EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.
Does anything mean anything real anymore?
You’ve probably heard of Plato’s Cave (not to be confused with Plato’s Retreat). In Plato’s allegory (described by Socrates in Plato’s telling), a bunch of people are chained to a wall in such a way they can’t turn their heads to see the fire behind them. All they can see are the shadows of real objects behind them as the objects pass by the fire. Because the shadows are all they know, they mistake the shadows for the real world, giving them names and ascribing great meaning to them.
For Plato/Socrates, the philosopher is the guy who breaks free of the cave’s shackles and sees the reality behind the shadows.
This is a nice plug for philosophers, but I’ve never completely bought it, for the simple reason that many self-styled philosophers strike me as folks who just see different shadows and call them the Truth. Certain Machiavellians, Nietzscheans, elite theorists, Straussians (I suspect), Marxists, and post-modernists — just to name a few — see “power”as the flames, and such notions as democracy, religion, merit, etc. as illusionary or delusionary “shadows.” Moreover, it seems to me that outsourcing to philosophers the job of separating truth from fiction and reality from illusion is an utter abdication of citizenship. We’re all supposed to care about the truth.
But we need not dwell on all that right now. Instead let’s talk about the wildly underappreciated movie Galaxy Quest, which is also a bit of a Platonic allegory. In the movie, a race of aliens called the Thermians receives the radio signals of a Star Trek-like TV series called “Galaxy Quest.”But they don’t realize the show is fiction. The Thermians think the episodes are “historical documents”and build their entire civilization around the premises and plot of the show. The Thermians (sort of) abduct the hackish cast of the show and treat them as near-gods.
The Trump Show
This all comes to mind partly because I huffed way too much Wite-Out this week. But also because it seems to me that lots of people are behaving like Thermians these days and a lot of politicians are playing along like the actors.
Consider the articles of impeachment filed against Rod Rosenstein this week. I am not disputing that there are serious people with serious complaints about Rosenstein. But this was not the work of serious people. I would think that reasonable people could agree that impeaching any government official is a serious thing. Impeaching this official in particular, given the stakes and the controversies associated with him, is a particularly serious affair.
And yet, the authors of this document dashed it off like a college kid trying to write a term paper at the last minute and striving to hit the required page length by submitting it in 18-point font.
My favorite charge is that “Under Mr. Rosenstein’s supervision, Christopher Steele’s political opposition research was neither vetted before it was used in October 2016 nor fully revealed to the FISC.”
In October of 2016, Rosenstein was a U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland. What was he supposed to do? Barge into the Justice Department offices and demand that a document he didn’t know existed be vetted more thoroughly? Rosenstein wasn’t appointed to his current position until 2017. And you know who appointed him? Donald Trump.
Which points to the real farce here.
The bulk of the complaint is that Rosenstein has not given Congress the documents it wants. In the abstract, this is a legitimate disagreement. And, as a general proposition, I’m all in favor of Congress reasserting its oversight power vis-à-vis the executive branch. But that isn’t what’s going on here. Congressional oversight of the Trump administration has at best been minimal,and some committees have acted like broom-pushers behind the elephants when the circus comes to town.
But Rosenstein is not a branch of government. The president is. And Rosenstein works for the president. Trump could order Rosenstein to hand over any documents he sees fit. He hasn’t done that. As Jack Goldsmith, hardly a left-wing loon, writes:
Impeachment, moreover, is not an appropriate remedy for Rosenstein’s alleged transgression of insufficient transparency. He, after all, works for the president, who is ultimately responsible for the information the Justice Department gives to Congress and who can order Rosenstein to disclose more on threat of removal. Congress is overstepping its authority in micromanaging the executive branch by seeking to impeach an official for refusing to turn over information that the president has not ordered him to turn over. Congress appears to have only once used the impeachment tool against an executive-branch official other than the president — in 1876, when it impeached Secretary of War William Belknap after he resigned for accepting bribes and kickbacks in office.
If the impeachers were seriously outraged — truly, seriously, outraged — by the executive branch’s behavior, they might be moving to impeach the executive.Or, at the very least, they would be imploring the president to order Rosenstein to hand over these materials or to fire Rosenstein for refusing to do so.
They’re not doing that. Why? Because they’re putting on a show. This impeachment effort is a prop in the passion play, a talking point for Hannity’s opening monologues and the president’s Twitter feed.
