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The Winter of Our Discontent

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Wouldn’t it be great if choices in life were completely obvious? If you were presented with clear, highly differentiated alternatives that were so obvious that the right choice might as well be marked with a big neon arrow?

That rarely happens. Sometimes you have to choose between unclear or even unattractive alternatives. The 2016 presidential election is such a situation.

It is always good, in such situations, to seek to expand your option space. The two-item menu is usually presented by people who have their own agendas, which warrant a healthy skepticism.

It is in this light that I want to consider some recent articles that offer to tell us what we must do.

The Clinton Partisans

First, a pair of pieces from the New York Times.

That first debate seems to have helped Hillary Clinton move ahead of Donald Trump in the polls. However, I know that many of you are asking yourselves:Why is this even a question?
— Gail Collins, “How Could Anyone Vote for Trump?” (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/01/opinion/how-could-anyone-vote-for-trump.html), 30 Sep 2016.

I will take up the question of how anyone could vote for Trump later on. However, have no illusions that Collins has written a reflective article examining legitimate reasons for dissatisfaction with Hillary Clinton. There simply aren’t any. Collins is an intellectual bully. Not only are people who want to vote for Trump morally defective; so are people who want to vote for Gary Johnson, since he failed her geography test.

When I am confronted by the “not voting” or “protest voting” crowd, their argument often boils down to one of principle: They can’t possibly vote for Trump or Clinton because both are flawed in their own ways.

I know immediately that they have bought into the false equivalency nonsense, and additionally are conflating the casting of a ballot with an endorsement of a candidate’s shortcomings.
— Charles Blow, “The Folly of the Protest Vote” (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/22/opinion/the-folly-of-the-protest-vote.html), 22 Sep 2016.

But if the candidate’s shortcomings are not relevant, what are we voting on? Is it possible that the Trumpkins have a point? Oops, was that my outside voice?

The context of Charles Blow’s remarks are racial issues, so he already has a starting point in identity politics. Blow has staked out his ground rather clearly:

You can’t care about this issue and risk the ascendance of a man who last week was endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, a group that in its questionnaire to candidates claims: “Fringe organizations have been given a platform by the media to convey the message that police officers are a ‘militarized’ enemy and it is time to attack that enemy.” The questionnaire goes further: “There is a very real and very deliberate campaign to terrorize our nation’s law enforcement officers, and no one has come to our defense.” This, of course, is cop fantasy, but this group is the nation’s largest police union, representing some 330,000 officers.

Really? Cop fantasy? The Dallas police shootings were on 7 July. The Baton Rouge police shootings were on 17 July. Even the New York Times covered them. Is Blow really not aware?

Or is this the standard identity politics song, Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen? Nobody has suffered injustice the way my group has suffered injustice. And, yes, I’ll say it: poor people generally, and Blacks in particular, suffer injustice at the hands of some police, courts and municipalities. But Blow wants to overcome collective treatment of individuals who are black by collective treatment of individuals who are police. Good luck with that.

And, yes, Charles, thanks for reminding me:

There is another truth: That person will appoint someone to fill the current vacancy on the Supreme Court (assuming that the Senate doesn’t find religion and move on Merrick Garland before the new president takes office) and that person will also appoint federal judges to fill the 88 district court and court of appeals vacancies that now exist (there are 51 nominees pending for these seats).

Which is another reason not to want to vote for Hillary Clinton.

I will also discuss the question of equivalency between Trump and Clinton further on. But there is one more point to be made about the progressives and their following:

His convention was called “one of the worst ever.” Chris Matthews deemed him “dangerous” and “scary,” Ellen DeGeneres said “If you’re a woman, you should be very, very scared.” His opponent ran an ad against him portraying him as uniquely dangerous for women. “I’ve never felt this way before, but it’s a scary time to be a woman,” said a woman in the ad.

He was frequently called a “bully,” “anti-immigrant,” “racist,” “stupid,” and “unfit” to be president.

