Is the Libertarian Movement Moving Anymore?

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It’s been a long time since there was a new libertarian book I wanted to read. Or a libertarian argument I itched to join.

Libertarian thought isn’t what it used to be. Nor libertarian influence. I think it peaked in the ’90s.

Think back on that time. In 1994 the Republicans rallied against Hillary Clinton’s health insurance plan and took back the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, and with a staying power they hadn’t had in 70 years. Bill Clinton tacked to the right, famously saying in 1995, “The era of big government is over.” Whether or not Bill meant it, it meant something that he said it.

Politicians get their proposals from ideas current at the time. If the New Deal was socialistic, it was because in the first half of the last century, socialism was in the air. Similarly, Bill Clinton did some pro-market things in the ’90s that Democrats wouldn’t have done 70 years before.

Libertarian thought isn’t what it used to be. Nor libertarian influence.

The reigning ideas had changed. When Richard Nixon got rid of the draft, the idea came from the free-market economists, principally Martin Anderson and Milton Friedman. Starting under Jimmy Carter and continuing under Ronald Reagan, the federal government followed the advice of the economists and ripped away price and entry controls over airlines, trucking, and natural gas. It opened up the telephone industry to competition and removed interest-rate controls on banks. The New York Stock Exchange freed itself of controls on commissions. The Supreme Court freed professionals of controls on advertising. When unions failed to seed themselves in the new tech industries, they lost their grip on most of the private economy.

Under Clinton, the government supported the extension of private property into the radio spectrum and into the North Pacific fisheries for halibut and black cod. Clinton signed the Republicans’ North American Free Trade Agreement and the Republicans’ welfare reform.

In the last half of the ’90s came the dotcom boom. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and others became cultural figures in a way businessmen hadn’t since the 1920s. The Democrats were happy with the dotcom boom. Al Gore even claimed parenthood of the Internet.

When Richard Nixon got rid of the draft, the idea came from free-market economists.

All this was totally unlike the reigning Democratic thought of the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, or 1960s.

And in the ’90s there came peace. For the first time since Adolf Hitler, America had no enemy. That was a new thing, and a wonderful thing.

None of this is hardcore libertarianism, but think of what libertarianism really is. The essence of it is that your life belongs to you, not the community. We celebrate the private life. Well, the biggest threat to private life is war. From 1940 through 1973, the military could pluck a young man out of private life against his will, put a gun in his hands and make him bellow, “Yes, Sir!” But even with the draft gone, war still skews thought and feeling. It limits what a society can afford, what it can allow, or even what it can discuss. Remember the time after Sept. 11, 2001.

Libertarians like to say their philosophy is about freedom, but it is a particular brand of freedom. The Left offers a brand of freedom: “Just let us control your work and property, and you can be free of worry about food, shelter, schooling, public transit, sickness, and old age.” The Left dismisses the libertarian’s freedom as “the freedom to starve” — which, among other things, it is. The freedom to venture out includes the freedom to fall on your face. And if enough individuals crash and burn, people may decide the system that allows it is not worth it. The libertarian’s freedom requires a large dose of self-reliance — and in the ’90s, self-reliance was pushing forward with welfare reform and the most entrepreneurial economy since the 1920s.

The essence of libertarianism is that your life belongs to you, not the community. We celebrate the private life.

Regarding self-reliance, the frontier political struggle was for private accounts within Social Security. Here was a proposal to phase down payments out of a common pot under government control and phase in individual accounts under private control. Libertarian purists were prissy about it, because the individual’s control was going to be limited and the contributions would still be compulsory, but these are not realistic people, and nothing was ever going to satisfy them. The limited Social Security “privatization” would have been a big change, a culture-shifting change. The Left sensed how big it was, and denounced it in an emotional fury as a Wall Street plot to make financiers rich. And it wasn’t. I knew who the proponents were. I had interviewed some of them and written about them. I had read their books. They weren’t trying to make money; they were trying to make the world better. The most credible ones, the ones from the commercial world, made an economic case that had to do with individual wealth, not Wall Street’s profits. (For example, see The Real Deal: The History and Future of Social Security, bySylvester Schieber and John Shoven, published by Yale University Press in 1999.)

We forget that in the private sector, individual accounts did push aside “common-pot” pension plans. They’re called 401(k) plans. They increase the individual’s chance to gain and also his risk of loss — a net gain for self-reliance. They were put in by employers, not by employees. But with Social Security, the Democrats appealed to employees’ fear of loss, and the “privatizers” were defeated — decisively. Given a choice, Americans stuck with the system designed in the 1930s. And those who keep predicting that Social Security will fail are wrong. It won’t. Congress will fix it by raising taxes, probably by eliminating the cap on taxable income. If they have to, they’ll cut benefits in some gentle and technocratic way.

The freedom to venture out includes the freedom to fall on your face.

It has been years since Republicans talked about private accounts in Social Security. It’s a dead body they don’t want to be reminded of. Donald Trump vowed never to go near it, and he won’t.

The ’90s were the time of greatest libertarian momentum. By my reckoning, they ended with several events.

The first event was the protest against the World Trade Organization in my hometown, Seattle, on November 30, 1999. The Left came out — tens of thousands of them — against trade. I had imagined that the Left had withered away like the Marxian state, but I was wrong. They were here. They would come again in the Occupy Wall Street demos, and in the Bernie Sanders campaign, loud and obnoxious.

The second event was the end of the dotcom boom in early 2000. You can extend the rules of capitalism when there is a surplus of happiness. Not otherwise.

Given a choice, Americans stuck with the system designed in the 1930s.

The third event was the attacks of September 11, 2001. George W. Bush wasn’t going to be a free-market president. He was going to be a war president, if he had to start one himself.

After the war came another recession, worse than the one before it. Bankers and capitalists were seen to be bad, and Alan Greenspan was ejected from the people’s hall of heroes.

And then came Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump.

Can anyone argue that we’re progressing?

Has there been a libertarian moment to compare with the ’90s? There were the campaigns of Ron Paul — which amounted to what? What did they achieve? Paul has not changed his party, as Barry Goldwater famously did. Donald Trump has changed the Republican Party, and into an anti-immigrant, anti-trade, resentful mess. Ron Paul’s son is still in the Senate, but one man does not a movement make. Note the exit of Sen. Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona — not a good omen.

George W. Bush wasn’t going to be a free-market president. He was going to be a war president, if he had to start one himself.

So where are we, now? Here in Seattle, with my city council putting a (since-retracted) head tax on Amazon in order to succor the squatters on public land — and passing out tax-funded vouchers to donate to dingbat political candidates — it feels like a socialist moment. I also read in the press that Democrats across the country have turned left, and are toying with such Bernie-style ideas as free college for everyone, Medicare for everyone, and a guaranteed job for everyone. There is even babbling out there for UBI — universal basic income.

For everyone.

Those are all hobgoblin ideas until you think of the typical American Democratic politician we all know trying to define them, sell them, and get the average American to love them and pay for them. I imagine that, and I feel better. I think the socialists are selling something Americans won’t want to buy.

Anyway, I hope so.




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Ex Cathedra

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I apologize. I’m treading on Word Watch’s territory. But I can’t help myself, so I’ll go ahead and step in the mire: President Donald J. Trump’s pronouncements.

Does Trump lie? That is the question.

According to the Washington Post, as of May 1 the President has amassed 3,001 lies or “misleading claims.”

Really?

Obama never quite caught on. He just lied — absolutely artlessly.

Every politician lies. Stephen Cox hit the nail on the head when he stated in April’s Word Watch that, “The old-time political boss, the old-time candidate for office — those people were smart enough to lie in colorful, sometimes fascinating ways.”

