The high road?

Apparently, according to the N. Y. Times, Democrats think they’ve been taking the “high road”, and have been debating whether that’s a good idea.

What on earth do they think the “high road” and the “low road” are?

Apparently, Trump’s Tourette’s-like verbal spasms on Twitter are the “low road”, with Michael Avenatti being, perhaps, the vision of a Low Road Democrat.  What the supposed appeal to the public would be of that sort of thing indulged-in by the Left, I don’t know.  The German attempts to create a Killer Joke in the old Monty Python sketch come to mind.

But what’s the “high road” Democrats believe they’ve been taking?  Supporting Leftists who hound Trump administration members out of restaurants and Antifa supporters as parts of the base who engage in merely “controversial” tactics?  (Bernie Sanders, to his credit, came out unequivocally against that.  But he’s not a Swamp-dweller.)  Thinking they can spike a Supreme Court nominee based on 36-year-old allegations that are totally unsupported by any evidence, including that of the accuser’s best friend from those days?  Seriously encompassing talk of eliminating the equal state representation in the Senate, the Electoral College, or the Supreme Court, for God’s sake?  That’s the “high road”?  True, most such statements appear in academia or serious media outlets first.  But having a sitting U.S. Senator condone harassment for political purposes and paying no price seems to me to cross a major line.

One thing I did notice about the above-linked Times article was the complete absence of any perspective originating from the public.  It’s the elite equivalent of a TV show or movie set in, and about, Hollywood itself.  Let me, to quote a show beloved of the Left, The West Wing, spill this out on the stoop and see if the cat licks it up:

The true success of any idealistic movement is not in getting complete control of Congress and the Executive branch to pass this or that law.  The true success is not in playing administrative-agency tic-tac-toe.  And the true success is not in Supreme Court decisions imposing blanket rules rationalized with circumbendibi about 150-year-old Amendments.

The true success is in persuading ordinary Americans in their private hearts.   When done, no opponent can destroy it.  Anything else, you have no right to expect won’t ever go away.

A victory for due process, or the confirmation hearings of Grand Moff Tarkin?

I hope you have energy for one more damn blog post about Brett Kavanaugh, who has now been confirmed to the Supreme Court.   I don’t think herein you will discover any new or profound points, but perhaps.  I deeply regret and apologize for my lack of editor.

Megan McArdle and Jonah Goldberg were right, of course, that there was no good outcome, at the end.  Either the Left was going to be furious at having been balked and at having a woman’s accusations of sexual assault and attempted rape be disbelieved enough to not spike a nomination to the Supreme Court, or the Right was going to be furious at the nakedly political attempt to ambush a nominee at the eleventh hour with accusations of vile crimes that could neither be proven nor disproven, despite the Democratic Senator in question having had the accusatory letter for months without revealing it and despite the fact that even the people named by the accusers as having been there declined to back up the details or substance of the accusation.

I was and am on the side of confirming Kavanaugh.  Naturally I’m glad how it turned out– in that one respect.

To Kavanaugh himself I am indifferent.  If credible charges of any offense had been made back in the summer and he had backed out, or if Trump had withdrawn his nomination, and then Trump offered up someone else, I would have been fine with that.  The way it happened, though, made the stakes rather different than merely the identity of the person warming the ninth seat.  The pathetically obviously political quality of the timing of the release– to try to delay matters past the midterm elections next month– the hypocrisy of the Left (for example, in having covered up and apologized for Bill Clinton’s non-teenage mashing, or their apologetics for the crimes of black youths of a similar age to Kavanaugh in 1982, arguing that teenagers shouldn’t be held to as high a standard), and the Waterford clarity that this was about revenge for denying Merrick Garland a vote adds up to the unavoidable conclusion that rationality had nothing to do with the Left’s position.  Which was more or less, to blither, fulminate and fling any shit that comes to hand, no matter how vile.