I’m referring, obviously, to the terrifying Mitt Romney.
— Karol Markowicz, “How Paul Krugman Made Donald Trump Possible” (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/08/05/how-paul-krugman-made-donald-trump-possible.html), The Daily Beast, 5 Aug 2016.

Progressives have demonstrated that they can intimidate moderate opponents by calling them extremists. Having done so, they have helped cleared the way for genuine extremists who really are the threats that progressives like to holler about. Are you happy now?

The Trump Following

I am going to consider one of the more unique opinion pieces in support of Donald Trump.

A Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances. To ordinary conservative ears, this sounds histrionic.
— Publius Decius Mus, “The Flight 93 Election” (http://www.claremont.org/crb/basicpage/the-flight-93-election/), Claremont Review of Books, 5 Sept 2016.

Yeah, I have rather ordinary conservative ears, and that sure sounds histrionic to me. It also sounds fairly representative of the argument I have heard from various Trumpkins. Let’s examine.

The argument in this article is founded on some rather substantial assertions. What interested me is the fact that the author progressed from these assertions in a very logical manner to his conclusion. The assertions are:

  • Nativism: the author objects foursquare to immigration, and maintains that Tom Tancredo got it right on immigration. I don’t accept nativism, so we’re off to a bad start.
  • Opposition to Free Trade: it is clear that the transition to free trade has been very badly managed, splitting the risk from the reward and dumping the former on those who are least able to manage it. Nevertheless, if you fully costed any practical program of reversing globalization, would you have any substantial political support for that? Yeah, I know — you can say that about almost any political program. And I am going to.
  • Opposition to Military Adventurism: clearly the neoconservative program of nation-building has been a failure in any honest assessment. We were supposedly in Afghanistan to prevent the spread of radical terror groups; now we have radical terror groups in Iraq, Syria, Libya and sub-Saharan Africa. That worked well, didn’t it?

However, the author goes further.

Let’s be very blunt here: if you genuinely think things can go on with no fundamental change needed, then you have implicitly admitted that conservatism is wrong. Wrong philosophically, wrong on human nature, wrong on the nature of politics, and wrong in its policy prescriptions. Because, first, few of those prescriptions are in force today. Second, of the ones that are, the left is busy undoing them, often with conservative assistance. And, third, the whole trend of the West is ever-leftward, ever further away from what we all understand as conservatism.

If your answer— [Matthew] Continetti’s, [Ross] Douthat’s,  [Reihan] Salam’s, and so many others’—is for conservatism to keep doing what it’s been doing—another policy journal, another article about welfare reform, another half-day seminar on limited government, another tax credit proposal—even though we’ve been losing ground for at least a century, then you’ve implicitly accepted that your supposed political philosophy doesn’t matter and that civilization will carry on just fine under leftist tenets. Indeed, that leftism is truer than conservatism and superior to it.
Ibid, italics in original.

This is a charge that we have to take seriously. Conservatism cannot keep on the genteel, self-satisfied path that it has been on. It has to, in the words of the article, “consider anything really different.” But Donald Trump is not just anything.

One of the Journal of American Greatness’s deeper arguments was that only in a corrupt republic, in corrupt times, could a Trump rise. It is therefore puzzling that those most horrified by Trump are the least willing to consider the possibility that the republic is dying. That possibility, apparently, seems to them so preposterous that no refutation is necessary.

The republic has been in trouble for at least 80 years, since FDR figured out how to implement an effective permanent vote-buying political establishment. You are not going to turn it around in one election, even if you find a Solon to run the country. Which I assure you Donald Trump is not.

Recall the earlier article by Markowicz.

