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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How to Seize the Moral High Ground

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I was never a fan of Billy Graham. I considered him a raving bore and a probable nitwit. But I was disturbed to read that his death was greeted by a torrent of abuse from leftwing and “moderate” media, as if hundreds of pundits had been storing up rage against him for the past 30 or 40 years. Some of it made me gasp. Literally. Here is the tweet with which someone named Lauren Duca, a figure at Teen Vogue, of all places, bade farewell to Graham:

Have fun in hell, bitch.

“Bitch,” in that sense, started as prison talk for “male homosexual.” After prison it spread to other locales, such as Teen Vogue. Duca’s opposition to Graham seems to have resulted from Graham’s opposition to homosexuality.

I have never been a fan of Quentin Tarantino, at all. I think his films are vulgar and obvious. I am aware that he has recently become a politically controversial figure, not because of his “art” but because of his alleged countenancing of his friend Harvey Weinstein’s alleged crimes. But I gasped at the weird screed about Tarantino that appeared on a widely read rightwing site that sometimes publishes good things:

He’s a slobbering, drooling, film-school nerd who stuffs his movies full of bloodshed and curse words, apparently hoping no one will notice the Uber-geek behind the camera who’s likely wearing either panties or diapers. He bears the unmistakably soft air of someone who’s never been punched in the face.

For all of his films’ alleged danger and violence, it’s always seemed barkingly obvious to me that he’s a twerpy fake who’d burst into tears if he chipped a fingernail. He’s an emblem of a generation which truly knows nothing beyond pop culture and gets nearly all of its “life experiences” from a screen.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who finds this stuff — the leftwing sample and the rightwing sample — literally sickening. What kind of people enjoy these things? This is not H.L. Mencken. It’s not Lord Byron. It’s not Zola. It’s not Mr. Dooley or Sinclair Lewis. It’s not anyone who ever attacked an enemy with wit and insight. It’s not even the vicious polemics of the American revolutionary period, of the Jackson and anti-Jackson movements, or of the Crisis of the Union in the 1850s. It’s garbage.

What gives it cultural license? What allows it to be either cheered or justified — as the canards about President Obama’s birthplace were cheered, and, much more prominently, as the constant charges of treason against President Trump are cheered?

What kind of people enjoy these things? This is not H.L. Mencken. It’s not Lord Byron. It’s not Zola.

Some of the attraction is simply to lynch-mob attitudes. Many years ago I visited a friend who rented an apartment in South Boston. He was gay and Jewish. He had trouble getting out of his place without being ridiculed and threatened by local Catholic youth. Those days are gone. So are the days in which interracial couples were taunted and threatened on the streets of Northern cities. (I don’t have to read about it; I saw it.) But the same mentality, if you want to call it that, is visible in the fanatical attempts to exile from schools and colleges anyone who expresses rightwing ideas, many of which are simply the modern-liberal ideas of 20 or 30 years ago. The same mentality is visible in the frenzied hunt for people who, 30 or 40 years ago, allegedly violated some sexual code. And no, I am not in favor of sexual harassment, however defined. I just don’t like lynch mobs, even when the target is guilty.

But there’s something else going on. Since the 18th century, at least, it’s been noted that people are seldom embittered when they lose a contest they didn’t think they had any reason to enter. I’m not bitter about my failure to be elected to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, or to be chosen president of my university. But I would be embittered if an assistant professor in my department were given my office and my committee positions. I would be still more embittered if that person asserted his or her right to my perks.

People on the Right, many of them, are embittered and hateful because, for many years, they have been treated as second-class citizens — their distinctive ideas removed from the schools, their gun ownership restricted and threatened, their religion mocked by the most prestigious figures in popular culture. They eagerly applaud every attack on their supposed superiors.

I’m not buying it. If you want to preserve traditional culture, a war of abuse is not how to do it.

People on the Left, many of them, are embittered and hateful because they have grown used to their culture’s institutionalized authority and prestige. The leading figures of government who did everything they could — and are still doing everything they can — to get Trump unelected are not just opposed to his ideas, if any; they are angry, angry, angry that nobodies from the Right have seized their own cultural thrones. No attack on the infidels is too vulgar for them, or for many of their supporters in the media.