In spite of his hailing from Chicago, the Alamogordo of old-time political mendacity, Obama never quite caught on. He just lied — absolutely artlessly. Three examples immediately come to mind: “If you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it.” “Hillary is the most qualified presidential candidate in history.” And the immensely more consequential — and extremely ill-conceived (especially to a libertarian) — threat he made on August 20, 2012, that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be “a red line for us.”

Well, that red line was a mirage on shifting sands. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry decided that they’d rely on that paragon of probity, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, to ensure the decommissioning of Syria’s chemical arsenal. Not only did that never happen, but Putin used the opportunity to join the fray in Syria. What the hell — both Putin and Assad now knew that the US would do nothing. In quick succession, Assad and Putin targeted Aleppo, an opposition stronghold, destroying hospitals and massacring civilians, including fleeing doctors evacuating the wounded. The US had lost all credibility.

Consider that Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and JFK all lied by egregious omissions (at least) concerning their health.

What could be worse? Considering that the primary responsibility of the president of the United States is national security, a responsibility based on credibility, it’s hard to imagine anything worse in the diplomatic arena.

Obama’s excuse for not enforcing his red line ultimatum was twofold: One, he believed he was speaking from Mount Olympus . . . speaking for all of the free world without first consulting the rest of it. Two, he was in the thick of negotiating the Iran nuclear deal and didn’t want to imperil it by attacking Assad, an Iranian ally.

Really?

Why not do the right thing: enforce his completely undemocratic red line and let the chips fall where they might. Was the deal worth dumping US credibility? After all, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (as it is so eloquently known) was only a stopgap measure (and Trump has just withdrawn the US from it).

But the best part of that entire red line debacle was Vladimir Putin’s Obama moment. Immediately following the latest Assad Bunsen burner experiment on his people (the second in a two-part series), Vlad “The Impaler” threatened “severe consequences” if the US retaliated. So the US, this time actually consulting France and Britain and getting them to join, let loose a barrage of missiles on April 14, 2018, that proved particularly effective.

Putin’s response? “If the US does that again, there will be severe consequences!.” One month later, we’re still waiting for those consequences.

The fine print that nearly everyone misses is that papal infallibility only applies when he’s addressing faith and morals.

Donald Trump turned Obama’s lie into truth, however belatedly. And since the subject was the credibility of our national security, that puts it in a completely different category from, say, Trump’s assertion that he “unequivocally” is “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”

There are lies, damn lies, spin, wishful thinking, statements of fervent intent, hyperbole, and artful irony. I’d put Trump’s health statement in those last two categories. For one, the portly septuagenarian fools no one — especially in this BMI and health-obsessed country — as to his athletic abilities. Consider that Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and JFK all lied by egregious omissions (at least) concerning their health. Mrs. Wilson took over for Woodrow during his near total incapacitation by a stroke from September 1919 to the end of his term in 1921, during the first five months of that period keeping the country in the dark.

As to FDR, the Associated Press claimed that “Roosevelt’s disability was virtually a state secret during his presidency.” Though he never denied he was a paraplegic, FDR did his damnedest to conceal it, virtually never allowing his wheelchair or his struggles with other aids to be photographed.

Ditto for JFK. According to The Atlantic, “the lifelong health problems of John F. Kennedy constitute one of the best-kept secrets of recent U.S. history — no surprise, because if the extent of those problems had been revealed while he was alive, his presidential ambitions would likely have been dashed.” I don’t know whether Trump was aware of those deceptions and decided on a post-ironic, “fascinating way” to indulge in hyperbole; or whether Trump just hit a “colorful” bull’s eye through sheer chutzpah and luck. I’d be tempted to put his assertion on a par with Obama’s “Hillary is the most qualified presidential candidate in history” — except that Obama was certainly serious while Trump may well have had his tongue in his cheek.

The press and the public misunderstand Trump’s pronouncements — much as they misunderstand Pope Francis’ pronouncements. The widely held belief that the Catholic Church considers the pope infallible is based on dogma declared in 1870 at the First Vatican Council. But the fine print that nearly everyone misses is that his infallibility only applies when he’s addressing faith and morals. Additionally, his infallibility only kicks in when he makes a declaration ex cathedra, “from the full authority of his office.”

Trump's brand of lying may not be presidential, but it’s refreshing and — so far — effective.

When the press reported that Pope Francis denied the existence of hell or that “capitalism is terror against all of humanity” it didn’t make a distinction between whether the pontiff was speaking ex cathedra or off the cuff, perhaps using the ambiguity for its own sensationalist ends (or maybe they’re just stupidly ignorant). But the pope is also at fault. While he always specifies when he’s speaking ex cathedra, he never clarifies his other statements as informal or just personal opinions. Needless to say, the ambiguity serves his purpose.

Ditto for President Trump. Whether in tweet, press conference, base rally, or state of the union address, the president never specifies whether his statements are hyperbole, aspirational declarations, firm US policy, or just a needling dart at his opposition. But they are all — in the mind of the uber-deal maker — potential negotiating tactics. MSNBC and the Fox Five will interpret these statements in radically different ways — in ways that push their own agendas. It may not be presidential, but it’s refreshing and — so far — effective.

Hell, if it works for the pope, why not for Trump?

The press and the public should stop treating every Trump pronouncement as if it were ex cathedra when he might just be P.T. Barnuming it.




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The Perils of Mexico-Bashing

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As I have noted before, in a number of ways President Trump resembles President Obama. Both hate free trade, oppose immigration (Obama covertly, Trump ostentatiously), favor unions over consumers, and so on. Trump’s mania against free trade is on display in its most virulent form in his war on NAFTA.

NAFTA was a truly bipartisan accomplishment. Conceived and promulgated by President Reagan, the free trade agreement (FTA) between Canada, Mexico, and the United States was negotiated under Bush the Elder, approved by a large, bipartisan vote in the Senate, and ratified by Bill Clinton. And it has seen trade blossom: as of last year, US trade exports to Mexico and Canada were four times what our trade exports are to China.

But even in the primaries, Trump singled out this one FTA for a torrent of abuse, accusing both Canada and Mexico of cheating, because we have a balance of trade deficit with each. Along the way, Trump’s heavy-handed and accusatory style has helped drive Canadian and Mexican opinion of him — and the rest of us, since we elected the bird — to new lows.

NAFTA has seen trade blossom: as of last year, US trade exports to Mexico and Canada were four times what our trade exports are to China.

The renegotiations have dragged on, mainly because America keeps trying to impose onerous restrictions on its neighbors. This is another trait shared by Obama and Trump: disdain for our own allies. Love Russia, hate Canada and Mexico — how daffy can you get?

A recent Wall Street Journal article reports the latest on the NAFTA fight. The chief American negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, is introducing new absurd demands. He now wants to require that at least 40% of the content of all cars crossing the American border must come from workers earning at least $16 per hour. This is at least double the existing wages of auto-assembly workers, and four times that of Mexican auto-parts workers! Cars that don’t meet that criterion will be heavily tariffed at the border.

Trump’s intention is crystal clear: pay off his union supporters by forcing Mexico to surrender its comparative advantage (lower cost labor). This is his populist-autarkist idea of “fair trade”: make the other party do things as stupidly as you do, rather than doing things smarter yourself. Add to this his demands for a periodic renewal vote on staying in the agreement, and you have a one in-your-face-F-off-and-die populist ultimatum.

Trump’s intention is crystal clear: pay off his union supporters by forcing Mexico to surrender its comparative advantage.

