Herbert London is President Emeritus of the Hudson Institute, Professor Emeritus of New York University, and author of Diary of A Dean, Hamilton Books, and America's Secular Challenge, Encounter Books.
Woodstock in New York
The Wall Street demonstrators have managed to capture the attention of people across the globe. For some, this is the Arab Street transplanted to the U.S. For others, it is the anti-capitalist sentiment exemplified by the Obama administration. However, it also could be seizing the moment to create the Woodstock nation in the mind of an adolescent generation.
This outpouring of emotion about greed and exploitation is a rant against what these demonstrators invariably say: that Wall Street financiers are greedy. Alas, financiers are greedy and the bail out of the banks may have been good for Wall Street, but certainly not Main Street. However, these occupiers of Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan seem to be oblivious to Adam Smith who argued that greed in the aggregate can have a healthy effect on the economy.
The venting often yields fatuous solutions. "We want to change the system," say the demonstrators. Which system is not clear, nor is there a strategy for making that happen. It is easy to be sympathetic to a demonstration against unfairness, but that should be translated into actionable policy, a condition not yet discernible.
Is it the free market they oppose? Or is it income disparity? Is it the lack of opportunity or high paying jobs? Is the entire demonstration a form of puerile Marxism, or is there a foundation at the core of the demonstrations?
Perhaps at some point the progeny of Saul Alinsky will convert the expression of despair into a "cause." That could be an opportunity for the left or a tragedy for the country.
One man, who said it was hypocritical of me to denounce these demonstrators when I haven't denounced the Tea Party, seems incapable of appropriate distinctions. If you prefer the American Revolution to the Russian Revolution, does that make you a hypocrite? Alas, the demonstration near Wall Street hasn't any real focus at the moment. It is a display of unhappiness. What the young adherents seem to be saying is that life is unfair. By contrast, the Tea Party has a specific gripe and a specific method for addressing it. Tea Partiers believe that our government has become too large and intrusive. It is their belief that expenditures must be cut to ensure our future. You may agree or disagree with this position, but it is precise and subject to evaluation.
How is someone supposed to respond to unfairness or sin? Most New Yorkers realize intuitively that life is unfair. But most go about their business paying bills, taking care of their families and meeting their obligations. It often appears as if the occupiers of Wall Street have forgotten about the 99 percent who pay their taxes so the police can protect those in Zuccotti Park.
Weather conditions in New York have cooperated with the demonstrators thus far. But wintry conditions are coming. Will the demonstrators remain as devoted to their cause when snow is on the ground? It may not snow in Los Angeles but New York is the eye of the civil hurricane; when it ends here, it is likely to end elsewhere. Moreover, how does one remain devoted when positions are unfocused?
One member of the Zuccotti Park occupiers said he left his construction job in Pennsylvania to lend his support to the demonstrators who are clamoring for more jobs. "You are leaving your job to protest for more jobs?" I said. Being part of the action is probably more what he wants. I suspect he is not alone.
This is a huge, live burlesque show of kids craving attention and getting it from pandering adults. One cop said, "Let them have their fun." Unfortunately fun for them isn't fun for those who live and work in the Wall Street area. But nature addresses demonstrators of this kind: winter is coming. Maybe God is in Heaven and doesn't appreciate disruption for its own sake.
Israel and the U.S., 2011
There is little doubt that Israel looks to the United States for support. It is somewhat like the picked-on younger brother eager to have his sibling come to his aid. In the case of the U.S. and Israel that has usually been the case, albeit the 1956 war in the Suez was an exception.
Now something has gone sour. For reasons somewhat elusive, President Obama has arrived at the dubious conclusion conditions in the Middle East might improve if Israel and the Palestinians could arrive at an understanding about a Palestinian state.
Never mind that Assad kills his own Syrian citizens interested in regime change. Never mind that Egypt is unstable after Mubarak's unceremonious ouster. Never mind the civil war in the Sudan has led to the death of thousands. Never mind that the rebels in Libya may not be interested in a democratic republic. Never mind Iraq is close to civil war as U.S. forces decline. Never mind Afghanistan has a civil war with U.S. forces on the ground. Never mind Pakistan is a friend by day and a foe by night. And never mind Iran is about to acquire nuclear weapons. The issue for Obama is organic population growth on the West Bank. Now that's an issue worth the president's attention.
What most people do not know, including President Obama, is that most settlements are a literal stone's throw from Jerusalem. The communities that the president complains about are the ones that allow Jerusalem to survive. They offer strategic depth or at least a little of it. Without Judea and Samaria, Israel's waist is 81/2 miles wide. Israel would simply become indefensible. In fact, in this scenario a terrorist firing a Stinger from the Judean hills could shoot every commercial plane taking off from and landing at Ben Gurion airport.
While the president has referred to Israel's recalcitrance about return to the so-called 1967 borders, he overlooks the unwillingness of either Fatah or Hamas to recognize the state of Israel. On the contrary, even as they demand a state, they demonize Israel and launch weekly attacks against it.
Israeli opinion is divided. The left believes that since Israel cannot incorporate the nearly 4 million Arabs in the West Bank, the creation of a Palestinian state is a safety valve that avoids a demographic nightmare. The right contends a Palestinian state would be a sanctuary for terrorism disrupting Israeli lives now and into the future.
Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu contends a state can be created if the P.A. (Palestinian Authority) renounces violence, disarms, and recognizes the state of Israel as a Jewish state. It is a reasonable stance politically, but one opposed by all parties in the Palestinian territory. Once again Palestinians seem to embrace the Abba Eban dictum in which "the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity." However in this case the opportunity may be seized by the General Assembly seemingly eager to impose a Palestinian state on Israel without preconditions. Fortunately, the U.S. is likely to veto any state proposal within the Security Council halting at least for now any Palestinian national entity.
Within the White House there are very few divisions. President Obama is intent on mollifying Arab opinion. It is also much too complicated trying to sort out issues as political cultures in the region are roiling; but the Israel-Palestinian issue can be addressed by simply putting more pressure on Israel. The only fly in the ointment is Obama is intent on reelection. For him to achieve this goal, he needs Jewish political and financial support. An active anti-Israeli agenda simply won't fly. So expect equivocation, appeasement and sounds of sweet harmony. It won't be sincere; then again it doesn't have to be since Jewish Americans are already inclined to support Obama even if it isn't in their interest to do so.
Israel and Just War Theory
Now that a trade of more than one thousand convicted terrorists for one Israeli soldier has been transacted, it should be clear to any of the skeptics which side in the Middle East puts the greatest premium on life. Similarly, it should be noted from this trade which side adheres to the principles of "just war."
Nevertheless, when Judge Richard Goldstone wrote his report about the conduct of the Israeli Defense Force in the Gazan "Cast Lead" operation, he indicated in several places that the troops acted irresponsibly leading to unnecessary deaths in the civilian population. Although Goldstone later recanted, the damage was done. His report became a propaganda weapon against the Israeli government from Europe to Africa, from the groves of Academe to the corridors of the United Nations.
The problem with the report is that Goldstone relied on the reflections of officials in Gaza instead of films provided by the Israeli forces. Seeing isn't always believing, and doctored pictures have a notorious history. Nonetheless, I recently spent several hours viewing films which seem to offer incontrovertible evidence that Israeli troops did whatever they could to control collateral damage.
In fact, there were times when they put their own lives at risk in order to avoid killing an innocent person. Time after time, a known terrorist hiding behind "human shields" in an apartment complex was spared in order to avoid the death of innocents. Rockets launched from a school roof remained untouched until children left the premises. In the heat of battle Israeli forces maintained a level of moral behavior that was exemplary. Were there civilians killed in the encounter? Of course, war is not volleyball. But that should not detract from the stance and behavior of the Israeli forces.
I recently had the occasion to ask a base commander about the behavior of his troops in battle. His response was revealing. "Our troops are trained to put life ahead of personal safety." The Israeli army officials contend that unnecessary shelling is not acceptable. Firepower is related directly to the force used against Israel.
Many commentators on this subject point to an Arab boy of about ten crying as he approached a checkpoint. Soldiers on the scene went into high alert. It was obvious this deranged youngster was recruited to be a suicide bomber. One Israeli soldier recognizing the boy's agitation called out to him, "Brother" in Arabic. It was not clear when or whether the youngster would set himself ablaze. Nonetheless, the IDF soldier continued to walk to the boy, took him in his arms, and disarmed the explosive device around his waist. It is instructive that from that time on the Palestinians have used a remote control device to explode suicide bombers. The episode also tells a great deal about the Israeli military psychology.
Arab attempts to paint a different picture of the IDF have been successful. Many in the Arab world see these well-trained and -disciplined troops as amoral. That, however, is far from the truth. These Israeli eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds are told from the first day of national service that they carry the banner of a civilization that puts a premium on life. Their job is to protect and defend. They are given a green light to kill only when other methods to stop an enemy fail.
