I’m back! Making the click-through worthwhile: President Trump fears a conspiracy of forces is trying to push the country into an economic recession; Antifa clashing out in Portland spurs a really ominous historical comparison; assessing the great writing but odd character choice in Daniel Silva’s The New Girl, and what I learned on my summer vacation.
Is there a ‘Conspiracy’ to Talk Down the Economy?
This morning, Maggie Haberman – if not Trump’s favorite reporter at the New York Times, then the one he talks to most regularly – writes that President Trump is responding to ominous economic signs by:
Lashing out at what he believes is a conspiracy of forces arrayed against him… He has insisted that his own handpicked Federal Reserve chair, Jerome H. Powell, is intentionally acting against him. He has said other countries, including allies, are working to hurt American economic interests. And he has accused the news media of trying to create a recession.
Members of the opposition party are always pessimistic about the economy; members of the party in power are always more optimistic. Right after the presidential election in November of 2016, Gallup found sudden dramatic swings in Americans’ economic confidence, aligning with their party affiliation: “Just 16 percent of Republicans said the economy was getting better in the week before the election, while 81 percent said it was getting worse. Since the election, 49 percent say it is getting better and 44 percent worse. Before the election, 61 percent of Democrats said the economy was getting better and 35 percent worse. Now, Democrats are evenly divided, with 46 percent saying it is getting better and 47 percent saying it is getting worse.”
HBO’s Bill Maher has repeatedly expressed a desire for a recession because it would hurt President Trump’s reelection chances, and on a recent show, NBC News correspondent Richard Engel somewhat concurred, declaring “short-term pain might be better than long-term destruction of the Constitution.” (Because ignoring the Second Amendment, abolishing the Electoral College, court-packing the Supreme Court, mandatory disclosure of political donor addresses, and direct taxes on wealth instead of income or transactions don’t harm the Constitution, apparently.)
Benjamin Hart of New York magazine wrote, “if you believe a second Trump term would be a true disaster for the country and for the world — and I count myself among those who do — it’s not insane to have mixed feelings about all this.”
Hoping for a recession does not cause a recession. A recession could be triggered by widespread pessimism and anxiety that made people less likely to invest or spend, lowering sales and profits and creating a vicious cycle. But Bill Maher and a couple of writers are unlikely, by themselves, to generate enough economic pessimism to make people change their economic behavior. And if you think Democratic lawmakers can sound sufficiently gloomy to make businesses less interested in hiring new employees or unveiling new products, recall that the Democrats’ message on the economy hasn’t changed since Trump was elected.
Elizabeth Warren sees “a lot to worry about” in an economy with the lowest unemployment rate since 1969, record stock prices, record after-tax corporate profits, record single-family home prices, weekly wages growing faster than inflation, and the number of people getting food stamps the lowest in nearly 10 years. None of this means a recession is impossible, obviously; in fact, when so many economic indicators look this good, it’s probably hard to maintain that level for an extended period of time; similar to how the New England Patriots, the Toronto Raptors, Boston Red Sox and Saint Louis Blues will have a hard time doing better than they did last year.
Democrats are determined to paint a portrait of widespread economic misery, no matter what the actual data indicates. Kamala Harris says the low unemployment rate reflects an overworked America and predicted “as many as 300,000 autoworkers may be out of a job before the end of the year” (That would be 44 percent of all jobs in the auto industry.) Joe Biden claims the top one percent pay a lower tax rate than teachers, firefighters and cops, which just isn’t true; he’s conflating the tax rate on capital gains with the overall tax rate. Kirsten Gillibrand claims that “Trump promised manufacturing jobs would stay but they’re not;” as of July, the U.S. has added 486,000 manufacturing jobs since Trump took office.
If the United States does go into a recession, it will have earned it because of real economic changes, not because of excessively pessimistic assessments from the Democratic party or the media (Ask yourself if the national media was a cheerleader for the economy under Trump his first two years in office). A recession would have multiple causes – some independent of the president (a slowing global economy) and some caused by the president (tariffs and trade wars).
For what it’s worth, any anxiety among economists has not yet caught up with the general public: Gallup found “Americans’ confidence in the U.S. economy improved in July, with Gallup’s Economic Confidence Index rising seven points to +29. The latest index is the highest Gallup has measured since February.”
We’re Not That Far Along the Path to Political Violence, Are We?
One of the most ominous comments from Allahpundit at Hot Air ever, coming in response to Democratic freshman Rep. Deb Haalan, describing Antifa as “the folks who are the peaceful protesters working to safeguard their city from domestic terrorism.”
If the country is far enough along into its Weimar period to have gangs of ideologues swinging at each other in the streets, it’s far enough along to have members of the legislature defending their own side’s gang. Thirteen people were arrested in Portland yesterday, by the way. A half-dozen were injured.
I’d like to argue that the comparison to the Weimar Republic is overwrought . . . but is it?
The Bleeding Paint in Daniel Silva’s The New Girl
The long flights and train rides over in Portugal gave me time to finish Daniel Silva’s latest Gabriel Allon thriller, The New Girl. Minor spoilers are ahead; if you want to stay spoiler-free, the short version is that Silva is as good as ever but there’s one big oddity about one of his storytelling choices this time.
