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You can define a mythical creature with precision, observed St. Thomas Aquinas, but that doesn’t make a phoenix exist. To be there, things actually have to have the property of existence. St. Thomas would be a party-pooper in today’s politics, where “yes, we can” means that we can do whatever we want, even if it violates custom, the constitution or the laws of nature.
The television cartoon South Park offers a useful allegory for the administration’s flight from realism. In one episode the children’s teacher, Mr. Garrison, gets a sex change, little Kyle gets negroplasty (to turn him into a tall black basketball star), while Kyle’s father undergoes dolphinplasty, that is, surgery to make him look like a dolphin.
Looking like a dolphin, of course, doesn’t make you one. Sadly, the Barack Obama administration hasn’t figured this out. Out of the confusion of its first 100 days, we can glimpse a unifying principle, and that principle looks remarkably like the sort of plastic surgery practiced in South Park.
Like dolphinplasty and negroplasty, it has given us cosmetic solutions that we might call civitaplasty, turning a terrorist gang into a state; fiducioplasty, making a bunch of bankrupt institutions look like functioning banks; creditoplasty, making government seizure of private property look like a corporate reorganization; matrimonioplasty, making same-sex cohabitation look like a marriage; and interfecioplasty, making murder look like a surgical procedure.
There is a consistent theme to the administration’s major policy initiatives: Obama and his advisors start from the way they think things ought to be and work backwards to the uncooperative real world. If reality bars the way, it had better watch out. In the South Park episode, the plastic surgery underwent catastrophic failures too disgusting to recount here. Obama’s attempt to carve reality into the way things ought to be will also undergo catastrophic failure, perhaps in even more disgusting ways.
Consider the reorganization of Chrysler, perhaps the most traumatic event to afflict the credit market in living memory. In 2007, Chrysler borrowed US$10 billion secured by its assets – real estate, brand names and other collateral. According to the US Bankruptcy Code, senior creditors have first claim on assets in the event of failure. The Obama administration, though, offered the senior creditors just 33 cents on the dollar, but gave a group of junior creditors, the United Auto Workers Union, 55 cents on the dollar. Most of the senior creditors are banks receiving federal assistance, and they of course did not object. Some creditors did object, and Obama denounced them on the airwaves as “speculators.” Some of the creditors received death threats, and other creditors report that the White House threatened to destroy their reputations.
This is not a credit market, but creditoplasty. What is it that gives existence to a credit market? “Credit” derives from the Latin verb credere, to believe. We trust other people with our money because we believe that they will repay it with interest, and because we believe that the courts will uphold our contractual rights in the event of a dispute. Credit markets do not exist in most of the world’s countries because faith is absent in the good will of counterparties and the impartiality of the law. In most countries, might makes right: the ruling clique takes what it wants, as King Ahab took Naboth’s vineyard. There is no rule of law. No one invests except through a corrupt deal with the ruling clique. No firm grows beyond what the members of a family can manage, and no excess capital remains in the country. Labor languishes for lack of capital.
A few countries, notably those blessed with a heritage of English common law, have credit markets. Savings turn seamlessly into investment, prospective retirees lend their savings with confidence to young people building families, homes and businesses, and tomorrow’s prospective income is transformed into today’s wealth through the power of faith in the future.
Obama’s handling of the Chrysler bankruptcy has destroyed this faith. No investor remains in the Chrysler deal out of belief in the company’s future, or out of faith in the legal system to uphold contractual rights. The big banks are there because Obama has them on life support. The smaller creditors are there because Obama has threatened them with reputational ruin, and persons unnamed have threatened them with violence. The UAW is here because it has a political deal with the White House. Violence, fraud and corruption hold together Chrysler Motors, in the sad template of Third World finance – not faith or belief. Force and fraud destroy faith, in fact, erase the possibility of faith for a very long time to come.
