Just because you’re paranoid…

All this talk about Alex Jones, the right-wing conspiracy theorist that Facebook recently banned from its site, makes me think of Ernest Hemingway.

In his later years Hemingway could not be made to shut up about the conspiracies about himself.  He was being persecuted, he said, by the FBI.  They had gotten the IRS to pursue and harass him.  They had bugged his house and his car.  They were following him and dwelling on his every word and action.  Out at a restaurant, he told embarrassed friends that a couple of strangers there were actually FBI agents who had been watching him for years, though the restaurant owner said they were only hunters who returned to Idaho, and his eatery, every year.  Hemingway’s wife finally started him on electroshock treatments to try to help.  As the world knows, Hemingway took his own life not long afterwards.

In the 1990s, however, the FBI coughed up Hemingway’s file in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.  Shockingly, it revealed that Hemingway was being persecuted by the FBI, which had sicced the IRS on him.  His house was bugged.  His car was not, though probably if technology had permitted it it would have been.

The two strangers?  FBI agents, who had been posing as hunters for years.  Because they’d been following him for years.  Hoover was guilty of so, so much.

Which is not to say that Alex Jones is right…about anything.  Theories are by definition frequently wrong.  It is to say that, in one of modern life’s more “meta” moments, conspiracy-theorism can itself become a tool of conspirators eager to deflect interest in themselves by mocking the idea.  Probability, on which conspiracy-theorism-as-pejorative relies, often gets it wrong.

Blue Tribe

The Founders wouldn’t want Kavanaugh’s nomination to continue,” argues Laurence Tribe.  Briefly, his argument runs that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh might, if confirmed, be called upon to help decide about evidentiary matters that might affect whether Trump is, if impeached, convicted.

This is a weak argument for several reasons.

First, a hypothetical U.S. v. Trump case that a Justice Kavanaugh would have to help judge relies on the veracity of the claims of someone who sounds pretty untrustworthy to begin with, who is under pressure from prosecutors and likely to be opportunistic.  And let’s be frank: campaign finance violations or paying off women to keep silent (Trump has been paying people off to keep quiet for ages) are a snooze, regardless of the legal technicalities surrounding them.  To most people, the ostensible beneficiaries of the public trust, they are malum prohibitum, in contrast to the malum in se of conniving in the burglary of an opponent’s campaign headquarters.  Is the disconnect not obvious?  Trump had already won the nomination by shocking actions that flew in the face of all the laws of modern politics.  How likely is it that he’d have started thinking these particular women’s stories would derail his election, such that he needed to go out of his usual silence-buying ways to make extra certain they keep quiet?  Buying their silence was probably force of habit.

To return to Tribe’s argument, though, it’s extraordinarily unlikely that Trump could seriously influence a Supreme Court decision with a particular nomination.  Even if Trump managed to choose from a long-established list of extraordinarily well-qualified candidates the one judge most likely to rule in his favor (which would be amazing sophistication for someone as stupid as Trump’s opponents say he is), it is only one vote.  What if otherwise the votes are 4-4?  Well, as in the 2000 and 2016 Presidential elections, your real problem is having it be that close a decision in the first place.  One wonders what Chief Justice Roberts would say to his old law school professor, Laurence Tribe.

It also seems clear that Supreme Court justices feel, if anything, a need to avoid the appearance of partiality toward the Presidents who appointed them.  In the leadup to Nixon’s impeachment, Tribe admits, three of Richard Nixon’s appointees on the Supreme Court voted with their colleagues, 8-0, to force Nixon to surrender the “subpoenaed tapes and documents” making his impeachment more likely, and his fourth appointee, Rehnquist, recused himself.

But that’s different, says Tribe, because politics have gotten so polarized that a similar case today surely would not be unanimous.  Coupled with his argument that the Senate should not take up Kavanaugh’s nomination, that’s tantamount to saying that polarization should actually have Constitutional or legislative significance in itself.  In any case, the country had already gotten pretty polarized by 1994, the year of the “Contract with America“, when Bill Clinton nominated Stephen Breyer eleven days after Paula Jones filed her sexual-harassment lawsuit against him.  At that time there was a decent chance that a serious lawsuit against the President could wind up in the Supreme Court.  Of course, Clinton didn’t think he’d be impeached over his tomcatting, but the point is that neither this appointment nor his previous one (Ruth Bader Ginsburg) made any difference at all to the 1997 Supreme Court decision against him.  Clinton lost, 9-0.

