The Limits of Outrage

Has anyone else noted how carefully the major media outlets are treading the line between expressing their outrage over the presumed murder of Jamal Khashoggi and recognizing that both Democratic and Republican presidents have cozied up to the Saudis? The problem is that the Saudis didn’t suddenly become reprehensible a week ago. They’ve always been reprehensible.


What Isn’t Dominating the Midterms?

Rick Klein, Maryalice Parks, and John Verhovek take note of the issues that are cropping up most in the midterm elections at ABC News. The issues they single out are:


That’s obvious enough. Trump has dominated the opinion pages of most major media outlets for much of the last two and a half years, largely in a negative light.


So important they mention it twice. Women are likely to be elected in these midterms at the highest rate ever. Gender, race, sexual preference, and age are all hot topics. Unmentioned in the article is that if she is re-elected, Dianne Feinstein will become the oldest woman ever elected to the Senate. She’d need to run two more times to get a shot at being the oldest serving senator, though.

Health Care

That’s certainly the case here in Illinois. We’re being deluged with political advertising and just about every spot for a Democratic candidate castigates the Republican opponent for wanting to take people’s health care away. No word though on how they’d reconcile health care as an absolute right, a right to earn a living as a physician, and the right to property. If health care is not an absolute right, it means they want to take somebody’s health care away, too, and the whole thing is sophistry. If health care is an absolute right, either wages in health care must be driven to an arbitrarily low point or there is no limit to how high takes must be raised to pay for all of that health care. Claiming that your’re going to balance those rights somehow calls for more acumen and mental acuity than appears to be possible.

Border control

Most of the related complaints I hear are about illegal immigration rather than the broader topic of immigration.

What’s remarkable to me are the issues that aren’t important to people. We are still fighting a war in Afghanistan. We’re spending billions there which can’t be spent on anything else. Americans are dying. I can only conclude that Americans have accepted that we’ll be fighting there forever.

Despite its evergreen presence in the country’s opinion pages, global warming/climate change don’t seem to be much of a topic.

I’m not seeing as much outrage over the tax reforms that took effect earlier this year as all of the complaints about “tax cuts for the rich” might have led you to believe. It’s darned hard to cut taxes for anybody but the rich when most of the people who aren’t rich aren’t paying income taxes, either, and you can’t talk about cutting payroll taxes without being accused of attacking Social Security. That sort of defuses taxes as an issue.

I haven’t heard much about now-Justice Kavanaugh, either. I guess that caravan has moved on.

What other issues are surprising in not being major topics of discussion in the midterms?


Republicans Take Note

My wife and I were evaluating our alternatives in voting for state and county offices (poor) and we noticed something. Among county-wide offices all of the offices are uncontested except County Assessor for which both a Republican and a Democrat are vying for the office. No Republicans are running for any other county-wide office.

Complaining about Democrats is fine. Complaining about Democratic hegemony is fine.

Complaining about Democrats or Democratic hegemony while not even attempting to do anything about it is not fine. It is lazy, cowardly, cynical, or some combination.

Yes, you have to spend money to win elections. That’s true of all offices at every level in every state and nationwide. “He either fears his fate too much or his deserts are small, etc.” You can’t expect to win any election without competing for it. Kwicherbellyakin.


In Summary

Boy, did these things need saying. In his Wall Street Journal column Holman Jenkins remarks on Trump as a phenomenon:

Bruno Maçães, a Portuguese political scientist, recently pointed out that European thinkers have become obsessed with U.S. domestic politics. “They’re not watching German politics. So again, tell me why this is so bad.”

His point is subtle and best illuminated by new work from liberal scholar Cass Sunstein on how true voter preferences can stay unrevealed in a democracy and then emerge spontaneously. Mr. Trump made new things sayable. The U.S. relies on a military alliance with countries that no longer spend money on having militaries. Our China trade openness has been rewarded by the rise of a neo-Maoist totalitarianism in China. We engage in costly climate policies that have no effect on climate.

We might also remind ourselves of a general principle: It’s not Donald Trump who is a threat to a democracy; it’s politicians generally. Democracy is a system for curbing their quest for power. Of the two candidates in 2016, which was the protégée of the president in office? Which was backed by longstanding and highly organized support networks? Mr. Trump is accused of violating norms, but which party concocted evidence that its opponent was a Russian agent? Which now questions the legitimacy of basic institutions like the Electoral College and the Supreme Court? Which encourages the mobbing of partisan opponents in restaurants?

In 2008, Barack Obama’s campaign was a snow job about bipartisanship. Political misdirection clearly has its uses, but this hasn’t been the Trumpian approach. Mr. Renshon rightly describes him as a president who does “much better in keeping his promises than in speaking accurately about them.”

I do not like Trump for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that my assessment is that he sees people, women in particular, solely in instrumental terms. But I don’t think that’s why so many Democrats hate him with a white hot hatred.

Besides his not being Hillary Clinton, I think they hate him because he doesn’t give lip service to the prevailing wisdom and most particularly their prevailing wisdom. That isn’t a vice. It’s a virtue.


Krugman on International Development

Paul Krugman has a good and interesting post on international development in his New York Times column today. Here’s his peroration:

The result is a world in which inequality among countries is declining if you look from the middle upward, but rising if you look from the middle down. Fundamentally, however, it’s a story of diminishing Western exceptionalism, as the club of countries that can take full advantage of modern technology expands.

There are some things I think he’s missing. That’s exactly what you’d each as rich countries abandon the habits, values, and cultural practices that made them rich in the first place and some countries adopt them or, at least, some of them, while others do not.


When Do Sanctions Work?

There’s a great and timely post at Defense One from Jonathan Schanzer, pointing out just how limited sanctions are in effecting changes of behavior from foreign governments:

There is a rare and growing bipartisan consensus in Congress about the need to smack Saudi Arabia with human-rights sanctions, or perhaps even tougher penalties, for its role in the death of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist who walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul earlier this month but never walked out. Sanctions seem inevitable.

The only problem is that many of the same experts pushing for sanctions against Saudi Arabia have previously argued, in other contexts, that sanctions don’t work. That was the near-unanimous conclusion of top policy experts who supported the Obama administration’s decision to drop sanctions on Iran, which had brought its economy to the brink of collapse, in exchange for a nuclear deal. It’s just one example of a broader trend: analysts suddenly discovering the Middle East is more complex than they’d previously admitted.

Read the whole thing. Here’s his conclusion:

Implementing effective policies in the Middle East is complicated. If nothing else, that’s now clear. We may never get justice for Jamal Khashoggi. But we would be lucky if this incident yielded a little more humility and a little less cocksure certainty among the pundit classes. Analysts who are enamored of their own wisdom and who routinely sneer at challengers in condescension have suddenly discovered that their tweets haven’t aged well. Sanctions are not always bad, engagement is not always good, and transactional policy cuts both ways.

But let’s dig a little deeper. When do sanctions work and when do they not? Let me suggest a model. They worked against South Africa but not against Russia or Iran. And it’s very unlikely they would work against Saudi Arabia or China. Why? It wasn’t that the stakes are higher. South Africa ended apartheid even though it was a political (and possibly physical) death sentence.

But South Africa was an essentially European country with values similar to our own. They knew that apartheid was wrong. Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China are countries with values genuinely different from ours and they’re convinced that what they’re doing is right.

There is no universal system of values. Cultures really are different. When cultures are genuinely incompatible with ours or even antithetical to ours as that of Saudi Arabia certainly is, the choice is between exterminating our values or theirs or dealing with them when we must and otherwise limiting contact with them to the bare minimum.


The Plot Thickens

Remember that Bloomberg story from a couple of weeks ago I repeated here about the Chinese spy microchips. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats has now said it ain’t so:

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told CyberScoop on Thursday that he’s seen no evidence of Chinese actors tampering with motherboards made by Super Micro Computer, becoming the latest national security official to question a Bloomberg report that stated the company was the victim of a supply chain hack.

“We’ve seen no evidence of that, but we’re not taking anything for granted,” Coats told CyberScoop. “We haven’t seen anything, but we’re always watching.”

and Apple CEO Tim Cook is demanding that Bloomberg retract the story:

Apple CEO Tim Cook, in an interview with BuzzFeed News, went on the record for the first time to deny allegations that his company was the victim of a hardware-based attack carried out by the Chinese government. And, in an unprecedented move for the company, he called for a retraction of the story that made this claim.

Since the first story Bloomberg has actually doubled down on the story:

Reached for comment, Bloomberg reiterated its previous defense of the story. “Bloomberg Businessweek’s investigation is the result of more than a year of reporting, during which we conducted more than 100 interviews,” a spokesperson told BuzzFeed News in response to a series of questions. “Seventeen individual sources, including government officials and insiders at the companies, confirmed the manipulation of hardware and other elements of the attacks. We also published three companies’ full statements, as well as a statement from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We stand by our story and are confident in our reporting and sources.”

This may well end up court. Non-trivial amounts of (Tim Cook’s) money are involved.


Consumption-Oriented Economic Policy

At The American Interest Oren Cass argues that for the last sixty years we’re been pursuing a “consumption-oriented economic policy”, it’s a flop, and it’s time for a change. Here’s the kernel of his argument:

What Americans increasingly see are their children struggling and their neighbors sick or dying. Half of Americans born in 1980 were earning less at age thirty than their parents had made at that age. Most Americans still do not complete even a community college degree, yet the median income of a high school graduate lifts a family of four less than 40 percent above the poverty line; in the 1970s, such an earner would have cleared that threshold by three times as much. That’s for people who are working. At the Great Recession’s end, Charles Murray reported in Coming Apart, barely half of working-class households had a full-time worker present.

And then there are the “deaths of despair.” Mortality rates have risen since the turn of the century for middle-aged white Americans, driven by higher levels of suicide, liver disease, and drug overdoses for those with only a high school degree. Such an upsurge had no precedent in American history, and nothing similar is occurring in other developed nations. The nation’s suicide rate climbed 24 percent between 1999 and 2014, with stunning increases of 43 percent and 63 percent for men and women aged 45 to 64. Opioids are now killing Americans more rapidly than HIV/AIDS ever did. Life expectancy nationwide fell in 2015, for the first time since 1993, and then again in 2016, marking the first consecutive years of decline since the early 1960s. Preliminary data indicate yet another decline in 2017.

and here’s the meat of his prescription:

Economic growth and rising material living standards are laudable goals, but they by no means guarantee the health of a labor market that will meet society’s long-term needs. If we pursue growth in ways that erode the labor market’s health, and then redistribute income from the winners to the losers, we can produce impressive-looking economic statistics—for a while. But we will not generate the genuine and sustainable prosperity we want. Growth that consumes its own prerequisites leads inevitably to stagnation.

This shift in perspective from consumer to producer conjures a vision of two constituencies vying for the same resources, but here the dynamic is more complex. Every individual is both a producer and a consumer, the economy an engine of both production and consumption. An emphasis on the consumption lens has long been a tenet of classical liberalism: “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer,” wrote Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. Superficially, at least, consumption seems a sensible focus.

But only through production does the ability to consume exist. Production without consumption creates options; consumption without production creates dependence and debt. Most of the activities and achievements that give life purpose and meaning are, whether in the economic sphere or not, fundamentally acts of production. Yes, material living standards contribute to prosperity, but accomplishments like fulfilling traditional obligations, building strong personal relationships, succeeding at work, supporting a family, and raising children capable of doing all these things themselves are far more important to life satisfaction. What these things have in common is their productive nature not as boosts to GDP but as ways that people invest effort on behalf of others. Our social norms recognize productive activities as essential to a functioning and prosperous society, and so we award respect, dignity, and gratitude to those who perform them.

Without work—the quintessential productive activity—self-esteem declines and a sense of helplessness increases; people become depressed. Where fewer men work, fewer marriages form. Unemployment also doubles the risk of divorce, and male joblessness appears the primary culprit. These outcomes likely result from the damage to both economic prospects and individual well-being associated with being out of work, which strain existing marriages and make men less attractive as marriage partners.

His proposals include a number of things that are deeply unpalatable to many Americans accustomed to the conventional wisdom: more vocational training, tracking, more labor standards established by negotiation rather than by the federal government (that’s the case in many European countries), and wage subsidies.

Let me propose a thought experiment. Calculate the effect on per capita productivity when you import a very large number of low-skilled, poorly compensated workers. For extra credit calculate the effect on consumption of those same workers. I think you’ll find that they boost consumption far more than they do productivity.


What Are “American Values”?

In his Washington Post column Josh Rogin expresses skepticism about an “America First” foreign policy that doesn’t promote “American values”:

Just governments that respect the rights of their people, limit their own power, permit dissent and open their societies make better allies. This is the message Khashoggi sent in his final column for The Post , a plea for international support for basic freedoms inside Saudi Arabia. His story shows why the Trump administration can’t succeed overseas unless it finds a way to incorporate American values into “America First.”

Okay, I’ll bite. What are American values? Judging by recent performance it’s forcible regime change, something we’ve been trying make stick in Afghanistan without a great deal of success.

Although his prescription sounds like the romanticism I just posted about I can’t help but think he has his causality reversed and that what he really means is that Western European countries, the countries with which we have the most in common politically, economically, socially, culturally, linguistically, and in just about every other way make better allies. English-speaking countries probably make the best allies of all.

Take a look at the record. For most of our history the American value that we promoted most aggressively in other countries was Christianity. Does Mr. Rogin think we should be sending more missionaries?

1 comment


Yesterday in comments I lamented how much we tend to romanticize the rest of the world but didn’t elaborate on it. I’ll remedy that now.

The world is a harsh, rough place and most of the people in it have different views of what’s right or wrong than we do as well as different ideas about family relationships, men and women, sexual mores, basic rights, and so on. Many envy our prosperity but that doesn’t mean they want to adopt our way of life. Many would like to have material prosperity like ours but retain their own ways of doing things.

We and the Europeans live in what are, effectively, walled gardens. Those gardens have been protected by distance, oceans, mountain ranges, laws, our willingness to enforce our laws, and the poverty of so many of the people of the world. Modern transportation has eroded the effectiveness of distance and natural barriers as well as reducing the cost of travel. Our laws have moderated over time and in many cases we aren’t even willing to enforce those.

So, what do I mean by “romanticism”? Thinking the world isn’t a harsh place, that everyone wants their society to have the broad freedoms we have enjoyed, That people do not bring their own notions of right, wrong, and social order when they come here, or that we can alter our basic attitudes or social arrangements at will without repercussions are all romanticism.