Eerie Sounds and Apparitions

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How strange our political people are!

Their strangeness isn’t enough to make their lives interesting. Ronald Reagan, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, the many Roosevelts — all had fascinating lives, no matter how you assess them. Robert Novak, the political commentator, wrote a fascinating account of his own life. But who wants to read a biography of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or Charles Schumer or Nancy Pelosi or Chris Matthews or George F. Will?

Yet such people have the power to create those uncanny moments that shake one’s faith in a rationally comprehensible world. It’s as if one heard a voice from the closet, calling, “Eat more rocks!” What? you wonder. What was that? The voice said what?

Brennan has repeatedly denounced Trump for denouncing people in the same way in which he himself denounces Trump.

On August 18, John Brennan, former CEO of the CIA, said something that has had me reading his words over and over, trying to figure them out — but it just isn’t possible

Since the 2016 election, Brennan has made a lot of statements that were over the top, especially statements about Donald Trump, who failed to reappoint him to any leading office in the secret police. He has repeatedly denounced Trump for denouncing people in the same way in which he himself denounces Trump. Responding to Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, where Trump neglected either to denounce Putin for interference in the 2016 election or to bomb the former Soviet Union back into the Stone Age, Brennan tweeted (July 16):

Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of “high crimes & misdemeanors.” It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???

That was enough to indicate that although Brennan spent his official life trying to identify people who were committing treason, he has no idea of how treason is defined. (See Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution.) The message showed his incompetence as well as his aptitude for slander. But it was not impossible to understand.

On August 18, however, he went on Rachel Maddow’s show and moved boldly into the realm of the surreal. Maddow noted, quite sensibly, that he had accused Trump of committing treason, but this seemed a new thought to Brennan. Looking, as always, like Zinjanthropus with a bad hair day, he denied that he had done that. Here are his remarks, as transcribed by The Hill:

I did say that it rises to and exceeds the level of high crimes and misdemeanors and nothing short of treasonous, because he had the opportunity there to be able to say to the world that this is something that happened.

And that’s why I said it was nothing short of treasonous. I didn’t mean that he committed treason. But it was a term that I used, nothing short of treasonous.

That speech must have left Maddow feeling pretty woozy; I know it made me that way. As she observed, again quite rationally, “nothing short of treasonous means it’s treason.” “Well,” she said, trying to make some kind of sense out of this, “you didn’t mean that he committed treason, though?” “I said,” Brennan replied, “‘it’s nothing short of treasonous.’ That was the term that I used, yeah.”

The message showed his incompetence as well as his aptitude for slander.

Maddow might disagree with me, but at this point I wondered how many surreal people have infiltrated our government. Plenty, I think. But my worst moment came when I looked at the summary that The Hill, which is a mainstream venue, made of Brennan’s account of his “treason” claim:

Former CIA Director John Brennan said that he didn’t mean President Trump had committed treason when he called Trump’s press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin “nothing short of treason."

Brennan clarified the comment during an interview Friday, after NBC’s Rachel Maddow said Brennan said the press conference “rose to treason.”

Clarified . . . Clarified? Tell me, isn’t that Rod Serling, standing at the back of the set?




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The Boss Finally Discovers the Real Enemies!

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President Trump — The Boss, the man of steel — has an improbable target for his incandescent ire: the Koch brothers, billionaires famous (or infamous, depending upon your political predilections) for funding free-market-oriented Republicans.

What triggered The Boss was the fact that the Koch brothers have refused to support a Trump puppet Republican — one Kevin Cramer — in his fight to defeat Democrat Heidi Heitkamp for the North Dakota Senate seat. The Kochs use a PAC they help fund — Americans for Prosperity, or AFP — to support free-market Republicans. You know traditional liberal free-market thinking: free movement of goods, capital, and labor. That sort of view is antipathetic not just to high taxes and regulation but to protectionism, nativism, and unbounded government spending as well. It once was the defining ideology of the Republican Party (full disclosure here: I have in the past donated to the AFP). Cramer supports “fair trade” (which typically means “trade under tariffs and non-tariff barriers until we have equal trade balances”), and fully backs The Boss’s plan to provide $12 billion in subsidies to American farmers who are casualties in this administration’s worldwide trade war.

Trump played the nativist card by accusing the Kochs of being against “strong borders,” and bragged that he has never needed their money.

The Kochs have launched radio ads opposing this policy of subsidizing farmers to make up for the business they have lost from the tariff war. This lost business is the unseen economic downside of tariffs that protectionists can never quite grasp: tariffs may save some jobs, but they cost other jobs, elsewhere in the economy. When those jobs are lost, you then have to subsidize the people who were screwed over to save the original jobs — hell, you could have just subsidized the original companies that lost jobs!

Besides refusing to back Cramer, the Kochs have indicated that they are looking at several other close Senate races to see whom to support (if anyone).

The Boss is not amused at all this. In one of his signature blitzkrieg tweet attacks, he railed against the Kochs, calling them “globalists” — which is the current epithet that has replaced the old rightest term “cosmopolitans,” meaning people who have no patriotic loyalty to their own country, but only to the world — or their ethnic group spread out around the world, or their secret clan (the Illuminati!). He also called them a “joke in real Republican circles.” He played the nativist card by accusing them of being against “strong borders,” and bragged that he has never needed their money. The boss also crowed that the Koch brothers’ network is “overrated” and claimed, “I have beaten them at every turn.” Naturally, he suggested that the Kochs oppose tariffs because of selfishness: they don’t want their foreign operations taxed.

Oh, those rootless cosmopolitans! Such traitors, and all for money!

All this is insufferably rich. Trump — who has himself made a fair amount of money in business done abroad — is attacking a group of pro-business, pro-free-market Republicans who believe in free trade and balanced budgets. A group, please note, that has been supporting Republican candidates far longer than The Boss — who, until a few years ago, almost always gave his political donations to Democrats, including to “Crooked” Hillary Clinton. And The Boss had no problem with the Kochs’ spending millions to help get his tax bill passed.