Me, I’m more sympathetic to the people on the Right — not the people on the Right who threatened me when I visited South Boston 40 years ago (they’re not there anymore), but the people on today’s Right who are basically (in my view) fighting a defensive battle against those who want to take their guns, their schools, and the power of their votes away from them. So the offended persons lash out, not just at the political establishment, but at all its heirs and assigns, including such heroes of the self-entitled cultural elite as actors and movie directors.

So I get it. But I’m not buying it. If you want to preserve traditional culture, a war of abuse is not how to do it, you slobbering, drooling, twerpy fakes. Neither is the home-family-“cops are wonderful” cant in which the Right has long been marinated. And, my leftist friends, if you want to assert your own values, try to do it by communicating something valuable, or at least plausible, and not such stupidities as “Trump is a traitor,” or the kind of talk one hears on the prison yard — you bitches.




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When Stupid Thinking Happens to Smart People

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An age-old question, pondered by those who think weighty thoughts, is “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Many books have been written on the subject. It’s one of the first questions kids ask their parents after they’ve stopped wondering why the sky is blue. This libertarian Christian’s answer would be, “Because, unlike government, God doesn’t try to micromanage every aspect of human life.” I’m reasonably satisfied with that explanation, but an altogether different question has perplexed me: why do smart people think stupid things?

Anyone who pays attention to the political scene is bound to observe the prevalence of what those in Twelve-Step recovery call “stinking thinking.” When we hear a particular stupidity once too often, something in us snaps. My own “snap” comes not when a dumb oaf commits this infraction, but when the guilty party is someone whose intelligence I generally respect. It happened again only the other day. Since I enjoy a good outrage as much as anybody, I’m writing about it while my irritation is deliciously fresh.

Those who presume to control the lives of others think themselves smarter and morally superior to the poor dolts over whom they would rule.

In a theology study group, where the president’s name had no conceivable reason to be mentioned, a friend of mine enthusiastically shared what she was reading in her spare time. It was yet another allegedly damning expose of “how the Russians stole the election for Trump.” She told us about this as if it were a conclusion as inescapable as the fact that the sky is blue. Now, I’m no great fan of Donald Trump, didn’t vote for him in 2016, and have no idea whom I’ll vote for (if anyone) in 2020. But perhaps because I thought this particular woman too intelligent to fall for this “Trump-Russia is the New Watergate” malarkey, I’d had all I was willing to take.

As we were obviously no longer discussing theology, I asked her if she had the slightest clue why most of those who voted for Trump cast their ballots as they did. I noted that in the months prior to the election, few people thought him a man of sterling character. That people who voted for Trump weren’t voting for a best friend, or for someone to babysit their dogs, marry their daughters, or stand as godfather for their grandkids. And that nothing the Russians could have said or done would have made Hillary Clinton any less trustworthy, in the judgment of those voters, than she already was.

The conversation was quickly steered back onto the subject at hand, but I believe I made my point. Not that I changed my friend’s mind. She will probably go right on believing that Trump voters are all horrible sexists and racists who want the poor to starve to death and the elderly to get sick and waste away. In the partisan bubble in which she lives, she isn’t permitted to think anything else.

Progressive bubble-dwellers’ nutty notions about Trump’s victory can be traced to one primary cause: their own mountainous vanity. They cannot conceive of how dangerous and destructive millions of Americans believe Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party to be. Only a dastardly conspiracy of Republicans and Russians could keep voters from bowing before the shining wonderfulness of the Dems. Vanity, in general, goes a long way toward explaining why so many stupidities are so readily believed by people who really ought to know better.

We might also recall that vanity was one of Lucifer’s chief sins.

Vanity also explains the prevalence of statist thinking on both Left and Right. Those who presume to control the lives of others think themselves smarter and morally superior to the poor dolts over whom they would rule. In contemporary America, we don’t like to take the blame for anything. Because we’re too smart to ever screw up, every undesirable occurrence simply must be someone else’s fault.

This vanity encourages us to believe that we can run other people’s lives better than they can. We might also recall that vanity was one of Lucifer’s chief sins. He thought he’d make a better god than God.

