Archives: 11/2009

New York Times “Celebrates” the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Slavok ZizekIn a way, I always knew it would happen. I knew that, come November 9, the left-leaning NYT would publish an article focusing on the supposed crisis of capitalism rather than the end of communist dictatorship. Still, I was not prepared for Slavoj Zizek’s op-ed entitled “20 Years of Collapse.”

First, a few words about the author – a Marxist philosopher from Slovenia. Generally ignored or ridiculed in Slovenia, Zizek is considered (by some) to be the new messiah of leftist thought in the West. Why did the NYT chose to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the collapse of communism with Zizek’s call for “socialism with a human face,” rather than an op-ed by someone like Vladimir Bukovsky, a former Soviet political prisoner tormented for years by the communists, is anyone’s guess.

But, it is the substance of Zizek’s article that is so misleading. The article makes absolutely no mention of the economic progress made in Central and Eastern Europe. Yet, as the World Bank and even the United Nations tell us, incomes in the region have substantially increased and so has school enrollment. People live longer and healthier lives; environmental quality has much improved.

Zizek mentions communist oppression, but nowhere does he mention that 100 million people have died in the pursuit of communist utopia. Contemporary Marxists either ignore the astonishingly high number of victims of communism or try to minimize it. That is understandable. No matter what the (real or imagined) problems with capitalism are today, no sane person would be willing to embrace an alternative to capitalism that has a habit of resulting in a mountain of corpses.

The second – and equally risible tactic of contemporary communists (as Paul Hollander mentions in his just released Cato study) – is to try to draw a moral equivalence between socialism and market democracy. Zizek attempts to do exactly that by telling a story of a Soviet defector who became an outspoken critic of McCarthyism in the United States. The idea that there is any but the most superficial similarity between Soviet totalitarianism and the United States in the 1950s is preposterous – unless, of course, you are a modern-day leftist trying to salvage whatever remains of your philosophy from the dustbin of history.

Zizek is right to point out that there is growing disenchantment with capitalism and democracy. But, the recently released Pew and BBC polls have surely been influenced by the current (and likely temporary) economic environment, which, we are told, is the worst since the Great Depression. There are other psychological factors at work. Current problems feature more prominently in the minds of today’s Central and Eastern Europeans than shortages of 20 years ago and the old tend to remember their youth fondly – no matter what the actual political and economic circumstances.

Last, but not least, young people in the region know very little about communism. Learning about communism is by-and-large superficial, because the level of collaboration with communist regimes was very high among the general public. A thorough investigation of communist crimes would open too many wounds, it is claimed. Unfortunately, this collective amnesia means that instead of appreciating the great advances that their societies have made over the past 20 years, young people focus on their societies’ shortcomings vis-à-vis the contemporary West.

I have lived under communism. Although I have never personally experienced its true horrors, I had family members who did. The NYT’s choice of a lead op-ed on the day of an almost miraculous deliverance of hundreds of millions of people from communist slavery is shameful and sickening.

Taking Land for Public Uselessness

Over at the Washington Examiner, Tim Carney reports that Pfizer is abandoning its New London offices and deciding what to do with the property it gained in the infamous Kelo v. New London land-grab:

The private homes that New London, Conn., took away from Suzette Kelo and her neighbors have been torn down. Their former site is a wasteland of fields of weeds, a monument to the power of eminent domain.

But now Pfizer, the drug company whose neighboring research facility had been the original cause of the homes’ seizure, has just announced that it is closing up shop in New London.

To lure those jobs to New London a decade ago, the local government promised to demolish the older residential neighborhood adjacent to the land Pfizer was buying for next-to-nothing. Suzette Kelo fought the taking to the Supreme Court, and lost. Five justices found this redevelopment met the constitutional hurdle of “public use.”

That this purported “public use” is now exposed as the façade for corporate welfare that it always was is, of course, little comfort to Suzette Kelo and the other homeowners whose land was seized. But hopefully this will be an object lesson for other companies considering eminent domain abuse as a route to acquire land on the cheap – and especially for state and local officials who acquiesce in this type of behavior.

You can read Cato’s amicus brief for the ill-fated case here. Cato also hosted a book forum for the story of Suzette’s struggle, Little Pink House, featuring the author, Jeff Benedict, the attorney who argued the case, the Institute for Justice’s Scott Bullock, and Ms. Kelo herself, here.

HT: Jonathan Blanks

A Preemptive Word on “Lone Wolves”

As Marcy Wheeler notes, the press seem to have settled on the term “lone wolf” to describe Fort Hood gunman Nidal Malik Hasan, which means it’s probably only a matter of time before we encounter a pundit or legislator who is cynical or befuddled enough (or both) to invoke the tragedy in defense of the PATRIOT Act’s constitutionally dubious Lone Wolf provision. (A “matter of time” apparently meaning the time it took me to write that sentence: We have a winner!) Though the Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a bill that would renew the measure, their counterparts in the House wisely—though narrowly—voted to permit it to expire last week.