This ultra-protectionist ploy is arousing opposition, both here and (more ominously) in Mexico. Free-trade Republicans — what pathetically few of them are left — are not amused. In a piece he wrote for the WSJ, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) expressed annoyance with the Trumpian tactics. Trump has told the Senate — in true bossman style — which had lawfully ratified the NAFTA agreement during Clinton’s term in office — either to ratify a new, eviscerated NAFTA or see him unilaterally withdraw the US from it. Toomey says that if this ultimatum is put to him, he will vote against it and oppose in federal court the cancelation of the treaty.

Recently, Trump withdrew the US from the Iran deal negotiated by the feckless Obama. That’s constitutional, because that deal was explicitly not put forward as a treaty. But NAFTA was, and as Toomey rightly observes, the Constitution delegates the framing of trade policy expressly to Congress. The rare prior cases of a president unilaterally withdrawing from a ratified treaty never concerned a commercial treaty. I would observe that the Declaration of Independence should be consulted. I refer to the parts in which the king is accused of “cutting off our trade with all parts of the world,” not to mention “obstructing the laws for the naturalization of foreigners” and “refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither.”

Trump and his foolish followers clearly want to stick it to the Mexicans, and have done so since his first campaign appearances.

Holding out an olive branch, the estimable Toomey suggests that Trump focus on correcting obvious problems, such as ending Canada’s tariffs on cheese, and solidifying Mexico’s recent moves to open up its energy sector to US fracking investment. Add to that correcting a (relatively minor) sin, the current Mexican practice of putting low caps on duty-free sales of American stuff, and you pretty much have perfected the agreement; and have done so quickly, without arousing countervailing populist rage.

But Trump and his foolish followers clearly want to stick it to the Mexicans, and have done so since his first campaign appearances. The countervailing rage is rising in Mexico, where the frontrunner for the next presidential election is a populist leftist — one Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), close friend of Britain’s leftist Jeremy Corbyn.

Mexico is clearly being driven to its own populist extreme — AMLO now leads by 18%, much better than he has registered before. A radicalized Mexico could easily allow Russia to set up naval bases in its waters, and allow Chinese troops to move in to help “train” Mexican troops. The Russians have shown every desire to extend their world influence, and Mexico would be an even better vehicle for that than Cuba. As to the Chinese, their recent building of bases in the South China sea, their behavior on the Indian border, their rush to build a blue-water navy, and their clearly strategically planned moves to increase their influence in Latin America all indicate a long-term game plan that is anything but tame.

A lot of good a wall would do then.




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Trump: Right on Iran?

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On May 8 President Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 nuclear accord between Iran and the P5+1 nations (the US, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany). By doing so he isolated the US diplomatically (only Israel, Saudi Arabia, and some small states in the Persian Gulf support US abrogation of the agreement), and drew the ire of globalists, liberals, and the establishment media. But was Trump in fact right to pull out of the agreement?

I should mention that I have advocated détente with Iran since the 1990s. I even published an essay on the subject in Liberty back in March 2007 (“Engage Iran: A Way out of Iraq"). I still look upon the Iranian people as potentially our best friends in the Middle East. Iranians in general are more pro-Western than any of the Arab peoples. Sadly, we derailed Iran’s progress toward a western-style democracy when in 1953 we and the British overthrew the first and only democratic government in the country’s history. The Islamist tyranny that took over Iran in 1979 and still rules there today is the result of the coup d’état staged by the CIA and MI6.

The Iranian people are still potentially our best friends in the Middle East.

Obviously, we can’t turn back the clock. But if there exists a reasonable chance of Iran’s Islamic dictatorship crumbling from within, then perhaps we should do what we can to facilitate that outcome. We did something like this with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, by denying it credits and technology transfers, and by luring it into an arms race it could never win. Trump, by abrogating the 2015 nuclear accord, has begun to take Iran policy in a similar direction.

Despite Trump’s fulminations against the 2015 accord, the agreement negotiated by the Obama administration wasn’t really a bad deal. It ended Iran’s covert program to develop a nuclear weapon. Some 97% of Iran’s nuclear material was removed from the country. The inspection regime was adequate, even robust in some respects. The main weakness of the agreement was that it allowed Iran to resume enriching uranium for peaceful purposes after a 15-year hiatus. Objectively speaking, however, this was not a sufficient reason for us to withdraw from the agreement only three years after it was signed — and particularly so since the other signatories had no intention of leaving with us.

But if there exists a reasonable chance of Iran’s Islamic dictatorship crumbling from within, then perhaps we should do what we can to facilitate that outcome.

A secondary purpose behind the agreement, as the Obama administration saw it, was to promote a thaw in US-Iranian relations, with the hope that before 15 years had passed we would witness the end of the Islamic Republic and the evolution of a moderate, pro-Western regime. It has to be said, however, that the current leadership of Iran has shown no signs of softening its anti-American views. At the same time, the lifting of most sanctions on Iran after the agreement was made provided the regime with some economic relief (the Iranian economy and financial system were definitely hurt by sanctions) — and political relief, too, in that the people felt that their lives would improve once sanctions were removed. The nuclear agreement was, arguably, a lifeline thrown to a regime that was already in the process of sinking.

Moreover, Iran has continued to expand its influence in the region — in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and as supporter of the Houthi insurgents in Yemen. Iran’s activities threaten to destabilize the Middle East generally, and are particularly worrisome when it comes to Saudi Arabia, its rival across the Persian Gulf and our most important ally in the Arab world. Although the US no longer needs to import Middle East oil, a crisis in the Gulf or, worse, the collapse of the pro-American regime in the world’s largest oil producer would roil energy markets and indeed the world economy.

Equally important is the fact that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has initiated a program of reform in the kingdom that holds out the prospects of, first, bringing Saudi Arabia into the 21st century and, second, ending the plague of Sunni jihadism that has infected Saudi society and large swathes of the Muslim world. If Prince Mohammed is successful in this, he will have rendered a service not only to his country and the region, but to humanity as a whole. The West has a big stake in his ultimate success.

The nuclear agreement was, arguably, a lifeline thrown to a regime that was already in the process of sinking.

Containing Iran is good for almost everybody – including, ultimately, the Iranian people. The only loser would be the Iranian regime itself. Supporting a reformist Saudi regime against Iranian mischief may help damp down Islamic radicalism and terrorism worldwide. And re-imposing sanctions on Iran, as Trump has done, may be the final straw that breaks the back of a regime beset by enormous economic problems.

I could never be a Trump supporter. His personality, behavior, and many of his policies are anathema to me. He has shown no real understanding of the nuclear agreement that he decided to tear up. That said, abrogating the agreement and reimposing sanctions on Iran seems to me a legitimate geostrategic play which, if it succeeds, will have enormous benefits for the US, the world, and, it is to be hoped, the Iranian people. With his dramatic move on May 8 Trump may very well have stumbled into the right policy.




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The Emperor Has No Brains

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One of the greatest things in this universe is discovering that there are other people — lots of other people — who are just as smart as you are, or even (if you can believe it) smarter.

As a teacher, I’ve often been inspired by what I’ve seen other people doing in the classroom. “How did they think of that?” I ask myself, futilely. As a writer, I’ve spent many of the best moments of my life marveling at the accomplishments of people who were much more intelligent than I. Emily Dickinson, are you listening? J.F. Powers, can you hear me? Even writers who, I think, were not particularly bright (in my way of being bright) have earned my admiration by being smart enough (in their way) to do things I could never dream of doing. Hemingway and Whitman, I salute you.