As this is not a theology discussion group, I know I shouldn’t mention that. But such a lapse can’t possibly be my fault. I blame it totally on my progressive friend.




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If You Can Keep Your Head

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Recently I saw an article with a headline that went more or less like this: “I’m a Conservative: I Care About Character.” The thesis of the piece was: “That’s why I can’t support Trump.”

I didn’t finish the article. I didn’t need to. I felt that I could have written it myself — or a hundred articles like it. Not because I’m a conservative (I’m not) or because I habitually care about politicians’ “character” enough to vote for or against them because of it. I vote for politicians, not for friends; and I almost always vote for the person I consider the lesser of the two evils. But I understand that everyone has some particular issue that he or she cares most about, at least right now; and for the conservative gentleman or lady it’s “character.” Some people care, or think they care, about only one issue, ever. And an article written from that point of view would be simplicity itself.

I vote for politicians, not for friends; and I almost always vote for the person I consider the lesser of the two evils.

But I look at the world in a different way, and I believe that the year of the Trump presidency has taught a lot of other people to see things that way too. Here it is: there are many possible reasons why intelligent people vote or refuse to vote for someone; these reasons are pretty much apples and oranges, with economic concerns being somehow “weighed” against character concerns or constitutional concerns or the horribleness of the opposing candidate; this is an imperfect world, but somehow one makes choices on the basis of those various concerns, because one has to choose (not voting being a choice like any other). All of this seems self-evident, when you think about it, but I believe that many people have become more conscious of it because of the Trump presidency.

If you’re a libertarian, as I am, you may hail or detest Donald Trump because of his positions on taxes or immigration or trade or “infrastructure” or his lack of traditional gravitas . . . You can expand this list pretty far, and it’s unlikely that you will hail or detest him on every available front. But you get to choose which of them are most important, and you get to change your mind later on. You may, for instance, like his financial policies, and if enough of them are implemented, you may not like him so well afterwards. He gave you your way on your most important issue, so fine; but now you’re looking at his other ideas.

This messy way of thinking operates throughout life, not just in politics, although many true and upright people do not realize that it does. Others believe it is a sin to realize that, and to act upon it. These good people may be purists who cannot bring themselves to make any political choices, because all of them seem dirty. Or they may be rationalizers who make a messy decision and then suddenly discover that what they chose was entirely and uniquely moral and necessary, and if you don’t agree with it, you are a deeply flawed human being.

It’s disappointing to discover that so many of our fellow citizens are, in political terms, insane; that they are living in a different world from the one in which life is complicated and choices are various.

To many of these people, however, Trump has provided a memorable lesson. He has presented them with a concrete problem — the assessment of his presidency — that cries out for them to see the complexity of choice. He has given them the chance to practice thinking like, well, good economists. He didn’t intend to do that, but he did.

He also gave them practice in distinguishing sane thinking from insane thinking. When we see someone attributing every wrong characteristic to Donald Trump, ignoring any of his successes and inventing, if necessary, failures, we have identified someone who has not only made a choice of values about the world but is using it to create a world. In what other area of life do people feel impelled to say that a person whom they dislike for one reason is also unlikable for every other reason in the cosmos? The same goes for the zealots who simply cannot get enough of Trump, his tweets and rallies. In what other area of life do people wait in line for hours to hear strings of clichés, most of them meaningless, and cheer them to the rafters, imagining that now they can depart in peace, having seen all the greatness and the glory of this age?

The fact that politics turns some into obsessive bores or slavering zealots doesn’t mean that they should be dismissed as easily as they dismiss their political opponents.

I know, it’s disappointing to discover that so many of our fellow citizens are, in political terms, insane; that they are living in a different world from the one in which life is complicated and choices are various and difficult, and that they don’t seem likely to recover. One might imagine that their world, because it’s simpler than the real world, is also easier and therefore better to live in. Actually, the reason it’s simple is that there’s practically nothing in it, and this can be an inconvenience.

Yet these people are, like Trump, good lessons to us all — in two ways.