The Left’s position, when not purely partisan, is essentially one of emotion, and, depth of rage notwithstanding, it is still not acceptable to make nothing more than emotion a policy consideration.  Emotion will, true, always play a role in human affairs.  Voters need not hew to any standards but their own, and the fear of voter anger does affect politicians.  But politicians must at least pretend to be rational.  There has to be a real policy issue at stake which is argued to be more important than the other issue.  For politicians, it cannot openly be “the depth of my side’s emotions must be more important than your reasons”, especially when that issue is something central, like due process or the Rule of Law.  And, momentary fluctuations notwithstanding, it has in the end to be justifiable emotion.  Emotion that one side has stirred up to a fury pitch out of a sense of identity does not qualify.

Voters on the Right got angry, too, of course, and that played a role.  But the Right’s position is one of basic prudence and common sense: that if this is all that it takes to spike a nomination, we will all have consented to race to the bottom in terms of standards, and we’ll get a steady stream of accusations from the mentally unstable and cheap opportunists willing to lie.  Even sincerity, which Kavanaugh’s first accuser displayed, is not enough.  It might not be enough even with events only a year old, because the unreliability of memories and eyewitness testimony is well-known, but most certainly memories of events 36 years ago which no one else from that time and place supports, making an allegation that the rest of Kavanaugh’s life seems to belie, are not enough.

So the Left turns out to be who’s enraged, and will spin this into a political Just-So story, some new component of their identity narrative, along the lines of the confirmation by the Imperial Senate of a glib, fast-talking Grand Moff Tarkin making all the right sounds.  But rage and storytelling and the rationalization of the imposition of end results are the Left’s normal modus operandi.  How is this different?  And in most respects other than taxes and the 2nd Amendment the Left has gotten most things they wanted for the past half-century.  Honestly, I have no idea what they think they can rationalize to do in retribution, that they haven’t already or wouldn’t have done before.  Spent options and burnt bridges make for poor leverage.

2016: the two types of issue

In which I continue to try to parse the significance of 2016.  (I hope they come up with a standard term for the events of the past couple years, because Trump-and-Brexit-and-Europeans-revolt-against-the-elite is clunky.)

Megan McArdle has on more than one occasion talked about “Washington issues”:

A Washington Issue is something that sounds terrible, has little meaningful impact on more than a handful of people, and most importantly, allows you to pretend that you are addressing a different, very difficult issue that would impact a large number of people if you actually tried to make meaningful change — people who might get angry and do something rash, such as voting for your opponent.

This is clearly correct, it seems to me.  How does 2016 play in?  Well, on that particular subject area of political science, let me theorize a bit.

As I see it, there are two basic types of issue.  There are “retail” issues, and there are “luxury” issues.

Retail issues are the sort that the public really cares about.  They tend to be fairly simple and easy to explain, and they tend to touch many people’s emotions.   Jobs.  Taxes.  Defense.  Football.  The Left appears to me to imagine that their issues are mostly retail.  The administrative state?  Meritocracy and mandarinism?  They seem to think these are all things the public is really on their side about, and are shocked and mystified when evidence to the contrary appears.  (Washington Issues are a kind of retail issue that is high-margin, in business terms: high payoff, low cost in terms of tradeoffs.  They’re the sweet spot for politicians, so long as people are fooled into thinking they mean anything.)

Luxury issues, on the other hand, are the kind that only particular interest groups and politicians care about.  They don’t swing elections by themselves.  They’re the kind of thing that you can use to put together coalitions, because the interest groups care intensely about their particular issue or issues, but they’re not things whose presence or absence sways the public as a whole.

And, of course, these are not fixed points, anode and cathode.  They are points on a spectrum.  People can sometimes be gotten to care more about a particular issue, and in fact that’s the nexus between the media and politics.  Any time a politician says something like “let’s get a national conversation going about X issue”, the real meaning is, let’s try to move this issue from the luxury side of the spectrum to the retail side.  This can sometimes be done, but if it is not maintained, it may slide backwards once the victory is gained and the policy enacted.  And some things that were once inherently retail drift to the side of luxury issues by the operation of the entropy of public disillusionment with them.  Public education is an example of this.  People ostensibly care about it, but large amounts of money spent uselessly on it, together with a public perception that it’s been captured by administrators and teachers’ unions and run chiefly for their own benefit, has been causing it to drift in the direction of a luxury issue.