That, in fact, is quite a common result in the Supreme Court, whether involving Presidents or not, and more common, not less, in recent years.  Max Bloom pointed out last year, “The most recent term, in fact, was the least partisan since the middle of the 20th century. Over half of the cases were unanimous, and only 14 percent were decided by a 5–3 or 5–4 split.”  Supreme Court justices are in fact famous for unpredictability and uncontrollability by the Presidents that appoint them, going back at least as far as Eisenhower’s remark that he’d made only two errors as President and both of them were on the Supreme Court.  In terms of precision tools, Supreme Court nominations make boycotts look like laser scalpels.

Furthermore, implying that things ought to be different because they have gotten so polarized begs the question.  Polarization is why Trump is in the White House to begin with, elected by an American public having full knowledge in advance that (in Salena Zito’s words) he has “the morals of an alley cat”.  (Is the policy basis for impeachment the removal of a President that the electorate didn’t intend?)  And if polarization is the bugaboo, how did we reach this sorry state?  To name one reason, because Harvard Law School professors and their logic have very little to do with most Americans these days.

It takes a special brand of Rube Goldberg thinking to go from conjecture to might to possibility to strained argument, though I suppose logical contortions and circumbendibi are an occupational hazard even for law professors who don’t share conspiracy theories about Trump.  Perhaps Tribe should have eschewed his strained logic and simply quoted the Supreme Court justice he clerked for: “I know it when I see it.

Trumpthiness

The media continue to point out the things Trump says which are provably not true, and, bizarrely, seem to continue to think that sooner or later some shit will finally stick, and ruin him.  A few look beyond; in the New York Post, Salena Zito recently wrote, “These voters knew who Trump was going in, they knew he was a thrice-married, Playmate-dating, Howard Stern regular who had the morals of an alley cat.”

What political and media elites seem persistently to misunderstand is that Trump’s voters don’t care whether or not what he says is true. He’s not their teacher, or their boss. Even if they care about the thing Trump is talking about, they believe that his words have no power to affect whether or not it’s true. Trump’s voters care about him doing what they want, which all the people now going on and on spent decades using both facts and “facts” to rationalize denying them.

Most vitally, though, Trump is not their pastor.  For elites, there is still a quality of moral leadership, of pontifex maximus, to the Presidency.  To them, the President is “the first man among us”, setting the tone and preaching to inspire America, while for non-elites, he has become only “the first man among elites”.  Rare elite leaders sometimes can talk to non-elites so easily that they transcend the two; Bill Clinton, whatever one thinks of his morals or his policies, was like that.  (A defining moment of his wife’s 2016 campaign was when Bill Clinton wanted to go out and talk with ordinary people in places where it was thought Hillary had no chance, and he was told no.)  But Barack Obama, for all his oratory and erudition, never could do it.

The really interesting thing, of course, is whether this is going to change politics itself.  Trump will one way or another be gone some day.  When that happens– or even before– will other American politicians do it?  I predict yes, if only as a function of the extremism brought on by self-segregation.

The Judgments of the Lord are True and Righteous Altogether

People put up with a lot.

They put up with slavery and Southern arrogance. They put up with Nazi aggression. They put up with Soviet bullshit. They put up with the Inquisition.

And they put up with the modern Left. Not that the thumbscrew and the peine forte et dure are the favorite tortures of Social Justice Warriors, but pro ratamutatis mutandis– the comparison holds.

Until one day they don’t put up with it any more.

It’s true that the Left today still doesn’t get it, but then again, America is still pissed at them and they still have no idea why, so we can expect this to go on for a while.

Looking farther ahead, though, Russia will sooner or later be made to scream with pain for having fucked with us.  Ironically, I doubt they caused all that much.  They might have been the catalyst for the timing of recent events; they might have provoked buried tensions to burst out in 2016, but they didn’t create the tensions.  The Left’s fantasies about how different their form of organized morality was from that of the Moral Majority did that.

Notwithstanding which, I predict that Russia is going to pay a serious, serious price for its actions.  The only questions are, when? and what will the collateral damage be?

Perpetual motion

My friend Jane the Actuary drew my attention to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s latest fantasy.

  •  any companies with more than a billion dollars in revenue must have a Federal charter, which can be revoked by bureaucrats at the request of state attorneys general;
  • have 40% of their directors be elected by the employees, and
  • basically must act like nonprofits, with a board that must “manage or direct the business and affairs of the United States corporation in a manner that seeks to create a general public benefit; and balances the pecuniary interests of the shareholders of the United States corporation with the best interests of persons that are materially affected by the conduct of the United States corporation”, yada yada yada.