One is obvious: let’s not be like them. The other is not obvious, but it needs to be learned, so that we don’t end up in the same world with them. It starts with the recognition that outside the political realm, most of these people are eminently sane and well intentioned, and blessed with some practical success in life. When we recognize this, we see how important it is to refuse the temptation to make reductionist judgments on their lives, as they do on the lives of others. The fact that politics turns them into obsessive bores or slavering zealots doesn’t mean that they should be dismissed as easily as they dismiss their political opponents. It’s true, we may need to lead the conversation to something outside the realm of American party politics, but even this act may, just possibly, show them that there is a way back to the messy but vital world of actual thought, that we are taking it, and it makes us happy.




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Head of Brass, Feet of Clay

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A friend and I had a debate about Andrew McCabe, the doofus deputy director of the FBI.

As you recall, McCabe was an important figure in last year’s investigations of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, despite the fact that his wife had received more than $700,000 from a close friend of Clinton’s to finance her campaign for the Virginia legislature. What McCabe seems to have done or permitted to be done during the investigations is pretty much what you’d expect from someone compromised in that way. I refer to such things as the FBI’s probable use of the absurd dossier on Trump’s visit to Russia as evidence to convince a secret court to allow surveillance of Trump and associates.

Now, if report be true, McCabe’s recent performance before a congressional committee showed that he is both a liar and a fool.

[S]ources said that when asked when he learned that the dossier had been funded by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, McCabe claimed he could not recall — despite the reported existence of documents with McCabe’s own signature on them establishing his knowledge of the dossier’s financing and provenance.

Is there any possibility that this would not be a ridiculous lie? Is there any possibility that a senior official would go before Congress, knowing that he would be asked precisely that question, and neither remember the answer nor look it up?

I mentioned this to my friend, whose assessment agreed with mine. He observed, however, that the rank-and-file of the FBI is equally disappointed with such behavior. That’s when I made objections.

Is there any possibility that this would not be a ridiculous lie?

For one thing, I’m not disappointed. I never expected anything better from the FBI. If I were going to be disappointed, I would be that way with the many leftists, and the many libertarians, who have spent their lives attacking the FBI, the CIA, and the other 15 or 20 surveillance agencies that the government runs, but who are now aghast that anyone should “take Trump’s side” by criticizing them.

That’s not what my friend was doing. He was merely showing the touching faith in which good Americans are reared, the faith that there is one part of the government that is actually too proud to lie, cheat, and steal. This has always seemed to me extremely unlikely.

I do not think the majority of men and women in the FBI and the Department of Justice are any less honorable than normal people, any more than I think that the majority of people who work for any other government agency are fools and liars and crooks and so forth. But my argument is this: in a normal, uncorrupt organization, the bosses are afraid to do certain things because a significant proportion of the rank and file will report them if they do. In an organization in which people are employed to enforce the law and are bound by oath to uphold the Constitution, we would expect someone — lots of people — to come forward and complain if bad things were being done, if the bosses were abusing their powers of investigation, search, and seizure; if the bosses were writing reports acquitting politicians they liked, months before investigations were complete; if the bosses were giving people immunity from prosecution without expecting any confessions in return; if the bosses were leaking information in order to influence the course of political events, while doing everything they could to hide information from people entitled to receive it.

My friend was merely showing the touching faith in which good Americans are reared, the faith that there is one part of the government that is actually too proud to lie, cheat, and steal.

Such things do not, cannot, happen in a vacuum. Hundreds of people have probably witnessed them taking place. And not one employee of the FBI or the Department of Justice has had the moral responsibility to say, “I was there. I saw it happen. It was wrong.”

The Republicans used to respond to any criticism of federal agents by demanding to know “who you think you are to be criticizing these brave men and women who are risking their lives to protect us.” Now the Democrats are doing it. Yet the brave men and women apparently will not fulfill their duty if it involves even a slight risk that they will not get their next promotion. And if they really are part of the Deep State, as Mr. McCabe manifestly is, they go merrily on their way without any sense of risk, assured that whatever they do, no one will produce the evidence that convicts them.

This has always seemed to me extremely unlikely.

This is not a problem that first arose in 2016. During the past 30 years, how many officials have resigned their posts in the federal government, or risked their posts in the federal government, or risked their promotions in the federal government, because they had seen something illegal or immoral going on, and they wanted to say something about it? The answer is: practically none. I don’t think that anyone will regard this freedom from complaint as a sign of the government’s exemplary moral purity.




