Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Socialists oust right; face governing woes

The following is from today's edition of The Morning Sun.

STOCKHOLM — Sweden is closer to regaining its crown as the socialist utopia.

This may come as news to most Americans, who always thought of the Nordic country as the epitome of socialism.

Yet the reality here has been far different since Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and his center-right government dethroned the Social Democrats, a party that had been Sweden’s natural governing party for most of the country’s democratic history, back in 2006. Now after eight years Reinfeldt finds himself on the outs after losing a third term Sunday to Stefan Löfven, the incoming Social Democrat prime minister.

The outgoing four-party coalition government, known as the Alliance, includes parties spanning the spectrum from the business-friendly, mainstream Moderate Party of Reinfeldt to smaller parties that include traditional liberal — think pro-free market as opposed to the self-described “progressive” and labor union-aligned Democrats post-F.D.R. — to the Christian Democrats, a Swedish version of the religious right.

Under Reinfeldt’s premiership, Sweden mostly avoided the global financial crisis that to this very day still haunts much of Europe’s economy. Through his two, four-year terms, he cut personal and corporate taxes, reformed welfare benefits and restrictive labor laws and presided over a wave of privatization that touched the once politically off-limits welfare state. In many ways, he delivered a conservative case study for modernists on the right, including Republicans, looking for a way out of the political wilderness.

Reinfeldt’s adherence to free market economics prevailed even when Volvo and Saab went bankrupt. Unlike counterparts in Washington, he didn’t bailout the country’s iconic carmakers. As a result, both were acquired by Chinese owners. (This would be unimaginable with Detroit’s Big Three.)

Many have proclaimed Sunday’s win by Löfven a fatal defeat for the free market to say nothing of Reinfeldt’s much-lauded reforms.

The reality is far different, however.

Reinfeldt’s loss was more a result of the natural ebb and flow that takes place in a democratic system of representative government. Parties win and parties lose, especially after eight years in power.

While the Alliance’s record was sound, the captain at its helm was tired and kept sailing into the wind when he needed to tack starboard and confront the insurgent Sweden Democrats.

The populist, anti-establishment party won significant votes— similar to the 1992 presidential election, when Ross Perot gave the election to Bill Clinton by taking votes from incumbent President George H.W. Bush — from not only Reinfeldt’s Moderates, but also the other Alliance parties.

The Swedish political establishment shuns the Sweden Democrats at its own peril, as there is clearly a large void on the flag-waving right.

This also means Löfven and his Social Democrats will have to tread carefully, including their collaboration with the ex-communist, if there is such a thing, Left Party.

They would be wise to put Third Way pragmatism over socialism.

If the Alliance remains united and finds a way to work with the Sweden Democrats then Löfven’s government will struggle to finish its term, especially if the socialists follow their big government ways.

 — Dennis Lennox

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

In Hong Kong, democracy denied

The following is from today's edition of The Morning Sun.

HONG KONG — Arriving here last week in the place where Eastern and Western cultures, norms and values have uniquely blended together couldn't have come at a more unique moment in this island's rich history.

That is because China’s central government had just blocked efforts to usher in free, fair and open elections for the office of chief executive, essentially a mayor or governor of this former British colony-turned-Chinese territory. As a result, Hong Kong's small-'d' democrats now have to choose between participating in and thereby legitimizing a sham election featuring only pre-approved candidates or keeping the status quo, which also favors the communists.

While Beijing was treaty bound to cede control to an elected government in the aftermath of Britain's Union Jack lowering over Victoria Harbour for the final time in 1997, it was never going to usher in proper democracy. Anyone who thought otherwise was at best foolish, at worst insane.

The reason is quite simple, actually. Doing so could very well bring about the end of the communist regime.

China may have become the world's second-largest economy since the British departure, but all of this growth — to say nothing, at least if you're a good communist, of the unequal prosperity and distribution of wealth among the country’s vast elite — is dependent upon one thing. That one thing is stability.

Beijing has long hoped it can have its cake and eat it too by substituting limited economic and market freedoms for political freedom. In other words, it hopes to pacify democratic desires by allowing so many in China and Hong Kong to get filthy rich.

The last thing the communists will allow is for its prized island to become a full-fledged democracy when it denies the few genuine rights and liberties the people of Hong Kong have as citizens of "one country, two systems" to those on the mainland.

It might have been possible to operate under "one country, two systems" at the time of the handover almost 20 years ago, but not now.

Mainland Chinese are no longer cut off from the world, including their neighbors in Hong Kong. Just ask the hoteliers at Marriott and they will tell you middle-class Chinese are traveling in increasingly larger numbers with each passing year. Further proof can be found at college campuses here in Michigan, where young Chinese make up a large percentage of international students.

Eventually, ordinary Chinese will develop an appetite for the seeds of democracy.

History tells us that this is inevitable, but Beijing can certainly slow this down by constraining the freedoms and liberties — freedom of religion, a relatively free market, the rule of law and an independent judiciary — that have made Hong Kong what it is today.