This lost business is the unseen economic downside of tariffs that protectionists can never quite grasp: tariffs may save some jobs, but they cost other jobs, elsewhere in the economy.

The Kochs and their AFP organization should be commended for standing on principle and opposing the trade war, increasing government deficits, and nativism that The Boss represents. They were consistent when they supported his drive to cut regulations and taxes, and they are consistent now in opposing his protectionism, nativism, and indifference to deficit spending.

But The Boss, who cannot bring himself to view Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping as enemies, now views these decent Americans as precisely that. This is puzzling, until one recalls Proverbs 29:27, which tells us that “an unjust man is an abomination to the righteous, but one whose way is straight is an abomination to the wicked.” This explains what we see here with perfect clarity.




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What So Fulsomely We Hail

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“It’s so insane,” said Sean Hannity at the start of his May 16 TV show, “there’s so much news; we’ll try to get it into an hour.” He followed this protest against the constraints of time with a summary of what he planned to say in his “opening monologue,” which itself turned out to be a summary of what was going to happen still later in the show: “we’ll have more of that in just a second.” His insane, or at least cockeyed, attempt to outline his remarks lasted 13 minutes, about one-third of the show’s noncommercial time.

Hannity is perhaps the biggest timewaster in “public life.” He is a man who is virtually incapable of making a simple statement or asking his guests a simple question. If he seems to ask a question and they try to answer it, he breaks in to let them know what he would say if anyone put the question to him. The processional and recessional to every segment of these agonizing conversations is a list of the top ten crimes of the Democratic Party, often interrupted by the reminder that he’s “said this again and again.” Hannity could easily get the news into an hour, but there aren’t enough hours in anybody’s day for whatever he thinks he’s doing.

The subject of this month’s column is extras, add-ons, timewasters, and verbal extensions of all kinds. If you like today’s political and cultural discourse, you should be grateful for these things, because without them, that discourse would hardly exist.

Sean Hannity is a man who is virtually incapable of making a simple statement or asking his guests a simple question.

It doesn’t have to be that way. You’ve probably heard the famous story about Calvin Coolidge, who was noted for his brevity. Someone told him that she thought she could get him to say more than two words in response to her, and he replied, “You lose.” This story has taken many forms, in some of which the woman is Dorothy Parker, the writer. That is certainly untrue. What is true is that the story first appeared in public in a speech delivered at a lunch at which Coolidge was present, and that Coolidge immediately denied it. Whether he did so with a twinkle in his eye is not recorded, but I want to think he did, because this probably false anecdote is the only thing that many people know about him, and they like it.

We all like brevity — in other people. We feel, perhaps, that their verbal restraint gives us more time to babble, and that couldn’t be bad. But there is still the problem of how to hold their attention, or at least to make ourselves feel that we do.

Lord Chesterfield, in his immortal letters on social decorum, gives this advice to his son (October 19, 1748):

Talk often, but never long: in that case, if you do not please, at least you are sure not to tire your hearers. . . .
Never hold anybody by the button or the hand, in order to be heard out; for, if people are not willing to hear you, you had much better hold your tongue than them.

We no longer hold unwilling listeners by the button — partly because Chesterfield’s letters helped to improve people’s manners — but we have many other means of coercing attention. One is by being elected to public office. Every public official, from the president to the village chief of police, has or believes he has the right to talk a hundred times longer than he ought to.

We all like brevity — in other people.

How many times has your TV or radio enjoyment been interrupted by a press conference at which a police department spokesman introduces the officer in charge of the investigation, who introduces the chief of police, who elaborately thanks the mayor, sheriff, fire chief, county director of emergency services, and several other microphone-attracted worthies, not forgetting special words for all first responders, whether involved or not, and then, having congratulated them for their incredible and unbelievable performance, slowly reviews information already reported, finally refusing to answer any questions — because, after all, the episode is under investigation?

And how many times have you tuned into a congressional hearing on some issue of real importance (I know, that’s narrowing it down a bit), only to be treated to hours of partisan orations, pretending to be questions? If you’re lucky, this nightmare of boredom may be followed by a real interrogation, but you can be certain it will be so swathed in verbiage that it goes nowhere.

How do these people get elected? How do they get nominated? And why is Hannity, Baron of Blowhards, Prince of Pish-Posh, one of the most popular people on television? Even politicians have to compete for an audience, and these people succeeded. How?

If you’re lucky, this nightmare of boredom may be followed by a real interrogation, but you can be certain it will go nowhere.

The explanation is that some people who could never be held by a button are easily held by an attitude. They feel comforted by existential affinity. The rule of novel writing has always been: if they like 200 pages of this stuff, they’ll like 800 pages better — even if it’s pointless background, meaningless subplot, and purely rhetorical conversation. You may not care what happens to the Joad family, but people who do care, or feel they should care, don’t mind that The Grapes of Wrath is four times longer than it needs to be. They don’t need to be persuaded; they like it already.

In the same way, there are people who leap out of bed in the morning, eager for the endlessly repeated shriekings of The View, and cannot go to sleep at night without the endlessly repeated inanities of Stephen Colbert. I know an intelligent person who thinks that Hillary Clinton is “a brilliant public speaker.” Someone else I know claims that President Trump “goes right to the heart of things.” In other words, Clinton and Trump go magnificently to these people’s hearts, no matter how many times Clinton and Trump bore the pants off everybody else.

