Bruce Thornton

Bruce Thornton

Bruce S. Thornton grew up on a cattle ranch in Fresno County, California. He received his BA in Latin from UCLA in 1975 and his PhD in comparative literature: Greek, Latin, and English from UCLA in 1983. Thornton is currently a professor of classics and humanities at the California State University in Fresno, California. He is the author of eight books and numerous essays and reviews on Greek culture and civilization and their influence on Western civilization. He has also written on contemporary political and educational issues, as well as lecturing at venues such as the Smithsonian Institute, the Army War College, and the Air Force Academy and appearing on television, including on the History Channel and ABC’s Politically Incorrect. His latest book, forthcoming in 2010, is The Anatomy of Appeasement. From Ancient Greece to the War on Terror.

Defund the U.N.

Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has introduced in the House of Representatives the U.N. Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act. The purpose of this legislation is to allow the United States—which pays 22 percent of the U.N.’s core budget, and 25 percent of its peacekeeping expenses—to keep better track of how the money is spent, and make sure expenditures serve policies and programs consistent with American interests and principles. Yet tinkering with the U.N.’s funding mechanisms will never correct the fatal flaw with the U.N. itself. To think otherwise is to assume that glasnost and perestroika could have saved the Soviet Union.

That flaw is the lack of consistent, unifying moral and political principles shared by member nations that can justify U.N. policies or legitimize the use of force to deter and punish aggression. Because of that absence, authoritarian, totalitarian, and even gangster regimes have seats in the U.N. Assembly and its various councils and commissions. Of course, lip service is paid to Western ideals like universal human rights, political freedom, and liberal democracy, but these are nominally recognized not because all other nations believe in them, but because of the West’s economic and military dominance.

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Playing Politics with a Sick Economy

President Obama on Monday will propose raising the tax rate on those who earn more than $1 million as a way to reduce the deficit. This plan is being called the “Buffett Rule,” after the billionaire investor whose New York Times op-ed decried the fact that Buffett’s secretary paid a higher rate than he does.

You don’t have to be an economist to see that this idea is nothing more than populist politics, an attempt to exploit class envy and divide Americans in order to divert attention from two and a half years of failed economic policies that have left us with record debt, deficit, and unemployment levels. The focus on tax rates thus is a red herring, since raising revenues, not comparing tax rates, is what’s important. After all, a rate of 20% on $100 yields $20, whereas a rate of 10% on $1000 yields $100. But wouldn’t raising the rate on that $1000 to 20% double revenues? No, history shows us, since people will find ways to avoid paying the higher rate, especially the rich, who can afford the tax lawyers, accountants, and other expensive professionals who know how to reduce taxable income.

History also shows that reducing the tax burden on high earners yields more revenues. Consider what happened after Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts. In 1981, the top 1% paid 17.58% of all federal income taxes; in 2005, this same cohort paid 39.38%. In 1981 the top 1% paid $94.84 billion (in 2005 dollars); in 2005 they paid $368.13, an increase of 288%. Of course, during this same period taxes paid by the bottom 75% went from 27.71% of all tax revenues to 14.01%. More recently, the Bush tax cutes resulted in a 44% increase in revenues from 2003-2008. “The only conclusion,” Arthur Laffer wrote in 2008, “one can come to is that by raising statutory tax rates on the rich as proposed by the Democrats, the effective individual income tax rate won’t change, but the comprehensive household income earned by this group will fall, thus resulting in a sharp decline in tax receipts from the very highest income earners. If you want to get more tax revenues from the rich, you’ve got to make the rich richer, and to make the rich richer, you’ve got to lower tax rates.”

One more point to keep in mind when considering raising tax-rates is, what will the money be used for? Research has consistently shown that every dollar of increased revenue leads to more than a dollar in spending. Despite promises to reduce deficits or the debt, “Politicians will always spend every penny of tax raised and whatever else they can get away with,” as Milton Friedman once said. They may call it “investment in infrastructure” or “investment in the future,” but in reality the money is spent on pork dispensed to political supporters or clients. Just look at the bankruptcy of solar panel manufacturer Solyndra, an “investment in clean energy” that has left the taxpayers on the hook for half a billion dollars.