But it’s not just in my own work that I rejoice to lose the competition. The cleverness of a good carpenter, the strategic intellect of a good cook — such things astonish me. I have a friend who has mastered virtually all the skills of the construction trade. That’s real intelligence, of a kind that I don’t have. When I’m disgusted with the world, I’m consoled by the knowledge that I’m surrounded by so many people who can do things so much better than I.

The cleverness of a good carpenter, the strategic intellect of a good cook — such things astonish me.

An economist would say I was recognizing the importance of the division of labor. I prefer to call it the division of intelligence. According to James Madison, writing in the tenth Federalist paper, this is what our system of government is all about. It’s about protecting the division of intelligence, and the superior degrees of intelligence:

The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is . . . an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government.

It is not only the rights of property that derive from the division of intelligence; it’s property itself in any significant form. If everyone had one form and degree of intelligence, everyone would be a teacher, with no one to teach; everyone would be a writer of the same kind of stuff; everyone would be a mediocre cook, with no one to produce the food or pay for it.

Recently I bought a new heating and air conditioning unit. At the moment when the superbly intelligent and adroit technician finished installing it and presented me with the bill, social hierarchy did not exist; I was happy to reward the superior intelligence he showed in his craft, and he was happy to receive some of the money that I had been paid for exercising an appropriate degree of intelligence in mine. The best thing is that such moments are constantly occurring. They are the real story of human life.

But there is a class of people — let’s call it the governing class — that does not think in this way, that apparently lacks the capacity to think in this way. Members of this class assume that they are smarter, simply smarter, than everyone else and that they are therefore commanded by nature to tell everyone else what to do. Alexander Pope remarked that

Each might his sev’ral province well command,
Would all but stoop to what they understand.

The meaning of such comments is lost on the hierarchs of the governing class. They don’t command a province of human endeavor; they command human beings. They will not stoop; there is never any reason for them to stoop. They were born with an understanding of existence and their superior role in it, and if they weren’t, they soon learned it from their four years at Harvard, Brown, or Wellesley. They’re smarter than all the rest of us, which gives them the right to push us all around.

Members of this class assume that they are smarter, simply smarter, than everyone else and that they are therefore commanded by nature to tell everyone else what to do.

In the early republic, such people were rare, and scorned. If you wanted to be esteemed for your intelligence, you had to show that you actually were smart at doing something. It might be reading good literature, understanding its meaning, and using it in effective argument, especially on questions of political principle and fundamental law. This is the substantial intelligence that until the 20th century gained the highest rewards in America’s political life. But no one thought there was only one way to demonstrate intelligence. You might do it by showing your grasp of military affairs, or financial investments. You might construct great works of engineering or great industrial combinations. You might invent the electric light. You might build houses that people really wanted to live in or operate a hotel that would really make them comfortable. But you had to do something to show you were smart.

This obligation has been superseded by the modern, all-encompassing state, which inculcates far different, and far narrower, ideas of merit. It rewards people who have no skills except an ability to write memos, endure meetings, and serve on committees, teams, and task forces — most of them useless or harmful, but that’s all right: the state is made to command and not to please. The state grants prestige even to people whose sole job is to spin — that is, to lie to other people, using methods that are openly discussed and admired among the governing class but are presumed to operate unnoticed by those targeted for bamboozlement. In other words, the state gives special rewards to people who lack sufficient intelligence to respect the intelligence of others.

Civilized people — and our society is still, in most ways, civilized — are trained, and properly so, to respect other people’s intelligence and the achievements that are a sign of intelligence. But here’s the problem. They are trained to respect even the appearance of achievement. When I call a plumber and a man shows up with TONY on his chest and a set of plumber’s tools in his hand, I assume that he’s a plumber, and probably a decent one, or he wouldn’t still be in business. I’m inclined to respect him as such. Who am I to say that he’s not a real plumber? I’m not smart enough to judge that.

The modern, all-encompassing state inculcates far different, and far narrower, ideas of merit. It rewards people who have no skills except an ability to write memos, endure meetings, and serve on committees.

But in the same way, when a gang of people stride into a room in $2,000 suits, step to the microphone, and make statements about the welfare of the nation or some other governing-class topic, their air of assurance tempts otherwise intelligent men and women to wonder whether these impressive figures could possibly have attained their power unless they were, in fact, more intelligent than anyone else in the room. So large, and so important, is our respect for accomplishment that we imagine that anyone who has attained some distinguished position must have the mental qualities that merit it — must be, in a word, smart.

We are slow to realize that dumb people are drawn to dumb jobs. Imagine asking a good carpenter whether he would like a more prestigious job. “Doing what?” he says. “Oh,” you say, “going to meetings to decide which of the proposed revisions to the current memorandum regarding the department’s recommendation to the undersecretary should be revisited. You’ll look very impressive doing that.” The plumber would say, in franker words than these, that he wouldn’t consider it. But some people do more than consider it. They make it their life’s work. They often say that they didn’t even wonder about whether it was. They recognized it, right away, as their mission in life. And that’s true. They were just dumb enough to want it. Go read the parable of the trees in Judges 9:8–15.

This brings us at last (but you could see where we were going) to James Comey, late director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Comey has published a book about how much he hates President Trump, who fired him from his job. Comey has apparently governed his life in accordance with the idea that he is smarter than everyone else. He has tried to demonstrate the truth of that idea by snooping on other people and sending them to jail, even when their only crime was lying about something that wasn’t a crime. This is the man who imprisoned Martha Stewart, host of a television cooking show, for committing lèse majesté against Comey’s government agency.

We are slow to realize that dumb people are drawn to dumb jobs.

You might wonder how anyone could have led such a dumb life as Comey, and I suppose the answer is simply that dumb people do dumb things. Puffing his book in an interview with George Stephanopoulos, a fellow member of the governing class, Comey was asked one of those dumb questions that dumb people think are so clever when they’re conducting a job interview: “What is your worst quality?” Stephanopoulos put it in an even dumber way: “What’s James Comey’s rap on James Comey?” The answer was:

Yeah. My rap on myself is that — is that ego focus. That I — since I was a kid, I've had a sense of confidence. That I know I'm good at certain things. And there's a danger that that will bleed over into pride.

Few people will dispute this answer: Comey strikes nearly everyone as an insufferable egotist. But notice the idea that Comey thinks is not in dispute — the assumption that he is “good at certain things.” We have his own word for it: “I know I’m good.” It does not occur to him that an egotist will always imagine that he’s good at something, and that this may be evidence that, after all, he’s not good at anything. What is it, exactly, that Comey is good at?

He’s certainly not good at speaking like an adult. If the fractured syntax of the “rap on myself” answer isn’t enough to convince you, consider his childish answer to another childish question from Stephanopoulos, who wanted to know “what did it feel like to be James Comey” during the last ten days of the presidential campaign of 2016. That’s the period when Comey blunderingly announced that he was reinvestigating the “matter” of Hillary Clinton’s emails, and then blunderingly announced that he’d stopped investigating them. Comey replied:

It sucked. Yeah, it was — it was a very painful period. Again, my whole life has been dedicated to institutions that work not to have an involvement in an election. I walked around vaguely sick to my stomach, feeling beaten down. I felt, when I went to the White House — I don't want to spoil it for people, but there's a movie called The Sixth Sense that I talk about in the book where Bruce Willis doesn't realize he's dead.

That's the way I felt. I felt like I was totally alone, that everybody hated me. And that there wasn't a way out because it really was the right thing to do. And that — that, in a way, I'm ruined. But that's what I have to do. I had to do it the way [sic].

Ah, the reflections of a sage and statesman! The penetrating self-analysis of a man who understands that most mysterious of all things, the human heart! The battle-wrought wisdom of a Churchillian leader!

