Opinion

Nicholas Wapshott

The Oscars: Reflections of America

Nicholas Wapshott
Jan 11, 2013 21:03 UTC

When the Oscar presenters rip open the envelope for best picture at the Academy Awards next month they will be offering a rare glimpse into the soul of America.

Movies have held a special place in American cultural life since they first flickered on sheets stretched across theater stages. And the pictures and people chosen to receive the Oscars have come to represent an artistic aristocracy to revere and admire.Among the movies Academy members are considering are three that offer distinctly different views of how Americans see themselves and their place in the world.

Ben Affleck’s Argo is about a group of American diplomats in Iran who slipped out the back of the embassy in Tehran the day Islamic fundamentalists rushed in the front. They took refuge in the plucky Canadian ambassador’s residence and, by posing as Canadian filmmakers looking for locations for a nonexistent Hollywood movie, obtained papers that allowed them to fly to freedom.

The movie is a traditional piece of Hollywood hokum. In real life the escape lacked the movie’s contrived tense, near-capture moments and the final scene, where Khomeini’s goons race down the runway to prevent the plane carrying our anxious envoys from taking off, never happened.

But what the heck. It is a ripping good yarn laced with humor in which the truth was bent a little to keep us on the edges of our seats.

Since when have personal guns been used to defend political liberty?

Nicholas Wapshott
Jan 9, 2013 21:23 UTC

Piers Morgan is the most unlikely campaigning journalist. The smooth-faced Morgan, who arrived from Britain to replace Larry King as CNN’s chief celebrity interviewer, can, if pushed, engage with serious guests on serious topics. But, as someone who cut his teeth writing showbiz tittle-tattle for Rupert Murdoch, he seemed more at ease pitching softball questions to boldfaced names plugging their latest products.

What a difference a massacre of children makes. After a frivolous November guest list that, despite the presidential election, included Mike Tyson, Kitty Kelley, Oliver Stone and Tyler Perry, among other gossip column fodder, he turned to a subject that celebrity interviewers keep well away from because, even in the wake of another mass killing, it is so painfully pointless to raise: gun control. And in doing so, Morgan found his voice. Americans have become so weary at the grip the NRA and other gun industry lobbyists have on the gun debate that the simple horror and amazement Morgan expressed on hearing of the Sandy Hook bloodbath came as a refreshing surprise. What sort of country, he asked, cannot defend its schoolchildren from mad people with automatic weapons? What has to be done to bring the repeated slaughter of innocents to an end?

For his pains, Morgan attracted a full magazine of gun nuts, including one Alexander Emerick “Alex” Jones, a self-described libertarian, “paleoconservative” and “aggressive constitutionalist” who once ran as a Republican in Texas House District 48 (facing certain defeat, he withdrew before Election Day). He believes George W. Bush was behind the September 11 attacks and Bill Clinton plotted the Oklahoma City bombings. He was so incensed that Morgan dare use his First Amendment rights to ask an awkward question about guns that he is demanding the president deport the chat show host for sedition. To find a more invidious example of muddle-headed, brazen hypocrisy, you have to go back to 2009, when anti-government Tea Party activists held up placards screaming “Government Keep Your Hands Off My Medicare.” Being a good Fleet Street tabloid editor, Morgan promptly invited Jones to make his case on Piers Morgan Tonight.

The real reason Obama wants Hagel

Nicholas Wapshott
Jan 8, 2013 16:58 UTC

You might imagine the president has quite enough trouble on his hands with the looming battle with House Republicans over extending the debt ceiling without opening a second front over the appointment of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense. Although a distinguished former Republican senator, Hagel has already attracted venomous opposition from his old colleagues who think, among many other complaints, he is not sound on Israel and has been too critical of American policy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Does the president really need more aggravation? Isn’t it a golden rule of politics not to spend your political capital all at once, as the president did in his first term when he pressed through healthcare reform to the detriment of an effective plan to reshape the wayward financial institutions? Having achieved a partial victory in the fiscal cliff negotiations by raising taxes on the super-rich, does Obama really need to take on the House and Senate at the same time?

The Republican charge list against Hagel is long, starting with the accusation that he is not really a Republican at all. Hagel, who believes “the Republican Party has come loose of its moorings,” might argue with conviction that it is the Republican Party that has deserted him, not the other way around, but he has certainly relished tweaking the noses of his old pals. In short, he thinks they are not up to snuff. “When you ask the question, Has [the Republican approach] worked? I don’t think many people will say it has worked,” he said. “God knows, I would never question the quality of our elected officials. That’s why I’m so popular with many of them.”

The high cost of hating government

Nicholas Wapshott
Jan 2, 2013 16:26 UTC

The tourniquet applied by the outgoing Congress to the economy allows a two-month breather before we are consumed by the next deadline. The president and his party can allow themselves a brief moment of celebration for imposing higher taxes on the richest Americans, but the next stage in fixing the nation’s fiscal problems may not be as easy. By the end of February, lawmakers must find enough cuts in public spending to allow the debt ceiling to be raised. Two more months of uncertainty will prevent businesses and consumers from making spending decisions that would bolster the economic recovery.