Rather than obsessing over comparative tax rates, the administration needs to promote job-creation by making it easier for businesses to innovate, invest, and expand. But targeting “millionaires and billionaires” is really about redistributing income to one political faction’s clients. And this is another lesson of history: when democracies go bad, unscrupulous leaders arise to foment class hatred by pandering to those who, as the historian Polybius wrote, are “habituated to feed at the expense of others, and to have [their] hopes of a livelihood in the property of [their] neighbors.” That is what the “Buffet Rule” is all about.

(photo credit: L D M)

The idea that conflicts between peoples can be resolved by diplomatic negotiation has frequently been a dangerous delusion. Duplicitous states bargain in bad faith, using the process to buy time and mask their aggression. States unwilling or unable to use force will make diplomacy an excuse to substitute words for deeds. Too often, as historian Robert Conquest wrote about Cold War diplomacy with the Soviet Union, “since diplomats’ forte is negotiation, they believe negotiation to be good in itself . . . But the Soviets did what their interests required when the alternative seemed less acceptable, and negotiation was merely a technical adjunct.”

The 60-year-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs is the textbook example of the dangers of insincere diplomatic negotiation. The latest phase of that struggle is the threat of the Palestinians to ask the U.N. Assembly to change their status from non-voting observer “entity” to non-voting observer state. “The change,” The New York Times writes, “would pave the way for the Palestinians to join dozens of United Nations bodies and conventions, and it could strengthen their ability to pursue cases against Israel at the International Criminal Court.” The United States has threatened to veto such a move if it comes before the Security Council, which unlike the Assembly can grant full U.N. membership as a state. Thus the U.S. is furiously lobbying other states in order to head off a move that could, according to the director of the American Task Force on Palestine, “inflame emotions [in the Middle East] and bring anti-American sentiments to the forefront across the region” already roiling with revolution. A United States veto, former ambassador to Israel Martin S. Indyk agrees, “will provoke a Palestinian awakening” and incite “new violence” for which “we will be blamed.”

One has to wonder what world these diplomats live in. They seem to think that the conflict is one merely of achieving Palestinian statehood, and that negotiating to that end will resolve the dispute and bring peace to the region. They’re worried about the Palestinian move in the U.N. because it will end negotiations with Israel, negotiations that have been fruitless for decades, and that have done nothing to stem the terrorist violence perpetrated by Palestinians who want to destroy Israel, as the charter of Hamas makes explicit. Nor has the allegedly “moderate” Palestinian Authority negotiated in good faith over the years, turning down numerous opportunities to achieve a state because of an “all or nothing” attitude. Moreover, agreements that have been negotiated have merely encouraged the P.A. to demand more and more concessions from Israel.

Barry Rubin outlines this dismal history of the wages of bad-faith negotiation: “Since 1993, the Palestinian Authority has made several agreements with Israel. In exchange for being handed control over the Gaza Strip and much of the West Bank; billions of dollars in aid; the supply of weapons; the return of tens of thousands of Palestinians to these territories; and many other benefits, the PA promised to do various things in return. These include an end to incitement to kill Israelis; stopping terrorism; and negotiating in good faith for a comprehensive agreement.” Yet the P.A. has not fulfilled any of these promises for which it received such concessions. Indeed, as Rubin continues, “Since Hamas attacked Israel with rockets and mortars setting off a war in December 2008, the PA has refused to negotiate with Israel. When President Barack Obama in September 2009, announced he wanted to hold direct talks in Washington, the PA refused. In 2010, when Israel, at the request of President Barack Obama, froze all construction on settlements for nine months, the PA again wouldn’t talk.” Clearly, negotiation is a tactic to be used depending on circumstances, and the P.A. believes at this moment that the U.N. is a better avenue for achieving its aims than is engaging in talks with Israel.

As for that famous “peace treaty” with Egypt often touted as proof of the possibilities of a negotiated settlement, the fall of Mubarak is making it increasingly clear that it was merely a 30-year cold truce purchased with the Sinai’s oil fields and the $2 billion a year in U.S. aid. Now with Mubarak gone, the border with Gaza is open to weapons, and the Sinai is a launching pad for terrorist attacks like the one a few weeks ago that killed eight Israelis.

