National Review

Unfooled by China for 65 Years — Just One Reason to Back Our Webathon Effort

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Chinese servicemen walk past portraits of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as they patrol a street near the Great Hall of the People on the opening day of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, China, May 22, 2020. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

We are taking on all comers at NR. Not just the presidential contenders hiding in basements, or the thugs rioting in our cities, or the unalloyed leftist ideologues fulminating in our newsrooms. We’ve got a special thing for the ChiComs, to use a term that should never have gone out of style (and hasn’t in these precincts). They are the foes in what is surely too a fight (the fight?) for our civilization, and for the future of this nation as Freedom’s beacon to the world.

This is why we fight. This is why we need your help. And that is why we have launched our Summer webathon. It seeks vital material help, to the tune of $250,000, which is by no means even close to how much real assistance we require. But $250,000 it is, and there are now two weeks remaining in this drive towards it. The facts may seem grubby to some, but this is a real effort, with real-time info, which we feel obliged to share: As of Monday morning here in NYC, we have registered donations from 1,193 selfless people, tallying $107,417.00. That means we are 43 percent of the way towards our objective. There is a long 57 per cent to go.

Back to China. Red China. When Bill Buckley forced himself into the media pool traveling with Richard Nixon on his historic 1972 journey to meet with mass-murder Mao, he filed a report (his March 17, 1972 NR essay, “Vini, Vidi, Victus”) that unloaded both barrels:

We have lost — irretrievably — any remaining sense of moral mission in the world. Mr. Nixon’s appetite for a summit conference in Peking transformed the affair from a meeting of diplomatic technicians concerned to examine and illuminate areas of common interest, into a pageant of moral togetherness at which Mr. Nixon managed to give the impression that he was consorting with Marian Anderson, Billy Graham and Albert Schweitzer. Once he decided to come here himself, it was very nearly inevitable that this should have happened. Granted, if it had been Theodore Roosevelt, the distinctions might have been preserved. But Mr. Nixon is so much the moral enthusiast that he alchemizes the requirements of diplomacy into the coin of ethics; that is why when he toasted the bloodiest, most merciless chief of state in the world, he did so in accents most of us would reserve for Florence Nightingale.

We’ll get this article to you in full in the next couple of days. Anyway . . . the utter foulness of Mao and Chinese Communism had been on NR’s lips since our very first issue in 1955. Closing out the premier appearance of The Week was an editorial on Alger Hiss defending Yalta in The Pocket Book Magazine. We wrote of that journal’s editor:

“Dear Mr. Watts: Why did you ask a Communist for his views on Yalta in the first place? But having done so, why did you fail to call attention to the fact that he is a convicted liar? What have you got for your next issue — “How Chiang Benefited from the Marshall Mission,” by Mao Tse-tung?

Thus ended the editorial. But what has never ended is our utter determination to keep Red China — and all its threats and intentions for global dominance, its penchant for mass murder and brutality, its aiding-and-abetting media and corporate lackeys — front and center as a cause, as a thing our readers must know about, as an economic powerhouse which simply has no intention of “liberalizing.” Visit NRO any day and you are sure to find exceptional analyses on these matters by the likes of Jimmy Quinn and Therese Shaheen and Christ O’Dea and Michael Auslin and Jianli Yang and so many more experts. They are working diligently, whether they know it or not, alongside Bill Buckley, standing athwart history — athwart the possibility of a China-dominated future — yelling Stop.

That’s the kind of journalism we need a lot more of, and it’s the kind of expertise your support makes possible. So NR’s Red China coverage is a big reason many (God bless them one and all) are responding to our Webathon appeal. But various folks have various motivations, some expressed along with donations. We share some of such here:

  • Dan spots us 200 smackers and offers a little literary criticism: “I first read your print magazine when I was 10 in 1984, and today we seem closer to 1984 than at any time in my life. Keep up the great work to defend reason, diversity of opinion, and conservative principles!” George had them nailed. This means the world to us — thanks very much.
  • Michael sends NR $100 and shakes his head: “When a face of the Dems says a statue of Father Damien is a symbol of ‘white supremacy,’ you know they’ve become unhinged. Time to cancel the Dems.” The party is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Left, but then you knew that Michael. Many thanks.
  • Patricia allots $50 to the cause and we compare notes: “Thank you, please continue to speak out so we can stamp out sparks of socialism, false history facts, and blatant attacks on the Constitution and the Founders of this great nation.” We’re stamping as fast as possible, thanks to good friends such as you.
  • Craig sends $200 and sizes up what he’s just done: “A drop in the bucket but at least it is more than a gesture.” Pretty big drop if you ask us. Thanks much Craig.
  • Carol donates 20 bucks and a strategic plan: “It’s time to take a stand. Being a senior citizen with hearing problems, my small contribution is the only way I can do it. I hope you receive many, many small contributions from citizens just like me.” Your lips to God’s ears! And Carol, you may have a hearing problem, but you most definitely don’t have a kindness problem.
  • Alexander sends a staggering $2,500 and a short pep-talk: “Keep up the good fight!” Keeping! God bless. And holy mackerel too!

We have 13 days left to find another — let’s call it 2,000 — contingent of generous friends to come to NR’s aid. A fact: We fight those fights that need to be fought. Another fact: You need us to be in the thick of it, to hold the line, and then to begin the operation of pressing back the enemies of liberty. There’s no gift too small, no gift too big — your personal circumstances and means are known to you, and we have no moral claim on even your loose change. But that doesn’t mean we cannot appeal to your sense of reality, to your hunger for the kind of intelligence and sanity NR uniquely provides. And now that all heck has broken loose, to your desire to support at least one institution not afraid to say, We have brought a gun to a knife fight. We are fighting. You help us to stay in the fight through your generous donation, of $10, or $20 or $50 or $100 — can you do that? Has the Almighty looked kindly upon you so that $250 or $500 or $1,000 or more is possible? If that is the case, will you please donate? It would mean so much to us, true, but truth is, it would also mean so much to you. Donate here. To show your support by check, if such is your preference, make it payable to “National Review” and mail it to National Review, ATTN: Summer 2020 Webathon, 19 West 44th Street, Suite 1701, New York, NY 10036. In advance of your generosity, thanks for your support.

Economy & Business

Capital Note

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The latest Capital Note is up over on Capital Matters. Among the topics covered, increasing capital returns, Sweden’s “interesting” second quarter GDP numbers (terrible, but they compare favorably with much of Europe and, indeed, the U.S.) and the advantages (to a company) of using Twitter:

new paper out of George Washington University finds that public companies with Twitter accounts significantly outperform their non-Twitter counterparts. 

Who’d have thunk it?

Monetary Policy

The Progress of a Bad Idea

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Joe Biden recently floated the idea of making it part of the Fed’s mission to minimize racial disparities. Now congressional Democrats have introduced legislation to effect this change. As I argue in the first link in this post, it is easier to see how this new mandate would either have no effect on monetary policy or make it worse than how it would improve it.

PC Culture

University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Punishes Doctor Who Questioned Affirmative Action

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It’s futile to try to keep up with all the PC outrages, but Hans Bader explains the latest, at least as of this morning, here: “The University of Pittsburgh has removed a program director at its medical center because he published a scholarly, peer-reviewed white paper discussing the pitfalls of affirmative action for black and Hispanic students. This violated the First Amendment . . .” Mr. Bader gives chapter and verse on the legal problems with what the school did to the program director, Dr. Norman C. Wang, and I’ll just add that it’s reprehensible to punish people for telling the truth, whatever the law allows.

Politics & Policy

Cuomo Courts the 1 Percent

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It has been gratifying to watch Andrew Cuomo slowly explore in public the deficiencies of his own political school, for example in his ongoing agony over the limitations of a steeply progressive tax code. With New York City’s wealthiest residents seeking safe haven from the coronavirus epidemic and from the Bill de Blasio–enabled crime epidemic, Cuomo is begging them to return.

Why?

“A single percent of New York’s population pays half of the state’s taxes, and they’re the most mobile people on the globe,” he says.