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The Trump Cards

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It’s become the most regular pattern in American politics. President Trump insults some important personality, or defies what passes for common decency, or attacks traditional allies, or just says something bizarre; the mainstream media then denounce him, “check” his “facts,” proclaim his end or the end of the republic; a week or so later, observing that their furious campaign has had no effect on the body politic except for a tiny increase in the president’s popularity, the media initiate another anti-Trump campaign. At this juncture, rightwing media proclaim Trump a “genius” who has a “unique connection” with the real America, and many bytes are spilled over his success at “calling the liberals’ bluff.”

I have a different take on the gambling analogy, and also on the allegation of genius.

To me, a genius at gambling isn’t somebody who wins a hand because he has a pair of treys and his opponent has a pair of deuces. It’s no argument for genius that Trump can, with a few badly worded remarks, puncture the pomposity of Hillary Clinton, suggest that the National Football League isn’t an army of martyr patriots, or reveal the fact that US senators tend to be horse’s asses. And if somebody with a pair of deuces — such as the typical columnist for the New York Times — is stupid enough to think that he’s got a winning hand, and bets his trust fund on it, that doesn’t mean that he’s bluffing, or that his opponent called his bluff. It’s just that he’s never played with anybody who wasn’t as stupid as he is.

A genius at gambling isn’t somebody who wins a hand because he has a pair of treys and his opponent has a pair of deuces.

Trump’s liberal — and conservative — opponents didn’t bluff; they thought they had the best cards ever dealt. And Trump didn’t play a good hand; he discarded several of his face cards (limited government, fiscal responsibility, a real investigation of the Clinton machine), and kept those treys. This is a game in which one player sees John Kerry, Colin Kaepernick, John McCain, and himself as national heroes, and the other player knows that they’re not. It’s a game in which one player thinks he’ll win by pushing transgender restrooms and the other one waves the flag. No bluffs, no genius; but who do you think will win?

Here’s a note about my own standards of assessment. I never thought that President Reagan was the Great Communicator. I liked him, but he didn’t communicate particularly well to me. I thought he was great when he stood up to the Air Traffic Controllers Union — one of the bravest episodes of modern presidential history — and when he stood up to the Russians in Reykjavik. I thought he was a dope, by his own principles, when he forced the states to raise their drinking age to 21, when he talked nonsense about “drugs,” when he failed to abolish the Department of Education, etc.

Today, no one dreams that Congress will achieve anything much (although a certain low trickery is always to be expected).

How good was Reagan’s hand? I’d say he had a full house or a flush. He was smart; he had an impressive manner; he understood the nature and effects of limited government; he didn’t overreach; he dismissed the outrageous criticism he received from a media establishment that was almost as obsessed with hating him as it is with hating Trump. At that time, the Democrats’ hand wasn’t fantastic, either; but I’ll give them a pair of jacks and a pair of queens. They were dominated by real unions, not government-employee unions and advocates of far-left causes. There were some savvy politicians in their leadership (and I don’t mean Jimmy Carter). No one was bluffing, but when the Democrats and the media (then, as now, the same players) showed their hand, Reagan won.

Reagan never had a majority in both houses of Congress, but he had large legislative achievements, such as the revision of the tax rates. Today, no one dreams that Congress will achieve anything much (although a certain low trickery is always to be expected). Survival is the measure of accomplishment. In these circumstances, almost any hand will win whatever there is to win.




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Imitating Obama?

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I confess that I am no fan of Trump. Actually, that dramatically understates it. I regard him as a dangerous populist ignoramus whose crudity of character makes him unfit for office. When he won the nomination, I sent the Republican National Committee a letter of resignation from the party to which I had belonged for four decades, and re-registered Libertarian. (I did this despite my impression that Gary Johnson was either a hopeless dope or congenitally loopy.)

It was for me, in short, a completely miserable election.