First, the good stuff: Silva hasn’t lost a step at all, even after telling thirteen stories about Allon. He’s gifted enough with characterization, dialogue and scene-setting to make even the rivalries among the faculty at an elite Swiss boarding school intriguing and amusing. Yes, his hero Allon, the head of Israeli intelligence, probably should have retired a long time ago, and you have to hand-wave away the fact that Allon still finds himself back in the field and in dangerous situations so regularly when he’s supposed to be behind a desk and managing a staff. Allon is a shrewd, patient, calculating, cool-under-fire protagonist, who’s always worth hanging around with for a couple hundred pages.
But The New Girl has one of the odder problems I’ve encountered in a thriller lately. The plot revolves around a Saudi prince set to be king, who directed the execution of a dissident journalist who wrote for a Western publication, was dismembered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and is known by his initials. Instead of the real-life Saudi prince Muhammed bin Salman’s “MBS,” Silva’s fictional prince is Khalid bin Mohammad, known as “KBM.”
The problem is that the fictional Saudi prince is (if not consistently depicted sympathetically) , as Silva explains in a short author’s note at the end, an “ultimately a redeemable figure.” In fact, a major plot point is about a secret motivation for murdering the journalist at the consulate in Istanbul; a plot to alter the balance of power within the Saudi royal family, with the fictional KBM being manipulated by malevolent family members.
But as far as we know, in real life, MBS is a really bad guy – an impetuous, ruthless, reckless ruler who figured he could get away with murdering a critic without too much consequence. Most of the heads of state in the world of Gabriel Allon mirror that of the real world, with references to the deep baritone of the Israeli Prime Minister, brief references to an American president who sounds like Trump, a fictional CIA director whose biography matches a lot of Mike Pompeo’s, and a ruthless ruler of Russia nicknamed “the Czar” who targets foes of the regime with radioactive poisons.
In other words, just about every other aspect of Gabriel Allon’s world is the same as ours, except the story is about a fictional alter ego of Muhammad bin Salman who is… redeemable and even intermittently likeable. In an opening author’s note, Silva writes that he began work on a novel about “a crusading young Arab prince who wanted to modernize his religiously intolerant country” and he set aside that manuscript when MBS was implicated in the Jamal Khashoggi murder. One wonders if that portrait of an unlikely Saudi hero bled through into the new version like an old paint color showing up through a fresh coat of white. Some sections of The New Girl feel like an odd-couple buddy movie featuring the head of the Mossad and a spoiled and temperamental Saudi Prince teaming up to solve a kidnapping. Silva clearly didn’t set out to exonerate or excuse MBS, but the character of the not-so-bad KBM is just odd and off-putting, knowing that he’s so clearly inspired by a real-life figure who has shown no appetite for redemption.
Creating a more likable version of Muhammad bin Salman in fiction isn’t quite on the par of Quentin Tarantino dramatically rewriting the ending of World War Two in Inglourious Basterds. (John Podhoretz: “Taken literally, as though Tarantino were Oliver Stone trying to rewrite the facts of the Kennedy assassination to suit his own conspiratorial idiocy, Inglourious Basterds is so offensive that it beggars one’s vocabulary to find words to condemn it.” As I understand it, Tarantino takes similar liberties about rewriting history in the recent Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.)
I wasn’t offended by the reimagining of the Saudi prince, but a reader with a vehement disdain to MBS might.
ADDENDA: How would I summarize Portugal? Think of it all the stuff you like about Europe – castles, museums, history, old architecture, grand squares with statues of long-forgotten monarchs on horseback, good food, good drink – for somewhat less money than most of the rest of the continent. And it has a slew of beautiful beaches, although if you’re used to the water temperatures of the American south, get ready to freeze your buns off. (Thanks to the widespread enthusiasm for thongs, you’ll see a lot of those buns on display.) Speaking of baked goods on display, I was struck by the ubiquitous bakery windows featuring pastelas de nada, small single-serving egg custard tarts that are basically Portugal’s national dessert. They’re not the most delicious dessert I’ve ever had, but there’s something charming and admirable about how the Portuguese have decided, “this is ours, it is uniquely ours, and we’re going to celebrate it every chance we get.” Nationalism is always easier to digest when it comes in pastry form.
The warnings about the crowds in summer are frustratingly accurate. The Monastery of Jeronimos? Long lines, big crowds. The Belem Tower? Long lines, big crowds. The Moorish castle in Sintra? Short line, moderately crowded, absolutely spectacular with ledges that would make an inspector from the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration drop dead from a heart attack. The Palacio Nacional Da Pena in Sintra? Super-long lines, big crowds. The Livraria Lello bookstore in Porto, which allegedly helped inspire J.K. Rowling to write Harry Potter? Long lines, big crowds. And the Santa Justa Elevator might as well be the Space Mountain ride of Lisbon. The New York Times touts it, seemingly oblivious to the two to three-hour waits to take an old-fashioned elevator.
What didn’t have long lines or big crowds were the National Pantheon, which has an amazing observation deck; the children’s science museum in Lisbon, and the exhibit of Picasso’s sketches at the Palacipo das Artes in Porto.