It’s absurd to assume that any of this would stop or slow—would do anything other than massively intensify—in a Hillary administration. It’s even more ridiculous to expect that hitherto useless conservative opposition would suddenly become effective. For two generations at least, the Left has been calling everyone to their right Nazis. This trend has accelerated exponentially in the last few years, helped along by some on the Right who really do seem to merit—and even relish—the label. There is nothing the modern conservative fears more than being called “racist,” so alt-right pocket Nazis are manna from heaven for the Left. But also wholly unnecessary: sauce for the goose. The Left was calling us Nazis long before any pro-Trumpers tweeted Holocaust denial memes. And how does one deal with a Nazi—that is, with an enemy one is convinced intends your destruction? You don’t compromise with him or leave him alone. You crush him.

So it would seem the author wants us to become the extreme, ignorant yahoos the progressives have always claimed we are. But if we did so, would we not already be defeated?

Supporting Donald Trump to turn back progressivism is like using a flamethrower to get termites out of your house. Yes, you will get rid of the termites. You will also get rid of the house.

False Equivalence

Let me now return to the issue of an equivalence between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. No, there is none.

Hillary Clinton promises sunshine and kitten whiskers for everyone. Her behavior is self-seeking, but can be understood rationally. Her behavior is, within limits, predictable.

Every interaction is both an exchange of semantic information and a dance of social positioning, even those, as in science or academia, that strive to be purely the former.

To all appearances, Trump is engaged solely in the latter form of communication, and only in a narrow way: He treats all social interactions as zero-sum games establishing dominance and submission. In every interaction, someone is going to win and someone is going to lose, be with Trump or against him.
— David Roberts, “The Question of What Donald Trump “Really Believes” Has No Answer” (http://www.vox.com/2016/9/29/13086236/trump-beliefs-category-error), 29 Sept 2016.

Donald Trump says anything at any time. It is a semantic game to take an utterance of his and try to work backward to impute its purpose. Publius Decius Mus is fooling himself by thinking that Trump has any commitment to advance his or any other agenda other than Trump’s own self-aggrandizement. The entire concept of lying has no meaning for Trump. Reality is just a genre of television. Truth is whatever is convenient this minute.

If you want a businessman to vote for, Gary Johnson is a businessman. Trump is a real estate speculator, an economic rent-seeker and a reality TV star.

Nevertheless, it is damning with faint praise to say that Hillary Clinton is not as bad as Donald Trump. Even with no equivalence between the two, Clinton offers to take the country in a direction that I, for one, do not want to go. I don’t owe my vote to Trump to prevent the election of Clinton, but neither do I owe my vote to Clinton to prevent the election of Trump.

None of the Above

This election, for short-term purposes, is already down the drain. However, pursuant to the points made by Publius Decius Mus, the republic is in trouble and the country is going in the wrong direction. What makes it a wrong direction, rather than just a direction some of us dislike?

I maintain that, as the herald of this site asserts, ideas have consequences. My reading of history tells me that some choices lead to greatness and other choices lead to destruction. I have previously articulated how I know that a day of reckoning must come. The Trump candidacy is only the beginning of what we have to look forward to as the progressive fixation on negative-sum distribution plays itself out and the public square becomes increasingly nasty. It’s baked into the cake now. Decades in the making, it is too late for one enlightened chief executive to avoid, even if such were to be found.

I am most interested in the long game. Do we as conservatives want to alienate voters who we could reach and offer an alternative to progressive dependency, such as Hispanics, in the name of a misguided nativism? I think not. Do we want to risk the nation on Donald Trump, who provides no reason to expect any commitment to conservative principles or Constitutional process? I think not.

Someone on the Sunday shows observed that Donald Trump failed to make any mention in the first debate of the Supreme Court. There is a reason for this: He doesn’t care. He would blow off the court and Congress.

Donald Trump is a one-trick pony. All he knows how to do is negotiate. He negotiates things that should rightfully be non-negotiable, like his contractual commitments to his vendors. He would negotiate the American commitment to NATO and to South Korea. He negotiates what we as citizens have a right to know about the guiding principles of a presidential candidate. I see no evidence that, if elected, he would consider Constitutional law as non-negotiable.

As of this writing, several newspapers have endorsed Gary Johnson, most notably the Chicago Tribune and the Detroit News. The USA Today gave Trump an anti-endorsement, calling him “unfit for the presidency.”

The majority isn’t silent; the government is deaf.
— Unknown

Act well your part, there all honor lies.
— Alexander Pope

If you are repelled by the progressive agenda, this is not the time to cave in to fears and weakness by endorsing a candidate who seeks to exploit fears and weakness. We know that those who do not vote will be labeled as apathetic and cowardly; Gail Collins has already warned us of this. Find someone else with whom to make common cause and do so.

 

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Written by srojak

October 2, 2016 at 12:36 pm

The Flat Earth

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How to appraise the media coverage of this election?

I would like to invite you along on a thought experiment. Imagine we had a major party candidate for President who announced that the earth is flat. The candidate dismisses all evidence to the contrary as a fabrication by a conspiracy of interests who want to exploit the American public for nefarious purposes.

This candidate has a ready answer to every piece of evidence you can offer to support your argument, not that her answers are relevant or logically sound. You say we’ve seen pictures of a spherical Earth from space? She asserts that is a government conspiracy. You ask how it is possible for people to travel around the world? She says you’re naïve and such stories are not true. You cite an article in a newspaper questioning her claims? She shoots back, “That failed rag? Are they really still in business?” She asserts that, until you stand in space yourself and see the Earth for yourself, you can’t disprove her claims.

Media outlets are confused as to how they should handle this candidate. By journalistic standards, they should be offering her and her supporters equal time to present their views. However, on this issue, such behavior flies in the face of common sense. They perceive, correctly, that educated audiences are going to find them ridiculous if they offer a credible platform to people making such an outrageous statement.

Some cable channels try different tactics to keep the discussion tethered to sense at some point. One tries an approach where they bring on pilots, who have seen the Earth from the stratosphere. The candidate dismisses them as paid stooges of the establishment. Her campaign dredges up from somewhere a former pilot who is willing to go on the air and claim that it is all a hoax perpetuated by pilots so they can have employment privileges. He’s been in on the scam and he’s telling it all now.

Meanwhile, the candidate’s supporters charge bias against any media outlet who fails to give equal time to their assertions that the earth is flat. Everyone on the payroll may know that the claim defies believe, but if the organization does not give it a platform, the campaign howls that the system is rigged against them.

The subject of the shape of the Earth completely consumes the campaign. There is no remaining time, energy or attention to discuss the opposition candidate. This is unfortunate, because he has a lot for us to discuss. He is secretive and vindictive. In earlier pronouncements, he has stopped just short of saying that he believes the President is above the law. His previous actions attest to a belief that anything is justified to a person in power who has good intentions.

But we won’t be talking about any of that. The entire election has become a referendum on the credulity of the American electorate. We get up on 8 November and go to the polls, already knowing whatever the outcome, America has already lost.

Fortunately, that could never happen here.

Written by srojak

September 18, 2016 at 11:52 am

How Neville Chamberlain Went Wrong

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I believe it is safe to say that most Americans who have ever heard of Neville Chamberlain associate him with appeasement of Hitler and selling out Czechoslovakia at Munich. Why did Chamberlain think that appeasement was a good idea?

Chamberlain had been a managing director of a ship berth manufacturer for 17 years. He had also been Lord Mayor of Birmingham, as had his father before him. He was Chancellor of the Exchequer twice, from 1923-24 and again from 1931-37, at which time he succeeded Stanley Baldwin as Prime Minister.

Britain had not prospered after World War I, and the Depression had hit hard. Known in Britain as The Great Slump, it was a time of technological progress but economic distress. Official unemployment reached 25%, but some areas in the industrial North of England experienced 70% unemployment. Entire towns, such as Jarrow in Durham, were plunged into hardship as industries closed; the most famous of the hunger marches was the Jarrow Crusade. Chamberlain concluded that the country could not afford to keep up with Germany in military spending.