My only hope was that Trump, once in office, would at least pretend to be presidential, and would drop his nativist and protectionist stances, having decisively won the populist vote. And I admit I was cheered when he appointed a good judge to the Supreme Court, talked about repealing and replacing Obamacare, and also talked about lowering at least corporate taxes. He has so far been unable to deliver.

Nativists fear even legal immigrants, not seeing how beneficial they are to the economy.

But unfortunately he has pursued his nativist and protectionist agendas. On the nativist agenda, he killed DACA — setting up the deportation of upwards of a million young people brought here involuntarily, and raised with scant knowledge of the countries of their births. Not only did he refuse to increase the H-1B visa and other programs that legally allow in college-trained STEM and medical professionals, but he has actually proposed cutting all legal immigration by half. He continues demanding that a wall be built on the border with Mexico, even though illegal immigration from Mexico has been steadily dropping for a decade — indeed, for the last few years, more Mexican immigrants have returned home than have come north. (That’s because Mexico has a good growth rate, and is now in the top ten manufacturing countries on earth). Nativists fear even legal immigrants, not seeing how beneficial they are to the economy. For example, immigrants and immigrants alone are the reason we don’t face the same demographic implosion that the European countries and Japan face, and immigrants are disproportionately likely to open new businesses.

On Trump’s protectionist agenda, after killing the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, Trump has set his sights on killing NAFTA. Several recent Wall Street Journal articles report on the administration’s attempt to renegotiate this deal, signed back in 1994. Trump’s curious hatred of Mexico and Canada is as bizarre as his love of Russia. In this he imitates Obama, who bashed NAFTA in his primary fight with America’s Sweetheart Hillary Clinton. At the time, most commentators assumed that this was just “Bubba bait” — that is, demagogic talk aimed at arousing nativism and protectionism by telling the economically illiterate that Evil Foreigners have “stolen” American jobs, jobs that usually have been automated away.

But to many people’s amazement, Obama — Trump’s match in protectionism — started trade wars with both Mexico and Canada shortly after assuming office. He stopped only when those countries fought back and kicked our economic behinds. For example, Obama violated NAFTA to “save” 200 trucking jobs (at the behest of one of his supporters, the Teamsters Union), but when Mexico retaliated with stiff tariffs against our farmers, 25,000 American jobs disappeared, whereupon Obama cancelled his policy with limited publicity.

After killing the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, Trump has set his sights on killing NAFTA.

To his credit — and as readers of this estimable journal know, I was a consistent critic of Obama’s regime — Obama slowly but surely came to understand why more than 90% of economists favor free trade. Obama eventually approved of the three free-trade agreements left to him by George Bush, and late in his second term negotiated the TPP. Who knows, perhaps Obama finally read that Econ 101 text that he was too negligent to read as an undergrad.

But Trump is even more of a populist fool. He immediately killed the TPP, and has now targeted NAFTA. He is apparently surprised that both Mexico and Canada are fighting back. A bully is always amazed when the smaller boy he chooses to pick on hauls off and smacks him.

The Wall Street Journal reports just how close to a collapse of the NAFTA talks we are. We have seen record highs in the stock market, but this would almost surely change quickly should the talks collapse. One economic consulting firm, the Colorado-based ImpactECON, has put the net job losses at 125,000 for Canada, 256,000 for the US, and a whopping 961,000 for Mexico over the next three to five years.

Trump is apparently surprised that both Mexico and Canada are fighting back.

For those populists who will cheer the disproportionate job losses to Mexico, well, they may want to ask themselves whether their protectionism trumps their nativism here. That is, if we move to destroy nearly a million Mexican jobs, where oh where will all those newly unemployed Mexicans go to avoid starvation? Trump had better be prepared to build his wall quickly.

If NAFTA does get repealed, tariffs would undoubtedly result. At a minimum, the three member states would revert to their average tariffs rates: 3.5% for the US; 4.2% for Canada; and 7.5% for Mexico. But there is good reason to think that the tariffs will be much higher. Both Canada and Mexico will be furious at seeing the US dump the deal and will likely raise tariffs enormously. Moreover, the collapse of NAFTA and the Mexican job market will be the result. The American Automobile Policy Council estimates that the rise of the price of domestic auto parts from the tariffs will cost 50,000 US jobs. Another economic thinktank, Boston Consulting Group, gives the same estimate.