The devil is not so much in the detail of the arguments to come as the big picture that frames the debilitating running debate. While the difference between the sides is ostensibly over taxes and public spending and borrowing, the more profound division is over where government should begin and end. For many of the Republican Party’s Tea Party insurgents, the choice is even more fundamental: whether there should be a government at all. Their unbending position, demanding an ever-diminishing role for the federal government, has levied an enormous unnecessary cost on everyone else.

Since Republicans regained control of the House in the 2010 mid-terms, when the Tea Party tide was in full force, they have attempted to freeze the size of government, coincidentally putting a brake on economic recovery. They have vetoed attempts at further economic stimulus, encouraged America’s economy to be downgraded by the ratings agencies by threatening not to extend the debt ceiling, and tried to veto any and every tax increase in the fiscal cliff talks. Their aim is to shrink government by starving it of funds. Such uncompromising absolutism has led to the dampening of business confidence and investment that would have created jobs.

Yes, there is a better way to run a railroad

Nicholas Wapshott
Dec 28, 2012 15:19 UTC

Before we consign Mitt Romney and the whole of his failed program to the trash, it is worth recycling one of his proposals that has considerable merit: the privatization of Amtrak. Passenger railroads have rarely if ever made money. Even at the peak of the Railroad Age, the ferrying of humans rather than freight was a money-losing enterprise designed to add allure to the more mundane but profitable business of hauling goods. Amid the failure of private enterprise, however, a clear need was exposed for an environmentally friendly passenger service that linked city center to city center.

Human rail transport was considered so desirable, and met such a public need, that when the free market failed it was considered unconscionable to simply abandon the idea as a noble experiment that failed. Out of the ashes of the free enterprise rail system was salvaged a truncated nationalized railroad network, Amtrak – and what an awkward, unloved, poorly run travesty of a public service it has become. The heir to the romantic experiment of the iron horse and railroad barons that opened up the continent and funneled pioneers and investment into sparsely populated spaces has become a faded, complacent, dowdy rail system that would not pass muster in the Third World.

Rescuing the best of the passenger rail service so it will earn at least part of its keep for the rest of the century offers a conundrum that cuts to the heart of the argument about the border between the public good and the free market. Like the provision of universal healthcare, social security and welfare, there is no easy way to match the evident public benefit of a rapid transit rail system to the failure of the free market to provide one. The quandary is made more confused because, while railroads no longer compete with one another, they do compete with airlines, cars and buses.

After Newtown, guns are one more rift in the GOP

Nicholas Wapshott
Dec 19, 2012 18:02 UTC

When political parties lose after a bitterly fought electoral battle, they prefer to lick their wounds in private. The glare of publicity is not helpful in exploring what went wrong and charting a fresh course. The Republicans, however, find their election postmortem taking place in the full public gaze. When it comes to the most urgent issue confronting the nation, the fiscal cliff, they face an invidious choice. They must decide by Dec. 31 whether to persist in the stance they adopted at the election, saving the ultra-rich from higher taxation, or to raise taxes on all Americans. If they hold firm, they will be blamed for levying $1,200 a year on every middle-class family. That is not good news for the party of low taxation.

If their fiscal cliff dilemma were not bad enough, since the slaughter of the schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut, Republicans are set to defend a challenge to the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. Concerned, angry Americans are asking why lawmakers have failed to protect them and their children from arbitrary execution. The Republican leadership must now choose whether to join the president in finding a way to avoid similar massacres or face the electoral consequences. If they get that pivotal decision wrong, they risk being cast as coldhearted villains, out of touch with the moderate voters they need to win back the White House and the Senate.

Little wonder that Republicans backed by the National Rifle Association have made themselves scarce. Finding a Republican legislator to appear on camera to defend the status quo is as hard as finding someone to argue that hard drug dealers perform a valuable public service. NBC’s Meet the Press contacted all 31 NRA-backed senators for comment, and every last one kept his head below the barricade.

Central bankers have abandoned Milton Friedman

Nicholas Wapshott
Dec 17, 2012 18:38 UTC

It is a cruel irony of fate that 2012, the year that celebrates the centennial of Milton Friedman’s birth, is the year that marks the end of his preeminence as an influence over economic policy. Since the emergence in the early 1970s of stagflation – a corrosive combination of lack of growth matched by inflation in double figures – Friedman’s dictums on the causes and cures of rising prices have been the mood music behind management of many leading economies. Since the Great Recession took hold, however, the priorities of government economists have evolved, and once more growth and employment are emerging as the prime goals of public policy.