It does not occur to Comey that an egotist will always imagine that he’s good at something, and that this may be evidence that, after all, he’s not good at anything.

Leader and leadership — Comey mentioned those words 47 times during his wee interview with Georgie. The subtitle of Comey’s book is “Truth, Lies, and Leadership.” Explaining to Stephanopoulos why he wrote a spiteful volume about how he was always telling the truth and President Trump was always telling lies, and that’s why Trump fired him from his leadership role, Comey cited young people’s need for education in leadership:

It occurred to me maybe I can be useful by offering a view to people, especially to young people, of what leadership should look like and how it should be centered on values.

I can’t tell how many young people (or any people) will actually read his book, but Comey is not a very challenging teacher. He’s the kind of teacher who is dumb enough to pander to his students. Kids say “it sucked,” so Comey says “it sucked.” (Lofty phrase! Especially when you remember what it literally means.) Kids feel emotions that make them lose all perspective, so Comey describes his bad day at the office by saying that it made him feel vaguely sick to his stomach, beaten down, totally alone. Kids have a desperate desire to be part of a group, so Comey tells them that when some people didn’t want him on their team anymore, he felt that everybody hated him. This is leadership!

When someone at this intellectual level strives for a literary or artistic allusion, he reaches out to . . . Washington? Lincoln? Dante? Nope. It’s Bruce Willis who’s on his mind. But he can’t fix his thoughts on Bruce. He’s got to keep coming back to . . . James Comey. “I’m ruined,” he thinks. And he keeps thinking that, and he has to tell other people that he’s thinking that. As is natural for a traumatized kid of 57.

Comey’s absence of intelligence, and his inability to conceive that his audience might have some, are painfully displayed when Stephanopoulos takes him through the absurd scene in which Comey informed Trump that he had a secret to tell him. The secret had to do with a dossier (that’s a foreign word, but I think you may be old enough to hear it) purporting to show that several years before, Trump had hired Russian prostitutes to piss on a bed that had once been occupied by President Obama. Master sleuth that he is, Comey is still unable, by his account, to determine whether to believe Trump’s outraged denial of this ridiculous and unsupported allegation.

I don't — I don't know. I don't — the nature of an investigator is you don't believe or disbelieve. [Really? That’s not what they taught me in Investigator School.] You ask, "What's my evidence? What is the evidence that establishes me [Huh? Is this English?] whether someone's telling me the truth or not. And ask this allegation—" I honestly never thought this words would come out of my mouth, but I don't know whether the — the — current president of the United States was with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013. It's possible, but I don't know.

As any person of normal intelligence can see, Comey has to keep asserting that he doesn’t know whether any of this is true, because otherwise he wouldn’t have any reason to talk about it. But, one might ask, what does he know? He knows how he feels about things. He knows that in great detail.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How weird was that briefing?

JAMES COMEY: Really weird. I mean, I don't know whether it was weird for President-elect Trump, but I — it was almost an out-of-body experience for me. I was floating above myself, looking down, saying, "You're sitting here, briefing the incoming president of the United States about prostitutes in Moscow." And of course, Jeh Johnson's voice is banging around in my head. President Obama's eyebrow raise is banging around in my head. I just wanted to get it done and get out of there.

What teenager could have said it better? “How weird was that briefing, Jimmy?” “Like, it was really weird.” Just thinking about icky things sent Comey’s brain rushing to the Pop Psych ward, where selves see themselves floating above themselves, and the voices (and eyebrows) of authority figures keep banging around in your head. Dude! How grody was that!

Comey has to keep asserting that he doesn’t know whether any of this is true, because otherwise he wouldn’t have any reason to talk about it.

Please remember that it was Comey who started this weirdness. And why? Because he felt it was his duty to tell Trump that somebody had written something that claimed that Trump had done something bad. Not bad, as in illegal, but bad, as in embarrassing. And embarrassing, to a teenager, is worse than illegal. It was so embarrassing — to Comey! — that he couldn’t tell the president precisely what it was. He preferred to leave some things to Trump’s imagination (which, we have reason to believe, is much more fertile than Comey’s).

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How graphic did you get?

JAMES COMEY: I think as graphic as I needed to be. I did not go into the business about — people peeing on each other, I just thought it was a weird enough experience for me to be talking to the incoming president of the United States about prostitutes in a hotel in Moscow. And so I left that part out. I thought I'd given enough to put him on notice as to what the essence of the material was.

It was all too weird — for Comey, who was apparently so weirded out that he couldn’t bring himself to mention where the gossip came from.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you tell him that the Steele Dossier had been financed by his political opponents?

JAMES COMEY: No. I didn't — I didn't think I used the term "Steele Dossier," I just talked about additional material.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did he — but did he have a right to know that?

JAMES COMEY: That it'd been financed by his political opponents? I don't know the answer to that. I — it wasn't necessary for my goal, which was to alert him that we had this information. Again, I was clear on whether it's true or not, it's important that you know, both because of the counterintelligence reason and so you know that this maybe going to hit the media.

Well, well. What shall we make of this? Suppose somebody wants to meet with you and tell you something bad about you. Suppose that person is a cop. Or an employee. Or, as in this case, both. The guy could make a lot of trouble for you, because he’s a collector of secret information. And in this case, he happens to be a person who is trying to keep you from firing him. The information he wants to share with you is this: there is a secret dossier, alleging that you went to a foreign country, which is claimed to be an enemy country, and spent a night having dirty fun with prostitutes. He tells you that, without mentioning that the dossier was sponsored and financed by your political opponents. He just tells you that he has this thing. This secret thing. “I got this information, see, an’ I jus’ wanted youse to know it, see? That I had it, see? Me, I jus’ don’ know what to think of it. But spose it gits out. We don’t want that to happen. Do we . . . boss?” Even if, as the rightwing media theorize, Comey’s goal was to use his chat with Trump as a convoluted means of leaking the dossier, the obvious effect would be to make Trump wonder, “What else does this guy think he has on me?”

But suppose my impression of Comey’s intent is wrong. What type of mind would fail to recognize that it is the impression other minds would form? How stupid do you have to be to think that everybody else is just that stupid?

The old-time political boss, the old-time candidate for office — those people were smart enough to lie in colorful, sometimes fascinating ways.

This is not the only mess that Comey has gotten himself into while expecting that no one would notice, and perhaps not even noticing himself. Here, have some links. And, as you’ll see, Comey has not acted alone. The nice thing about his present, tremendous mess is that few members of the governing class are emerging from it with their reputations intact. Since those reputations were largely created by a constant merry-go-round of praise from the governing class itself, it’s only fair that they should all get off the ride together.

As a literary critic, I keep wondering how anyone could read or listen to these people without realizing how dumb they are. The old-time political boss, the old-time candidate for office — those people were smart enough to lie in colorful, sometimes fascinating ways. Often they were very smart, and needed to be; their class privilege, if any, wasn’t strong enough to keep them going by itself. The contrast with the current political class appears to be lost on even some of its foes. They persist in saying such things as Laura Ingraham said of Comey on April 19: “He’s a very smart guy. University of Chicago Law School. He’s a smart guy.”

Laura, can’t you read anything besides your teleprompter?




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Bridges to Nowhere

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On March 15, a bridge collapsed in Florida, crushing several people to death. The bridge was being constructed as a joint effort of Florida International University and various government agencies, who paid for it. News reports indicated the possibility that some of those involved had rushed the project, failed to supervise it properly, or chosen the wrong firms to undertake it. I don’t know whether Mark Rosenberg, president of the university, had any of that in mind when he issued a statement about the disaster, but here’s a newspaper report on his statement:

Rosenberg [said] in a video shared on Twitter Friday [the day after the accident] that the “tragic accident of the bridge collapse stuns us, saddens us.”