The ImpactECON study says the small gains in US employment in production of machinery and chemical industries will be swamped by losses in the agricultural, auto, and apparel industries.

Mexico could simply embargo products from the US — it just ordered its first shipment of wheat from Argentina, no doubt in anticipation of the looming trade war.

This last is a nice point — a point that Frédéric Bastiat would have underscored. What average Americans — including Trump — expect to see after NAFTA is some US manufacturing jobs disappearing while trade flourishes between us and our natural neighbors. They assume the trade will cause the job losses, which is debatable. But worse, they don’t see the gain in jobs in farming and other industries.

Under NAFTA, our agricultural exports to Mexico and Canada have risen fourfold, hitting $38 billion last year. If NAFTA is junked, the Mexicans could revert to their pre-NAFTA tariff levels of 75% on US chicken and corn syrup, 45% on turkey, potatoes, and dairy products, and 15% on wheat. You see, protectionism works both ways: Mexico pre-NAFTA was trying to protect its farmers from competition from American farmers. In fact, Mexico could simply embargo these products from the US — it just ordered its first shipment of wheat from Argentina (30,000 tons), no doubt in anticipation of the looming trade war.

The Mexicans, by the way, are especially angry. All major candidates for the upcoming presidential election there are opposed to what Trump is doing, but the one who is poised to make the most gains is the ultra-leftist Lopez Obrador. If Mexicans, in their righteous indignation, elect him, we could have a Cuba right on our border. For instance, Mexico could retaliate by cutting a free trade agreement with China, and allowing the Chinese to set up naval and army bases on its soil — which it is completely free to do under international law.

Talk about a “game-changer”: for the first time in US history, we would face a military threat from one of its long borders.

Even the author of the 2011 report by the leftist thinktank Economic Policy Institute, Robert Scott, has changed his mind. The report purported to show that NAFTA cost 700,000 US jobs, and was widely cited by protectionists of all political stripes. Scott now says that if NAFTA is abandoned, manufacturers will just “move” jobs to Asia.

The real “culprit” behind manufacturing job loss is not international trade; it is automation and creative destruction.

The NAFTA talks are approaching crisis phase, because the US is making unreasonable demands. For example, the US negotiator Robert Lighthizer wants a “sunset clause” requiring the agreement to be renewed every five years, and a watering down of the provision for arbitrating disputes.

Of course, the joke in all this is that the US was losing manufacturing jobs long before NAFTA. As early as 1974 sociologist Daniel Bell discussed the shift from industrial work to high-tech and service sectors in his book The Coming of Post-Industrial Economy, and the term “rust belt” was coined in 1982, more than a decade before NAFTA came into being. In fact, over the last decade all of the top ten manufacturing countries in the world lost manufacturing jobs. The real “culprit” is not international trade; it is automation and creative destruction. We don’t hand-bolt wheels on cars anymore, not because the Mexicans do it, but because robotic arms do. And we don’t make buggy whips anymore, not because the Chinese make them cheaper, but because we don’t have buggies.

The failure of many American workers to adjust to the shift from low-knowledge to high-tech factories results primarily from the pathetically poor average education they receive. I mean, you can’t read the instructions manual for the new computer-aided machinery if you can’t read to begin with. While other countries are reacting to the evolution of the industrial economy by building new colleges and trade schools, cranking out engineers, doctors, scientists and skilled workers, we struggle with risible high school and college dropout rates, a proliferation of humanities and social science majors, and vanishing trade schools.

We don’t make buggy whips anymore, not because the Chinese make them cheaper, but because we don’t have buggies.

All of this could be cured if we did what supposedly socialist Sweden did over a quarter century ago: immediately adopt a universal voucher program — that is, require all public schools in America to adopt perfectly pro-rata voucher systems within one year. But this would arouse the teachers’ unions like nothing else. They will protect the cushy jobs of mediocre and even positively bad teachers, forcing parents to keep their kids in failing schools.

Rising protectionism and fear of trade don’t just run the risk of depression and trade wars — which in turn run the risk of military war. They also distract us from the real cause of long-term blue-collar unemployment: a horribly broken educational system.




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