A generation ago, if you were in finance, media, publishing, fashion, or advertising, you pretty much had to have a New York City presence if you had large ambitions. That is no longer the case. People returned to New York City in the Giuliani era and after not because there were no jobs or opportunity to be found elsewhere but because it had become a good place to live. And if you were one of those 1-percenters who pay most of the taxes, New York was worth the surcharge.

But that was a reasonably safe, clean, and orderly New York with a functioning subway system. Bill de Blasio’s New York is a different kind of New York, and, for many of those “most mobile people on the globe,” it is not worth the surcharge.

There are many nice places to live, especially if you are wealthy, and for that reason New York needs the billionaires more than the billionaires need New York. Conservatives who want to make a case for a reforming approach to municipal governance have a great opportunity before them. But this is not a problem that is going to be solved by cutting taxes — heavy taxes are a burden, but New York’s most pressing problems are public health and public hygiene, crime, transit, education, and housing. With the exception of crime and school choice, conservatives generally do not speak very convincingly about those issues.

But if the deficiencies of the so-called blue-state model are penetrating even the once-impregnable fortress of Andrew Cuomo’s skull, it is not impossible to communicate them to the city’s business community, to its civic leaders, and to a meaningful portion of ordinary New Yorkers, too.

Culture

On ‘Legal Quackery’ and Loan Fraud

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(Carlos Barria/Reuters)

In New York magazine’s The Cut, writer Hannah Gold takes issue with the fact that pregnancy-resource centers — or, to use her term, “anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers” — received small-business loans from the CARES Act’s Paycheck Protection Program.

Gold defines these centers as “religiously affiliated and faith-based nonprofits” when in fact several major networks of pregnancy-resource centers are for-profit organizations, and many are not religiously affiliated. For instance, one of the largest of such networks in the U.S., the Women’s Care Center, is explicitly not faith-based. She also alleges, without so much as gesturing at a citation, that these centers “coerce women into carrying their pregnancies to term.” The supposed methods of coercion are left unexplored, and nowhere does she note that these centers exist primarily to give women alternatives to abortion by offering counseling, pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, financial assistance, and parenting resources, most often free of charge.

“In the medical community,” Gold states authoritatively, “crisis pregnancy centers are widely understood as legal quackery designed to prevent women from considering and undergoing abortions.” She does not articulate what makes these centers guilty of “legal quackery” — a bizarre term that goes undefined — nor does she provide any evidence that “the medical community” agrees with her assessment, apart from quoting one doctor and one professor, each of whom seems to believe that crisis-pregnancy centers are suspicious or unethical because of their religious affiliations.

On the subject of PPP loans, Gold complains that crisis-pregnancy centers in the U.S. received a total of somewhere between $4 million and $10 million, and she contrasts this with the (in her view inappropriate) uproar following the revelation that Planned Parenthood affiliates also obtained small-business loans from the PPP.

Gold conveniently ignores that the CARES Act explicitly excludes from the loan program any affiliate of a non-profit organization with more than 500 employees — a category that Planned Parenthood easily falls under, with about 16,000 employees nationally. Nevertheless, at least 37 Planned Parenthood affiliates applied for and received loans totaling $80 million, somewhere between eight and 20 times the total amount claimed by pregnancy-resource centers. In short, these affiliates committed loan fraud, and rather than acknowledging that, Gold has assembled a shoddy case against crisis-pregnancy centers in order to justify the money that went to abortion clinics.

It’s no secret that proponents of legal abortion despise pregnancy-resource centers, and their opposition should come as little surprise. For an industry that profits from a woman’s choice to abort, a network of centers encouraging women to consider anything other than abortion — and giving them the resources they need to do so — is a direct financial threat. Considering that most crisis-pregnancy centers offer their services to women free of charge, they stand to gain much less from offering women abortion alternatives than abortion clinics do from convincing women that abortion is their only choice.

Politics & Policy

Biden to Black Journalist: ‘Are You a Junkie?’