“The bridge was about collaboration, about neighborliness, about doing the right thing,” he said.

“But today we are sad and all we can do is promise a very thorough investigation in getting to the bottom of this and mourn those who we have lost.”

I have four things to say about Rosenberg’s comments.

  1. On occasions like this, old-fashioned college presidents would issue dignified statements, in writing. Rosenberg leaped to tweet a video.
     
  2. Mark Rosenberg, PhD, doesn’t know the difference between “who” and “whom” — not when facing such a linguistic puzzle as an embedded clause. Just turn it around, Dr. Rosenberg. Would you say, “We have lost who?” Maybe you would.
     
  3. Whom, exactly, had Rosenberg lost and was mourning? I have enough trouble picturing public officials kneeling by their beds, rapt in thoughts and prayers for people they don’t know and never heard of. What shall I do with the claim that such people are a personal loss for whom officials are donning the black bands of mourning? Rosenberg should have stopped with the simple and incontestable “today we are sad.”
     
  4. But here’s the worst problem: “The bridge was about collaboration, about neighborliness, about doing the right thing,” Are there any situations in which PC lingo won’t come barging through the door? A bridge is not about anything except getting people to the other side. A bridge may acquire some kind of symbolism, but the taxpayers of the United States didn’t pay 10 or 15 million dollars to construct a monument to collaboration, neighborliness, or doing the right thing. They paid that money so that students could cross Tamiami Trail from FIU to their homes in Sweetwater. This was not the Golden Gate Bridge or the Rainbow Bridge in Das Rheingold. It was a simple, ugly, concrete, utilitarian structure. The university was not being neighborly; it was assisting its own students (with other people’s money, naturally). And if it was collaborating, it was doing so in order to cadge some money from the government. As for doing the right thing, nobody sets out to do the wrong thing, except perhaps in Spike Lee movies.

Rosenberg’s symbol-mongering continued in an interview with an uncritical New York Times:

“This was a good project,” Dr. Rosenberg said Friday. “This was a project that spoke to our desire to build bridges. When the board hired me, I told them, ‘If you give me a pile of rocks, I’m going to build a bridge, not a wall.’ This was about neighborliness and collaboration.”

We see, however, that if you give him a pile of rocks, you’ll end up with a pile of rocks — rhetorically as well as literally.

This was not the Golden Gate Bridge or the Rainbow Bridge in Das Rheingold. It was a simple, ugly, concrete, utilitarian structure.

From Rosenberg’s lofty musings there’s a steep descent to the Death Valley of Hillary Clinton’s latest attempts to explain why she lost the election and deserved, of course, to have won it. On her recent visit to India she took occasion to insult the 52% of American “white” women who voted against her, claiming that their menfolk told them how to vote, so they voted that way. But what especially interested me was the weird mélange of PC and plutocracy that characterized her distinction between places that voted for her and places that voted against:

I won the places that represent two-thirds of America's gross domestic product. So I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward.

One of Clinton’s ideas, if that’s the right word for them, is that diverse populations are wealthier than non-diverse ones, and that their wealth is somehow an effect of their diversity. Since she never defines her terms, one must suppose that diverse means non-“white.” She must, therefore, believe that people in East Los Angeles and South Chicago are really good at hiding their wealth: they don’t seem as prosperous as people in Beverly Hills and the Chicago Gold Coast, but they must be wealthy, because they voted for her. So much for Clinton’s grasp of the problem of income inequality, much advertised by her and her party, when it suits them. Her grasp of psychology is almost as good. Some of her most fervent support came from impoverished inner cities and from the Washington suburbs, which are chock-full of government bureaucrats. These communities supported her because they are dynamic, optimistic, and moving forward.

If you give him a pile of rocks, you’ll end up with a pile of rocks — rhetorically as well as literally.

Clinton divulged another idea, and this is one with few competitors in the realm of politically repulsive notions. I refer to the idea that the better population, the more upright and moral and truth-seeking and noble and deservedly optimistic population, is the one that has wealth. I suppose that Clinton ought to know, because she and her husband (who obviously tells her what to do) have amassed, from a lifetime of selfless public service, a fortune worthy of the Arabian Nights. No country bumpkins are these noble sophist-solons. The fabled wealth of their supporters often derives from similarly political sources: government contracts, government-assisted industries, and lucrative government employment, as in those Washington suburbs. There is barely a state capital in the country that doesn’t have higher household incomes than the rest of the state, or that failed to vote for Hillary.

But if you think that the urban plutocrats who use their votes and influence to ruin the schools, bankrupt the middle class, spread crime and welfare dependency through every promising community, and deny peaceful citizens the right to self-defense — if you think these people are wiser and nobler than a single mother waiting tables in Kansas City, you have disqualified yourself not only from public office but also from public respect. And that’s exactly what Hillary Clinton has done.

Descending still further on the trail of the self-disqualified, we arrive at Andrew (“Andy”) McCabe, former second banana at the FBI. When this gentleman got fired for leaking and lying, he released a long, turgid, thoroughly lawyered-up declaration about various things, including the offenses charged against him by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General. It’s the kind of statement that’s meant to sound childishly simple, but even a child could see that it’s written to be impenetrable. It doesn’t make you wonder how such a smart, caring person could possibly have been fired from his job; it makes you wonder (once more) how stupid one needs to be to qualify for a leadership position in government.

There is barely a state capital in the country that doesn’t have higher household incomes than the rest of the state, or that failed to vote for Hillary.

Here’s a passage; I’ll inject some comments.

The OIG investigation has focused on information I chose to share with a reporter through my public affairs officer and a legal counselor. As Deputy Director, I was one of only a few people who had the authority to do that. It was not a secret, it took place over several days, and others, including the Director, were aware of the interaction with the reporter. [McCabe never says what the information was or to whom it was given. If it wasn’t secret, what is it? But his purpose is to implicate as many other people as possible. He proves, however, that his unethical action was no accident; it was determined and systematic. He must have provided one hell of a lot of information “over several days.”] It was the type of exchange with the media that the Deputy Director oversees several times per week. [The plain word for this kind of “exchange” — and by the way, what was given in return? — is “leak.”] In fact, it was the same type of work [Work? Is leaking a job?] that I continued to do under Director Wray, at his request. [An attempt to implicate the current boss. But notice the obvious but unanswered question: What exactly were you exchanging?] The investigation subsequently focused on who [Ever hear of the word “whom”?] I talked to, when I talked to them, and so forth. During these inquiries, I answered questions truthfully and as accurately as I could amidst the chaos that surrounded me. [He had no role in generating that chaos.] And when I thought my answers were misunderstood, I contacted investigators to correct them. [Give us an example. Maybe we’ll start to imagine something other than “I lied, and then I tried to spin my lies.”]

Of course, McCabe’s statement castigated Trump for saying that he should be fired and denied the pension he had earned by his monumental “20 years of service.” I suggest that those 20 years should be regarded as their own reward, since the servant thinks so highly of their moral value.

Another person who has been unwittingly (to use a favorite term of James Clapper, former director of national intelligence) revealing that he wasn’t qualified for his job is John Brennan, former director of the CIA. Brennan has been making such revelations for quite a while. In December he flew off the handle at Trump’s odd desire to unfriend nations who voted against the US in the UN. Trump, he said, “expects blind loyalty and subservience from everyone — qualities usually found in narcissistic, vengeful autocrats.” While it’s refreshing to find that the former chief of the nation’s army of spooks is so concerned about the welfare of countries he used to spy on, his zeal betrayed him into the ridiculous error of calling blind loyalty and subservience a set of qualities usually found in autocrats. Oh, isn’t that what he meant? But that’s what he wrote. He also accused Trump’s 2016 campaign of being on “a treasonous path,” apparently for being too friendly to certain foreign nations.