Apart from Chrysler, no investor trusts America’s largest banks. They can borrow money in the markets because the federal government guarantees it – nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars of bank bonds guaranteed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation have come to market this year. They can make profits if and when the government says they can, for the government tells each bank how much capital it must raise and by how much it must dilute its shareholders’ equity.
The banks depend on Treasury funding to securitize assets, and on the balance sheet of the Federal Reserve to provide a bid for their assets. They are not fiduciaries, but the product of fiducioplasty, the mere cosmetic appearance of banking. Cynical calculation about the administration’s political goals replaces assessment of bank business models, as I have chronicled at my finance blog, “Inner Workings.”
The analogy to plastic surgery holds in the field of foreign policy as well, where the president’s special ambassadors have fanned out to solicit the good graces of the world’s terrorists. The White House wants to get Iran involved in Afghanistan, offer the Taliban a power-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan, give Syria a key negotiating role, and pitch a Palestinian state with involvement from Hamas. Out of this witches’ cauldron, the administration hopes to conjure up a Palestinian state – call it civitaplasty. Giving guns and money to a collection of individuals on a given spot of ground, though, does not make a people, much less a state.
What does constitute a state? Cicero defined a people as an assemblage with common interests. In the City of God (XIX, 23), St. Augustine took issue with the great statesman of the Roman republic: “A people [rather] is the association of a multitude of rational beings united by a common agreement of the objects of their love … to observe the character of a particular people we must examine the objects of its love.” He continued:
God rules the obedient city according to His grace, so that it sacrifices to none but Him, and whereby, in all the citizens of this obedient city, the soul consequently rules the body and reason the vices in the rightful order, so that, as the individual just man, so also the community and people of the just, live by faith, which works by love, that love whereby man loves God as He ought to be loved, and his neighbor as himself – there, I say, there is not an assemblage associated by a common acknowledgment of right, and by a community of interests. But if there is not this, there is not a people, if our definition be true, and therefore there is no republic; for where there is no people there can be no republic.
What is it that Hamas loves? According to numerous of its spokesmen in repeated statements over the years, what it loves is death. “We love death more than the Jews love life,” Hamas says. Hamas leader Ismail Haniya told an American interviewer last year that his fighters were willing to die, whereas “the Jews love life more than any other people, and they prefer not to die.” The leader of Hamas’ ally, the Iranian-backed Shi’ite organization Hezbollah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, said, “We have discovered how to hit the Jews where they are most vulnerable. The Jews love life, so that is what we shall take from them. We will win because the Jews love life, and we love death.”
A people held together by a common love of death is a contradiction in terms. It is a non-people, that is, a people dedicated to its own destruction. It cannot form a state. In my view, the love of death evinced by Islamist authorities expresses despair about the future of Islamic civilization in a modern world.
This year’s most-cited book on Islam, Ali Allawi’s The Crisis of Islamic Civilization, makes the case poignantly. The Palestinians cannot resign themselves to the misery of their circumstances as a backward and poorly adapted people in a modern world. Many of them, including a very large number of their young men, would rather die. Civitaplasty can produce only the cosmetic imitation of a state, but not the genuine article.
By the same principle, the anti-realists of the Obama administration believe that they can define marriage to be whatever they want it to mean. Matrimoniaplasty makes same-sex cohabitation look like a marriage, on the premise that marriage is a right. That is just what the Spanish government intends in giving transgender men the “right” to be women, with a passport to prove it. In social-democratic Spain, a man can don high heels and lipstick, and obtain a passport certifying himself to be a herself. Men, however, do not have a right to be women; they can obtain a “female” ID, but not a date for Saturday night. Marriage is not a right, but rather a state, in which two people become one flesh.
Simply because we set out the parameters of a market, a corporation, a bank, a state, or a marriage does not mean it has any more claim on reality that St. Thomas’ phoenix. Some combination of natural capacity and sense of sanctity, melded by many years of human experience, give existence to such things. The flight from realism will leave us with neither credit, nor civility, nor domesticity. Like little Kyle’s knees in the cited South Park episode, these substitutes for reality will blow up in our face.