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Shortly after President Trump’s effort to win reelection was challenged by an interview with Jonathan Swan that goes wildly off the rails, former Vice President Biden turned in his own train wreck of an interview, getting testy with CBS News correspondent Errol Barnett during a virtual convention of the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

BARNETT: Please clarify specifically, have you taken a cognitive test?

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: No, I haven’t taken a test! Why the hell would I take a test? Come on, man! That’s like saying you . . . before you got in this program, you’re take [sic] a test whether you’re taking cocaine or not. What do you think? Huh? Are you a junkie?

BARNETT: What do you say to President Trump who brags about his test and makes your mental state an issue for voters?

BIDEN: Well, if he can’t figure out the difference between an elephant and a lion, I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. Did you watch that — look, come on, man. I know you’re trying to goad me, but I mean . . . I’m so forward-looking to have an opportunity to sit with the President or stand with the President and the debates.

Unsurprisingly, many are cringing that Biden is, unprompted, asking an African-American journalist if he’s “a junkie” . . . three months after Biden told radio DJ Charlamagne tha God, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.”

As noted last month, somehow the United States managed to pick its two least self-aware, sensitive, erudite septuagenarians to run for president this cycle.

Culture

The New York Times and Its Love/Hate Relationship with Private Jets

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Last month I wrote, “the New York Times is simultaneously the vanguard of the revolution against wealthy, powerful, white, mostly older, mostly heterosexual couples . . . and it is also one of the biggest and most influential cultural journals of wealthy, powerful, white, mostly older, mostly heterosexual couples.”

In the most recent travel section, the Times featured an article entitled, “Afraid of Airlines? There’s Always the Private Jet.” The article showcases “the growing number of Americans using private jets, seeing them as a safer alternative to the often cramped commercial flights filled with strangers during the pandemic.” The flights do cost much less than one might expect: “JSX flights tend to cost between $300 and $500 one way, per person, but some shorter legs can cost less than $100.”

But not all of the flights are less expensive than expected; the article discusses the founder of a personal-training company who spent $20,000 to take himself and his family from Florida to upstate New York.

A good portion of the newspaper’s environmental news and op-ed pages focuses on denouncing lifestyles that involve conspicuous consumption and luxury. (According to a private jet company quoted in Bloomberg News, a private jet emits as much as 20 times more carbon dioxide per passenger mile than a commercial airliner.)

A good portion of the Times lifestyle and travel coverage focuses on celebrating lifestyles that involve conspicuous consumption and luxury, and of course, much of the advertising that keeps the newspaper financially afloat is for brands associated with conspicuous consumption and luxury.

It will be interesting to see if these internal contradictions ever catch up with the paper.

Impromptus

Classic Lines, Tricky Names

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Ray Stevens at the 53rd Annual CMA Awards in Nashville, Tenn., November 13, 2019 (Charles Pulliam / Reuters)

I begin today’s Impromptus with classical music: Should orchestras take down the screen? The screen that separates an auditioner from his auditors in “blind auditions”? I say no, others say yes. I also discuss Trader Joe’s, the English language — a number of issues.

Let me linger over one here.

Yesterday, Yascha Mounk (the academic and journalist) tweeted, “In the long run, it is very hard to shame people into supporting your politics. You’ve got to hear them out and win them over.” In Impromptus, I jot the following:

I’ve been thinking about Bill Buckley lately — more than I usually do. He was very good at persuasion. Very good at it. I should know, as one of his (countless) persuadees. I hope that we will never give up persuasion. Never give up trying to persuade.

Enjoyable as ownin’, drinkin’ (tears), and dunkin’ may be.

Recently, I was in the office for the first time in a long time. There was some mail, by which I mean, honest-to-goodness U.S. postal mail. One letter came in response to a piece I had at the beginning of the year: “Waxing Lyrical: In appreciation of some weird and wonderful lines.”

Our correspondent gave me one from Ray Stevens, the country singer: “Get your tongue outta my mouth, ’cause I’m kissin’ you goodbye.”

That may just take the cake.

Another responded to a more recent piece of mine: “‘Scandalize My Name’: On the use and abuse of ‘Karen,’ etc.” I wrote about a kid whose last name was “Glasscock” and who acquired an excellent nickname: “Crystal Pistol.”