Those 20 years of service should be regarded as their own reward, since the servant thinks so highly of their moral value.

If the former head of the CIA is this loose with language, it’s not surprising that he should have gone all out in denouncing Trump for the firing of McCabe, his colleague at the FBI. Brennan spat a tweet at Trump, as follows:

When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history. You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America . . . America will triumph over you.

There are arguments to be made both for and against Trump’s conduct, in many areas, but his most obvious defense will be, “Look what I had to deal with” — meaning people like Brennan, whose tin-pot j’accuse can only confirm most people’s suspicions about government spies. He is a man whose instinctive response to opposition is to indicate that he knows something that he can use to get you. If a person like that can threaten the president so automatically and transparently, what was he willing to do to people who were not president?

Yet this is precisely the quality that inspired former UN Ambassador Samantha Power to tweet, as a compliment to the former spymaster:

Not a good idea to piss off John Brennan.

Hey, ya lug. You tryin’ tuh piss off duh boss? You know what happens tuh people that piss off duh boss?

Thus encouraged, Brennan has continued to make himself look like a gangster, going on TV to say that Vladimir Putin “may have something” on Trump.

If we are going to have an FBI or a CIA or a DOJ, I presume it should be run by people of discretion and courage, people who are bold enough to denounce any crimes they uncover by people in the government, but are wise enough to know that they themselves are not the government. This is what the McCabes and Comeys and Brennans and Clappers and Strzoks and Ohrs, geniuses that they are, failed to understand. Like Hillary Clinton, they thought they were the government, having achieved that status by virtue of their superior intelligence and nobility. They then proceeded to sneak their way into higher and higher levels of power. Then it turned out that their nobility was nothing but self-righteousness, and their intelligence was nonexistent.

Trump treats truths and falsehoods in the same way, because he can’t tell the difference.

If there’s a way of being brutally disingenuous, Trump’s enemies have found it. Trump himself is an expert at being brutally ingenuous. The truths he enunciates are blurted out and kicked around, in the way a child finds a football and kicks it into the lamp. He treats falsehoods in the same way, because he can’t tell the difference. Lately he’s been touting a proposal to handle the “opioid crisis” by administering the death penalty to “high level drug traffickers.” What’s the why and how of that? Well, as reported by a prominent source of news and blather, CNN Politics,

Trump told an audience in Pennsylvania this month that "a drug dealer will kill 2,000, 3,000, 5,000 people during the course of his or her life" and not be punished as much as a murderer.

"Thousands of people are killed or their lives are destroyed, their families are destroyed. So you can kill thousands of people and go to jail for 30 days," Trump said. "They catch a drug dealer, they don't even put them in jail."

I can’t help noticing Trump’s switch from the acceptable “his or her” to the horrible “them” (referent: a — i.e., one — drug dealer), which shows that he doesn’t understand grammar. As we’ve seen, he’s not the only one. But the real atrocity is the ideas he’s conveying. Talk about fake news! First we have the glib assertion that single sellers of drugs kill thousands. “How many thousands, Mr. Trump?” “Oh, 2,000, 3,000, 5,000. Is that enough to make my argument? I’ll give you more if you want.” Later we see that drug dealers aren’t put in jail. My modest research on law enforcement (please buy my book, The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison, Yale University Press, and ask your library to buy it as well) has uncovered a few cases of drug dealers who are in jail — a multitude of cases, in fact.

The worst childishness is the premise that these non-facts are supposed to support, which is the idea that drug dealers are responsible for destroying the live of victims and their families. If I’m drinking myself to death, the guy on the other side of the counter in the liquor store is not my murderer. He is not destroying my family, as 19th-century prohibitionists would maintain. If I die of drink, I am the one responsible. If my family suffers, I am the one who caused the suffering. And if Trump believes so much in the death penalty (which honesty compels me to state that I do also, though without Trump’s touching faith in its pharmacological efficacy), shouldn’t he be advocating that the consumers of illegal drugs be executed? That would solve the whole problem.

“How many thousands, Mr. Trump?” “Oh, 2,000, 3,000, 5,000. Is that enough to make my argument? I’ll give you more if you want.”

Let’s go back to Dr. Rosenberg’s idea about building bridges instead of walls. Intelligent communication is a bridge. Rosenberg’s opaquely politicized language is a wall. The intransigence of virtually all government agencies about revealing, well, anything about their operations — that’s another wall. The nation’s incessant, interminable investigations — those are walls, too.

But then we have the bridge builders, the Trumps and Clintons and McCabes and Brennans, ad infinitum, busily constructing their monuments of words — things built of twaddle and government jobs, unsupported by fact or logic. These projects have been going on for a long time. Now, thanks to the rank stupidity of the architects, everyone can see that they don’t work. The bridges are down. Knowing that, maybe we can start to pick up the scattered stones of our language and build some real bridges.




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In Our Guts, We Know They’re Nuts

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I’m not old enough to remember Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign. But because the late senator is a hero of mine, I have read quite a bit about what happened. I am, therefore, well aware that President Lyndon B. Johnson’s people put out a TV ad implying that if the Republican challenger triumphed in the 1964 election, he would blow up the world. Reportedly the spot only aired once, but that was all it took. A nuclear bomb doesn’t need to go off twice.

“In your heart, you know he’s right” was Goldwater’s campaign slogan. This was changed, by the Democrats, to “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.” The political Left has a long history of smearing those it doesn’t like with accusations of insanity.

During that tumultuous campaign, a now deservedly defunct magazine called Fact put out an article whose headline screamed, “1,189 Psychiatrists Say Goldwater Is Psychologically Unfit To Be President!” If facts really mattered to this publication, one detail might have given it pause. Absolutely none of those 1,189 self-proclaimed experts ever actually examined the senator.

The political Left has a long history of smearing those it doesn’t like with accusations of insanity.

Goldwater sued the magazine’s editor, Ralph Ginzburg, for libel, and won $75,000 in damages. Though that was, at the time, a lavish sum — the equivalent of approximately $592,000 in today’s funds — the case exerted an influence that was larger still. It resulted in what has come to be known as the “Goldwater Rule.” Officially designated paragraph 7.3 of the Principles of Medical Ethics by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 (and still in effect today), the rule reads as follows:

On occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general. However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.

Of course the same president whose campaign accused his challenger of insanity is the one who accelerated US military involvement in Vietnam. It was outside his White House that the protestors chanted, “Hey, Hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” The nation didn’t need to wonder whether President Johnson’s abuses of political power would lead to the deaths of massive numbers of people, because they undeniably did.

But like every other ethical constraint in 21st-century politics, the professional responsibility we might expect from media shrinks is probably not long for this world. Now that Donald Trump is president, his adversaries have the Goldwater Rule in their crosshairs. Some know-it-all in the psychiatric industry rises up to tell us, almost on a daily basis, that if the present occupant of the Oval Office is not a raving maniac, he is, at the very least, teetering on the brink.

The nation didn’t need to wonder whether President Johnson’s abuses of political power would lead to the deaths of massive numbers of people, because they undeniably did.