China cannot afford otherwise because its established order could very well collapse overnight, if the appetite for democracy crossed the South China Sea to the mainland.

Of course, it doesn’t help freedom's cause when few, if any, of the international businesses located in Hong Kong's stunning skyscrapers are going to risk their bottom line by speaking out for the people of Hong Kong.

 — Dennis Lennox

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Defense cuts loom large over NATO summit

The following is from today's edition of The Morning Sun.

NEWPORT, Wales — As leaders of the 28 NATO member countries meet here this week it is important to remember that some sort of new commitment between the alliance was bound to happen in the wake of continued Russian aggression in Ukraine.

While the expected announcement of European countries spending more on defense, as well as the creation a rapid reaction force to be based in eastern Europe, after years of cuts is a good thing, it is too little and too late.

Notwithstanding all of the tough talk — not just involving Russia and Ukraine, but also the Islamic militants in the swaths of Iraq and Syria — the fact remains that few U.S. allies are capable of projecting substantive military force. Strike that, actually. Few U.S. allies are capable of projecting any military force.

With this in mind, it is fair to question whether NATO is actually worth anything in the second decade of the 21st century when the vast majority of member countries fail to meet the minimum defense spending level of two percent of gross domestic product. This imbalance is even more troubling considering President Barack Obama has cut the Navy to its smallest size since Kaiser Wilhelm and World War I with the Army on pace to shrink to pre-World War II manpower levels.

Moreover, the continued resistance of Germany to be an active ally and trusted partner is troubling, especially when the Germans can afford to invest in defense. And when combined with France supplying warships to Russia, it makes one question whether the alliance founded during the Cold War means anything today.

NATO is clearly broken when tiny Estonia and bankrupt Greece are among the few NATO members to meet minimum defense spending levels.

Even the commitment of the United Kingdom, arguably the most reliable and trusted ally of the United States, has to be considered given Prime Minister David Cameron’s defense cuts to say nothing of the referendum on Scottish independence to be held in a couple of weeks. If the Scots do vote to secede then the United Kingdom will cease to exist as a country with Cameron left with little credibility as a major world leader.

A few years back, then-Republican presidential aspirant Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, talked a lot about creating a new alliance of like-minded allies that could be counted upon to be freedom’s sentinel. After all, nobody wants a fair-weather ally.

A perfect example is Australia, which despite being outside NATO is a steadfast U.S. ally and force for good in the wider world.

The same could be said for New Zealand, which together with Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and United States, makes up the Five Eyes intelligence alliance.

The Anglosphere, presuming Scotland stays in the United Kingdom, along with a very select number of non-English-speaking partners, would be in a better position to carry out NATO’s mission than NATO itself.

 — Dennis Lennox

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Tiny Luxembourg full of surprises