Well, the letter in question was from a Mrs. Glasscock, who had a special appreciation for the piece. She married into her last name and has two sons. She told me several wonderful stories, having to do with her career as a registered nurse: She worked with a urologist named Dr. Cockburn; with a general practitioner named Richard Dick; etc.

Years ago — mainly with her two boys in mind, I think — she cut out a poem published in the “Dear Abby” column. The poem is by Edgar A. Guest, and it has a number of versions, but it is generally called “Your Name” and starts like this:

You got it from your father, ’twas the best he had to give.
And right gladly he bestowed it — it is yours the while you live.
You may lose the watch he gave you, and another you may claim.
But remember, when you’re tempted, to be careful of his name.

Thanks to all.

Business

Dell’s America

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Michael Dell delivers his keynote speech at the All Things Oracle OpenWorld Summit in San Francisco, Calif., in 2013. (Jana Asenbrennerova/Reuters)

Amid all the current gloom, it was refreshing to read this in a New York Times interview with Michael Dell by David Gelles:

The first eight years, we grew compounded 80 percent per year. The six years after that we grew about 60 percent per year. Any number you start with, if you put that into your calculator, you get like tens of billions of dollars. That’s what happened. America, what a country.

Then, the New York Times being the New York Times, comes this:

Last year at Davos you said you didn’t support a steep increase to the individual tax rate on the wealthiest Americans. Can you say a bit more about that? Why isn’t a higher individual tax rate a good thing at a moment when the federal government clearly needs real resources to do things like educate our kids?

Gelles appears to muddy the difference between a “steep increase” and a “higher . . . rate,” which are two different questions (although I’d oppose any increase) and then, inevitably, brings in “our kids.”

As a reminder:

In 2016, the United States spent $13,600 per full-time-equivalent (FTE) student on elementary and secondary education, which was 39 percent higher than the average of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries of $9,800 (in constant 2018 U.S. dollars). At the postsecondary level, the United States spent $31,600 per FTE student, which was 95 percent higher than the average of OECD countries ($16,200).

Part of the problem might be, I suspect, not the amount of money that is spent, but how it is spent.

Corey A. DeAngelis, writing for Reason, writing earlier this year:

On average, the United States currently spends over $15,000 per student each year, and inflation-adjusted K-12 education spending per student has increased by 280 percent since 1960. In California, where the previously mentioned football coach resides, inflation-adjusted spending on K-12 education has increased by 129 percent since 1970. Furthermore, data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that nearly a third of all state budget expenditures go toward education.

This is a particularly pernicious myth in the education debate because increased education spending generally isn’t associated with better results. Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek reviewed nearly 400 studies on the topic and concluded that “there is not a strong or consistent relationship between student performance and school resources.”

That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Pouring more money into the same broken system won’t fix the deeper problem — government monopolies have weak incentives to cater to the needs of their customers by spending money wisely.

Dell diplomatically avoids a direct answer to Gelles’s question:

It may very well be. My wife and I have a foundation. We focus a lot on education. We’ve contributed $2.5 billion into our foundation, and it does enormous work in the education space in the United States and around the world. You’ve got myriad proposals out there for how to improve the system. We’ll let the marketplace of ideas do its thing. I won’t be shy in saying that I believe in entrepreneurship. I think having a system where you can take risk and innovate is incredibly important. Now, all that has to be balanced with the public interests. There you go.

Back to Gelles:

Many of your contemporaries are not shy about saying, “The system’s broken.” Marc Benioff is out there saying, “Capitalism’s broken.” Ray Dalio is out there saying it. Do you have those sort of same existential concerns as some of them?

Dell:

Probably not as inflammatory. Is it a perfect system? No. Can it be improved? Yes. But let’s go back to the entrepreneurship and risk-taking, the innovation. We have, in this country, an engine that is creating a lot of new businesses, and a lot of new innovation that is globally relevant. I think any of those other countries would love to have that, right?

Gelles:

Is your contention that high taxes stifle that entrepreneurial spirit, or that innovation?

