The Yawning Abyss

Speaking of things I’m not interested in, I wanted to make an observation on Nikolai G. Wenzel’s review of Batya Ungar-Sargon’s book, Second Class, at the American Institute for Economic Research. I have no interest in Ms. Ungar-Sargon’s book and will never read it. Life is only so long. However, there’s something I think that Dr. Wenzel dismisses too quickly. Consider this passage, which in many ways is the meat of his review:

Finally, the US does not have the socioeconomic mobility it could have. But the country is not as static as Ungar-Sargon paints it: over the past 50 years, the share of national income earned by the lowest four quartiles has fallen slightly (by .7 percent to 2.6 percent) – but national income has tripled. This means that the bottom 80 percent now earn a slightly smaller piece of a significantly larger pie. The increased income – from innovation, trade, immigration, globalization – hides another key phenomenon: the drop in the consumption gap. The late great economist Steve Horwitz explained that “poor Americans today live better, by…measures [of consumption] than did their middle-class counterparts in the 1970s.” Ungar-Sargon flippantly swats away the fact of lower prices.

I think that Dr. Wenzel is doing some flippant swatting of his own here. I’ll just accept his numbers at face value. .7 percentage points of 2.6% is more than a quarter. That’s not falling slightly. That’s a significant drop.

Furthermore, the average Congressional district held 470,000 people in 1970 but 761,000 now. So what? (I hear someone ask.) The significance is that a Congressional campaign is much more expensive than it used to be in real terms which in turn means that major political contributors are more important than they used to be. That in turn makes it only natural that they are more likely to have the Congressman’s ear.

Finally, there is a yawning abyss between a typical person’s income and that of the ultra-rich. As F. Scott Fitzgerald put it so well a century ago, the rich are different from you and me. Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos live in a world completely different from mine and have different priorities than I do just as I live in a different world with different priorities than the typical person living at 70th and Stony Island does but Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos have the ears of presidents, House members and senators so their interests and priorities have more weight than mine do.


The Vance VP Pick

The media outlets are buzzing with Donald Trump’s pick of Ohio Sen. J. D. Vance as his running mate. It’s not particularly interesting to me since I won’t vote for Trump in any event but I did have a couple of comments. First, Sen. Vance is a great pick if one of the objectives is for the VP candidate to fill a roles that VP candidates have traditionally filled: lightning rod. He will unquestionably draw and, possibly, relish a lot of criticism. He’s better suited for that than Mike Pence was.

Second, it certainly indicates that Mr. Trump is doubling down on the outsider thing. As a first term senator at the beginning of his term, Vance is still an outsider and his reputation is one of a critic of elites and the “Deep State”.

Unfortunately, President Trump is also doubling down on something I have criticized him for in the past: neither he nor his running mate understand how the federal government functions, how the Congress functions, how to get things done in Washington, or the constraints of the law. Maybe Vance will have more intellectual curiosity than Trump but I wouldn’t bet on it.

If it takes place, the vice presidential debate should be interesting. Vance is a pretty articulate guy which is not something you can say of Vice President Harris. Even her supporters mock her “word salad” style of speech.


And While I’m on the Subject…

While the Supreme Court is in a mood to end what they see as “judicial overreach”, why don’t they take a care that will allow them to reverse Wickard v. Filburn? This article by Jacob Sullum at explains why.


How to “Turn the Temperature Down”

I’m seeing a flurry of posts, articles, and editorials calling for us to “turn the temperature down” on our political rhetoric. These posts are interspersed with some pointing out the dire need to be able to argue against things we actually think are wrong. How to split that baby?

I suggest that we all, including both Republican and Democratic politicians, stop telling people what we don’t like and telling them what we do like. Rather than declaiming that “Trump is a threat to democracy” say what you think he should have done or should be doing. State everything positively rather than negatively. I think you’ll find that it’s harder than it sounds.

I realize that I am whistling past a graveyard here and there is no real prospect for what I am suggesting actually happening. As I’ve said before negativism works.


Storm Warning

The graph above is from this post at Gallup:

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Significantly more U.S. adults than a year ago, 55% versus 41%, would like to see immigration to the U.S. decreased. This is the first time since 2005 that a majority of Americans have wanted there to be less immigration, and today’s figure is the largest percentage holding that view since a 58% reading in 2001. The record high was 65%, recorded in 1993 and 1995.

The last time the percentage of foreign-born in the United States was as high as it is now we, basically, slammed the door on immigration for forty years. I have been warning about this for some time.

I, personally, would prefer that we were able to accept more people who are genuinely in need of asylum and that we accept a certain number of highly-trained individuals to work in the United States. I would prefer that over shutting the door. Farther down in the same post, there is a finding that the percentage of people who support mass deportations is increasing.