It was a decision that Chamberlain had reached mostly by himself. Ian Colvin researched the proceedings of the Chamberlain cabinet and found little policy discussion. Ministers who disagreed with Chamberlain, such as Foreign Minister Anthony Eden and First Lord of the Admiralty Duff Cooper, were ignored until they went away in frustration. He is known to have preferred to surround himself with people who would ratify his decisions, such as Samuel Hoare and John Simon.

How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.
— Neville Chamberlain, radio address, 27 Sept 1938.

Chamberlain had believed that war would be disastrous both for Britain and the Empire, and he was right. What he was wrong about was how to prevent that war. Chamberlain believed that Hitler was a rational statesman with whom one could negotiate rationally. Hitler only respected strength, but Chamberlain did not want to hear that. Because of the way he managed his cabinet, there was no one to persuade him otherwise.

So Hitler had to show Chamberlain the error of his ways. On 15 Mar 1939, contrary to his claims to have no further territorial demands in Europe, Hitler invaded the rump of Czechoslovakia. This area was not ethnically German and there were no legitimate German ethnic claims to it. The action shattered the illusion that Hitler was only seeking redress of the wrongs of the Treaty of Versailles.

Britain now belatedly recognized the seriousness of the menace and guaranteed Poland’s territorial integrity. When Hitler violated that on 1 Sept, after two further days of “you better or I’m gonna,” Chamberlain reluctantly declared war. Privately, he admitted the futility of his policy:

Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life has crashed into ruins.

 

Written by srojak

July 24, 2016 at 12:00 pm

The Special Interests

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It’s a presidential election year, so we brace ourselves for all kinds of railing against “special interests.” But how would we know what is and what is not a special interest?

The short answer is that every interest is special. In their 1962 book The Calculus of Consent, Buchanan and Tullock rejected an organic theory of the state:

Only some organic conception of society can postulate the emergence of a mystical general will that is derived independently of the decision-making process in which the political choices made by the separate individuals are controlling. Thus, many versions of idealist democracy are, at base, but variants on the organic conception. The grail-like search for some “public interest” apart from, and independent of, the separate interests of the individual participants in social choice is a familiar activity to be found among both the theorists and the practitioners of modern democracy.
— p. 12

Buchanan and Tullock showed how effective majorities are formed from coalitions of minorities, each of whom has special interests. Those who oppose these coalitions also have special interests. The idea of a public interest that exists apart from the interest of specific individuals is a species of the Rousseauvian general will.

Most attempts to examine the role of pressure groups have bogged down in their efforts to define the “public interest.” If this cannot, in fact, be defined, it becomes impossible to determine, even conceptually, the extent to which the activity of special-interest groups either advances or retards progress toward the “general welfare.” Analysis becomes impossible without a well-defined criterion.
— p. 284.

Collectives cannot speak for themselves. Even when voting, the members of a large collective can only practically choose from among the menu of options offered to them: candidates Goldsmith, Jones, or Mercadante; for or against the question as worded.

The idea of the public interest presupposes, and indeed requires, priests of political science who can divine the ineffable interest of the public, as distinct from the special interests of any individual or subgroup. Such a priesthood could never be ideologically neutral; the priests would always have their own agendas. We must be suspicious of those who claim to have access to the mysteries and set themselves up as such priests.

Every interest is special, including yours.

Written by srojak

January 21, 2016 at 12:30 pm

How the Statistician Got Pneumonia

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It was a winter morning, with frost on the ground and on the windows of the parked cars. The statistician was headed off to work in his shirtsleeves.

His wife stopped him at the door. “Honey, you need a coat. It’s freezing cold out there.”