2016 demonstrates that the Left, and the global elite as a whole, has confused the two.   The public as a whole doesn’t care about the components of the administrative state.  The less able distrust meritocracy, a dynamic in which they are the losers, and non-elites as a whole dislike the identity politics of meritocracy, which is what we call elitism.  The Democrats, in fact, resemble nothing so much as the character of Martin Prince on The Simpsons, who gets pushed down by Bart, to laughter from the other children, and says in shock, “They laugh at me? I’d always considered myself rather popular… My speed with numbers? My years of service as a hall monitor? My prize winning dioramas? These things mean nothing to them?”  And he gets pushed over again, again to general laughter.

Unlike Martin, though, who responds, “You have made your point”, the Democrats have yet to acknowledge the point made by Trump when he pushed them over.  They still think the bureaucrats of the Hall Monitor Agency and the diorama-building of the National Endowment for the Arts, are things with genuine and deep popular support.

How does Trump actually compare with Hitler?

Donald Trump is not Hitler.

Lots and lots of people on the Left go on and on about how he is Hitler, about how fighting Trump is as righteous as fighting Hitler, about how he’s fascist, about how he’s a white supremacist, yada yada yada.  Sorry, no.  Not even close.

Hitler published a book of his intentions before coming to power in which he said what he was going to do, and by and large it was a good guide for what he tried to do.  Donald Trump has a couple of mediocre and probably ghostwritten books about business, which talk chiefly about dealmaking.  If you were going to try to find the least Hitleresque approach to forming relationships that there is, “negotiation” would surely have to be up there at the top.  Can you imagine Hitler writing a book titled The Art of the Deal?  No, it was the narcissistic “My Struggle” (that’s what Mein Kampf means).  Can you imagine Hitler negotiating with Mexico?  No, sir– he took over weak neighbors.  The only negotiating he did was with strong ones, like Russia or England.

Hitler made German law more or less whatever he willed, becoming supreme dictator.  Donald Trump has done nothing at all to take away the power of Congress or state and local governments.  Hitler militarized Germany and created new secret police loyal to him.  Trump can’t even control the FBI.  Hitler otherized Jews, gay people, Gypsies, Christian Scientists and so on, took their property away, took their rights away, had them rounded up and put in concentration camps, and butchered them in vast numbers.  Trump kissed black babies, put a gay-pride banner on his lectern, loves Mexican food, and so on.  (Try imagining Hitler doing that to the people least like himself in 1930s Germany.)  Trump has done absolutely nothing to persecute Americans.  True, he has pushed for the Wall and urged a strong stance on illegal immigration, but that’s pretty mainstream, to the point where Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were urging it not that long ago.  (Both voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006, establishing a physical barrier along hundreds of miles of our border with Mexico.)  Sure, his government has separated illegal-immigrant families temporarily, but there aren’t many, it caused a scandal, and at that rate he’ll only catch up to Hitler in a couple hundred years.

The ironic thing is that in the thing that has caused all this hyperbole– a superficial extrapolation of the historical situation that led to his rise– there is a valid parallel: the degree of populist rage with the powerful.

Even in the years leading up to the 2016 election you could see that sort of thing in the rise of Occupy Wall Street on the Left and the Tea Party on the Right, though it shocked a lot of people that it would go as far as Brexit or Trump’s election.  (Nor do we now know how far it will go.)  In shock, 2016 itself resembled nothing so much as the Great Peasants’ Revolt that followed the Reformation, though thankfully without violence.  Released by Martin Luther’s fracture of the Catholic Church from hundreds of years’ worth of tension created by “a corrupt Latin-droning popery”, as Herman Wouk put it, hundreds of thousands of German peasants rioted and pillaged, before being put down violently.  “Only Luther, before Hitler,” wrote Wouk, “ever so wholly spoke with the national voice to release plugged-up national rage”.  But today, instead of raging against some modern-day analogue to the perennial scapegoats of Europe, the Jews, who were demonized by both Luther and Hitler, or some analogue to the victors of World War I, who had imposed swingeing reparations requirements on Germany in punishment for the first war, the Trumpist rebels were revolting against the rulers of their own country: corrupt -ism-spouting Mandarins imposing both a morality artificial and alien to many ordinary Americans, and self-serving economic arrangements on a country that in a two-party system captured by elites had never really had the opportunity to vote in a referendum about either.  Popular culture managed to sell this arrangement for a while, but could not maintain it in the face of technological change and the Left’s neverending ambition.