In the 33 years since Paul Volcker was made Federal Reserve chairman by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, Friedman’s idea that inflation is the economy’s greatest danger has ruled the roost. So long as inflation is kept at around 2 percent, unemployment has been allowed to find its own level. But times have changed. At the first meeting of the Federal Reserve since Barack Obama’s re-election, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has made the creation of jobs a principal aim alongside keeping inflation in check.

In practice, this means interest rates will not be raised so long as unemployment remains above 6.5 percent and inflation is forecast to remain below 2.5 percent. With this tap on the tiller, Bernanke has quietly dispatched the Age of Friedman, replacing it with a policy that harks back to the Keynesian days when “full employment” was the sole target. (Technical note: In economics, “full employment” does not mean when everyone is employed; to allow for the churn as workers move among employers and other adjustments to the labor force, “full employment” is usually deemed to be when 94 percent to 97 percent of those seeking jobs are employed.)

Newtown: Family drama as national tragedy

Nicholas Wapshott
Dec 14, 2012 23:31 UTC

We may never come to understand exactly what was on the crazed mind of Adam Lanza, the man identified as the Connecticut gunman who set out from his home with murder in his heart. All we know, based on reports, is that this troubled young man had an issue with his mother, a schoolteacher in Newtown, Connecticut, that so enraged him he drove with a .223-caliber assault rifle and at least two other guns to attack in cold blood  an elementary school where she taught.

By mid-morning break at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, a reported 20 children and six adults were also dead,* pointlessly killed as they went about their peaceful business of teaching and being taught. As a nation, all we are left with are chilling pictures of frightened schoolchildren clutching each other in a crocodile line, weeping in fear and in horror at what they have just witnessed.

We are left wondering, what was Lanza thinking? Why should so many suffer for his agitated state? Why does a possible family quarrel end in a massacre of unrelated innocents? What price must we continue to pay in human lives to protect the Constitution’s apparent guarantee for us to bear arms?

Is conservativism going extinct?

Nicholas Wapshott
Dec 12, 2012 17:40 UTC

There was so much cacophony at the Republican National Convention in Tampa this summer that some unscripted remarks were not given the prominence they deserved. One of the most prescient, in light of Mitt Romney’s defeat, was this from South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham: “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.” Graham’s bleak demographic assessment of the conservative future was confirmed by David Bositis, of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, whose harsh verdict was that the “Republican Party base is white, aging and dying off.”

Has the GOP really become a redoubt for “angry white guys”? Will Republicans put themselves out of business by not appealing fast enough to young voters? To put it at its most stark: Are conservatives going extinct? Graham’s view was echoed this past weekend by the Republican sage George Will. Pondering whether the Supreme Court will declare gay marriage legal, he said, “There is something like an emerging consensus. Quite literally, the opposition to gay marriage is dying. It’s old people.”

The problem with many aging Americans is that their reactionary views are out of sync with those of women, people of color, immigrants and gays who make up the Democrats’ election winning “rainbow coalition.” As the 2012 results show, when it comes to social issues ‑ women’s rights, such as equal pay; women’s health, including contraception and abortion; the rights of racial minorities, including basic elements of democracy such as access to the ballot; immigration, both legal and illegal, and equal rights for children of illegals; gay rights and homosexual marriage ‑ the Republicans fiercely defend the status quo. And the older the Republicans, the more reactionary they tend to be.

The crumbling of the Murdoch dynasty

Nicholas Wapshott
Dec 4, 2012 22:59 UTC
Rupert Murdoch has had a rough few weeks. He had to race to Melbourne, Australia, to visit his 103-year-old mother, Dame Elisabeth, who has died in Australia.* There is nothing like the death of your mother to remind you of your own mortality.

Then last month the political party he supports and largely owns lost the election. When you have Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Roger Ailes, Karl Rove, John Bolton, Liz Cheney, William Kristol, Dick Morris, Oliver North, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich on the books and have all your media properties conduct a virulent, ad hominem campaign against the president, then watch the Republicans lose so convincingly, it must be hard to know where you went wrong.

Then on Monday Murdoch announced his reluctant splitting of News Corp. in two, dividing the company between News Corp.–containing the mostly hard-copy waning press properties he dabbles in as an expensive hobby–and Fox Group, made up of the money-making media properties, like the Fox movie studio, the Fox TV network, and Fox News, that the company’s non-family and therefore non-voting shareholders prefer. The restructuring was forced upon Murdoch in the wake of the revelation that phone hacking had become quotidian at his British newspapers, a crime of which, despite his addiction to editorial micromanagement, he has always denied all knowledge. Had he not taken the initiative and divided his company, the report by Lord Justice Leveson on corruption in the British press might have demanded a more painful remedy.

To stem the damage being done to his company’s profit centers, and to appease one of his biggest sleeping shareholders, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, Murdoch closed the News of the World, the scandal rag he used to intimidate those who did not toe his line, and he lost his chief executive in London, Rebekah Brooks, who awaits trial for interfering with the course of justice, among other charges. Almost all the other 86 arrested so far, except those they are accused of bribing, are former Murdoch employees.

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