The statistician replied, “Oh, that’s just anecdotal.” He brushed past her and continued out the door, leaving his coat at home.

Written by srojak

May 13, 2014 at 5:53 am

An Economic Stimulus Parable

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Imagine yourself as a Renaissance prince or princess, ruling a small city-state. One of the your princely possessions is a granary, where you can store grain you purchase in years of abundant harvests and release it in years of famine.

Recent years have been relatively bountiful, but not spectacular and not for everyone. Poor people gathered around you as you traveled through the street, imploring you to help them. The pain on their faces was palpable. It was somewhat embarrassing, sitting on your horse in your silks and jewels, surrounded by these clamoring poor people in their rags. They look like bags of bones, even the children. The sight nagged at your conscience. So you released grain from the granary to feed these people. Everyone in your court praised your benevolence. They’re courtiers, so they would have praised anything you did, but still, they had a point, no?

Last year your whole region did not have good weather, and you had an inadequate harvest. This year was even worse. Famine stalks the land. So you have turned to the keepers of your granary, who report that the store is depleted. There isn’t enough grain to see the people through the winter. Starvation is staring you in the face. What are you going to do?

You write to your neighboring princes. However, they have had the same bad weather and inadequate harvests you have experienced. Everyone is hard up. The few rulers who have any surplus to sell are besieged with offers. Prices are sky-high.

You decide to try coining more money in order to pay for grain. But with more of your money in circulation, chasing the same amount of wealth, prices go up. Your neighbors aren’t stupid; they know that you have put more money in circulation, so each coin is worth less than it was before. They discount the value of your money in exchange for grain, goods or anything else of value.

Now what do you do? You watch your subjects starve. Or you hide in your palace and avoid watching, but your subjects still starve.

The Relevance

What is the difference between the United States and this fictional Renaissance ruler?

  1. The United States has so much wealth that people think there is no limit, and nothing really bad will ever happen;
  2. The United States prints the currency used in international trade, and so appears to have greater ability to debase its currency and get away with it;
  3. The economy of the United States is so complex that it is much harder for people to trace cause and effect relationships, which is the reason for this parable.

The foundation of the first belief is the fiction of material abundance.

When people think they are getting away with an action, restraint goes out the window. What was yesterday’s pushing the envelope becomes tomorrow’s baseline. The only thing that makes them stop is visible, unqualifiable failure.

When the prince gets into trouble, the obvious response is to coin more money. However, making more money doesn’t make more grain. With more money chasing the same amount of grain, prices go up. This is inflation.

There really is not a lot that the prince can do when the famine hits. The key decision was made when he reached into the granary during times of abundance.

Much like with the housing bubble that burst in 2008, you will someday hear people talking about stimulating the economy and saying things like, “It worked until it didn’t.” This is a sure sign of bad risk management.

Written by srojak

December 31, 2013 at 11:08 am

The Oversight

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This poem was originally printed in the Akron Times, and reprinted in the Journal of Electrical Workers and Operators, January 1922, published by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Irving Babbitt reprinted the last stanza in the note on p. 222 of Democracy and Leadership.

The Oversight

There are many scores of schemers,
Poets, orators and dreamers
Who are working for the bright millennium;
But in spite of all their hoping,
Mankind still is blindly groping
And the Golden Era somehow fails to come.

If some special dispensation
Could bring wholesale reformation,
Revolutionize us mortals over night,
Why, the well-known species human —
Male and female, man and woman —
Soon would make this earth a planet of delight.

But, although we are improving,
We are sadly slow in moving
Toward the period of sinlessness and bliss,
And instead of lightly tripping
To the goal, our feet are slipping
And our program of redemption goes amiss.

So, I judge it is not treason
To advance a simple reason
For the sorry lack of progress we decry.
It is this: Instead of working
On himself, each one is shirking
And trying to reform the other guy.

Written by srojak

May 12, 2013 at 5:00 pm

Posted in Ethics, Primose Path

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