Predictions

Trump himself will pass from the scene in one way or another, but the Overton Window is well and truly broken, and the elites will not be able to fix it any time soon.  Including at some point among people on the Left who despise and oppose Trump, America will be on its guard against attempts to steer talk away from “undiscussable” issues.  The Left’s best chance to recapture the cultural hegemony it enjoyed in the second half of the 20th century will be by influencing companies like Google or Facebook– but there is already pushback against their influence there.  The Democrats will return to power at some point, because that’s just the way it works.  But, as is always the case in democratic history, the real question will be “who won the arguments?”

Return of the 1950s

In putting it on Twitter, I was just rereading a recent post, in which I said, “I get the feeling that what the 1950s are to economic liberals– a supposed golden era that will surely never return– the 2000s will be to social liberals.”

The problem with that is that if Trump’s supporters get their way and high tariffs become a regular thing, the 1950s will in some limited degree return.

The 1950s were a unique time.  The world was still recovering from the destruction of World War II, leaving us the main supplier of finished goods for the world.  In other countries, the knowledge of manufacturing techniques was limited; they were not yet the competitors they now are.  But that decade was also before the effects of free trade on law.  International capital flows was one effect of globalization.  Even countries that did not, like England, try to prevent people from taking capital out of the country were not terribly friendly to international capital flows.  But law was also much more direct and ancient about trade: tariffs were much more common and better thought-of back then.  So were unions, which are in their essence a form of protectionism.

Even if anyone wanted to destroy the manufacturing capacity of the rest of the world, even if anyone could, and less still could be done to take away the rest of the world’s knowledge of manufacturing.  But free trade is very much on its heels right now.  No one has discussed restricting international flows of capital yet, since it’s too dry and Byzantine for populism, but it might happen.  If so, and if tariffs do return to their mid-century popularity, the circles of politics and economics in a Venn diagram of America will return toward the high degree of overlap they had in the 1950s.

And when that happens, the impact of votes upon economics will rise– and unions are likely to return to some degree.

History’s greatest emotional spat

I was just having a debate online about Brexit.  My opponent’s position was that Brexiteers were stupid because the economic consequences of it were far more complex than anyone thought they would be, and yet they voted for it anyway.

Rationality deals poorly with emotions, especially when it thinks it shouldn’t have to deal with them at all.  By my argument opponent’s train of logic, all you would have to do to make some union permanent would be to make things so intertwined, so complex, that they could not be un-done without extreme measures and sophistication, on a par with that which created it.  Eternal victory through mandarinism!  But it makes no sense.  In a revolution, whether peaceful or violent, you don’t have to have all the details worked out for the new government before you pull down the old.  It might be better to, and the new one might turn out to be worse than what it replaced– the Czars didn’t kill tens of millions of their own people– but revolutions– the build-up and release of previously unseen or underestimated economic, social or political forces– are sudden by nature.

Now, Brexit was a fight over policy, and major arguments about policy usually boil down to first principles.  The first principle in question here is “what is the public good?”  If good means low prices, then at first free trade is nothing but good, because everyone has the low prices with their existing incomes, and everyone feels a lot richer.  But soon the economy shifts and reaches a new point of equilibrium.  People who were producing things that are now produced much more cheaply outside the country have so much more competition.  Their incomes drop, and so does their happiness, unless equivalent jobs appear to make up the difference.  They haven’t.

But if by contrast “good” means the greatest happiness of the most people, though, that calls for a more complex set of governmental policies.  Apart from lifestyle factors like exercise, watching what you eat and avoiding excesses in drugs, happiness seems to be evoked– to the extent that it can be– by social trust and human connections and meaningful work paying enough.  Almost never do free traders acknowledge that free trade in goods supports those ends unevenly at best.  Free trade enriches people whose jobs aren’t subject to overseas competition.  Same income + lower cost of living = increase in net margin = increase in wealth.  But as mentioned above, it impoverishes those people whose incomes, after all economic adjustments, have gone down by a greater percentage than the cost of living has.   Lower cost of living (at first) + much lower income = decrease in net margin = major political problem.