Similarly, as David French points out, if the recently declassified FISA warrant is the fraud the president and his most ardent defenders claim it is, there’s no reason to leave any of the redactions in it stand. The president has absolute authority to declassify anything he wants. I disagree with my friend Andy McCarthy’s interpretation of the FISA warrant — something I do with considerable trepidation — but if he’s right about the truth of the thing, let’s get the whole truth of it.
The Thermian Reaction
But back to my larger point. For months, I’ve been banging my spoon on my highchair about how the legislative branch is acting like a Parliament of Pundits. Senators and congressmen on the right and left seem more concerned with getting primetime spots on cable-news shows than actually legislating. As a result, politicians are using their positions to craft entertaining talking-points for TV debates and diatribes that have only passing relationship to reality. They’re going along with the Thermians, playing to their faith in shadows and making little effort to engage with the truth. On the left, the mess at the border can’t just be bad, it must be Kristallnacht and Auschwitz. On the right, the idea that the president colluded — whatever that may mean — with Russia is the “greatest mass hysteria” in American history and a “total witch hunt.”At least until very recently. This week, the allegation Trump colluded with Russia is suddenly no longer an insane conspiracy theory and slander, it’s not really a problem at all.
I don't have a problem w/ getting dirt on election opponents from foreigners. But if you do, why was it OK for Hillary Clinton to secretly hire a foreign spy to get dirt on her opponent from Kremlin officials, and seed that info into the media and weaponize it in the US gov't?
— Mollie (@MZHemingway) July 27, 2018
Consider the president’s trade war “win”this week. The president created a near-crisis and then agreed to stop, for now, and suddenly it’s a huge victory. We’re still basicallywhere we were before or even worse off than we were before, with many of the tariffs still in place, but Trump got the“winning” optics he wanted, and that’s all that matters.
Indeed, Trump’s entire understanding of trade is a shadow on a wall, having almost no resemblance to the reality of how economics works. Again, for Trump, when we buy things from abroad — and by we, I mean individual citizens and firms in a free country — we are literally being “robbed.” Jacob Sullum on the president’s Iowa speech yesterday:
“Our trade deficit ballooned to $817 billion,” Donald Trump said during a speech to steelworkers in Granite City, Illinois, yesterday. “Think of that. We lost $817 billion a year over the last number of years in trade. In other words, if we didn’t trade, we’d save a hell of a lot of money.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the president exaggerated the size of the 2017 trade deficit by 48 percent. But that’s a mere quibble compared to his fundamental misunderstanding of what that number means, which in turn reflects a zero-sum view of economic exchange that does not bode well for the outcome of a tariff war supposedly aimed at promoting free trade.
As Charlie Cooke points out on the latest Editors podcast, Trump’s trade defenders offer a verbal Escher drawing in defense of Trump’s trade policies. “Tariffs are great!” they say. “But Trump doesn’t really believe in tariffs, he wants “free trade,’” they add as well.Well if tariffs are great, why favor free trade? Why favor free trade if tariffs would save us a hell of a lot of money?
Look, tariffs don’t save us money. Cocaine Mitch needs Bolivian marching powder to sell. Raising tariffs on it would raise the price per kilo. That means he would have less product to sell at higher prices, which would mean fewer customers. Cocaine Mitch would lose money. Moreover, free trade wouldn’t eliminate trade deficits across the board (which is why Trump’s trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, is against free trade on automobiles).
In fiction, the plot is driven by human will. Trump — and Bernie Sanders and many others — have turned trade into a plot device in a movie adaptation or TV show about the real world. And the economists who say “that’s not how any of this works”are reduced to the nitpickers who complain that the most implausible thing about the TV series 24 is that the traffic in L.A. would make the whole story impossible. The nitpickers are right — it’s just that no one wants to hear it.
Meanwhile, on the Left
In my column today, I write about how charismatic personalities have replaced — or are replacing — traditional institutions as sources of information, morality, and politics. There’s no better example in the moment than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who strikes me as a kind of lame reimagining of a young Barack Obama with a woman in the lead. Cortez doesn’t know a lot about economics, beyond some handy buzz-phrases and shibboleths. She likes to brag about how she knows what the Gini coefficient is but thinks unemployment is low because people are working two jobs.
Wondering: How many other House Democrats have a degree in Economics like I do?