Lots of Blame to Go Around

The editors of the Washington Post have a lot to say today. In the first editorial I wanted to note is this one in which they observe that there’s a lot of blame to go around for the present ambient temperature of our political discourse:

In short, this brush with individual mortality and national calamity is an unsought, but golden, opportunity for Mr. Trump to help cool the nation’s political fevers and set a new direction. It offers him a chance to show that there is a more constructive path.

This responsibility is not Mr. Trump’s alone. Every participant in our civic life needs to conduct some soul-searching. The motives of the gunman in Butler, Pa., remain unknown as we write. That they were so plausibly political, though, should prompt deeper reconsideration. Speech and conduct once considered unthinkably uncivil have grown routine: We live in a country where protesters harass lawmakers, justices, journalists and business leaders with bullhorns at their homes, shouting obscenities. Universities have become battlegrounds. And outright physical violence has become a bipartisan hazard — as Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and the husband of former House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) can attest. Ordinary citizens get caught in the mayhem — or, in the case of volunteer firefighter Corey Comperatore, 50, who lost his life protecting his family from bullets Saturday, extraordinary ones.

In a statement of her own, former first lady Melania Trump appealed to our common humanity. “A monster who recognized my husband as an inhuman political machine attempted to ring out Donald’s passion,” she wrote. Ms. Trump is correct that there’s too much vilification and dehumanization in politics, though it must be acknowledged that her husband is responsible for referring to fellow citizens as “traitors” who “hate America.”

Democrats, too, need to recalibrate their rhetoric. “It’s time to put Trump in the bull’s eye,” Mr. Biden said last week in remarks to a group of campaign donors. He struck an appropriate tone on Sunday: “Unity is the most elusive goal of all, but nothing is more important than that right now,” he wrote on X.

In the aftermath of the assassination attempt, and in contrast to the many bipartisan calls for calm and unity, threat-exaggeraters on the right included, lamentably, Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), reportedly under consideration to be Mr. Trump’s running mate, who quickly posted on X that the Biden campaign’s rhetoric “led directly” to the assassination attempt. Vivek Ramaswamy, a surrogate for Mr. Trump, said the shooting “wasn’t totally a shock”: “First they sued him. Then they prosecuted him. Then they tried to take him off the ballot.”

Beware of anyone who constructs such sentences around the word “they.”

Gerard Baker strikes a similar note in his Wall Street Journal column:

Avoid the idea that, even if they didn’t actually pull the trigger, Democrats are somehow to blame because of their rhetoric.

It’s true that the language about Mr. Trump and the Republicans is often absurdly overblown: the recent ululations about Project 2025 are a case in point. But it must be within the bounds of acceptable political discourse to claim that Mr. Trump represents a threat to democracy, not least because some of his behavior and rhetoric support the claim. So is it acceptable for Mr. Trump and Republicans to say that President Biden and the Democrats are destroying America without it being interpreted as a signal to anyone with a rifle to take out the Democratic candidate.

If there is room for emotional restraint in the aftermath of this horror, there is also reason to hope for a small movement toward de-escalating the mutual loathing to which so many Americans have fallen prey.

We’ve had a taste of where this leads—the near-assassination of a presidential candidate and the anarchy that might have ensued—as well as the actual murder of a man, a rally attendee who merely wanted to be a political participant.

I completely agree that “both sides do it”. They do it because it works. But the Democrats have a much larger megaphone than the Republicans. The Democratic-leaning media, e.g. ABC, NBC, CBS, the Associated Press, the New York Times, Washington Post, etc., have a much greater reach than the more-or-less centrist media, pretty much limited to Reuters, the Wall Street Journal (news),and a handful of others, or the Republican-leaning media, e.g. Fox News and the Wall Street Journal opinion section. Additionally, although the “bully pulpit” is impeded because Joe Biden occupies the Oval Office, it’s not non-existent. Consequently, IMO they have a greater responsibility.

Will they accept it? For a while, I think.


The Battle

In his most recent Wall Street Journal column Walter Russell Mead declaims that the assassination attempt on President Trump has pushed the United States in a more Jacksonian direction:

Mr. Trump is part of a strain of American politics that Andrew Jackson brought to power in 1828. In domestic politics, Jacksonians are skeptical of big business, hate the political and social establishment, and demand “common sense” solutions to complex problems. They support the military but not an officer class seen as distant from the values and folkways of the nation—West Point stuffed shirts in the 19th century, “woke generals” today. They assume the political class is deeply and irreformably corrupt.

In foreign policy Jacksonians feel no need to spread democracy around the world. Instinctively realist, they view the United Nations and international law that would bind the U.S. with fear and contempt. Absent serious threats against America, Jacksonians have little interest in foreign affairs. But when the U.S. is attacked, they believe every measure is justified in its defense. Jacksonians don’t regret assaults on civilian targets during World War II, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Relentless warfare against terrorists is justified; most Jacksonians support Israel’s war in Gaza and believe the U.S. should respond to terror with the same vigor.