Such elective affinities have always been important. But at some times in human history there has been a general belief that a serious public utterance should have a broader appeal — an appeal, perhaps, to taste and insight. That’s not true of our time. Today the great controversial documents are hideous bores, sickening bores, Satanic bores — from Clinton’s speeches to Trump’s speeches to (worst of all) Bernie Sanders’ speeches, and finally to the recent work of Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz (and others), elaborately entitled A Review of Various Actions by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Justice in Advance of the 2016 Election. Already you can see that the authors have no trouble piling up words. They also seem to know that if you pile them high enough, no one will be able to find the topic. Which would be a problem, if that were your purpose — to discuss your topic. If not, so much the better. Reading that title, who would think the report had anything to do with the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails?

In other words, Clinton and Trump go magnificently to these people’s hearts, no matter how many times Clinton and Trump bore the pants off everybody else.

And who would think that people wanted to read it to find out whether the FBI conducted a biased investigation of Clinton? That’s the question everybody wanted the report to answer — but if you have enough words, you don’t need to answer anything.

The document frequently refers to bias, but this is the way it does it:

There were clearly tensions and disagreements in a number of important areas between [FBI] agents and prosecutors. However, we did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that improper considerations, including political bias, directly affected the specific investigative decisions we reviewed in Chapter Five, or that the justifications offered for these decisions were pretextual. (p. iii)

Pretextual? Where have you ever seen that word before? Does it have anything to do with those monkeys that hang by their tails? And speaking of animals, how do you decode that elephantine passage about “tensions and disagreements” and not finding “documentary or testimonial evidence” that bias “directly affected . . . specific [as opposed to nonspecific] investigative decisions”? I think it means that nobody wrote or spoke a confession about having made a biased decision. When you take the pillows off, this is a hard bed to lie in. Nobody ever takes out a piece of paper and writes, as testimonial evidence, “I let Hillary off the hook because I wanted to throw the election to her.”

But Horowitz may be smarter than he sounds. He seems to realize that someone may accuse him (imagine! him!) of bias for excreting such an absurd statement. So, nine pages later, we discover this passage, buried in another mountain of words:

[W]hen one senior FBI official, [Peter] Strzok, who was helping to lead the Russia investigation at the time, conveys in a text message to another senior FBI official, [Lisa] Page, “No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it” in response to her question “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!”, it is not only indicative of a biased state of mind but, even more seriously, implies a willingness to take official action to impact the presidential candidate’s electoral prospects. This is antithetical to the core values of the FBI and the Department of Justice. (p. xii)

Were you expecting the second half of that amazingly long series of words to say, “this indicates that the two investigations were biased”? Didn’t the first half reveal the documentary or testimonial evidence of biased investigation? But no, the second half identifies only a biased state of mind (which is evidently quite different from simple, two-syllable bias) and a mere willingness to take official action to impact the prospects. The climactic revelation is that this willingness was antithetical to the FBI’s core values. Well! I am so shocked! Who woulda thunk it?

He seems to realize that someone may accuse him (imagine! him!) of bias for excreting such an absurd statement.

One of my favorite sayings is something I heard from a local preacher. He said he was a strong supporter of the First Amendment, because it lets “everyone talk long enough to show how much of a fool he is.” That’s the problem with piling up words, isn’t it? And that’s what we see in the official response of the FBI to the inspector general’s report. Here’s a highlight:

No evidence of bias or other improper considerations was found by the OIG in the [FBI’s] team’s: use of consent, rather than subpoenas, search warrants, or other legal process to obtain evidence; decisions regarding how to limit consent agreements; decision [sic] not to seek personal devices from former Secretary Clinton’s senior aides; decisions to enter into immunity agreements; decisions regarding the timing and scoping [sic] of former Secretary Clinton’s interview, or to proceed [did anyone proofread this?] with the interview with Cheryl Mills and Heather Samuelson present; and, the decision to obtain testimony and other evidence from Ms. Mills and Ms. Samuelson by consent agreement and with act-of-production immunity.

No evidence, then, except for this and that, and OK, there was also that, and then there’s that other thing. . . . Would that all windbags would discredit themselves as effectively as the blowhards of the FBI.

But they have plenty of competition in official circles. You don’t have to live in Washington; you don’t have to be writing 500-page reports; you can be a blowhard without leaving the provinces, and in only a few ill-chosen words.

Here’s a typical political utterance, from some California potentate grabbing a mike to emit a series of sounds. This person is an advocate of “Title 10,” about which he states: “Title 10 has been a lifeline for about four million Americans in this country.” Never mind what Title 10 is. Never mind that “lifeline” is an image without a fact or definition, and therefore pointless. Never mind that politicians’ statistics are never right, and known never to be right. The idea is simply to make a sentence by throwing things into it. Length equals substance.

Would that all windbags would discredit themselves as effectively as the blowhards of the FBI.

Consider the speaker’s time-wasting substitute for “people”: Americans in this country. (As distinguished from Americans outside this country.) Americans, of course, is better than people, because it drags in the conservative, nationalist attitude to complement the modern-liberal, throw-out-the-lifeline notion. But why in this country? One reason is that about 25 years ago leftist politicians started adding that phrase to every critique they made of America, as in, “There are 30 million people without health insurance in this country.” It sounded cool because it made America into just another country, except that it was worse than all the rest of them. This phrase flourished so mightily that even conservatives now use it, and use it as obsessively as the liberals, and with no hint of satire or, indeed, of any purpose except maintaining a continuous sound. It’s an all-purpose timewaster, one of many phrases useful for bogarting air time: due diligence, first priority, path forward, moving forward, going forward, up for grabs, risk their lives for us every day, 20-20 hindsight, what’s at stake for us as a nation, dear to us as a nation, our values as a nation, never before in our nation’s history, revisit the issue, only time will tell, remains to be seen, nation of immigrants, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me, tough road [sic] to hoe, thank you for your service. It’s there to take up space, to keep any other sounds from breaking in, to hold you by the button.

