. OK, I'm heading to my bunker now.

10 — Signoff.     There we are, ladies and gents. The kids are filling sandbags, the wife is carrying cartons of canned food into the shelter, and we'll be incommunicado for a few days until the shrieking dies down. I should be able to surface in time for next week's Radio Derb, though, so keep your iPod tuned to this dial … if that's what iPods do. Here's a guy down in Fresno trying to find a job appropriate to his abilities.

[Music clip: Amateur cover of Jim Croce's Workin' at the Car Wash Blues]