Jacksonian America likes strong leaders, even those like George Washington and the two Roosevelts who come from elite backgrounds and whose policy preferences don’t always align perfectly with Jacksonian ideas. Jacksonians are deeply skeptical of most politicians; Jacksonian faith and loyalty, once given, can be enduring. This gives Jacksonian leaders flexibility on policies; the base will often follow where they lead.

Saturday’s events made America more Jacksonian and gave Mr. Trump an unbreakable hold on Jacksonian America. On the one hand, the assassination attempt reinforced the sense that Jacksonian America is under siege. On the other, Mr. Trump’s fist-waving defiance and determination quieted any doubt about his personal courage. Attacks on him from the political and journalistic establishments will only boost his standing with his followers and inflame Jacksonian hatred of elites.

While I agree with his assessment of the reactions of the Jacksonians who already support Mr. Trump, I think he’s wrong about the rest. I think that the assassination attempt will further reveal just how Jacksonian Mr. Trump’s supporters are but I doubt it will convert the Wilsonians who dominate Democratic politics to become Jacksonians.

I think the battle lines are already drawn. The relatively small number of undecideds may lean more towards Mr. Trump as a result of the assassination attempt. I further doubt that the anodyne remarks about comity will persist. In 2001 by November the New York Times had already abandoned the more tempered remarks it was making in September and was going hammer and tongs against President Bush. The calls for unity will quiet soon.


I Don’t Get It

Like most people I was appalled at the assassination attempt against President Trump. You can only turn the temperature up so high before someone somewhere boils over. I was also relieved when the identity of the would-be assassin was revealed. It could have been much, much worse.

There are quite a few things being said in reaction to the incident that I simply don’t understand. For some Mr. Trump’s immediate reaction, shaking his fist and shouting “Fight!” were signs of strength and determination. For others they were indications of the things they don’t like about Trump. Where you sit depends on where you stand.

I also do not believe that politicians will eschew negative advertising. Believing they will do so is naive. The reason they use negative advertising is that it works. President Biden did not suspend the campaign of negative advertising against President Trump that was about to be unleashed because he suddenly thinks that President Trump has suddenly become a good guy or because the incident has convinced him that a milder, more civil campaign is what he must do but because he and his advisors realize that a harshly negative campaign against Trump in this moment will be too sharp a contrast with the pleas for civility they’re making. I doubt that the editors of the New Republic are contrite about portraying Trump as Hitler on the cover of their magazine.

What I think is actually happening is that, if anything, this incident is revealing how hardened the battle lines have become. I’m afraid they will only become harder.


Suicidal, Realistic, or Romantic?

In her regular Wall Street Journal column Peggy Noonan characterizes the Democrats’ options in their reactions to President Biden’s determination to remain in the presidential race as either suicidal, realistic, or romantic. According to Ms. Noonan the suicidal route is Ridin’ with Biden: he will be defeated by Donald Trump, taking some number of Democratic House and Senate members with him gaining a likely prospect o naming two additional Supreme Court justices.

“Realistic” is inducing Mr. Biden to end his candidacy and:

The realist route, if Mr. Biden ultimately steps aside, is to limit debate, forestall trouble and anoint Kamala Harris as the new nominee.

Here’s the “romantic” strategy:

The romantic route is to take personal responsibility and push the president to step aside. What follows is the Hail Mary pass: Say a prayer, throw the long ball and see who catches it. Devise a process—mini-primaries, open convention, figure it out—that lets the people of the party decide. Devise a formula whereby delegates can choose from five or six candidates. But open this thing up, anoint no one.

I think the Democrats are likely to stay the course. The president certainly will—the prospects for him, his family, and his staff are pretty bleak if he doesn’t. Note, too, that it is in the nature of a politician to believe that a) he/she is the best candidate for the job and b) he/she can win. If it weren’t they wouldn’t be politicians.


A Difference of Opinion

Based on the conversation coming out following the recent NATO conference, there is a substantial difference of opinion over the level of threat that Russia poses to NATO. President Biden as recently as in his press conference last night proclaimed confidently that, were Russia not stopped in Ukraine, it would go on to Poland and, possibly, others. The counter-argument is articulated at Responsible Statecraft by George Beebe:

Does Russia in fact harbor intentions of military conquest against NATO member states? Given the caution Putin has exercised so far in the Ukraine war in avoiding direct attacks on NATO members, the answer is probably no.

And there is a very understandable reason for this caution. As my colleagues Anatol Lieven and Mark Episkopos and I point out in a new Quincy Institute brief, one does not have to delve very deeply into the conventional military balance between Russia and NATO to realize that the Russian military would be badly outmatched in any war with NATO and would have good reason to believe that an attack on any individual NATO member would quickly turn into a conflict with the alliance as a whole.