Dell:

No, my contention is, I’m not a tax policy expert, and I’m not going to be setting tax policy. It’s just not what I do.

If I had to guess, some of the changes that are now being talked on the left about capital-gains tax, whether it’s significantly higher rates or moving to a mark-to-market system would, in fact, be devastating, particularly for young, private companies proceeding through successive rounds of venture financing, hopefully at higher values: Forcing those companies’ entrepreneurs to sell stock to pay tax doesn’t seem very smart.

Gelles:

When you talk about a system that supports entrepreneurship and innovation, what does that look like?

Dell:

We have something pretty precious in our system that’s a combination of culture and capital. As we tweak it and improve it, we want to make sure we preserve that, so that new, small businesses and entrepreneurs are able to be created in the process.

Indeed.

Perhaps it’s worth quoting part of a sentence from John McGinnis’s review for Law & Liberty of Matt Ridley’s new book, How Innovation Works:

Of Europe’s 100 most valuable companies, not one was created in the last 40 years.”

Food for thought.

World

Thirty Things that Caught My Eye Today: Beirut, Abortion Clinic Sidewalk Save & More (August 4, 2020)

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1.

2.

 

3. ‘We share your pain’: Israel offers aid to Lebanon after Beirut port blast – Israel News – Haaretz.com

4.  Maronite Catholic priest concerned by potential shortages after Beirut blast

5.

6. On Yazidi genocide anniversary, failure to support survivors decried – The Jerusalem Post

7. Christians in India Face Stunning Ultimatum: Renounce Your Faith in Christ or have Family Beaten and Evicted from Home

8. Arson Experts and Police Investigate Fire Set at Catholic Church In Massachusetts Possibly Caused by Molotov Cocktail

9. Catholic Charities distribute nearly $400 million in emergency assistance during COVID-19 crisis

10. Kay Hymowitz: Disentangling the Effects of Family Structure on Boys and Girls

11. How Effective are Programs Supporting Unmarried, Nonresidential Fathers?

12. Pro-Family Leaders: Strengthen and Extend Emergency Paid Leave

13. Dangerous Restraints Were Routine at This Youth Home. Then a Black Teen Died.

14. Her Rapist Threatened to Make Her “Disappear.” Instead of Asylum, ICE Put Her in a Hotel and Sent Her Back.

15. Florida Adoptions Taking Place Despite COVID-19

16. Dad tells sidewalk counselor outside Illinois Planned Parenthood: ‘You guys changed our mind’

Continue reading “Thirty Things that Caught My Eye Today: Beirut, Abortion Clinic Sidewalk Save & More (August 4, 2020)”

Elections

A Qualified Concurrence in the Case against Presidential Debates

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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak during their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., October 9, 2016. (Jim Young/Reuters)

Jim Geraghty is right to question the sincerity of the chorus of left-leaning voices suddenly advocating or rationalizing the cancellation of this fall’s presidential debates. Some of the arguments he cites depend, whether explicitly or implicitly, on the contention that the format of a televised presidential debate will somehow significantly advantage Donald Trump over Joe Biden. Others exude a general cynicism about the enterprise — a cynicism whose timing seems rather convenient.

My own cynicism, however, predates this moment, and will obtain regardless of whether these debates are held and which candidate benefits the most from them. There is something somewhat ridiculous to me to the assumption on which presidential debates in their modern incarnation, both in primaries and in the general election, depend: namely, that how a given individual performs on television for an extended period of time is in some way a meaningful and revelatory test of presidential fitness. In his anti-television tirade Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, media critic Neil Postman gets at the core of the absurdity:

The point is that television does not reveal who the best man is. In fact, television makes impossible the determination of who is better than whom, if we mean by “better” such things as more capable in negotiation, more imaginative in executive skill, more knowledgeable about international affairs, more understanding of economic systems, and so on. The reason has, almost entirely, to do with “image.” But not because politicians are preoccupied with presenting themselves in the best possible light. After all, who isn’t? It is a rare and deeply disturbed person who does not wish to project a favorable image. But television gives image a bad name. For on television the politician does not so much offer the audience an image of himself, as offer himself as an image of the audience.

The modern presidential debate is mostly a test of how well a candidate can perform in the environment it presents. This seems like a tautology, but if it is, it is an important one. A nation with short attention spans, served by a media enamored of soundbites and isolated moments of high drama, cannot help but to create a stage in which the performers are just that — performers. To the extent that there is utility in certain aspects of what the presidential debate has become —giving opposing candidates an opportunity to interact with one another directly and almost unfiltered, allowing an assessment of records and performance, and, perhaps uniquely in this election, testing a possible president’s stamina — it is mostly incidental. Perhaps even accidental.

The principal attribute of today’s presidential debates is high theatricality. “Victory” comes from a superficial and subjective analysis of collected moments in them, or by an even-more subjective attempt by the candidates and by their surrogates to “spin” the proceedings in their favor after the fact. I suppose one could argue that “presentability” is an essential characteristic in a modern executive. But this format tends to weigh that characteristic so heavily as to encourage it, to the exclusion of others, promoting what ought to be only a secondary skill into one of the most important. (How would, say, the famously reserved Calvin Coolidge have done in such a milieu?) Yet this is the debauched nature of the political/media environment we inhabit.

We almost certainly need something like a presidential debate. Something like that kind of forum, after all, has a long history, and it has proved useful in the past. In today’s political and media environment (which I suppose is the real target of my ire, as it was Postman’s), however, I question its usefulness. So much so that I am almost inclined to concur with the likely opportunistic gripes of those on the left about the debates that are scheduled for this fall.

Almost.

Politics & Policy

John Yoo’s Defense of Trump

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John Yoo, my colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, makes the constitutional-conservative case for President Trump as well as it can be made.

Among the assumptions that underlie his argument:

Statements of intent to take unconstitutional action don’t count against the president so long as they do not ultimately come to fruition.

It’s contradictory to fault the president both for failing to perform his constitutional duties and for trying to exceed his constitutional powers.

Trump’s using emergency powers to get border-wall funding after Congress rejected it is totally unlike Obama’s implementing an immigration amnesty after Congress rejected it.

Trying to get Ukrainian officials to work with Trump’s personal lawyer to start an investigation of Joe Biden can reasonably be characterized as an exercise of the president’s power over law enforcement.

In early 2019, Yuval Levin and I took a much less sympathetic look at Trump’s constitutional record. But it is certainly true that if you believe the above propositions, that record looks better.

White House

Uncommon Knowledge: John Yoo on Trump’s Fight for Presidential Power

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On the occasion of his new book, Defender in Chief: Donald Trump’s Fight for Presidential Power, Hoover visiting fellow and Berkeley Law School professor John Yoo joins the show to make a spirited case against the criticisms of Donald Trump for his supposed disruption of constitutional rules and norms. The conventional wisdom is that Donald Trump is a threat to the rule of law and the U.S. Constitution. Mainstream-media outlets have reported fresh examples of alleged executive overreach or authoritarian White House decisions nearly every day of his presidency. In the 2020 primaries, the candidates rushed to accuse Trump of destroying our democracy and jeopardizing our nation’s very existence. In his book and on this show, John Yoo argues the opposite: that the Founders would have seen Trump as returning to their vision of presidential power, even at his most controversial and outrageous. It’s a fascinating and often humorous discussion that could not be more timely.

Recorded on July 29, 2020

Politics & Policy

Dictator or Cypher, Or . . .?

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President Trump speaks during an executive order signing event in Washington, D.C., August 3, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

I think John Yoo sets up a false choice when he asks rhetorically: “Is Trump a dictator or a cypher?”

It is possible to undermine constitutional and democratic norms without having grand Napoleonic ambitions. For example, President Trump’s bizarre demand for a Treasury kickback payment from Microsoft is typical of the Trump style. It is gross and corrosive, but it is not the kind of thing a would-be dictator does — it is the kind of thing a would-be gangster does.

