The G-File

The Tank Is Empty

Dear Reader (and those of you busy riding your stock portfolios like Slim Pickens on the back of an ICBM),

Not long ago in the Corner, I wrote that I think that much of Perry’s popularity is “unearned.” I got a lot of grief from readers saying, “How can you say that? Texas, Texas, Texas. Rick Perry fact, Rick Perry fact.”

The point wasn’t that he didn’t deserve to be popular in some way. Deserve ain’t got nothing to do with it, as Clint Eastwood might say. It’s that his popularity has been based in part on a lot of wishful thinking, dissatisfaction with the current field, and projection. I still think that’s true, though the air seems to be leaking out of him faster than a bean-eating-contest winner with poor sphincter control. Lots of people really like Perry at first sight and then look for rationalizations to make their view seem grounded in his record, when their knowledge of his record is pretty thin. Others, for entirely understandable reasons, looked at the current field like it’s the table at Delta House where they tried to seat Flounder (“Ken, Lonny, I’d like you to meet Mohammet, Jugdish, Sidney, and Clayton”). Perry seemed cut from a different cloth — or chiseled from a different stone, if you prefer — and people imposed expectations on him that, so far, he hasn’t lived up to.

I don’t mean to single out Perry as somehow unique in this regard (and he’s hardly doomed, he’s still the front-runner). It happens all the time. George W. Bush won the nomination in 2000 largely by brilliantly exploiting a similar phenomenon (and so did Barack Obama). But most candidates fail to translate infatuation into victory. Fred Thompson’s best day was the day before he announced his candidacy. Little did we know that would mean he would spend the rest of the campaign auditioning to be in a Bartles & James commercial. And Sarah Palin’s popularity is the result of many things, but few honest fans (never mind foes) would argue that it’s solely the product of her record in Alaska or her sweeping command of the issues.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. In politics it’s not a crime if voters like you first and look for the reasons second. But it is political malpractice if you don’t try to give voters a reason to stay with you after the initial infatuation starts to wear off. It’s like any other romance or relationship. It’s one thing to make a great first impression, it’s another thing to make it last.

I think Perry’s failing because he can’t bridge the distance between his image and his argument. As Rich, John Podhoretz and others have noted, his debate performances aren’t getting better. More and more, Perry seems less and less like the man responsible for the Texas miracle and more like the guy in the captain’s chair while the ship has been on autopilot.

Texans familiar with Perry keep telling me that the man is an incredibly disciplined workaholic. I’ll take their word for it, but I’ve seen no evidence this is true in the debates.

My suspicion is that Perry doesn’t really want the presidency. He got in because he thought he could get it. He didn’t wait as long as he did out of strategic considerations. He waited that long because he wasn’t thinking about being president until it dawned on him that he could win. He’s running for the same reason dogs lick their nethers — because he can. 


The Tank Is Empty

You can’t say the same thing about Romney. He is clearly a much, much better candidate than he was in 2008 and, more interestingly, a much better candidate since Perry got into the race and scared the bejeebus out of him.

Look, I don’t want to do anymore punditry here, but let me just pre-but, as it were, the inevitable charge that I’m in the tank for Romney. I’m not. I am not a huge fan of the guy. I am more sympathetic to Perry’s supposedly outrageous apostasy on immigration than I am to Romney’s on healthcare. Despite the endless speculation and fantasy about National Review’s relationship with Romney, there’s zero — and I mean zero — institutional pressure to be for or against the guy. I have no idea whom Rich or Jay are for. Ramesh spent much of the summer arguing — in vain — for Pawlenty. Kathryn’s clearly rooting for Santorum. My sense is that everyone is basically like me (and most of you): We want to see Obama lose more than we want to see any of these guys (or gal) win.


Empiricism! Fact Finding! Expertise! Oh My!

Maybe you haven’t noticed, but liberals have been investing a lot of time and energy into the idea that if smart people run government, if they’re guided by science and facts and reason, they can do all sorts of wonderful things. As I discuss in my upcoming book, this is a very old line of argument (see Comte, Condorcet, Lippmann, Dewey, Dukakis, Obama et al). But it’s intensified in recent years. The liberal fad of describing themselves as members of the “reality-based community” and the sophomoric bilge about the “Republican war on science” marked the beginning of this boomlet for liberal “empiricism.” And what with the terribly embarrassing failures of Obama’s Keynesian schemes and industrial planning, the Left is particularly defensive (after all, all of this economic news is just so “unexpected”!).

On that note, the other week, I wrote this admittedly mediocre column about the cult of expertise. It elicited a lot of tittering and guffaws from the usual suspects on the left. On Twitter, Matt Yglesias summarized the depth and sophistication of the responses by calling me “dumb.”

I don’t want to get into all of that now (it’s a big theme of my forthcoming book). But it did keep springing to mind while I was writing today’s column on the death penalty. Discussing the “doubt” surrounding Troy Davis’s guilt, I write:

At best, his case proves that you can’t be certain about Davis. You most certainly can be certain about other murderers. If the horrible happens and we learn that Davis really was not guilty, that will be a heart-wrenching revelation. It will cast a negative light on the death penalty, on the Georgia criminal-justice system, and on America.

But you know what it won’t do? It won’t render Lawrence Russell Brewer one iota less guilty or less deserving of the death penalty. Opponents of capital punishment are extremely selective about the cases they make into public crusades. Strategically, that’s smart; you don’t want to lead your argument with “unsympathetic persons.” But logically, it’s problematic. There is no transitive property that renders one heinous murderer less deserving of punishment simply because some other person was exonerated of murder.

Brewer was one of the thugs who dragged James Byrd to his death in Texas. He was executed the same day as Davis, but got much less attention.

Anyway, I couldn’t make this point there so I’ll make it here.

Conservative and libertarian opponents of the death penalty enjoy a logical consistency liberal opponents do not, at least on one point. The Right is skeptical about government’s competence. So when they say that they don’t trust the government to implement the death penalty unerringly, it makes sense.

But when liberals make this case it’s a huge contradiction. The history of liberal technocrats’ screwing things up is long, rich, and deep. This Solyndra mess is just a tiny footnote to that epic tale. And yet, despite all evidence, progressive technocrats and “empiricists” insist that they have the brains and the know-how not only to manage wildly complex phenomena involving literally billions of variable and millions of individual actors but to predict behavior and events years from now. But when it comes to the infinitely more discrete task of determining the guilt of a murderer, they suddenly say, “It’s impossible to be sure! We can never be certain!”

Really? What about when we have the murderer on videotape committing the deed and then confessing to it afterwards? And DNA evidence confirms he’s telling the truth. What about the Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Behring Breivik who took the police back to the scene of the crime and explained how he did it? What about Tim McVeigh? Just because it’s hard to be certain in some cases doesn’t mean it’s not easy to be certain in others.

At this point, liberal opponents will respond that the death penalty is different because it’s “irreversible.” Well, it’s true that it’s irreversible, but that doesn’t make it different — because all decisions by government are fundamentally irreversible. Even if the government “reverses” a policy that doesn’t mean policymakers can go back in time and start over. If we decide to spend money on this and not that, that decision is made even if down the road government demands its money back.

This isn’t simply the nature of policy making, it’s the nature of the freakin’ reality. I’m reminded of this passage from Steven Landesburg’s wonderful book, The Armchair Economist:

Economics forces us to confront a fundamental symmetry. The conflict arises because each side wants to allocate the same resource in a different way. Jack wants his woodland at the expense of Jill’s parking space and Jill wants her parking space at the expense of Jack’s woodland. That formulation is morally neutral and should serve as a warning against assigning exalted moral status to either Jack or Jill.

The symmetries run deeper. Environmentalists claim that the wilderness should take precedence over parking because a decision to pave is “irrevocable.” Of course they are right, but they overlook the fact that a decision not to pave is equally irrevocable. Unless we pave today, my opportunity to park tomorrow is lost as irretrievably as tomorrow itself will be lost. The ability to park in a more distant future might be a quite inadequate substitute for that lost opportunity.

And don’t give me this guff that the death penalty is unique because it’s about life and death. So is a lot of policymaking. Healthcare, abortion, war, crime, consumer-product safety, mass transit etc: All of these things involve a lot more lives — a lot more innocent lives! — than the death penalty, by orders of magnitude.

Anyway back to the point I wanted to make. The process of a criminal procedure is vastly more “reality-based” and empirical than the policy-making process. Adversarial arguments, rules of evidence, an overseeing judge, hostile witnesses, a jury of peers: Do you think anything that went into the stimulus involved a fraction as much due diligence?

In short, if you think courts can never — ever! — be certain that a murderer did the deed, then you must become a full-blown libertarian to be logically consistent.




Last week there was no G-File because the missus and I went off to celebrate — belatedly — our tenth wedding anniversary in San Francisco. We had a lovely dinner at a restaurant called Quince (a reader helped us get reservations, no less!). Other highlights included a tour of Alcatraz, where I learned that the “Bird Man of Alcatraz” never had any birds at Alcatraz. He was the bird man of Leavenworth. This hit me hard because I loved that movie when I saw it as a kid at summer camp. I also learned that Robert Stroud (played by Burt Lancaster in the movie) was actually a brilliant but deranged and brutal psychopath. My wife asked me “What was he like in the movie?”

I replied, “He was Burt Lancaster, like he is in every movie.”

Now, that’s not entirely fair. But it did get me thinking about how so many actors in old movies simply played themselves over and over again. How many movies did John Wayne make where he wasn’t simply John Wayne, this time as a Marine, this time a cowboy, this time as a different cowboy. Ever see Tony Curtis (born Bernie Schwartz in the Bronx) in the Black Shield of Falworth? Hey, it’s Tony Curtis with a sword! Old English sounds really funny with a thick Bronx accent.

When you do the tour of Alcatraz — which I highly recommend — you pick up your audio guide in the prison shower. As we walked in, my lovely companion, took off her jacket because she was too warm. I held her handbag for her. Why am I telling you this? Just so you’ll be able to say from now on, “Goldberg’s so self-confident he can carry a woman’s purse in a maximum security prison shower without fear.”

Elizabeth Warren’s social contract explained!


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