Though I think the former assessment is extreme, there are a lot of days when I agree with the latter. The Donald often strikes me as an oversized and very spoiled child, who’s been indulged with dangerous toys. Unlike Little Ralphie in A Christmas Story, he probably never had grownups in his life with the nerve to tell him, “You’ll shoot your eye out!” But then again, I don’t regard politicians in general as the most stable or mature specimens of humanity. It could be credibly argued that no mentally healthy adult would ever run for president of the United States.

What really seems to set Donald Trump apart from the rest of the field is the undisguised, boyish glee with which he lives his presidential dream. He’s Big Ralphie, and his BB gun is apocalyptically yuge. He lacks the veneer of sophistication and glibness — an aura of helmsmanship that is probably never more than tissue-thin — that we’ve seen in almost every other aspirant to high office. I suspect, however, that far from making him more destructive than any potential rival, Trump’s weird childishness makes it easier for a majority of us to keep from trusting him overmuch.

Yet the armchair headshrinking is threatening, as well as unethical, because when such “professional” conduct is treated as legitimate, everyone who disagrees with the “experts” runs the risk of being branded as “crazy” — a term that has long been synonymous not only with “dangerous” but also with “evil.” A phony diagnosis is evil in itself. And it subjects people who actually suffer from mental problems to stigma, isolation, and, potentially, far greater dangers than the vast majority of them pose to anyone else.

It could be credibly argued that no mentally healthy adult would ever run for president of the United States.

Thus does the quest for political power threaten to obliterate the very line between sanity and insanity. An insatiable lust for power is coming to be accepted as mentally healthy, and the belief that there are more important things in life is widely dismissed as a disease of moral irresponsibility. But to those who love liberty, tyranny is insane. If liberty is to be preserved, that line must continue to be sharply and clearly drawn.




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The Cruelty of the Self-Righteous

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I am generally favorable to President Trump, and I can give you reasons for that. But I am not favorable, at all, to his role in the current “you aren’t doing enough about this” war between political factions about the so-called opioid crisis. Trump has upped the ante by calling for the death penalty for illicit peddling of opioids. The only way you can call and raise him on that is by recommending the death penalty for users — something that, unfortunately, may already be entailed by the agitated proposals now issuing from Trump and other officials.

Look. Every 20 years there’s another drug “crisis.” This has been going on for more than a century. But seldom has it gone on about a more useful family of drugs than opioids. These drugs reduce severe and chronic pain, and pain is a good thing to reduce. Often it is something that needs to be reduced in order to prevent a suicide; very often it is something that needs to be reduced in order to give sick people a real life.

To arbitrarily limit the number of prescriptions for useful drugs is to arbitrarily increase the amount of human pain. That’s pretty much the definition of cruelty.

There is no doubt that these drugs can be falsely prescribed, over-prescribed, and abused. There is no doubt that they can cause addiction and death. I hope I am not offending you by saying that all of this is a familiar part of life on this planet. The best, and in fact the only, way of meeting this “crisis” is to exercise responsibility for your own medications. It is not to tell your neighbor to take those little pains to the nearest Zen master, or man up and bear them.

To raise the price of “illicit” drugs by raising the penalty for peddling them merely increases profits for the vast majority of dealers who always escape such penalties. To arbitrarily limit the number of prescriptions for useful drugs, which is what is now being proposed on all sides, is to arbitrarily increase the amount of human pain. That’s pretty much the definition of cruelty.

So I say, Damn your cruelty, Mr. President. And damn the cruelty of all the self-satisfied people who agree with you only about this, of all things.




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Sic Semper

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The firing of Andrew McCabe, long the number two person at the FBI and during part of 2017 its interim director, rejoiced my heart, which was even more rejoiced by the fact that his firing denies him access to the government pension, said to be worth almost $2 million, that he was on the verge of receiving. Now he can begin to deal with the legal and financial punishments that his organization has long visited upon innocent American citizens.

Of course, this person, fired for his own misdeeds, immediately issued a statement claiming that the event was an attack on “public servants” and “the FBI, law enforcement, and intelligence professionals more generally.” I, for one, do not regard the FBI as sacred, or intelligence agents as a priestly class, or “public servants” as more than government employees. And even if they were, I would consider McCabe a very poor candidate to embody their virtues. This is a man whose wife took hundreds of thousands of dollars from a friend of Hillary Clinton to help her run for office on behalf of the party of Hillary Clinton, and still had the effrontery to supervise investigations of Hillary Clinton.

McCabe's firing is big news because we are seeing a tyrant fall.

Yet the fact that McCabe’s firing was big news, the fact that I and millions even notice the fate of Andrew McCabe, is no cause for celebration. “The FBI, law enforcement, and intelligence professionals more generally” are not supposed to be that important. Their professional careers are not supposed to be crucial to our system of government. The firing of one cop, justified or unjustified, should be no more important than the firing of a professor, a nurse, an engineer, or any other normal person.

McCabe’s firing is big news because he had big power; and he had big power, not because he had a big talent, which he didn’t, but because he was a ruler in an organization that investigates, controls, and often persecutes American citizens, while doggedly withholding information about itself. Under the leadership of McCabe and others, it has become a tyrannical organization. His firing is big news because we are seeing a tyrant fall. Let’s now get rid of the laws and attitudes and social customs that permit the tyranny of the Inner State.




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Profound and Destructive

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President Trump’s destructiveness requires few words here. Consider how world stock and currency markets have been shaken by the resignation on March 6 of Gary Cohn, regarded until then as Trump’s chief economic adviser. Although not a trained economist, Cohn apparently had some sound instincts derived from years of financial experience. His departure apparently and ominously leaves more influence, or echo, to Peter Navarro — look him up with Google.

This latest example of destructiveness follows the one touched off by Trump’s March 2 tweet bewailing America’s loss of “many billions of dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with” and heralding trade wars as “good, and easy to win.”

Trump views international trade as a game, a zero-sum game in which one player’s gain is another’s loss.

I’ll spend more words on how profound Trump’s ignorance is. He considers a country’s excess of imports over exports a measure of loss. This measure applies even to trade with each foreign country separately. He counts China and Mexico among the worst offenders, deserving punishment. He does not understand the multilateral aspect of beneficial trade.

Nor does he understand how we gain in buying goods cheap from abroad. What difference does it make if steel and aluminum are cheap because of low foreign prices or because they grow cheaply on bushes at home? Money cost is a measure of opportunity cost, which means the loss of other goods when resources go instead to make the particular good in question. Opportunity cost reflects scarcity. Scarcity applies even to prosperous America, where we could enjoy still higher standards of living if food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, and other goods and services came costlessly and miraculously from heaven. Scarcity and how gains from domestic and foreign trade alleviate it are fundamentals of economics. The principle of comparative advantage goes far in explaining how.

The profundity of Trump’s ignorance goes beyond economics, extending even to the behavior of a decent human being.

Without understanding the academic presentation of the “absorption approach to the balance of payments,” everyone should be able to grasp its central idea, which is sheer arithmetic. If we as a country use more output for consumption and real investment than we produce, then the difference must come from somewhere — from abroad in the form of more imports than exports. A big item in this excess absorption, alias national undersaving, is government deficits. Yet Trump and Congress are complacent about increasing the deficit and debt by taxing less and spending more.

All too many politicians say that they are in favor of free trade if it is “fair trade” played on a “level playing field.” These slogans express Trump’s view of international trade as a game, a zero-sum game in which one player’s gain is another’s loss.

Trump does not understand how the price system coordinates economic activity, making most government planning about jobs and industries unnecessary and harmful.

The profundity of Trump’s ignorance goes beyond economics. It extends to diplomacy in domestic and foreign relations and even to the behavior of a decent human being. Yet his destructive economic ignorance remains prominent.




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