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Political rant: A fair and balanced review of National Review

One of my worst failings is I can’t ignore politics. It isn’t good for me because there are so few good things that happen in that world that lift my spirits. It also isn’t good that I talk with folks about these issues and most of the talk is even more distressing than the actual goings on. But still I soldier on. Recently I engaged an old friend in one of these conversations. I’d known him mainly as a most pleasant neighbor and through a few local political actions and found him to be quite reasonable. He’s pro-environment, sensitive to climate issues and appropriately suspicious of development. So color me surprised when I discovered that he’s way to the right on national issues.

We’re friends so we’ve agreed to disagree about these DC’ish matters and trade pleasantries punctuated with the occasional zap at Ted Cruz from me and one-line zingers about Obamacare from him. Then he sent me an email saying he’d bought me a subscription to National Review! I’m an academic by trade, a scholar, a searcher for truth and understanding and, alas, this means I’m supposed to be open to all points of view, ready to shift opinions, modify held positions and reflect on the reality that is out there … really. I’d read NR from time to time when someone emailed me a piece or in a doctor’s office (why do so many physicians tilt rightward? my daddy was a doctor but he and his friends were somewhere to left of Henry Wallace). But I hadn’t sat down and read an issue all the way through. Now I had to. Curse you my friend. You knew I’d have to do this.

So what did I find? First the writing isn’t bad. These folks can be as lethal in their criticism as the lefties and can be as clever in their presentation. They are, surprisingly, also occasionally pretty funny which burst my bubble that righties are all sphincter and tsk tsk. But, as the intellectual descendants of William F., they should be. But it stopped here. There’s nothing else. Virtually every story, every column, every snippet of news, every review of every book or movie or art display is built around criticism of the left and on attacks of progressivism. Now some of this is fine. You can rant away about supposedly creative performance art that deals with bowel movements without having a political agenda so why bother to bring it in? You can criticize a movie for being banal without condemning it for some hidden social agenda. It is possible to blast a media outlet for errors in a story without assuming that they were motivated by some larger bias.

So I read and I thought and wracked my fair and balanced brain: Does the left do this? I went back and read several issues of the New York Review, The Nation, The New Yorker. Answer: occasionally they do but it’s rare. In fact, so rare that the differences between the two wings are startling. The left criticizes and tells you why. The right merely criticizes. The left lays out plans to resolve problems. The right merely identifies the problems.

Then on to the real political stuff, the articles on Hillary, Obamacare, Benghazi, the IRS (non)scandal, the economy, taxes, immigration, education, the size of government, free-markets and regulatory agencies, Wall Street … etc. etc. etc. … ad nauseum. Now it was getting seriously depressing. I’ve been despairing about the Republican Party for some decades now. It hasn’t been in great shape since Reagan and these days it’s mostly in the crapper. It was shanghaied by the Tea Party dupes who were taken in by the oligarchs and the anti-union bozos, hijacked by the NRA, swept aside by Libertarians (who suddenly stop being pure about freedom when it runs smack into a woman’s right to make a choice, gays to marry or ordinary folks to play a little poker online) and recently has stooped to the likes of Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz to provide intellectual stature.

But despair breeds hope. Somewhere in that morass there have to be serious thinkers, people with ideas, vision, plans for a better tomorrow (tomorrow?). The NR is supposed to be their vehicle so I read on…. Three issues now, cover to cover in my best Diogenes-mode. Is it there? Nope. And this is sad, really and truly sad. I’m not terribly upset about the many articles smacking Hillary around. This is standard fare and all they’re doing is softening her up for ’16. That’s politics and it’s okay. Ditto for attacks on strong lefties like Elizabeth Warren. When you’re out there pushing progressive policy you can (and should) be subject to scrutiny. There’s an awful lot of Catholicism in articles, ads and promotions. Curious but I guess that’s okay. There’s a good bit of Jewishness on the progressive side, especially that coming out of New York.

Alas, that’s all I found. Attacks, criticism, pummeling of positions, assaults on policy, skewering of office holders, damning of the DoJ, the ACA (or “Obamacare” if you prefer). No coherent offerings of alternatives. No ideas. No theory. No analysis. Nothing. Nada. Pathetic.

Obamacare is criticized and that’s fine; it’s been assailed from the left as well. The NR hopes it will eventually be repealed – to be replaced with??? Immigration reform is a topic of some import and the NR isn’t happy about current movements. Their plan is??? Unemployment levels are too high. NR’s suggestions for job growth are??? Education is in deep trouble. The right’s answer is??? Climate change is coming no matter what your beliefs are (are you listening Rushbo?). The Republican proposals are??? And so it goes for terrorism, foreign policy, the justice system, the dysfunctional congress, poverty, obesity, race relations, civil rights … etc.

The barest flickerings of serious thought are those that turn on issues of the size of government, the role of regulatory agencies and economic policy. The problems with the positions the NR takes and the legislation they favor is that they are all based on outdated and demonstrably unworkable notions dredged up from a non-existent past. Big governments aren’t inherently bad or dysfunctional and saying it over and over won’t make it so. Governments run scores of things better than private firms. The VA, Social Security, Medicare are all managed well and cheaper than comparable private corporations. When you don’t have to turn a profit it makes a big difference.

Regulations are essential. Even the briefest scan of history shows this. No regulations on building in Haiti and the whole freaking country collapses in a modest earthquake. No safety regulations in place and hundreds of workers die in a fire in India. No control over a demolition site and five people die when a building collapses in Philadelphia. The US repeals Glass-Steagall (thanks to the banks and a willing Democrat in Bubba) and ’08 happens (and don’t try to tell me it was really Fanny and Freddie) while up in Canada the crisis is weathered and over in less than two years. Free-market systems do not work, have never worked and any psychologist who’s looked at the cognitive and emotional elements in human decision-making can tell you why. There’s a reason why two psychologists (Herb Simon and Daniel Kahneman) have won the Nobel in economics.

And, lastly, the right and NR’s economic policies are nothing short of embarrassing. Austerity is such a terrible idea that even many conservative economists have acknowledged it. Worries over the deficit are silly when you’re in a recession. Even Romney knew this. He let slip that “everyone knows you can’t cut spending in a recession” in an interview – then his handlers put the kibosh on any more such revelatory statements. Regressive tax policies are just awful for everyone but the hyper-wealthy. For reasons mysterious the editors and writers of NR still don’t seem to grasp Keynesean theory. For reasons equally mysterious they haven’t grasped the dangers of economic disparity. And for the life of me, I cannot fathom how anyone cannot be distressed by the fact that 90% of the population has seen their financial position and quality of life decline in the past thirty years while the top 1% now control a staggering 42% of the nation’s wealth, the next 19% control 54% and the remaining 80% a pathetic 4%. The NR appears not to be.

Sad. I suspect the reason for this lack of innovative ideas, decent theory, clever programs or creativity in policy is simply because the brand is broken. There is nothing there to promote. All that is left is to criticize and even there they don’t it very well. It fits with what’s been going on in DC since ’09. The GOP offers nothing, no legislation, no programs, no solutions to problems. But they do find time to offer 37 repeals of Obamacare, to filibuster countless bills for no other reason than the Democrats offered them, block scores of appointments to important government posts and judicial positions and hope the economy crumbles so they can blame the Black Dude in the White House.

Now I’m stuck with a year’s worth of magazines arriving in my mailbox. More trees to the blade. I wonder if they use recycled paper?

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