Politics & Policy

Up with Kevin, Part I

Lately, I’ve been doing some talking about my friend and colleague Kevin Williamson — Kevin D. Williamson, to be formal. At an event in Boston, I introduced him as “a rare combination: sage and bad***.” My excuse is that we were in a beer hall, literally. Later, in print, I modified this description to “sage and hombre.” I think that’s better anyway.

I would now like to do some more talking about Kevin. I’d like to talk about his book — a book with a long title: The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure. (To get it, go here.) As is my custom in this space, I will not write a proper book review. I will not even write an improper one. I will offer some observations, arising from the book.

Starting with . . .

‐. . . the title. I like it, but I have a complaint about it: If you’re going to go colloquial, go all the way. In my opinion, no one would say “and it’s going to be awesome.” They’d say “and it’s gonna be awesome.” But I can see where “gonna” might have been a colloquialism, or an informality, too far, for a publisher.

In the 1990s, there was a book called “Makes Me Wanna Holler.” “Makes Me Want to Holler” would have been all wrong.

Anyway . . .

‐Kevin dedicates his book as follows: “For my father, who taught me more than he knows.” I was writing about dedications the other day. A few years ago, Paul Johnson wrote a biography of Jesus (that’s an unexpected phrase, isn’t it?), and he dedicated it “To my mother, Anne Johnson, who first taught me about Jesus.”

The best dedication of all, I think, is Bruckner’s — the one he gave his Symphony No. 9: “To God the Beloved.”

‐In the introduction to his book, Kevin cites Leonard Read’s classic essay from 1958: “I, Pencil.” It is a little lesson in economics: How does a pencil get made? It explains why a free economy is vitally necessary. I wish students were asked to read it — it doesn’t take much time — along with Keynes, Marx, and the others.

WFB (William F. Buckley Jr.) had a nice line: “I majored in Keynesianism at Yale.” (That said, I understand that classical liberals have made greater inroads into econ departments than they have into other areas of campus life.)

‐Naturally enough, Kevin mentions the “No. 2 pencil” — the “simple No. 2 pencil.” I’m sure there’s an answer, and I’m sure I could Google it in a second, but it’s sort of funny that one never hears of a No. 1 pencil.

Or do one (as Fats Waller would say)? (“One never knows — do one?”)

‐Kevin writes,

Read’s conclusion . . . is that nobody knows how to make a pencil. Nobody is in charge of the operation, and nobody understands it end-to-end. From the assembly-line worker to the president of the pencil company, thousands or millions of people have tiny, discrete pieces of knowledge about the process, but no coordinating authority organizes their efforts.

I thought of something a very bright fellow once told me. This was Ross McKitrick, one of the “two M’s” — the other M being Stephen McIntyre. These are the guys who have been hugely inconvenient to the Climatic Research Unit in Britain, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (a body of the U.N.). I wrote about them a few years ago, in a piece called “Two Inconvenient Canadians: The unlikely men who shook up global-warming science” (here).

Let me drop in on the relevant paragraph:

McKitrick makes a further point: Many scientists, in many disciplines or subdisciplines, have a finger in the climate-change pie. They tend to say, “In my own particular field” — be it sea ice or solar physics or what have you — “I don’t really see evidence for global warming. But I of course accept the consensus view.” This calls to mind one of (Robert) Conquest’s Laws: “Everyone is a conservative in his own field of expertise.”

This does not correlate precisely with what Kevin says, but, again, the one thing reminded me of the other.

‐I like what Kevin says about the iPhone, “a remarkably egalitarian device.” He says, “The president of the United States uses one, as does the young Bengali immigrant who sold me my coffee this morning.”

‐WFB occasionally spoke of “Couéism” — the belief that “every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” Some people believe that this applies to the world at large, he said.

I thought of Bill and Couéism when reading the following, from Kevin: “The purpose of this book is to attempt to answer a question: Why is it that the telephone in my pocket gets better and cheaper every year, but many of our critical institutions grow more expensive and less effective?” Technology is great, but what about the schools, for example?

‐Kevin talks about how people are better off, materially, than they were before: “A poor man today owns better shoes than a middle-class man did a few decades ago.” I was particularly fond of this line: “Air travel was such a rarefied luxury good that the evocative phrase ‘jet set’ endures even into a time in which international travel is available to the middle class, and even to the poor.”

So true.

Do you remember this line, from Tom Wolfe? It’s almost famous, I believe: Today, the “average electrician, air-conditioning mechanic, or burglar-alarm repairman” lives a life that would make “the Sun King blink.”

‐This is what conservatives say, according to Kevin: “Markets work, government doesn’t, mystery solved!” And then they go back to their “small business or golf game.” Liberals say, “We need to invest more resources and develop better plans. Mystery solved!” And then they go back to their “campus office or law firm.”

Lovely lines, and I couldn’t improve on them. But I must say I winced a little at the golf thing. The association of Republicanism and golf is a little puzzling to me. I got into this a bit in an essay four years ago: “Hail to the Golfer-in-Chief: Barack Obama tees it up, no matter the winds” (here).

‐In various ways, Kevin talks about the weakness of ideology — the pitfalls and limits of ideologies. I was reminded of a marvelous title — that of Dan Mahoney’s book about one of the greatest men of the 20th century: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology.

‐Leave you with a nice line, from Kevin?

. . . what happens when it is not only the very rich and low-wage service workers who start evading taxes? Technology, including privacy technology and financial innovation, is increasingly giving the broad middle class the same power to dodge taxes once reserved to the billionaires and bartenders.

Those two b’s — “billionaires and bartenders” — are really good. Not to mention that, once more, the point is an excellent one. I’ll resume these notes tomorrow. See you.


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