The dumbest of time wasters is the immemorial ya know, still popular after all these years and, I’m sorry to hear, even more popular than it was 20 years ago, when it was the chief verbal identifier of teenagers and illiterate sports figures. Now it’s everywhere.

The host of a morning talk show on one of my local radio stations recently lavished an hour on an interview with a young woman whom he identified as a former assistant superintendent of the school district. She was following up on a mother’s complaint about alleged mistreatment of her handicapped son by a special education teacher. I was stuck in traffic and got to hear almost all of this. Only my sense of duty as a reporter on linguistic developments kept me from turning it off, or killing myself in despair. The commercials were bliss compared with the interview — because of ya know.

It sounded cool because it made America into just another country, except that it was worse than all the rest of them.

I couldn’t tell whether the ex-superintendent’s charges were justified. All my available energy was required just to figure out what she was saying — an attempt in which I failed. She was incapable of narrating any events that took place outside her head. She harped on how she felt, how greatly she was outraged, how greatly she continued to be outraged. She had innumerable ways of repeating her outrage. But what had happened? The host tried to lead her into saying what had happened by summarizing part of the story, but she refused to take the hint. Nevertheless, with the aid of “ya know” she talked continually. There was at least one “ya know” in every sentence, and usually more than one. Some sentence-like bits of debris consisted almost entirely of that phrase. I estimated that by the time I reached my destination she had used “ya know” about 400 times. This is a person whose profession is teaching, who once supervised and presumably trained teachers, and who made no mention of being fired because she was judged to be inarticulate. She was obviously hired despite that disability. What, I wondered, were the speech habits of the person who did not get the job?

Well, maybe that person is now in Congress. If you’re a member of the House of Representatives, all your speeches are long, all your sentences are long, all your phrases are long, all your words are long. Faced with the choice of point in time or point or time, you always select point in time. No one has to guess whether you’ll say use or utilize; naturally, it will be utilize. Between single and singular, you will infallibly choose the longer one. And now you’re giving us fulsome instead of full.

The ubiquitous Representative Trey Gowdy (R-SC) may not have originated this brain-dead attempt to make full still fuller, but he popularized it. About May 4, before Horowitz published his report, Gowdy admonished him, “It is of the utmost importance that your review be as fulsome, complete and unimpeded as possible.” As you see, Gowdy is almost as good at this stuff as Horowitz. One adjective would be enough, but Gowdy gives us three: complete, unimpeded, full. And one syllable would be enough for full, but that must have sounded hasty, so he turned it into two syllables: fulsome. Unluckily, that word is not synonymous with full, and is almost always derogatory: “fulsome kisses” come to mind, as do William Congreve’s “fulsome lies and nauseous flattery.”

If you’re a member of the House of Representatives, all your speeches are long, all your sentences are long, all your phrases are long, all your words are long.

Well, so Gowdy made a mistake one time. No, he didn’t. On May 11, on Tucker Carlson’s show, he repeated this illiteracy, twice, burbling about his expectations for a “fulsome report,” a report that would present a “fulsome picture.”

By June 7, Department of Justice hacks, who are Gowdy’s political enemies, had caught his disease. On that day, Sara Carter reported on the DOJ’s constant slow-walking of documents to congressional committees:

[A] DOJ official said with regard to not providing the documents on Thursday, “Although the Department and FBI would have liked to provide this information as early as this week [I’ll bet they did], officials have taken a little additional time to provide the most fulsome answers to the members’ questions as possible.”

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Carter’s source is the one person in Washington who knows what “fulsome” means and is accurately describing the way officials write. Remember Congreve’s words about “fulsome lies.”

The final word, for this month, on officials’ determination to turn blah into blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah comes from the aforementioned Peter Strzok, the secret police agent who wrote of Trump’s presidency, “We’ll stop it.” Whatever you think of the sentiment, the expression showed admirable restraint and perspicuity.

One adjective would be enough, but Gowdy gives us three.

But when confronted by congressional investigators with the evidence that he had, at least once, said something brief and to the point, Strzok haughtily denied the charge, implying that anyone who found a simple and direct meaning in anything he said in an email had committed a misidentification of genre similar to confusing Hitchcock’s Vertigo with a hand-written sign reading “Watch Your Step”:

To suggest we can parse down the shorthand like they’re [sic] some contract for a car is simply not consistent with my or most people’s use of text messaging.

In the Clinton era, parse started to be used as an effete synonym for “figure out what the president’s sentences really mean.” Strzok put a new (to me) spin on the word: parse down. Let’s try to follow this. He believes that it’s wrong to take a simple statement and reduce what is already in “shorthand” until you get something that is like a contract for a car — which, as we know is a long, long, redundantly long document — thus discovering meanings that are not consistent with the generic expectations of text messagers.

In this case, the something was a translation of “we’ll stop it” into “we’ll stop it.”

With many strange words Strzok demanded that his simplest declarations be given a meaning so complicated that it could be reached only by refusing to parse down the shorthand, thus producing, by not parsing, the real message for which the shorthand stood — a message, I assume, of approximately 100,000 words.




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When You’re Right, You’re Right!

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I confess that I have been highly critical of our current president — as I was with the previous two. But as with them, I try to recognize when the right thing is done. So this is a shoutout to The Boss, our dear leader Trump. Trump has recognized a problem, and even suggested a way to deal with it.

The problem is that eternal boondoggle, that bureaucracy of a billion lives, the US Postal Service. If there is any business that should have been should have been blown away by the gales of creative destruction long ago, it is the post office. Really, who needs it in an internet-based world?

Of course, it is only its own employees who need it. The American Postal Workers Union, and the large number of past workers now drawing pensions, desperately want the Jurassic agency to keep going, and taxpayers must shell out billions of dollars a year to keep it going — $2.7 billion last year alone. While in theory the agency operates on its own separate budget, any shortfalls are covered by not funding the pension fund, which is entirely the responsibility of the Federal Government — i.e., you and me — to pay.