The historical experience of negotiation to end the Israeli-Arab conflict is clear: concessions negotiated by Israel are met with violence and intransigence, just as the Oslo Agreement of 1993, which handed over control of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority, was followed the rest of the decade by attacks that killed 256 Israeli citizens and soldiers. For those with eyes to see beyond the false promise of a negotiated “two-state” settlement, the explanation is obvious. The goal of most Palestinians is not two states living side-by-side in peace; rather, the goal is the same as it was in 1947, when the Palestinian state created by U.N. resolution 181 was rejected and followed by war––the destruction of Israel. The failure of that war and subsequent ones to achieve that aim did not disabuse the Arabs of their ultimate goal, but merely forced a change of tactics, one of which is the use of diplomatic negotiation as a “technical adjunct” to their long-term goal of wiping Israel off the map.

Instead of trying to head off the U.N. vote or calling yet again for futile “peace talks,” the U.S. needs to cast off the delusions of a negotiated two-state solution, and act on the basis of reality. We could start by making it clear to the Palestinians that further intransigence will result in the cut-off of U.S. aid, which (including contributions to the U.N.’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestine) has averaged $800 million a year. As for the threats of violence and increased anti-Americanism, these are constants in the region that nothing we do will change. For all of President Obama’s efforts at outreach to the Muslim world and pressure on Israel to make even more unreciprocated concessions, public opinion there is as negative towards the United States as it was under President Bush. A veto in the U.N. will just be another pretext for indulging the same old tactic of employing violence and then blaming America.

“It is easy enough,” Conquest wrote, “to fall into the trap of thinking that others think, within reason, like ourselves. But this trap is precisely the error that must be avoided in foreign affairs.” The dismal history of the Middle East gives us ample evidence that we have fallen into that trap for decades, compromising our own national interests and putting at risk the security of a valuable ally. It’s long past time that we made policy based on reality instead of on our own delusions.

(photo credit: Lucas)

The United States of Entitlements

Ancient Athens birthed both democracy and its most penetrating critics. The fundamental contentious issue was whether average people had the ability to manage the state and determine its proper interests, policies, and goals. For the defenders of democracy like the philosopher Protagoras, the politikê technê—i.e. the skills and knowledge necessary for coexistence in a community—belongs to all men by nature. Otherwise, no community could even exist. It would degenerate into a Hobbesian war of all against all. For its critics like Aristophanes, Plato, and Thucydides, radical democracy empowered people who did not have the skills or virtues necessary for seeing beyond their immediate private interests and desires in order to choose policies that benefitted the state as a whole, both in the present and the future.

On the whole, the American Founders agreed with these critics of democracy. The founders rejected democracy for the same reason they rejected monarchy and oligarchy: given that, as Alexander Hamilton wrote, "men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious," these irrational appetites and passions inherent in human nature, when concentrated in one governing faction, would cause each to degenerate into oppression and disorder if left unchecked. Fearing this outcome, the founders created a republican mixed government like that of ancient Sparta or Rome as described in the work of the Greek historian Polybius. "The balance of a well-ordered government," John Adams wrote, "will alone be able to prevent that emulation [rivalry for power] from degenerating into dangerous ambition, irregular rivalries, destructive factions, wasting seditions, and bloody civil war." Thus the Constitution established a monarchical executive, an oligarchic Senate, and a democratic House of Representatives, each empowered to balance the other and forestall the inevitable decline into tyranny each alone would undergo if it possessed too much power.

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Billionaire investor Warren Buffett wants the federal government to stop “coddling the super-rich,” as he writes in the New York Times. The 236,883 households that make at least $1,000,000, Buffett advises, need to pay more taxes and “share in the sacrifice.” As an exercise in moral preening, Buffett’s op-ed works well. But it doesn’t offer anything useful for solving our debt crisis.

What Buffett doesn’t mention points to the problems in his analysis. (See Tim Worstall at Forbes for another flaw.) For example, Buffett finds it objectionable that in 1992, the “top 400 had aggregate taxable income of $16.9 billion and paid federal taxes of 29.2 percent on that sum. In 2008, the aggregate income of the highest 400 had soared to $90.9 billion — a staggering $227.4 million on average — but the rate paid had fallen to 21.5 percent.” Yes, but those lurid numbers leave out the fact that the lower rate generated $19.5 billion in revenues, compared to $7.47 (in 2008 dollars) billion generated by the higher rate. That helps explain why during this same period, revenues increased by $820 billion (in 2005 dollars), and the percentage of income taxes paid by the top 1% went from 26% to 38%. Increasing revenues, not satisfying simplistic notions of “fairness” based on tax rates, should be the objective of our tax code.

Then there’s Buffett’s argument that the super-rich get a break because they mostly escape the payroll taxes paid by the middle and working classes. But that’s comparing apples and oranges: in the long run payroll tax monies are returned to workers or their survivors in the form of disability, unemployment, Social Security, and Medicare benefits. In most cases, workers will receive much more in benefits than they paid in taxes, which is why economist Robert. J. Samuelson has called Social Security “middle-class welfare,” a pay-as-you-go program the benefits of which can be increased to gratify voters. Income tax monies, however, are at best only indirectly returned to those who pay them, often for programs taxpayers feel are unnecessary, wasteful, or immoral. More important, entitlement spending and mounting debt are on track to bankrupt the country, a fate that raising marginal tax rates will not avoid.

Finally, there is the whiff of bad faith in Buffett’s argument when he says he and his mega-rich friends “wouldn’t mind being told to pay more in taxes as well, particularly when so many of their fellow citizens are truly suffering.” Of course, many others would mind very much having the federal government determine how their money should be spent. But more important, if Buffett et al. think they should give the government more money in order to alleviate the suffering of their fellow citizens, then they should write a check to the Gifts to the United States, U.S. Department of the Treasury, Credit Accounting Branch. After all, the Good Samaritan didn’t wait around for the Romans to legally compel him to do a good deed.

(photo credit: Jesús DQ)

“The president isn’t very bright,” Bret Stephens writes in The Wall Street Journal, an
assessment that raises an important question: Is “intelligence” necessary in a president?

That we raise the question at all is a testimony to how thoroughly progressive ideas about governing have permeated our political consciousness. This is obvious from the fact that Democrats are the ones who typically assert the superior intelligence of their candidate over the Republican. Indeed, every Republican candidate since Eisenhower has been characterized as a simplistic ideologue, if not an outright dunce, a tradition that continues with the scorn heaped on Sarah Palin’s intellect and alma mater. Partly this reflects the unproven assumption that liberals are by definition more nuanced, complex, subtle thinkers than are conservatives. More important, however, is the underlying assumption of progressive ideology: that modern politics in a technologically advanced world needs technocratic managers with specialized knowledge and skills, what French political philosopher Chantal Delsol calls “techno-politics.”

Yet this belief goes back even farther, to the philosophical debates of ancient Greece. When Plato in the Republic creates his ideal government, he imagines a ruling elite of philosopher “guardians” who are selected at an early age and educated for thirty years in philosophy and mathematics. In contrast, the democracy of Athens assumed that all citizens,
by virtue of being citizens, were capable of participating in running the state. To Plato’s credit, in the Protagoras he gives a fair version of the argument underlying democratic rule: for social order to exist at all, Protagoras argues, all people must have the politikê technê, the craft of politics, one innate to humans. Thus all are capable of managing the state.

Modern progressive ideology reflects the triumph of Plato’s anti-democratic idea of techno-politics. Hence the belief that a president should have superior intelligence, its presence usually validated by the prestige of university training, the correctness of pronunciation, and the prowess at intellectual name-dropping. But as well as being necessarily undemocratic, this prizing of intelligence has problems. First, how can the mass of citizens truly know if a presidential candidate, armed with a legion of researchers and speechwriters, is really intelligent? We can’t trust university degrees or transcripts, given the lowering of admission standards and rampant grade inflation. Nor are speeches necessarily an indication of smarts, given the aforementioned speechwriters. Correct pronunciation or syntactical smoothness sometimes is evoked as markers of brightness, but these could merely reflect a skill at reading the words of others. Most people called upon to speak ex tempore will mangle a word or garble their syntax, as has every political candidate. Thus it becomes a matter of political prejudice to see George Bush’s mispronunciation of “nuclear” as evidence of irredeemable stupidity, whereas Barack Obama’s saying “corpse-man” for “corpsman” is shrugged away.

But do we really need a president to have technical intelligence learned in the university? Isn’t what Aristotle called “practical wisdom” more important, the knowledge of human life and action learned from experience? Who was the better president, the self-educated Abraham Lincoln, or the Princeton graduate Woodrow Wilson? Ronald Reagan, a graduate of obscure Eureka College, or Bill Clinton, holder of degrees from Georgetown and Yale? A life of manifold experience in the real world of challenge, risk, and accountability can create a “practical wisdom” more important for political leadership than is the abstract technical knowledge garnered in the rarefied cloisters of the academy or think-tank, where utopian schemes are never held to the strict test of real-life accountability. And let’s not forget that most of the horrors of 20th Century totalitarianism were wrought by those “technicians of the soul” drunk on abstract ideas and theories that seemed flawless in words but turned bloody in deeds when confronted with the stubborn, unpredictable complexity of human passion and free will.

Finally, more important than certain kinds of technical intelligence or knowledge are virtues like prudence, humility, and self-control, the premier qualities thought indispensable for leaders from antiquity to the American founding. Indeed, republicanism always assumes that virtue as well as wisdom is the sine qua non of political freedom. As James Madison wrote in Federalist 57, “The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.” Throughout the Federalist papers, wisdom and virtue are constantly linked as the necessary qualities for political leadership. Technical skill or knowledge may be necessary for governing, but without practical wisdom and virtue such knowledge and skills are mere mental machinery that can be turned to evil ends as well as good.

So let’s drop all the discussion of whether this or that candidate or office-holder is “intelligent” or “smart,” something none of us ordinary citizens can know firsthand. Instead, let’s see by their deeds and choices whether they are wise and virtuous.

(Photo credit: hjw223)

Principle and the Possible

The continuing stalemate over raising the debt ceiling is provoking a lot of voters into Mercutio’s “a pox on both your houses” response. “They’re acting like 6-year-olds pretty much on both sides,” one woman told the New York Times. “I think it’s stunning that they can’t just agree. I’m fed up with all of them,” another woman said. “I think both sides are wrong,” said one man, “and both sides need to look at themselves in the mirror.” At least according to these folks, the problem is a failure of political character: “Where are the people of integrity, the Washingtons and Lincolns,” a real-estate agent asked. “We need people who aren’t taking lobbyist money, who aren’t making decisions to get re-elected.”

These comments are pretty typical of how many of us view our various political problems––as the result of corrupt opportunists who sacrifice principle and the nation’s well-being to their hunger for money, power, or prestige. Though there’s a lot of truth to this view, our problems derive as much from the nature of democracy as they do from the venality or mediocrity of our politicians.

The glory of democracy is paradoxically the source of its weaknesses. Expanding political power to large numbers of people ensures their freedom and autonomy. But allowing more people into the political process also increases the number of interests and aims that need government power for their fulfillment. These interests, moreover, range from the idealistic and principled to the selfish and venal. Whatever their quality, by necessity they cannot all be reconciled to one another, and so their conflicts tend to be zero-sum: success at one will require the failure of another. This creates a fundamental reality of democracies that critics going back to Plato find distasteful: compromise of principle is usually required to get anything done.

But there’s another feature of democracy that makes this process even more problematic. Another glory of democracy is that it puts power in offices rather than in men, and subjects office-holders to accountability and term-limits, which requires politicians periodically to campaign for the citizens’ votes. This makes it harder for power to be concentrated and grow over time, thus lessening the possibility of abuse. But that same mechanism makes democracies bad at planning and executing long-term policies, as in the U.S., where we have elections every two years and thus a permanent re-election campaign. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote when our government was still young, “A democracy can only with great difficulty regulate the details of an important undertaking, persevere in a fixed design, and work out its execution in spite of serious obstacles. It cannot combine its measures with secrecy or await their consequences with patience.” Hence the frustration many voters experience when Washington can’t solve problems long identified.