To spare anyone tempted by this argument some embarrassment: The Lone Wolf provision is totally irrelevant to this case. It could not have been used to investigate Hasan, nor would it have been necessary.

The Lone Wolf provision permits the targeting of non-U.S. persons when there is probable cause to believe they’re preparing to engage in acts of international terrorism. Even if we assume the statutory definition of “international terrorism” could be stretched to cover the Fort Hood attack—and perhaps it could—the provision would have been inapplicable to the Virginia–born Hasan.

So were investigators powerless? Of course not. PATRIOT’s Lone Wolf clause relates only to whether the tools available under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act can be invoked. Shooting people, however, is a crime even when committed for reasons having nothing to do with jihad, and the standard for obtaining a warrant—probable cause—is the same. The chief advantage of FISA tools is that they tend to be both highly secret and, in certain respects, broader than criminal investigative tools—features that are vital when dealing with trained terror agents who are working with an international network it’s important not to tip off, but not so much for “lone wolves,” who by definition lack any such network.

In fact, though, even if the most ambitious reforms proposed by Democrats had been in place, PATRIOT powers could have been brought to bear on Hasan had investigators chosen to do so. We are told, for instance, that investigators months ago became aware of Hasan’s efforts to contact al-Qaeda affiliates abroad. That alone would have provided grounds—again, under current law and under the most civil-liberties protective modifications being considered—for the issuance of National Security Letters seeking his financial and telecommunications records.

The truth is that the Lone Wolf provision didn’t help—and couldn’t have helped—stop this “lone wolf.” Indeed, it’s hard to imagine what additional powers would have been useful here given what it seems investigators already knew. As our recent history makes all too clear, what typically makes the difference between intelligence success and failure is not how much information you can get, at least past a certain point, but knowing what to do with the information you’ve got. But of course, that’s difficult to do, and doesn’t tend to be the kind of thing that can be fixed with a couple crude statutory provision you can brag about in press releases to your constituents.  So pundits and legislators see a delicate information processing system failing to flag the right targets and conclude, every time, that the right solution is more juice! Turn up the voltage! Try that troubleshooting strategy with your laptop sometime and let me know how it works out.

Fed Opposed by Left and Right

On its front page today, the Washington Times reports that expanded powers for the Federal Reserve are being opposed by “odd allies.”  The Fed’s imperial over-reach for additional regulatory powers is being opposed by Democrats and Republicans, and liberals and conservatives alike.  As well it should be.  As Senator Shelby observed, “Anointing the Fed as the systemic-risk regulator will make what has proven to be a bad bank regulator even worse.”

The regulation of financial services failed conspicuously to prevent the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.  The Fed failed most conspicuously as it was charged with oversight of all the major banks, including notably Citigroup and Bank of America. Bank regulation now functions to insulate banks from the consequences of their own bad acts.  The regulatory system enables banks to engage in excessive risk taking.

The Obama Administration and Chairman Barney Frank of the House Financial Services Committee propose that an expanded role for the Fed and generally more of the same will improve matters. Instead, the proposed legislation will worsen the situation by codifying the status of the major financial institutions as “too-big-to-fail.”  It would thereby provide them with special legal status.  We have all seen this movie and how it ends.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had such a status and collapsed.  Do we need 20 more such disasters?

Three cheers for all those opposing this destructive piece of legislation. End “too-big-to-fail” instead.

It All Began In Poland, 1939-1989

The fall of the Berlin Wall twenty years ago today is rightly being celebrated in Germany as a momentous historical event that led to a huge increase in human freedom around the world. The wall was indeed the most visible physical symbol of an inhumane system that divided Germany and Europe, holding captive hundreds of millions of people.

At a seminar in Wroclaw, Poland hosted by the Polish Adam Smith Center last month, I was reminded that the Poles correctly view their country as playing a central role in the 20th century drama of totalitarian aggression and eventual liberation. As the title of a book I was given suggests—It All Began In Poland—the country’s invasion by Nazi Germany, which sparked World War II, and the invasion and partial occupation by the Soviet Union almost immediately thereafter signaled what was in store for much of Europe. Similarly, the peaceful revolution of freedom that culminated in the collapse of communism was symbolized and pushed forward early on by Poland’s heroic Solidarity movement.

People from all parts of the former Soviet empire deserve recognition and admiration for their efforts and sacrifices in promoting freedom. As we reflect on this momentous day, let’s remember the special role the Poles played in making the world a better place.

Mr. Obama, Tear Down This Wall

On his personal blog, Bottom-Up, Cato adjunct scholar Timothy B. Lee compares the Berlin Wall to the wall along the southern border of the United States. There are differences, of course, but important similarities too.

[I]t’s jarring that less than 20 years after one Republican president gave a stirring speech about the barbarity of erecting a wall to trap millions of people in a country they wanted to leave, another Republican president signed legislation to do just that. Conservatives, of course, bristle at analogies between East Germany’s wall and our own, but they seem unable to explain how they actually differ.

Judging by its ‘wall’ policies, the United States appears to value the freedom of Europeans more than Americans.