I will admit to some pretty vigorous eye-rolling at Yoo’s insistence that Trump is a “constitutional traditionalist” engaged in a “defense of the constitutional order” and a “battle for the Constitution,” which seems to me only the obverse of the mistake Yoo attributes to Trump’s critics on the Left: imagining an intellectual framework behind Trump’s actions. The most straightforward interpretation of the available evidence is that Trump is engaged in neither a programmatic defense of any particular vision of the Constitution nor a premeditated assault upon the constitutional order — there is no reason to believe that he has the energy or the intellectual inclination to follow either course of action — but that he simply pursues his own interests as he sees them at any given moment, exactly as he has done for the entirety of his public life. We know from the Roman example (of which the Founding Fathers were acutely aware) that ordinary venality can be as dangerous to a republic as grandiose political ambition; and, as it turns out, in our own case that kind of thing is sufficiently destructive without our having to imagine Trump as an aspiring Caesar. This isn’t an opera, and it does not have to be operatic.

With that in mind, Yoo’s insistence that in toying with the idea of delaying the election Trump “does not implicate any constitutional concerns,” seems to me to be far from self-evidently true. Yoo assures us that things will happen “automatically” in January, but in a democratic republic nothing happens automatically — we rely on republican norms, civic duty, democratic cooperation, and patriotism for the orderly operation of government and the peaceful transfer of power. In raising the possibility of delaying the election, Trump implicitly asserts an extraconstitutional power. Yoo insists that this “does not implicate any constitutional concerns” because Trump does not actually have such a constitutional power; i.e., he argues that Trump’s suggestion raises no constitutional issue because an unconstitutional gambit would be . . . unconstitutional. I think that one would have to attend a very, very good law school to find that persuasive.

I don’t envy anybody the task of trying to reverse-engineer a plausible constitutional rationale around President Trump’s pinball antics. It would be, I think, far easier to simply deal with the fact that there are choices beyond “a dictator or a cypher.” We have to look at our situation straight on and face the actual facts before us.

Science & Tech

Why the U.S. Ranks So Poorly in Coronavirus Deaths Per Million

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Respiratory therapist Casey White prepares to attend to a patient suffering from the coronavirus in the ICU at Scripps Mercy Hospital in Chula Vista, Calif., May 12, 2020. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

One of the more cringe-inducing exchanges in President Trump’s interview with Axios’s Jonathan Swan is when Swan says he’s examining the rate of U.S. deaths as a percentage of the population, as opposed to the death rate among the infected. “You can’t do that!” Trump responds.

The United States has a pretty bad death rate per million people compared to most other countries. We rank tenth in the world in deaths per million people, at 480. (All figures from Worldometers.) Tiny counties such as San Marino and Andorra can jump to the top because of low populations. The U.S. ranks behind Belgium, the U.K., Spain, Peru, Italy, Sweden, and Chile.

However, there are some pretty important non-Trump reasons for this grim statistic:

  1. It is certain that some other countries aren’t being accurately measured. Many other high-population countries are either third-world, authoritarian, or both, and thus don’t have terribly reliable numbers. Other countries are getting hammered as well, but shoddy infrastructure and record-keeping, particularly in impoverished areas, mean we don’t really know how many have died or what the true death rate is in China, Russia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc.
  2. Other countries started this pandemic with certain advantages: populations that have more trust in their leadership, more experience with SARS and other disease outbreaks so they don’t blow these things off, more habitual mask-wearing, etc.
  3. The United States is being hit with the hyper-contagious version from Europe, while most of Asia got the less-contagious original strain from China — although that could change.
  4. Trump was far from the only U.S. elected official who downplayed the threat of the virus, and the U.S. death toll was heavily shaped by state decisions that sent infected recovering patients back into nursing homes.

A lot of Trump critics and foes seem to operate on the principle that acknowledging any factor outside of Trump — China, the WHO, the decisions of governors or mayors, etc. — amounts to letting Trump off the hook for his decisions and statements.

President Trump could have made a decent argument citing any of those points, but that would require him to pay attention to his briefings. Instead, he’s left flustered, waving his sheets of paper at Swan insisting that the U.S. numbers are good, because his staff tells him so.

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