Tocqueville touches on another feature of democracy that contributes to both its strength and weakness: the openness necessary both for the broad participation of the citizens in public debate and for monitoring politicians and holding them accountable. These days mass communication technologies and instant polling have intensified the pressure voters bring to bear on politicians. Cable news, talk radio, Internet punditry, and blogs, in addition to newspapers, magazines, and network television, monitor politicians minute by minute, creating endless feedback loops, most of them negative. This pressure on decision-making is enormous and constantly shifting, creating a two-year horizon that limits political behavior.

The conflict over raising the debt ceiling and constructing policies to rein in government spending and lower the debt is a textbook example of these weaknesses of democracies. Party one wants to raise taxes and continue government spending to achieve “social justice,” party two wants to pare back the size of government and balance the budget without raising taxes. Each side has powerful constituencies, armed with polls and pundits, who are monitoring votes and policies and threatening electoral accountability for betraying their interests, whether these are selfishly material or idealistically principled. Either way, the interests of the two parties are incompatible and cannot be achieved in all the purity that their adherents might wish. The solution ultimately will require compromise.

And let’s be clear: the point is not that both sides are partially right, or that both sides have a certain measure of good in their positions that can be extracted and combined into an ideal solution, as seems to be the idea of most people who call for compromise or endorse the President’s dubious “balanced approach.” Party two has a better argument, sounder principles, and more cogent empirical evidence, and over time its policies will be better for the country. But in the end, in a democracy that isn’t enough. It is the nature of democracy, not the failure of politicians to stick to their principles, which requires the sort of grubby horse-trading many of us find so objectionable.

So let’s not look to Mercutio for guidance, but to Bismarck, who first said that politics is the art of the possible. We need sound principles and principled politicians, but the system in which they work creates the limits to what can be done. Every successful democratic politician from Pericles to Ronald Reagan has understood that transient tactical retreats are often necessary to achieve a permanent strategic victory. Those on the right demanding purity of principle in the current crisis will win a Pyrrhic victory if come next November the party of tax and spend is still in the White House.

The on-going drama over raising the debt ceiling in the end isn’t about economics and math. On a technical level, the problem is straightforward: a debt level at nearly 100% of GDP, a spending level at 25% of GDP, projected costs of future entitlement spending at $130 trillion all make obvious the solution: the federal government must stop spending more money than it takes in. What complicates this solution is not mathematics but politics, which in a democracy means the competing ideals and interests of various factions.

This political process, moreover, works itself out in public speech. This means words and their meanings, more so than math and data, are the level at which the struggle takes place, for language is the medium of power in a consensual state, no matter if the words are delivered by an orator or an Internet blogger. Beginning with ancient Greece, those who corrupt the political order corrupt language as well, as Thucydides pointed out in his description of the civil war in Corcyra: “The meaning of words had no longer the same relation to things, but was changed by them [factional rivals] as they thought proper.” George Orwell amplified this insight: “political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” The current debate over the budge illustrates this traditional critique.

Take the phrase “fair share,” which is used to justify demands that tax rates increase on the “millionaires and billionaires,” itself a deceiving phrase, since the threshold income for raising tax rates is $250,000 for a couple. As I pointed out in an earlier post, the word “fair” begs the question of what exactly defines fairness. In this instance, it is a euphemism for “redistribution,” given that the U.S. has the most progressive income tax among advanced economies, a pretty good indicator of fairness. So with another favorite phrase, “a balanced approach” to solving the deficit problem by combining cuts with tax increases. Set aside the simple fact that raising rates to 100% on those making more than $250,000 wouldn’t even cover this year’s $1.65 trillion deficit. Stephen Moore and Richard Veder’s historical survey shows that since World War II, $1.00 in tax increases has been associated with $1.17 in spending. As reasonable and just as “balanced” sounds, the penchant for politicians to spend whatever they have, and the magnitude of our metastasizing deficits mean that such “balance” would be ruinous.