You may have noted that “at first” part of the last two paragraphs.  Being my usual heretical self, I think free trade in goods isn’t nearly as good as it at first seems to be.  At first glance it seems like nothing but good, right?  Fewer hours worked for everyone, to pay for any given good!  The problem with this is that in the end what people compete for is other people’s labor, or the labor that goods represent.  That eternal truth is not changed by free trade.  If the labor inherent in goods is lower, both from automation and from the cheaper-overseas-cost-of-living component of goods prices, it doesn’t reduce competition.  It shifts it.  Like squeezing one end of a balloon and seeing the other end bulge out, it forces competition into areas of labor intensity that aren’t subject to overseas competition, such as education and health care (both of which have recently and repeatedly been called bubbles, no surprise).  In the poorest areas of the world where a lack of basic goods is a significant part of their poverty, there’s no trouble– it’s a vast and very real reduction of poverty, and it’s glorious– but in rich places it’s a different kettle of fish.

International free trade in in-person services is even more dubious.  The free migration of workers that Brexiteers could not stomach was that.  Say one thing about free trade in goods; your Chinese-made toaster does not change the character of your neighborhood.  Those families of Polish construction workers and Yugoslav nannies that moved in down the block, on the other hand, do.  Diversity, for all its good qualities, decreases social trust, and that helps destroy happiness.  Equals major political problem.

And that was basically my argument in the debate I mentioned at the beginning.  You can argue about economics.  But you can’t argue about whether people get to have this or that emotion, such as about neighborhood change, and you don’t get to insist that they must not weight their desires more highly than your economics arguments.  And when with bias, erudition and self-serving logic you’ve forced all their arguments into emotional areas, you don’t get to scream at them for their irrationality without being guilty of a lot, yourself.

Swedish democracy

Quillette, which is a publication I’m increasingly fond of for its quality journalism, has published a new piece on Sweden’s election turmoil by one Paulina Neuding.

Basically, the social turmoil that began earlier this decade begot, surprise surprise, an anti-EU and anti-immigrant party called the Sweden Democrats.  As seems to have happened everywhere, the cosmopolitan elite was initially appalled.  The left-wing party, the Social Democrats and the center-right party, the Moderates, are the other two parties there.  Amazingly, what they did in response to a populist but democratic uprising based around ideas that the elites had connived to keep down and out of discussability was…to connive further to keep them out of power.  “The largest of the two minority blocs,” Neuding wrote, “would get to form a government with the passive support of the opposition. [The Sweden Democrats] would thus be kept from influence.”

What the hell are elites thinking?  That all this populism is some sort of temporary spasm, surely– an aberration that will soon go away.  That would be a relief to them.  It’s attractive for other reasons, too.  It would mean that they were right all along, and that they don’t have to change, and it means that they’ll soon get to continue to be ambitious in terraforming Western societies into something that could be approved by your average Women’s Studies program.

There is no evidence that this is anything but 190-proof wishful thinking.  Mismanaged reactions to the grievances of a minority of a population have historically driven unaffiliated people in the population to the other side.  Tories and moderates during the American Revolution were shocked to discover that George III and the elites in his government did not think of them as the Englishmen they considered themselves to be, with all the rights of Englishmen.  They were instead painted with the same brush as the rebels, and were told to shut up and be grateful.  We took the side of the corrupt South Vietnamese government, and lost to a guerrilla movement that could not have operated if ordinary people hadn’t supported it.  Elites today seem to be hosing around “Nazi” and “white supremacist” labels, and that will surely not end well.

The Swedish governing agreement described above was an attempt to disenfranchise a large section of people, instead of compromising with them, and it seems to have shocked more and more people into realizing that there’s some serious substance to the complaints about the elites by the populists.  The Moderates went along with the Social Democrats’ socialist policies.  And outraged conservative Swedes began defecting…to the Sweden Democrats.