Really, who needs the US Postal Service in an internet-based world?

All this is borne so that the Post Office can keep distributing junk mail — advertising to homes not interested in reading the stuff — and delivering packages for bargain rates for Amazon and the other million retail companies that are doing business online.

Trump, after accusing the USPS of giving Amazon in particular “sweetheart pricing,” has now proposed that the USPS be reorganized, with the eventual goal of privatizing it, as postal services in other countries have been privatized. Trump has convened a commission that will review this idea next month.

The procedure would be to reorganize the agency to allow it to demonstrate that it can be profitable. This would probably involve cutting down the days it delivers, centralizing its delivery locations, and permitting it to charge higher rates and offer different services. It could then be sold off to become a private-investor-owned utility still subject to government regulation.

Bezos is a self-made man, unlike Trump, who built his fortune on the one his father gave him.

Trump is right, of course. And such is my admiration for his insight (in this case) that I want to offer him some helpful advice. No, please don’t thank me — it is merely my patriotic duty.

My suggestion grows out of his own words, and the facts about the target of his ire, Amazon, as explored in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. In one of his infinity of tweets, Trump attacked Amazon for allegedly using the USPS as “their delivery boy,” and getting USPS services at artificially low rates. He followed this up by ordering an audit of the Amazon-USPS business dealings. Now, it must be admitted that Trump seems to hate the owner of Amazon — one Jeff Bezos. The reasons are a bit obscure, but seem to boil down to three facts about Bezos that must infuriate The Boss. First, Bezos owns the Washington Post, which has routinely criticized Trump. Second, Bezos is about 25 times richer than Trump, who is so arrogant about his wealth. Finally, Bezos is a self-made man, unlike the Boss, who built his fortune on the one his father gave him.

As the article documents, it is certainly true that Amazon ships about half of the more than 1.2 billion packages it sends through the USPS. And if Trump gets rates to go up by a buck a package, it would cost Amazon about $1.8 billion in extra costs. However, few analysts believe that the USPS is losing money on Amazon’s business — indeed, that business (and the business the USPS does with the other retailers, such as Walmart, Target, and Costco) is a net benefit to the USPS. No, what is causing the losses for the USPS is the near extinction of first-class mail (brought about by the rise of email and online banking), plus the aforementioned Postal Workers union, which makes the firing of redundant or incompetent employees very difficult. Oh, and add, as a dead loss, the Federal Government itself, which allows members of Congress to mail their propaganda back home to the voters for free.

Amazon would probably outbid everyone else and wind up with the whole enchilada.

Amazon has been working furiously on building its own shipping outfit, “Shipping With Amazon.” The aim of this new captive shipping company is to deal with the spectacular growth of Amazon’s retail operations. The number of packages that Amazon ships annually has doubled over the last 5 years, and the projected growth exceeds what the current major players (UPS, Fed Ex, and USPS) can handle.

Amazon’s proprietary shipping arm already has more than 70 delivery centers, owns 7,500 tractor-trailers, leases more than 35 aircraft, and is expanding into ocean freight. It spends about 13.2% of its overall revenues, or about $22 billion, on shipping costs. Shipping With Amazon already delivers in dozens of American cities. And it is inviting entrepreneurs to set up small delivery companies that will be independent contractors for Amazon, leasing 20 to 40 Amazon vans, and allowing the drivers to use uniforms with its grey and blue logo. Amazon has started a service called “Flex” along the lines of Uber and Lyft, which allow private citizens to deliver its packages, and also contracts with many of the small delivery companies that exist in larger cities.

The taxpayers’ obligations to this enormous, rentseeking mob would be mitigated by the proceeds of the sale.

So here is a suggestion that The Boss — who views himself as an iconoclastic thinker — should consider. Why not simply and immediately offer up the USPS for sale to the highest bidder? My thinking is that Amazon would probably outbid everyone else and wind up with the whole enchilada. At that point, the postal employees would be Amazon’s problem, and it could make them productive by any means necessary. We might allow the USPS — now owned by Amazon — to keep its monopoly on first-class delivery for one year, only. Meanwhile, it would be allowed to expand into any business it felt it could profit from. For example, it could set up an actual bank, to expand its already large banking operations (such as the issuing of postal money orders).

To sweeten the deal for the postal workers, the president’s friends could put into the bill that authorizes the sale of the USPS the key clause that all proceeds from the sale would be put into a separate, locked-up pool of index stock funds reserved for the payment of Postal Employees pensions. The taxpayers’ obligations to this enormous, rentseeking mob would be mitigated by the proceeds of the sale — and capped.

Let’s hope the Boss follows this suggestion.




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Functional Illiteracy

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As you know, the cable networks are filled with advertisements both for medicines and for lawyers who sue about the results of medicines. Medicine ads (note: not lawyer ads) include lists of the unfortunate side effects that the advertised commodities may possibly have. While attractive, smiling, sociable actors illustrate the lovely lives of elderly, sick, drug-dependent people, cheerful voices observe that customers may be subject to shortness of breath, sore feet, heart attacks, pneumonia, depression, insanity, and the seven-year itch.

But lawyers must be suing on the ground that the names of the listed ailments are too hard to understand, because now there’s an ad advising you that Eliquis, which has been defined as “an anticoagulant for the treatment of venous thromboembolic events,” “may cause paralysis — the inability to move.”

Anyone can abuse anyone, at any time — so what?

I would think that any patient who understood the business about “venous events” would also understand “paralysis,” but we can’t count on that, can we? One of my best students recently entertained me with a self-joshing anecdote about his failure to perform some household task, to which his roommates responded by calling him a d*****b**. (I realize that half my readers will resent me for being too prudish to spell that out, and the other half will resent me for bringing it up in the first place.) He quoted the phrase several times, but I began to wonder whether he knew what it literally meant. “No,” he confessed. “I don’t.” So I explained it to him. He blushed, and volunteered not to use it again. But he hadn’t been curious enough to find out what he was saying, before I brought it up.