At a training session for IDF entrants at Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem, teenagers drafted into military service discuss the roots of war, the conflict in the Middle East, the history of this new nation. But most significantly, they study just war theory and a moral stance for fighting those who rely on terror methods. Of course, no system is foolproof; occasionally a soldier will act improperly. This, however, is the exception. Israel is in a daily struggle. After all, 250 million Arabs want to destroy this nation. But Israeli leaders won't modify their moral code one iota. As the commander of this training center noted, "If we altered our approach, what effect would it have on soldiers when they leave military service?" One fights not only to save a nation, but to save basic civilization.
The Neglect of "High Flyers"
The Thomas Fordham Institute released the results of a study this week (September 19) entitled "Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude? Performance Trends of Top Students." This is among the first studies to examine the performance of America's highest achieving children over time and at the individual student level. Produced in partnership with the Northwest Evaluation Association, this study's results indicate that many high-achieving students struggle to maintain their elite performance over their school years and often fail to improve their reading ability at the same rate as their average and below average cohorts.
As I see it this study raises a troubling but predictable question: Is the U.S. preoccupation with closing achievement gaps and "leaving no child behind" coming at the expense of our "talented tenth"?
Although this study was done at the elementary school level, it has a direct bearing on higher education. So focused are academics on an egalitarian ethos that distinctions, once critical in the Academy, have virtually disappeared. With grade inflation endemic, the honor roll is little more than a roster of enrolled students. Even Phi Beta Kappa status has been vitiated by undifferentiated grading.
To suggest that there is a talented tenth that deserves special treatment would be regarded as a form of "elitism," a pejorative widely used on campus.
It is hardly surprising that the U.S. does so poorly on international tests. What we have encouraged at every stage of formal education is compression at the mean. That translates into a modest improvement at the bottom quartile and neglect at the upper quartile. Excellence is simply seen as less important than access.
That this condition may have an influence on national competitiveness is one of those factors better left unstated. This is an America where everyone is believed to be above average, even though the net result of our education systems is mediocrity.
Taxing Those Who Leave the U.S.
Suppose you oppose the tax and spend policies of New York State and have decided to leave. Although tax collectors will pursue you and you will have to demonstrate you spend more than half your time elsewhere, relocation is possible. An American citizen can march with his feet to a state system consistent with his economic and political philosophy.
But suppose you want to vote with your feet outside the United States. Suppose you do not agree with Obama's tax policy, or universal health care, or military policy, and choose to relocate. What you will find is that taxes are imposed based on citizenship, not place of residence. One may leave the United States but the United States will not leave you. Taxes will still have to be paid to a government with which one disagrees. In fact, the United States is the only country that taxes the global income of its citizens.
According to the IRS:
If you are a U.S. citizen or resident alien, the rules for filing income, estate, and gift tax returns, and paying estimated tax are generally the same whether you are in the United States or abroad. Your worldwide income is subject to U.S. income tax, regardless of where you reside.
There is evidence that policies are moderated by the ability of citizens to leave their residence and find a congenial home for tax policy or other policy concerns. The French "wealth tax" was so onerous, that many wealthy residents moved to Belgium. In time, this led to policy reform in France.
According to Forbes, after Obama's tax laws passed many Americans gave up their citizenship rather than pay taxes at an extortionate rate. However, their preference - in most instances - was to retain their citizenship even as they relocated.
In effect, the American government has a leash around its citizens. It says even if you wish to express your freedom of conscience by moving to another nation, the IRS will not let go. American citizenship means the payment of American taxes even if you are living in Sydney or Saigon and have decided not to return to the United States.
There is something odd about this arrangement in the land of the free. It is also a condition about which most Americans are ignorant, until that time when exasperation leads to a change of national venue. At that point the long arm of government reaches out for you whenever you may be.
Perhaps that explains why Mark Twain once asked "What is the difference between a tax collector and a taxidermist?" The answer: "A taxidermist leaves the skin." President Ronald Reagan once noted that "the government is like a baby's alimentary canal, with a happy appetite at one end and no responsibility at the other." Clearly a government that continues to impose its will on citizens who wish to leave the nation in body and soul is irresponsible.
It makes sense to tax those who live here and wish to retain their citizenship, but it makes very little sense to tax those who oppose the policies of the nation and, as a consequence, have moved elsewhere. *