Then there’s “revenues,” a euphemism for “taxes.” This use also begs a question, since it implies that raising tax rates increases revenues. But decades of empirical data show the reality is just the opposite: lowering marginal tax rates increases revenues. We also hear a lot about “investment” in infrastructure and education as a rationale for increasing government spending even as the debt balloons. The question begged here is that the government is better than the private sector at creating jobs and building things. Based on the stimulus package of a few years back, this seems doubtful, since it cost $185,000 for each job, taking the White House’s dubious claim that 3.6 million jobs were created. And there has been scant impact on the unemployment rate.

As for education, increasing federal money to higher education has led to rampant inflation of tuition costs and the debasement of standards, to the point that an A is now the most awarded grade in higher education even as graduates know less and less. Just as government subsidies and interference in the housing market created a housing bubble, some now are speaking of an “education bubble” created by federal dollars. And let’s not forget “green jobs,” one of the President’s favorite beneficiaries of even more taxpayer-funded “investment” than the $110 billion in green-jobs subsidies that were included in the stimulus. Yet a 2009 report on Spain’s green-jobs subsidies discovered that each job cost $774,000 and eliminated 2.2 jobs in other industries, a reality much different from the connotations of growth in the word “green.” Given that much of the “investments we need to win the future,” as the President put it in his George Mason speech, is directed at one party’s traditional clients and supporters like public employees, “investment” looks like a euphemism for “pork.”

Solving the deficit problem will require the penetrating the fog of feel-good words obscuring the political interests driving the debate. As Orwell wrote, “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” And right now, the belief that we can continue to spend more than we take in is not just foolish, but dangerous.

On the same day that the U.S. recognized the Libyan rebel Transitional National Council as “the legitimate governing authority for Libya,” in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s words, the New York Times reported that antiaircraft missiles have been plundered from arms depots and were “on the loose in Libya.” At one depot alone, forty-three crates, each of which contained two SA-7s, the Soviet version of the American Stinger missile that can bring down an airliner, were found empty. Twenty thousand of such missiles are known to have been purchased by Gaddafi before the rebellion started, and no one has a clue what has happened to them.

These aren’t the first weapons to go missing in Libya. In February, people were seen carrying off similar missiles, as well as assault rifles, machine guns, mines, grenades, antitank missiles, and rocket-propelled grenades. Back then, Matthew Schroeder of the Arms Sales Monitoring Project at the Federation of American Scientists warned, “Securing these missiles should be a top priority of the U.S. intelligence community and their counterparts overseas.” But despite repeated requests to the TNC to secure the depots and collect the weapons, the freshly recognized Council has not shown much interest in patrolling depots and making sure more arms don’t disappear.

The fear, obviously, is that some of these missiles and weapons will be sold to terrorist outfits. Government officials in Chad and Algeria are claiming some have already reached the north African al Qaeda affiliate Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Particular worrisome are the SAM-7s, which the rebels don’t need as the only aircraft in the skies over Libya belong to NATO. In the past, SAM-7s have destroyed an Air Rhodesia plane, killing 59 people; an Angolan Airways 737, killing 130; and a Sudan Airways plane, killing 60. In 1994, a SAM-7 destroyed a plane carrying the presidents of Burundi and Rwanda, igniting the Rwandan genocide.

These plundered weapons should make us think hard about just whom we are supporting in Libya. Way back in March, a Stratfor report warned about the possibility of plundered weapons making their way to terrorist groups, including the indigenous al Qaeda-affiliated Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which has sent on a per capita basis the most foreign terrorists to Iraq. Whoever ends up winning in Iraq, Libyan jihadists will possess not just missiles, but also mortar and artillery rounds that can be used to make roadside bombs––a skill possessed by Libyan veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The news about the missing SAM-7s reinforces the Stratfor warning, and makes it even more imperative that we are prudent about who will be the beneficiary of our recognition, particularly since it opens the way for the TNC to access the $34 billion seized from the Gaddafi regime. No doubt many of the Libyan rebels are battling to create a Western-style liberal democracy that, as Secretary of State Clinton hopefully puts it, will “remain steadfast in its commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms.” But we shouldn’t make such assumptions about the rebels’ motives without the evidence of deeds that matches the words. And we certainly shouldn’t turn over any money to the TNC until we are sure no more weapons are being plundered.

(photo credit: James Vaughan)