As I say, he’s intelligent. He has a much larger vocabulary than this incident suggests. Multitudes of our fellow citizens do not. That’s one reason why today’s comedy is so grossly dirty. I have no moral objection to bad words. Most of Abraham Lincoln’s jokes were dirty, and harmless. I think it’s funny when the cartoon kids on South Park break into filthy grownup language; it’s one way of showing how inane adultspeak can be. But you’ll notice that when South Park makes fun of, say, Al Gore, it doesn’t call him dirty names. Its purpose is to deflate, not to abuse. Anyone can abuse anyone, at any time — so what?

Now along come Kathy Griffin and Samantha Bee, and all they can do to satirize President Trump is call his daughter a c*** and pretend to decapitate him. (Griffin did the second, some time ago; Bee did the first on May 30.) Such displays of political rhetoric are dumb enough for anyone to understand — no dictionary, no act of reflection, is required. But why should anyone want to stage them? The usual explanation is that artists of this kind are themselves too stupid to think of anything even marginally clever. But if they have any instinct for their audience — and they must have some — they presumably think that gross abuse is the highest form of art the audience can enjoy. If they’re right about that, we’re all in trouble. Bear in mind that both Bee and Griffin number many defenders among the reputedly educated class.

Even as she spoke she must have been able to hear the sound of her audience contracting.

On May 31, on Tucker Carlson’s show, Tammy Bruce said that Samantha Bee and her ilk “make Trump look like Sir Galahad.” I have long admired Ms. Bruce; she’s very smart and very articulate, and she’s a libertarian. She was certainly right in what she said. But alas, poor Tammy: even as she spoke she must have been able to hear the sound of her audience contracting. Who the hell is Sir Galahad? Do I have to look that up?

And do I have to think before I speak? For Tammy Bruce, the answer would be obvious: Yes. Sure. Of course you do. For other people, that issue would be problematic. Wouldn’t thinking be a speed bump?

Here opens an endless vista of public figures, and public bores, who are generally the same thing, careering toward success along the great highway of language, without a care or a stop sign in the world.

When, on May 18, a lunatic killed ten people at a school in Santa Fe, Texas, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) rushed to the first available mike and reassured his constituents as follows:

Texas, as a state, we’ll make it through this. This community, Santa Fe, will make it through this, leaning on each other, praying for each other, standing with each other. We will make it through this.

I’m surprised that Cruz could make it through that impassioned speech. I know it was hard for me to get through it, and I was merely listening. I’d had no idea that Texas was about to fold like a map and blow away. So it was unsettling to learn that the state could be preserved only by people standing on it and leaning on each other as they stood. Yes, it unsettled me. It made me sick. Why didn’t it make Senator Cruz sick too?

It’s the kind of thing that people who aren’t very bright come up with when they try to insult everybody else’s intelligence.

And why doesn’t it make the New York Times sick to publish such headlines as “F.B.I. Used Informant to Investigate Russia Ties to Campaign, Not to Spy, as Trump Claims” (May 18)? What next — “Joe’s Diner Used Stove to Fry Eggs, Not to Cook Them, as Bill’s Diner Claims”? This is a nasty recipe. First you separate two synonyms (informant and spy); then you assume they are not synonyms at all but the most obvious kind of antonyms, implying that if the reader doesn’t see that, he or she just isn’t very bright. Finally, you decorate the dish with a ritual slam of Trump and his claims, claims having become a word you use for self-evident falsehoods. Like everything else in the Times, this is all supposed to be so erudite that if you question it, you’re just not (to repeat myself) very bright. But it’s not. It’s the kind of thing that people who aren’t very bright come up with when they try to insult everybody else’s intelligence. They’re convinced that nobody else can think, so why should they?

Most forms of stupidity are not that cynical. Rudy Giuliani was not trying to put something over on anybody when, speaking of the Mueller investigation, he told Fox News (May 31), “The whole thing should be squashed.” Picture someone taking the Mueller investigation, placing it on the floor, and squashing it like a pumpkin. But darlings, I’m sorry: the word is quashed. Rudy Giuliani is 74 years old; he has spent his life speaking and writing. He’s a lawyer. He was US Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Quash is a common legal term. Squash is not. Enough said.

But returning to headline writing — here’s the rare monstrosity that’s not from the New York Times. It’s from the CNN website. (Shouts of “Stop! We can’t stand it!” Sorry. You’ll have to.) Here it is (May 8): “Tonight’s primaries could prove the Trump takeover of the GOP is totally complete.” Not partially complete, you understand, but totally complete. As I write this, about a month later, the online headline has not been changed. Nobody noticed the problem.

Picture someone taking the Mueller investigation, placing it on the floor, and squashing it like a pumpkin.

Remember that people are paid to write headlines. As a profession. Now, suppose you call a plumber and ask him to fix your drain. He does so, but he also installs an identical drain, next to the first one, thus making the job totally complete. Would you be stupid enough to pay him? I think not.

Investigative reporter Sara Carter is not that stupid, but she apparently finds it easier to think through the FBI’s web of intrigue than to ponder her own words. On May 17 she published the following weighty sentences:

The Department of Justice Inspector General has sent what is described as an “extremely long and thorough draft” of the much anticipated report on the FBI and DOJ’s investigation and handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe, this reporter has learned. The detailed report on the FBI’s decision making process into the Clinton investigation could lead to possible criminal referrals for some of the officials involved in the case.

Well, that was dull, wasn’t it? Surely she could have cut to the chase. Along the way, she could have asked herself whether she could visualize a “decision making process into an investigation.” I can’t. To me, a process isn’t something that goes into anything. And I’m aware, as Carter is, that the FBI owned the investigation; it didn’t need any process to break into it.