The reasoning proffered is typical of the shallow thinking endemic among socialists.  (Matt Yglesias, for example, wearing about fifteen pairs of rose-colored glasses, says that it will “redistribute trillions of dollars from rich executives and shareholders to the middle class — without costing a dime”)  It goes:

  • people will be able to vote themselves more money from companies, or sue them about it; and
  • this kind of thing already exists in Germany and the Scandinavian countries and works fine.

As is usual in these days of autohagiography and rationalization, the interesting reactions are in opposition.  Megan McArdle ripostes that 40% isn’t a majority, and that Scandinavia is poor evidence as to what’s possible in other countries, because the basis for all of its societal solutions is extremely high levels of social trust that most countries, including the United States, don’t have and can’t easily get.   Kevin D. Williamson’s piece is about the cynical political-science aspect.  “Progressive neo-feudalism” is the theme of Robert Tracinski’s piece in National Review, because the companies’ Federal charters could be revoked upon the request of state attorneys-general, turning the companies into their vassals.

The reason I see why it can’t work is a bit more basic.

First, the artificially inflated portion of wages come out of economic surplus.  There is a limited amount of economic surplus, based on a finite amount of economic activity and a finite quantity of goods and services sold, all of varying profitability.  “It is not the employer who pays wages,” wrote Henry Ford, in his classic book My Life and Work.  “He only handles the money. It is the product that pays the wages and it is the management that arranges the production so that the product may pay the wages.”  Most products are commodities, which means that there’s a race to the bottom on prices and that the businesses making them have very low profit margins to begin with.  (See, for example, this post by CoyoteBlog, whose small business runs campgrounds.)

So, who gets that surplus?  The best illustration of that situation comes from a very different Warren: Buffett.  In one of Fortune magazine’s most famous articles, he talks about the percentage of earnings taken by government taxation as if Federal, state and local taxation powers were superior classes of stock that get paid before the real shareholders, which is an excellent way of thinking about it:

 
“Investors in American corporations already own what might be thought of as a Class D stock. The Class A, B, and C stocks are represented by the income-tax claims of the federal, state, and municipal governments. It is true that these “investors” have no claim on the corporation’s assets; however, they get a major share of the earnings, including earnings generated by the equity buildup resulting from retention of part of the earnings owned by the Class D shareholders.  …  Whenever the Class A, B, or C “stockholders” vote themselves a larger share of the business, the portion remaining for Class D — that’s the one held by the ordinary investor — declines.

The “wages” of unionized employees (or employee “owners”) are essentially yet another class of stock, one which comes before any of the above “classes”, amounting to yet another “share of the business” which under Elizabeth Warren’s proposal they would have a significant ability to vote to increase.

Yglesias agrees that doing this– creating political owners, reducing the take for economic owners– would cause stock prices to decline.  That’s what happens when “owner earnings” go down.  Where he’s crazy here is in thinking they’d decline only 25%.  He is surely aware of the “tragedy of the commons” but appears to have turned off his brain.  Most people are greedy, stupid and shortsighted, and if this proposal were enacted and worked as intended, they would swiftly vote themselves, and consume, the seed corn.  Then they would whine.   I can only suppose that Yglesias thinks that Leftist Mandarins would have the backbone to stand in their way.  No one with a brain would own shares of a company whose remaining profits depend on the self-control and forbearance of policymakers like either group.  Vitally, neither would they lend to it, except under exorbitant conditions.

Old-time Yankee inventors were famous, in American myth, for trying to invent a perpetual-motion machine.  Their intellectual heirs are today’s Left.

Only we can do that to our pledges

The really strange thing about the furor about Russian interference with our elections is what it implies about what the people freaking out about it.   Apparently, they believe that people can be manipulated to believe anything.   And yet the next time they themselves win, they’ll be full of fulsome bloviation about how the People Have Spoken, and This Is Democracy At Work, and other kinds of “divine molasses“.

Do they truly feel no contradiction between these two reactions?

I suspect they still privately think that people can be manipulated to believe anything, but merely now also think, “We’ve returned control of the manipulation of people’s beliefs to where it should be: in our pocket.”

The funhouse mirror of paranoia

Adam Serwer has a popular piece at The Atlantic whose title says it all: “The White Nationalists Are Winning”.  Catering to pure Trump Derangement Syndrome, he quotes Tucker Carlson telling his audience that “Latin American countries are changing election outcomes here by forcing demographic change on this country”.  Serwer argues that, “Republican audiences are now being fed white-nationalist philosophy through mainstream conservative figures with national followings.

“Unless something changes, conservative constituencies will eventually begin to demand that their representatives adopt those views as well.”