As the Quincy brief explains, “NATO has a greater than three-to-one advantage over Russia in active-duty ground forces. … The alliance has a ten-to-one lead in military aircraft and a large qualitative edge as well, raising the possibility of total air superiority. At sea, NATO would likely have the capacity to impose a naval blockade on Russian shipping, whose costs would dwarf current economic sanctions. While Russia has clear superiority over individual NATO states, especially in the Baltics, it is extremely unlikely it could exercise this advantage without triggering a broader war with the entire NATO alliance.”

The actual behavior of our NATO allies casts more light on the subject. From Statista military spending for 2024 is:

Lithuania, the former Soviet Baltic country with the largest GDP, is spending just over 2% of GDP on defense. Taking its cue from Germany and France rather than Poland, it is spending just enough to discourage complaints about free-riding. The most recent admissions to the pact, Sweden and Finland are doing the same while substantial economies like those of Canada, Italy, and Spain are spending under 2%. The U. S. is spending more as a percentage of its much greater GDP than any country except Poland or Estonia.

At Geopolitical Monitor Bilal Bilici argues that NATO has been a bargain for the United States:

There are no unpaid dues, bills, or invoices among NATO members, no one owes any debt to any other member. There is the commitment of 2% of GDP to be spent on defense, which was agreed at the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales, and actually, we have seen the strongest growth of defense spending among members in the past several years. This year it is expected that twenty-two out of the thirty-two total member countries will meet or exceed the 2 percent target, including France and Germany.

However, if we must look at NATO from a transactional basis, then we should consider return on investment. Far from being a burden on the US taxpayer as argued by the isolationists, the United States has benefitted enormously from the alliance.

Firstly, in terms of raw defense spending, the United States has not expended budget on behalf of other nations. In fact, without NATO, US defense spending would in fact have to be much higher. Thanks to NATO, the United States is better prepared to defend itself and is able to apply its resources more effectively. The common funding mechanisms and joint military exercises on NATO ensure that member nations share the costs of defense, which helps mitigate the financial strain on a single nation. Additionally, the standardization of equipment and interoperability among NATO forces means that the U.S. can operate seamlessly with its allies, enhancing overall military readiness.

Secondly, the US benefits from the position of leadership in the global economy. By leading NATO, the United States maintains significant influence over global security policies and initiatives. This leadership role allows the U.S. to shape the strategic direction of the alliance, ensuring that its interests and values are represented on the global stage. In particular, we are seeing the emergence of coordinated defense industrial strategies among NATO allies, including the European Defense Industrial Strategy (EDIS), which aims to lay out a framework not only to dramatically increase manufacture of munitions, but to compete globally in technology, innovation, agriculture, and energy.

Lastly, there is the simple face value of deterrence from attack. A mutual defense treaty with such a large, geopolitically important bloc greatly improves US national security at a much lower cost than going at it alone.

There’s something missing from Mr. Bilici’s piece: numbers. I have no idea how you can determine return on investment without calculating either costs or benefits. I can’t argue that NATO has not been a tremendous bargain for a number of our NATO allies, particularly Germany and, notably, since Mr. Bilici is a Turkish politician, Turkey. I think it has provided some benefits to the U. S. There are also two words missing from Mr. Bilici’s piece: readiness and preparedness. Given the notable unreadiness of most of our NATO allies’ militaries what would they need to spend to have the level of preparedness actually required? And how can you calculate ROI without taking that into account?

I also can’t help but agree that if you estimate the benefits as boundless regardless of cost NATO would be a good deal. However, I honestly don’t see how the United States can provide the sort of defense our NATO allies would require in the absence of considerably increased expenditures by those allies so their militaries have higher levels of readiness without re-establishing bases in many of them which would require not only expanding our military and what we’re spending on it but increasing our industrial output to supply them.

The need for more spending by those allies if the core of Robert Peters’s post from the National Security Journal, hosted by Heritage:

The United States has been saying for almost 20 years that Europe needs to do more. In 2011, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned European leaders that “if current trends in the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, future U.S. political leaders—those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me—may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.” A decade and a half later, less than two-thirds of NATO members have reached that mark.

This represents a deep unseriousness on the part of many Europeans when it comes to security issues. Europe can either accept to live with a Russia that is able to outgun and therefore threaten Europe, or it can choose to re-arm and deter further Russian aggression within Europe. As noted earlier, many nations in Europe are already moving to higher defense budgets, but more must be done—and urgently.

The good news is that Europe has the resources to easily deter Russia. It has the required manpower, the wealth, the technology, and the industry.

It simply has to make the choice to do so.

The open question is why should they? If the benefits of defending our NATO allies is as great as Mr. Bilici implies, wouldn’t we keep right on doing it regardless of what they spend? That certainly seems to be the conclusion at which they have arrived.