Now let’s look at whether the Inspector General’s report “could lead to possible criminal referrals.” I hope not, because I don’t want a possible referral (nor can I visualize one); I want a real referral. So, I believe, does Carter. Yet even with this personal motive and moral imperative, she can’t get her sentence straight. Try “could possibly lead,” Sara.

Well, that was dull, wasn’t it? Surely she could have cut to the chase.

Falling like a rock from the (comparative) intellectual eminence of Sara Carter, I come, at last, to the level playing field of Wikipedia, where anyone can say absolutely anything. You know those obnoxious TV ads for Sandals, the ads that promise that your sex life will be miraculously restored — and not just restored, perfected! — if you book a trip to one of Sandals’ resorts? The ads provoked me to find out more about this life-changing organization. So I went to Wiki, and here, among other things, is what I found:

In January 2013, the government of Turks and Caicos Islands and Sandals agreed to a settlement of US $12 million around local corruption allegations, without admission of any liability.

If you’re thinking that this is simply routine American discourse, you are right. The proof is that word around. About 20 years ago, baby boomers reverted to their days of hash and roses and started using around as an all-purpose pronoun, just as they used like as their all-purpose sentence-larder. Immediately, every discussion was around an issue, not about it. I believe the indeterminacy of around made the word sound spiritual to them. There were also comforting echoes of illiterate leftist speeches around problems of racism and, uh, poverty. So comforting, and yet portentous, was around that it began to resemble the boll weevil in the old song.

First time I saw him, he was sittin’ on the square.
Next time I saw him, he was sittin’ everywhere.

In Wiki’s part of everywhere, a $12-million settlement is presumed to exist around allegations. Restless and amorphous, the settlement hunches and slops around until it finds a big, embarrassing allegation (right next to a big, embarrassed bank account), and sticks to it.

Around is an ominous symptom of a contagious verbal paralysis, by which I mean an inability to move words into places where they make some sense. A crucial stage of this sickness is loss of the power to visualize what words mean. No one who had the power of visualization would slap around into every slot available for a preposition. And no one who had that power would say the words I’ve been hearing for the past few months as I’ve listened, unwillingly, to a local TV station’s attempts to make itself sound intellectual. The station’s ads convey deep thoughts about the problems of San Diego, one of which is high real estate prices. The fruits of Channel 10’s meditations on this mysterious problem are presented in the words of a news personality who says: “The cost of living here? comes with a price.”

There is no price to a cost. There just isn’t.

The question mark is not a typo. It indicates how the sentence sounds. It represents the dumb, Valley-girl uptalk that makes a hilarious contrast to all the brow-wrinkling over San Diego’s challenges. But just look at that sentence. “The cost comes with a price.” What, in the name of Noah Webster, does that mean? There is no price to a cost. There just isn’t. The sentence can be pronounced with deep seriousness, as if it actually said what the author meant, or should have meant: “If you want to live here, you’ll have to pay a lot.” But that’s not what it says. It says nothing. It is a set of words with no visualizable meaning, and none of the 15 or 20 people who must have been involved in the production and dissemination of the sentence noticed that. In fact, they considered it so successful that they doubled down on it. They recently added a second version: “Cost of living! Is pricey.”

I have to admit, however, that if you don’t care whether your words mean what you want them to mean, or whether they mean anything at all, you may end up being funnier than Samantha Bee, Donald Trump, or even Sir Galahad. The effect may be unconscious, and a little morbid, but hey! Why should you care about that, either? If you notice it.

On May 19 a cougar killed a mountain biker in the woods 30 miles east of Seattle. A widely, and approvingly, circulated statement about this event was given to the world by one Rich Beausoleil (nice name), who is “the state’s official bear and cougar specialist” (enviable position). Notice the redundant, and therefore emphatic and unquestionable, marks of legitimacy: he’s a specialist, he’s designated by a state, and he’s official. I don’t know about you, but I’m impressed.

Anyway, Mr. Beausoleil (who, I have no doubt, is as good as his name) was reported to have said that

The death was only the second caused by cougars in Washington in the last 94 years.

“But it's one too many,” he added.

One too many? What about the first one? Not too many — just about right?




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More NAFTA Nonsense

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President Trump’s irrational and infantile war on America’s NAFTA geopolitical allies and trading partners is heating up. Two recent articles illustrate this slow-motion train wreck.

First is a report on how vulnerable our agricultural sector is to Mexican tariff retaliation. The report is about how frightened American farmers are these days. Besides losing sales to China — what with its recent retaliatory tariffs on our export crops (especially soybeans) — the farmers are facing a major hit from South of the Border.

An economic fool — such as Trump — notices the grossly visible part of the economic picture, but overlooks other vital parts.

Looking at the percentages of crop products shipped abroad, the article notes that Mexico buys 7.0% of our soybean products, 14.4% of our beef exports, 27.2% of our fresh fruit exports, 27.9% of our corn exports, 36.3% of our pork exports; and a whopping 45.6% of our milk powder exports. Mexico has just started its round of retaliatory tariffs, hitting US exported cheese and pork. Iowa farmers, who account for a lot of America’s pork production, are already seeing prices decline as the foreign demand falls. In Missouri, ranchers are beginning to cut back the size of these herds, in anticipation of price drops.

Last year, America exported $138 billion in agricultural products abroad, and we had a $21 billion trade surplus. All of this brings up Frédéric Bastiat’s point about the seen and the unseen. An economic fool — such as Trump — notices the grossly visible part of the economic picture, but overlooks other vital parts. He sees the number of steelworker jobs decline, so he enacts tariffs that destroy jobs in other parts of the economy, of which he is stupidly oblivious — currently, in such companies as Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Pilgrims’ Pride, Sanderson Farms, and Tyson Foods. He also doesn’t see job losses in the American manufacturing companies that use steel, such as our automakers and industrial pipe makers.