This is the time of the year to visit Europe.
Not only do the airfares and hotel rates drop toward the end of August, but the odds of running into a shorts-with-socks and fanny pack-wearing American decrease significantly.
And one of the best places to visit is Luxembourg, which is so off the map for American tourists that most of your friends and family will look puzzled when learning of where you want to go. Expect many responses along the lines of, “Luxembourg is by (insert random country here), right?”
But after seeing your experiences in this small country — a grand duchy headed by a grand duke — at the crossroads of Europe your friends and family will endlessly hit ‘like’ in envy of your postcard-perfect pictures on Instagram and Facebook.
What to do
Start your trip with a visit to the Luxembourg City Tourism Office located at Place Guillaume II, the central town square. While here, purchase the Luxembourg Card for 27 euros (about $35) per person or 68 euros (about $90) for a family. This gives the cardholder free admission to more than 60 touristy attractions for a period of three days.
From here, embark on a walking tour of Luxembourg City, the quaint namesake and capital of the grand duchy. The promenade tour (free with the Luxembourg Card) takes about two hours and gives you a good lay of the land.
After the tour, explore what remains of the immense fortifications, which were so impressive and militarily significant in its time that Luxembourg’s capital was known as the Gibraltar of the North. A stroll along the walls is particularly nice in the early morning with lovely views of Grund, an older part of the city located beneath the old fortress in the Alzette Valley.
The Grand Ducal Palace is a much lower key version of London’s Buckingham Palace. Take a couple of quick pictures, but don’t spend too much time here as there’s really nothing to admire except the palace’s architecture.
The same is true for Notre Dame Cathedral, which is average at best, as cathedrals go. If you are looking for old churches, do see the Chapel of Saint Quirin. Built into the cliffs, this ancient place of worship sits was a Roman-era “heathen shrine” with the present Roman Catholic structure dating to 1355.
On the outskirts of Luxembourg City is the American Military Cemetery (take a public bus for about 15 minutes from Place Guillaume II), the final resting place for Gen. George S. Patton Jr. and more than 5,000 other U.S. soldiers from World War II.
With the Luxembourg Card giving you free train and bus transportation it’s super easy to go beyond the capital and visit Vianden. Here you will find a quintessentially Old World town with everything you would expect: Narrow cobblestone streets, old houses with carved wooden doors and churches older than America.
If you have heard of Vianden, it is probably because of Victor Hugo, the French literary great, who spent considerable time here. You can even visit his former house, which is now a museum.
The must-see is the very historic Vianden Castle, which dates to the 11th century and could easily be a castle from the famous Harry Potter novels. Leave yourself enough time to fully explore the castle and be sure to take in the impressive views from the ramparts. More incredible views of medieval Vianden and the surrounding Our Valley can be had by taking the chairlift (use your Luxembourg Card!) up 1,476 feet. The Church of the Trinitarians and St. Nicholas’ Church, both dating to the 13th century are also worth visiting.
Where to stay and eat
With its location on Place Guillaume II, Hotel Vauban has one of the best locations in the city. This is a very small hotel with limited amenities — it’s really more of an upscale bed and breakfast inn. Nevertheless, the location cannot be beat and the hotel is very clean. Breakfast and high-speed wireless internet are complimentary with rooms from about 90 euros ($119).
Downtown Café (open from 9 a.m. until at least 10 p.m. most days), located about a two-minute walk from the hotel on Rue Chimay, is perfect for simple meals that won’t break the budget. For something more formal, go to Restaurant Clairefontaine. Just be prepared to spend some euros at this very nice Michelin-starred restaurant.
Another option is the twice-weekly market (Wednesday and Saturday) held literally right outside Hotel Vauban in the central town square. Just about anything can be bought here, including all the fixings for a takeaway meal.
If you want to stay the night in Vianden, the Youth Hostel offers a great value with single rooms from 14 euros (about $18.50).
How to get there
No direct flights are available from the United States to Luxembourg, which means a connection is necessary. This also means you could combine a trip to Luxembourg with a visit to France or Belgium via a train from Luxembourg’s central station.
Fares for most of September and October were $1,114 on United Airlines with a departure out of Detroit. Out of Saginaw, flights on Delta Airlines and its partners Air France and KLM with connections in Detroit and Paris were as low as $1,107. All fares were found using Kayak, Google Flights and ITA Matrix.
— Dennis Lennox

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Amash star power rises after Calley's win at GOP confab

The following is from today's edition of The Morning Sun.

NOVI — It was the convention that never happened.

The Republican State Convention convened here over the weekend to formally nominate its candidates for statewide office, including the marquee contest between incumbent Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley and Wes Nakagiri, a political unknown.

At least that was supposed to be the race to watch. In reality, it failed to live up to all the hype of the past several months.

The lack of support for Nakagiri's challenge to Calley’s re-nomination as Governor Rick Snyder's running mate became clear early Saturday morning when he was glad-handing on the vast concrete floor of the Suburban Collection Showplace without handlers or anything remotely approaching an entourage.

In the end, the sensible conservatives (aka real Republicans) were heard loud and clear when they gave 65 percent of the convention's votes to Calley.

That is impressive considering many were expecting floor fights and the sort of contention seen and heard at the Democratic State Convention in Lansing, where pro-abortion delegates disowned William Murphy, the party nominee for Michigan Supreme Court justice, because he received a pro-life endorsement in a race many years ago.

Calley's victory was mostly the result of the first statewide precinct delegate — the last ballot line on each party’s primary election ballot — recruitment campaign since 1988, when a civil war between supporters of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, Jack Kemp and Pat Robertson resulted in dueling conventions at the height of the GOP’s nomination campaign to succeed outgoing President Ronald Reagan.

Another critical component in his win was the surrogacy of Justin Amash, the unabashed libertarian congressman from Cascade Township in Kent County.

Amash, whose district zigs and zags from Montcalm County south to Calhoun County, was inseparable from Calley’s side throughout much of the last year.

All this political capital will serve Amash well, as he now has to choose between being a congressman for life and say the GOP convention nomination for attorney general four years from now.

Right now, Amash seems to relish being the libertarian voice in the lower house of Congress, but he has real star power and quite a few political favors to call in that could make him more than viable if he ran statewide.

LOCALLY: This race won't be on the November ballot, but the campaign for speaker of the state House of Representatives is in full swing.

Kevin Cotter, whose Mt. Pleasant-based constituency includes parts of neighboring Midland County, is fighting it out with Al Pscholka, of Stevensville. Both Cotter and Pscholka have teased endorsement lists with most returning GOP lawmakers and nominees in safe seats lined up behind one or the other. The wild card is Saginaw County's Tim Kelly, who hopes to emerge as a consensus candidate for speaker, if neither Cotter nor Pscholka can cobble together enough votes.

Of course, this is all dependent on Republicans keeping majority in the state House, but that seems increasingly likely what with Democrats focusing on the U.S. Senate campaign in an election year that otherwise favors the GOP.

— Dennis Lennox