Somehow I get the feeling that what the 1950s are to economic liberals– a supposed golden era that will surely never return– the 2000s will be to social liberals.

How many microaggressions can dance on the head of a pin?

It seems to me that the core dilemma of the Western world– let’s assume that many people on the Left still are in favor of freedom of speech and freedom of opinion, no matter how hateful– is how to ditch the extremists on their side without degrading, also, the ideals they began with.  For the Left, that’s fighting racism, sexism, et cetera– in their original definitions.  For sure as anything, the new definitions of those things– the definitions and ever-tinier distinctions, trending toward the question of how many microaggressions can dance on the head of a pin– is corrupting that ideology, and I think the more thoughtful people on the Left can sense that.

In this, they are discovering anew the dilemma that religious people have been struggling with for millennia.  How do you maintain idealism, protecting it from diversion, cooption or perversion by people interested mainly in power, or in getting to feel superior and righteous…or worst of all, both?  (It’s akin to the dilemma of stupid people in a democracy.)

Reheating a soufflé

One thing I am sure of.  Even if the Democrats get their way somehow and get Trump out, regardless of how, there’s not going to be peace so long as the core issues that led to his election remain not satisfactorily addressed.

I do think that if that were to happen, Trump’s supporters would try to find a neo-Trump.  A replacement.  That would be a mistake.  Trump was the right man at the right time for them in 2016, and you can’t just recreate that, like reheating a soufflé.  That’s both the strongest and the weakest part of Trumpism– its ad hoc quality.  It means it’s hard to plan for and hard to know how to defeat, but it’s also a power difficult to focus so as to accomplish precise goals– and it would be hard, if not impossible, to recreate.

The Erebor of Socialism

I was just watching The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies.  You know the one.  The dwarves in the Company of Thorin Oakinshield awake and provoke the dragon, and after the dragon dies, shot by a human, a mad violent scramble ensues to get the leavings of his power– the gold and other treasure in Erebor.  Hence the battle.

It’s a very good movie.  It’s perfectly cast (Billy Connolly as Dáin II Ironfoot is my favorite choice specific to this movie– “Would ye consider…JUST SODDING OFF?”), beautifully directed, shot and edited.  This wasn’t my first time watching it.

Most everyone knows, though, that the more you watch a movie, the more you notice different aspects that were obscured by the pure experience of the film that occurs the first time you watch.  Like the way one of the stormtroopers rushing into the Death Star control chamber to confront Threepio and Artoo hits his forehead on the ascending door.  Though the power dynamic in BotFA is just right, with a scramble for pickings after the fall of a major power, the economic contradictions in Tolkien’s whole story, and perhaps most fantasy fiction, are amazing.

It’s assumed– by everyone— that gold is a constant.  It’s treasure.  It’s prosperity.  It’s security.  A perfect MacGuffin.  And yet it never occurs to anyone that the only way it’s any of those things is if other people will provide food, drink, security, comfort, et cetera, in exchange for it.  No one asks, where in this movie are the crops to buy?  Who can the people of Laketown hire to help rebuild their lives?  Fields of grain, lumberyards and vineyards are nowhere in sight in these gorgeous, unspoiled, New Zealandish landscapes.  Nor does their leader Bard think, “Well, what is the use of this much gold when a vast amount more gold lies in that mountain to outcompete whatever share of the gold that we have for the available comforts?  The dwarves are going to outbid us for wine, iron and timber.”  The gold flowing into Spain’s economy from the New World in the 16th and 17th centuries did not increase the economic output– the comforts produced– in Europe.  All it did was increase the amount of gold chasing them.  Which had the predictable effect of a bubble– too much money chasing too few opportunities, as the classic definition runs– and inflation.

In that sense, then, socialism is like the treasure of Erebor, or of Montezuma.  It’s the illusion that a perceived arbitrage exists by which YOU, the voter, can get yourself someone else’s gold (whether by your own violence or the implied violence of government power), someone else’s time and work– but they can’t get yours.

That, after all, would be Unfair.  Just ask any politician of the Left.