Trump is not uniquely ignorant of economics. After all, Obama waged trade wars early on (and stopped when he saw the results). Even George Bush — generally quite solid on free trade — stupidly put a tariff on steel imports. But Trump is more of a protectionist than Obama and Bush combined — by far. And as another article notes, he has a narcissistic hair-trigger temper that leads him to freely insult allies, often by means of infantile tweets.

Trump’s asinine behavior has done something Trudeau’s incompetence has hitherto failed to do: unite all the Canadian people behind the man.

The article reports that after Canada’s PM Trudeau’s comments at the end of the recent G-7 meeting that Canada would not be pushed around by the US, Trump tweeted that Trudeau is “very dishonest and weak,” and was lying. Now, let’s stipulate that Trudeau is simply a putz. But the point is, he is a putz who is the freely elected head of the government of one of our closest allies, one whose territory forms a security shield for us, is our biggest trading partner, and has fought alongside us in all our modern wars. In short, he may be a putz, but he is our putz!

Trump’s asinine behavior has done something Trudeau’s incompetence has hitherto failed to do: unite all political parties and the Canadian people behind the man. Yes, it turns out that even the legendarily polite Canadians have had just about enough of Trump’s arrogance. And they have come to despise not only Trump but also such truculent advisors as Larry Kudlow (who whined that Trudeau “stabbed us in the back”) and Peter Navarro (who said “there’s a special place in hell” for the Putz Minister).

Actually, if Navarro had any intellectual honesty — a trait he conspicuously lacks — he would have said that there is a special place in hell for the unprincipled Kudlow. Kudlow, to his credit, spent many years advocating free markets, the benefits of widespread immigration, and (especially) the need for free trade. But the chance of working with the populist potentate Trump turned him into Trump’s trick — Stormy Kudlow, so to say — and now he publicly bashes free trade and immigration. A preacher I once heard told his parish that the Devil needs no new temptations to corrupt men; money, sex, and power still work demonically well. Like the so-styled Reverend Billy Graham, who was seduced by the power of the corrupt Nixon, Kudlow the self-styled reborn Christian has fallen for the power of the corrupt Trump. The world hasn’t seen such a tragedy since Dr. Faustus.

The most recent Pew survey shows that Canadian sentiment toward the U.S. has hit a 30-year low — only around two in five Canadians still respect us. Precisely who has stabbed whom in the back, Dr. Kudlow?




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The Ruling Class Has Split!

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For many decades, libertarians — in common with traditional conservatives and many antiwar liberals — have identified the Great Satan as the imperial presidency. This now appears to have been an overly optimistic view.

It’s not that the presidency isn’t dangerous. It’s that the leading opponents of the presidency are equally so. They are almost as potent, and they are even more tenacious about holding onto power.

I refer to the professional bureaucrats, the secret police, and the ministry of propaganda. By “professional bureaucrats” I mean all those people who set policy for and pretend to manage the nation’s vast pyramids of power — power over social welfare, public education, war, the economy, nature itself. By “ministry of propaganda” I mean the obvious: the news media, some of it (the on-air networks) the creation of government, most of it the chronic crony of government — although, like all such creatures and cronies, without compunction about ousting particular governments if possible. By “secret police” I also mean the obvious, and in this case the literal: the FBI and other national gendarmeries, leading members of which plotted to manage and then to invalidate the latest presidential election.

Revolutions don’t happen because oppressed people rise up against the state; they happen because there is a split in the ruling class.

The presidency retains its absurd powers, and continues absurdly to exercise them. Yet a year and a half into his tenure, the president and his henchmen have been unable to fire even such mid-level enemies as Peter Strzok, to prod the FBI into providing documentation that it is legally obligated to provide, or to halt a mob of government-funded lawyers, egged on by a partisan press, from entrapping the president’s associates and hauling them before kangaroo courts. That’s how far the president’s writ runs, and it isn’t very far.

When I was in college, I learned, to my dismay, that revolutions don’t happen because oppressed people rise up against the state; they happen because there is a “split in the ruling class.” I was dismayed because I wanted to picture revolution as an ideologically romantic thing, and even more dismayed because I had to read books, not about heroic moral leaders, but about such dull things as Baron Stein’s reforms of Prussia, the conflict between the noblesse de robe and the noblesse d’épée, and the hatred between Iberians and creoles in Spanish America. Dull as it is, however, the general idea was right: revolutions aren’t born among powerless people, trying to end the tyranny of the powerful; they’re born among powerful people who hate the other powerful people.

The two factions of the ruling class despise each other. They can’t stand to be in the same room with each other. It’s a fight to the death.

When you read the report of Inspector General Horowitz, this is what you see: the secret police, the propagandists, and the bureaucratic insiders waging trench warfare against the loathéd populists of the presidential clique. The two factions of the ruling class despise each other. They can’t stand to be in the same room with each other. It’s a fight to the death. But they’re not fighting, either of them, to reduce the power of government. Oh no.

The good news, and the bad news, is that such struggles are hard to confine. Conflicts within the state have often led to conflicts about the state. Power passed out of the hands of the original contestants and into the hands of people who actually remolded the state and its politics. The resulting regime was usually worse than the one it replaced. The imperial Trump and his preppy antagonists could conceivably be replaced by the mob of radicals now fighting their own civil war against the Clintonians for control of the Democratic Party.

But I don’t think America is ready to be ruled by latter-day Jacobins. I think it more likely that Americans will see, and are now seeing, that when the government has unlimited power it attracts people who want unlimited power, and that these people will become increasingly ungoverned in pursuit of it. The solution is not to replace one gang with another but to limit the power of all. I think it’s a good time for libertarians to mention this increasingly obvious fact, and never to stop mentioning it.




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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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