The narcissism of this blinkered analysis is simply amazing.  Set aside the fact that it was decades of slanted coverage by the media that created such a thing as “Republican audiences” in the first place.  The “white nationalism” of Carlson, so-called, is nothing of the sort.  His position is only the rejection and reverse of all-but-explicit Democratic policy: cynically pack the electorate with as many Democratic-voting types as possible, particularly minority immigrants, to ensure that the book The Emerging Democratic Majority by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira becomes a reality.  If there’s any racism in this, it was the Democrats that brought it in in the form of Judis and Teixeira’s manual of identity politics, fondly believing that racism is their political workhorse, not a Bottle Imp which, encouraged anywhere, fosters racism everywhere.  Carlson is arguing against that tactic just as Democrats argued against voter-ID laws.  And he’s arguing against demographic change– but a Know-Nothing, a genuine white-nationalist identity-politics purist, would instead be pushing for demographic change in the form of illegally expelling large numbers of minorities, such as Republican luminaries Nikki Haley, Mia Love, Bobby Jindhal and Dr. Ben Carson, who was at one point in the 2016 elections polling at 25%.  Have we seen anything within miles of that?  Only by squinting at this with deep paranoia and gallons of rationalization could any sane person answer “yes” to that.

The only true victories in our national arguments are in swaying the beliefs in other people’s private hearts.  The normalization in public life of various kinds of sexuality is a good example.  That’s not at risk today not because of Obergefell, but the very reverse: Obergefell occurred because people, Republicans included, changed their private opinions in response to shows like Will & Grace.  Which I suppose is the real basis for Serwer’s paranoia: Tucker Carlson and Jordan Peterson and so on must be some sort of right-wing analog to Will & Grace, and will nefariously seduce people.

I’ve argued before that the most fascinating thing about these times is the hidden information about everyone that they’re revealing in their responses to recent events.  Far from serving his cause, Serwer undermines it by provoking serious questions about the Democratic approach to policy in general.  Such as:

What sort of victory was it before if no one was truly convinced?

Do any truths ever require shutting down debate?

And:

Are people really supposed to believe in your message if you so transparently and sincerely believe that they’re so stupid that they’re that easily manipulated?

The socialist mackerel

Yes, it’s yet another blogger’s post about Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, the 20-something socialist who defeated a powerful New York City Congressman in the Democratic primary, who will therefore surely win the general election.

The strange thing is that when she won, everyone lost their minds and acted as though it’s 1.) new, though Bernie Sanders has been representing the idea of socialism in the Federal government at a much higher electoral level– the statewide office of U.S. Senator– for many years, and 2.) a recipe for a popular mandate for a national platform along those lines, though it was decided by 4,000-and-some votes out of 27,744 cast, in a safe-blue NYC district with 214,750 registered Democrats.  It would be narcissism to the nth degree to imagine that that can be assumed to be a cross-section of Democrats in that district, much less of America.

The Democrats have been floundering, policy-wise, for something like a couple decades, if not more.  What do they stand for?  More of the same.  More government, more wealth redistribution, more identity politics, more support for the cheap-moral-outrage component of their base that gets off on cracking the whip of ism-accusation.

This has actually been the case for a while.  The Democrats won the 1992 election due to Ross Perot, who got something like 20% of the vote, mostly from the Republican side, they won the 1996 election as incumbents, they won the 2008 and 2012 Presidential elections not due to a general belief in their platform, but largely due to a combination of anger at the Republicans for Iraq and the Great Recession, plus black people turning out to vote in racial self-interest (if not flat-out racism) for the first black President of the United States.  It’s true that to be young, idealistic, eloquent and black, as Obama was, was an appealing set of characteristics for a candidate right then– but again, they had nothing to do with the freshness of the ideas.  The Democrats would surely have won some of those Presidential elections even without those factors, simply because people get fed up and it’s rare, historically, for one party to hold the White House for three or more successive terms.  Irritation and boredom are not ideas, though.  Perhaps the lesson is that elections rarely turn on fresh ideas, or that in national politics, the low-hanging new-idea fruit gets picked quickly.

So they seem to be returning to “heirloom varieties” of ideas.  In a way, it’s not surprising that on the Left socialism has surged in popularity.  As has been pointed out by others, Ocasio-Cortez and most of her cohort were born around or after the fall of the Soviet Union; they barely have a memory of the 20th century and none of its awful socialist failures.  They were also born, I might add, after the “state capitalist” overlay was put in place in various ostensibly socialist countries, like Vietnam and China, which led them to prosperity while retaining the name of socialism and “prove” that socialism can work.  They came of age, too, after the rise of the technocrats at Google, Amazon, Tesla and the like made the precedents of the past seem distinguishable– if they’d just had social media they could have made it work!– and therefore no barrier any more.  And finally, their party, the Democrats, are out of power and searching for hope and renewal.  The rise to attention of base-pleasing ideas is what happens when a party parts its intellectual and policy mooring by thinking it has no need of the moderates that anchor it.

Yes, those annoying buzz-kill, anchoring moderates prevent the party from going anywhere, but they also prevent it from being blown onto the rocks in a high wind.  So let’s continue with a maritime metaphor shift and think of socialism not as a sort of ideological cultivar, but as a mackerel in the moonlight.  It glitters attractively from a distance.  But it stinks.   The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle– the popular part, anyway– is that shining light on electrons to discover where they are makes them move, ruining the inquiry.  Socialism is like an economic version of that.  Socialism seeks to seize economic value and redistribute it to poor people– but the problem is that economic value created by free enterprise requires freedom to exist.  Seizing it usually ruins it.  Socialism today would be particularly nasty because so little of Western economies is based on natural resources.  When the economy is more like Venezuela’s, based on something that exists irrespective of human effort, or with only a relatively small effort, like oil, socialism can, like spending an inheritance, seem temporarily workable until the price of oil collapses.

As noted, Ocasio-Cortez is not even new in having parted moorings from reality (assuming she was ever so tethered).  What she is that Bernie Sanders is not, is physically attractive, young, female and Latina.  The Democrats are hoping for a renewal not of Leftist economic ideas, but of a renewal of identity-politics turnout that will hopefully translate to the national level.  That won’t work.  Identity politics has never yet emerged in generations, very weakly in gender, and even if it did among Latinos in America, which seems questionable, the places where they are concentrated include only one swing state, Florida…where Fidel Castro’s socialism is still hated.

The economic stupidity of attacking stock buybacks

Even for The New Republic, this is stupid and totally ignorant of basic principles of investing. There’s no comment section on it, but if there were, I’m sure I wouldn’t be the first to point out that market cap is the total valuation of the whole company– the share price times the number of shares– and that reducing the number of shares is like cutting a pizza into fewer slices. It does not increase the size of the pie. Whatever TNR was in the past, today it seems like a shill publication parroting the party line of economic illiterates like Elizabeth Warren.
National Review has a piece out reviewing an article in The Atlantic in a similar vein, and does a good job of explaining the fundamental stupidity.
 
 

Three kinds of corruption

Megan McArdle’s latest is on “Medicare for All”, the branding the Left seems to have settled upon to try once again to sell single payer.  Her point is essentially that the fantasies of the Left are poorly thought-through, with lots of handwaving about the cost when they bother to think about it at all.  Her streak of Irish skepticism never permits her to forget that, “people are why we can’t have nice things”.  Bernie Sanders and his ilk can ignore reality in their desperation to reach the pie-in-the-sky Automat.  Not her.  She can’t forget that someone has to pay for all this, and it won’t be that “magic pot of money” (to borrow her phrase), The Rich.  And most likely it’s not going to be the people who benefit most from the current scheme, like health care providers who won’t stand for any scheme cutting their incomes (as would have to happen) or the 70% of Americans who like the insurance they have.  You’d think it would be a nonstarter, right?

Nope.  Politics has become disconnected from facts or rationality.  On both sides.  I see three kinds of corruption: of language, of interpretation and of science.

The Left talks a lot about the supposed irrationality of everyone else, but the truth is that the Left contributed enormously to the killing of rationality as the basis for politics, by their corruption of language.  Once, everyone spoke the same language, and so could actually argue.  They might hate each other’s vision, but they actually understood it.  Today’s Left have proven themselves to be incapable of sticking to any definition whatsoever, and regardless of how noble the intention, the corruption of language is actually the corruption of rationality.  Democrats of the 1970s are practically alt-Right based on the definitions current among the Left on today’s college campuses.

Interpretation, too, has been corrupted.  The conclusion reached is today all that matters.  Activist morons lionize or apply the foulest of epithets to the interpreter based on quite literally nothing more than their own emotion about the conclusion being reached.  Feelings displace rationality.  Emotion is the primary consideration in politics today, with identity its child.  What goes around, comes around; politics like that on one side quickly spreads everywhere.

Science has been corrupted too.  Science didn’t save politics from irrationality, as certain eggheads must have thought must happen (sounds like the sort of thing Woodrow Wilson would have said).  Science and politics met in the middle.  Science improved politics somewhat, but politics corrupted science, as though Faust were a scientist being offered grant money for the finding of certain politically useful conclusions by a party National Committee chair named Mephistopheles.