Trying to find who out here is going to be in the Gini Coefficient Appreciation Squad.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) July 3, 2018
She thinks we can pay for what she calls socialism by hiking a few taxes to make the rich pay their “fair share,” and in the process reveals she has a thumbless grasp on not just economics but basic budgeting.
She did say one thing recently that I partially agree with, but for very different reasons. “Capitalism has not always existed in the world and it will not always exist in the world,” the Democratic congressional candidate told Firing Line. “When this country started, we did not operate on a capitalist economy.”
Now, the bit about America not being capitalist “when this country started” is embarrassing ackamarackus, flummery, and flummadiddle (and a terrible indictment of academic economists who made sure to teach her what the Gini coefficient is, but nothing about economic history). But if you read my book, you’d know I agree that capitalism hasn’t always existed — which is why we need to work very hard to keep it going, because it’s the only thing that has ever lifted the mass of humanity out of poverty.
But this all misses the point. Cortez isn’t working in the world of facts or arguments, she’s selling a story, a very old story. She buys into the old Marxist revision of the story of how the meek — i.e. the workers — will inherit the Earth. And her fans who would prefer that story to reality can’t even tell they’re looking at shadows on the wall.
I could go on about this, but I want to make one last basic point that keeps coming up in the discussion of my book, as well as Steven Pinker’s. I caught this exchange on Twitter the other day:
Half the world’s population (over 3 billion human beings) are living on less than $2.50 a day. If people you cared about were part of the 20 million dead every year, thanks to capitalism, then you wouldn’t be tweeting garbage stats like this.
— The Socialist Party (@OfficialSPGB) July 24, 2018
Now, I don’t make the mistake of taking the Socialist Party of Great Britain’s Twitter feed very seriously. But their error tracks the thinking of so many of these new socialists and anti-capitalists these days. The SPGB blames deaths from dirty water, hunger, and disease on capitalism. But what they are doing is comparing the status quo against a utopian ideal in the (alleged) future. The only serious benchmark isn’t some fantasy-land ideal or some mirage on a cave wall. The only true yardstick is the past. How many people died from disease, dirty water, and hunger before capitalism? How many died from violence? Not only are those trend lines getting better, capitalism is the hero of that story.Liberal democratic capitalism is the cure to poverty, not the cause of the disease.
The Socialists of Great Britain are actually making a better, even smarter, argument than Cortez, because they’re at least looking at the right data; they’re just looking at it wrong. Cortez isn’t interested in data. She’s interested in telling stories and selling pie in the sky.
Cortez’s beloved Gini Coefficient is used to measure income inequality. And she is right to note that income inequality often gets worse under capitalism. But that misses the point. Under capitalism everyone gets richer — it’s just that some people get much richer, much faster than others. The socialists are like the clients who complain to their financial advisers that they aren’t billionaires. When the adviser responds, “Look I doubled your money, but there’s only so much I can do with an investment of 1,000 dollars.” As a purely economic system (as opposed to a necessary component of a political system of human liberty) capitalism is arguably much worse than socialism. It just has one debate-settling advantage: It works.
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: I’ve been gone for most of the week, so I haven’t been with the beasties too much. I got home last night at 1:30 in the morning, and Pippa was somehow convinced that I got there just in time to play fetch in the backyard. I disappointed her. But I made up for it this morning. The torrential rains in D.C. have been providential for Pip because there are muddy pools of water everywhere, and she is determined to test out every one. That wouldn’t be so bad, because the Spaniel is an eminently washable beast. And she cleans up nice. And while I often talk like Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs when I hose her off, she doesn’t act like a terrified captive waiting to be turned into a woman suit. But she has also started rolling in fetid and foul junk quite a bit lately, and we can’t understand why. Zoë will do this on occasion, which always made sense because she likes to musk-up with foulness like Rambo hunting Charlie to mask her sent. But Pippa’s not a predator; she’s a lover. Regardless, it’s getting really out of hand. It may just be that she’s acting out because of all of our travel and the stress of being left behind.
Meanwhile, Zoë is becoming ever sweeter and (relatively) hassle-free in her middle age. She’s picking fewer fights and is even a bit mellower when it comes to chasing varmints (though this grading against a fairly barbaric curve). We’re even seeing a contemplative side to her.
I’ll be on Fox News Sunday this Sunday, Special Report Tuesday, and The Story Thursday.
ICYMI . . .
This week’s Remnant, with David Bahnsen (it’s got a little something for everyone)
And now, the weird stuff: