Comms Over Legislation
Five Things You Need to Read Today
1. Comms Over Legislation
Democrats are quietly crowing about what the Washington Post calls a "sudden, unexpected creation of an approximately $120 billion social program": an expanded child tax credit. What's more, "the new money takes the form of cash payments, not tax cuts, so even people who don't make enough to pay taxes will get aid."
Free money from the government! What could possibly go wrong? This is, obviously, a precedent and trial run for the Universal Basic Income, a universal entitlement to live off the public treasury.
Notice, of course, that while "the parents of 90 percent of the country's children will benefit," this is a tax credit that is being paid out in advance—so most of us will just be paying all that money back again at tax time. Which is also what makes this a trial run for UBI.
You can blame the Democrats for this, though I would also blame the guy whose conspiracy theories about a "stolen election" cost the Republican Party two Senate seats in Georgia's January runoff and put Democrats in a position to write legislation.
I also want you to notice what Scott Lincicome has pointed out, which is that "while the votes were being cast and even now, Republican Party opposition has barely registered—especially among the grassroots."
Instead, the biggest priority in right-leaning political circles in the days surrounding the bill's passage wasn't the numerous areas for Republican or conservative disagreement about the [American Rescue Plan]'s many, many non-pandemic measures or its potential economic implications, but the decision by Dr. Seuss Enterprises to cease publication and licensing of six books that, in their view, contained "hurtful and wrong" imagery. This event, combined with a few other recent examples of "liberal cancel culture," have dominated the airwaves and social media for the last month, essentially drowning out any Republican criticism of the ARP, regardless of its merit....
[W]hile I certainly don't expect politicians of any stripe to be Madisonian statesmen 24-7, they do have an obligation to—at least occasionally!—focus on boring things like policy, lest they become nothing more than media personalities doing transactional fanservice instead of actual legislators. Second, and relatedly, that boring stuff often affects—perhaps unbeknown to the TV audience—the very culture wars that these guys say they're fighting.
Indeed, while Republicans were playing culture war cosplay over the last month, Democrats used the ARP to notch real social policy wins and are already gunning for more.
Scott runs down the whole list of things that happened "While You Were Seussing."
I totally understand why Republicans are focusing so much on the latest "cancel culture" controversy. As I argued recently, the "woke" left is deeply repellent, an engine of alienation, and that gives Republicans the only broadly popular issue they've got left. But as a political issue, it is too easy and shallow. It tends to involve a lot of media grandstanding but no specific policy or legislation. I love what Scott calls it: "media personalities doing transactional fanservice."
I'm starting to think this is the real future of the post-Trump GOP, a future heralded by a young Republican representative named Madison Cawthorne, who told his colleagues, "I have built my staff around comms [communicatons] rather than legislation."
In other words, the legacy of the Trump era for Republicans is that they don't care about policy any more, just publicity.
2. Barone's Election Law
The other big piece of legislation proposed in the new Congress is House Resolution 1, a slew of new federal standards for election laws.
This will, of course, set off the "stolen election" conspiracy theorists. Each side will accuse the other of trying to either loosen or tighten voting rules merely to increase the influence of its voters and suppress the influence of the other party's voters. And both sides will be right.
I was going to link you to this excellent overview by Josh Kraushaar, but by the time I got back to it, it had disappeared behind an unscalable paywall. Kraushaar argues, in effect, that this is a giant illustration of Barone's Law, which holds that "all process arguments are insincere." In Washington, DC, nobody ever argues for or against a procedural issue because they actually think it's a good or bad rule. They argue for it because they think the rule will benefit their party, or they argue against it because it will harm their party.
Since Kraushaar may or may not be available for you, I'll send you to similar observations from Charlies Sykes.
"Any discussion of voting rights has to begin with a threat assessment: How serious is the attack on democratic norms at the state level?
"According to the Brennan Center, legislators have filed 253 bills with provisions that restrict voting access in 43 states. This comes just two months after an attack on the nation's Capitol that aimed to overturn a free and fair election—an assault based on the Big Lie of voter fraud that is now being used to leverage legislation across the country to restrict access to the ballot box.
"In Iowa, the governor has just signed legislation to make it harder to vote early. In Georgia, GOP legislators are poised to roll back no-excuse absentee balloting—despite using the system since 2005. As Judd Legum notes this morning, 'For 15 years...Republicans and white voters took advantage of no-excuse absentee voting more than Democrats and voters of color.'
"That changed last year. 'For the first time, Black voters took advantage of absentee voting more frequently than white voters. The shift coincided with an upset victory in the state by Joe Biden.'
"So the GOP is now changing the law to make it harder to vote by mail. Subtle it is not."
Like I said, Barone's Law. But this is why Sykes argues against HR1, describing it as an overreach in the other direction.
"The bill is frequently described as being 'sweeping,' but that hardly captures the scope of the legislation, which effectively federalizes election law, while rewriting the rules governing political speech....
"While it has valuable provisions—protecting mail-in voting, making it harder to purge voters, gerrymander reform—it has all the makings of legislation crafted by an overcaffeinated committee of progressive activists. It overturns hundreds of state laws and essentially strips states of their ability to regulate voting. Not content with that, it matches campaign contributions with tax dollars and dramatically seeks to rewrite campaign finance rulings by creating new restrictions on constitutionally protected free speech."
This is a contest between two parties who both believe that their ultimate and permanent victory is only being held back by imaginary "vote fraud" or "voter suppression," while both of them neglect the task of actually winning over voters—who are increasingly rejecting the major parties.
3. "To Despair of Reason Itself"
To prop up this illusion that they would totally win every election if it weren't for some nefarious secret influence, Democrats are about to hold congressional hearings to construct another scapegoat: online "misinformation."
I've also been tracking the growing disillusionment of the old-fashioned "liberals" with the priggish wokism of the left, and these two trends coincide in this article by Thomas Frank in The Guardian.
"In liberal [sic] circles these days there is a palpable horror of the uncurated world, of thought spaces flourishing outside the consensus, of unauthorized voices blabbing freely in some arena where there is no moderator to whom someone might be turned in. The remedy for bad speech, we now believe, is not more speech, as per Justice Brandeis's famous formula, but an 'extremism expert' shushing the world....
"What explains the clampdown mania among liberals? The most obvious answer is because they need an excuse. Consider the history: the right has enjoyed tremendous success over the last few decades, and it is true that conservatives' capacity for hallucinatory fake-populist appeals has helped them to succeed. But that success has also happened because the Democrats, determined to make themselves the party of the affluent and the highly educated, have allowed the right to get away with it....
"What all this censorship talk really is, though, is a declaration of defeat—defeat before the Biden administration has really begun. To give up on free speech is to despair of reason itself....
"Liberals believe in liberty, I tell myself. This can't really be happening here in the USA.
"But, folks, it is happening. And the folly of it all is beyond belief.... To say that it is a betrayal of everything we were taught liberalism stood for—a betrayal that we will spend years living down—may be too complex a thought for our punditburo to consider, but it is nevertheless true."
I like that coinage: "punditburo." If you're of the right age, you'll get the reference.
I want to point back to something I linked to above. As the political parties become more firmly committed to the logical distillation of their basic principles—socialism for the Democrats, nationalism for the Republicans—they lose more and more of the actual voters, so that independents now far outweigh both parties. But there is no one to offer these independents another banner to follow.
It's almost as if there is a big opportunity there.
4. Less Than Ten Feet Tall (and Shrinking)
One of the major stories emerging from the new administration is its confrontation with China.
An early diplomatic meeting between US and Chinese official last week was acrid and featured the grotesque spectacle of a country actively engaged in genocide against ethnic minorities accusing us of racism.
Oh, well, I guess it sounded better in the original Russian.
President Biden responded by making the response to China a central focus of his first press conference, outlining the administration's supposed strategy, which is summed up this way.
"Outcompete Beijing by exponentially increasing US investment in science and technology.
"Counter China's authoritarian expansionism by strengthening America's alliances with other democratic countries.
"Focus the world's attention on Beijing's escalating human rights abuses."
None of this is particularly bad, and it has the virtue of being much broader than President Trump's China strategy, which was entirely centered around his trade war.
There is no doubt that China is one of the central challenges to American interests right now, predominantly because it is perfecting and exporting a whole model of authoritarian rule. Every system of government naturally tends to want to export itself, to create a world in which it seems like the norm and the standard, and China's fascist Communist Party is no exception.
Kevin Williamson has a long and interesting article on this, looking at China's quest for "21st-century institutions created and dominated by Beijing, reflecting Beijing's priorities, interests, and sensibilities.... China's obvious project is building a state. Its less obvious project is building a world."
As to the growing authoritarian wings of the left and right, he observes, "Such Americans will not build a world, because their ambitions are too small: free false teeth, student-loan forgiveness, owning the libs. But the world will be built all the same, and we will live in it."
We should be concerned, but not intimidated. Check out an excellent warning against the Cold War error of "Ten Feet Tall Syndrome," in which "authoritarian systems excel at showcasing their strengths and concealing their weaknesses," and Western diplomats and analysts tend to fall for it.
One of the key indicators of Chinese weakness this report cites is that China's prime working-age population is already shrinking. That leads me to recommend an article by Gordon Chang on China's demographics of doom.
Chang literally makes a job of predicting the downfall of China's regime, so take that into account. But the figures he cites are roughly accurate and the overall trend is widely acknowledged. In terms of population, China has peaked and is in for a long period of decline.
"China this century is on track to experience history's most dramatic demographic collapse in the absence of war or disease.
"Today, the country has a population more than four times larger than America's. By 2100, the US will probably have more people than China....
"True, Beijing scrapped the notorious one-child policy, perhaps history's most ambitious social-engineering project, as of the beginning of 2016 and there was a spurt of births that year, but since then births have fallen every year....
"Official media is cagey about a critical figure, the country's total fertility rate, generally the number of children per female reaching child-bearing age. The official China Daily reports that Lu Jiehua of Peking University believes the country's TFR, as the rate is known, 'has fallen below 1.7.'
"Lu is certainly right about that. The University of Wisconsin's Yi told TNI that China's TFR last year was 0.90 and could not have exceeded 1.1. Yi's estimate is on the low end but is consistent with China Daily's reporting of 1.05 in 2015.
"In any event, China's population will shrink fast. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences projects China's population will halve by 2100 if the TFR drops from 1.6 to 1.3.
"China's TFR, however, is far lower than 1.3. If its TFR stabilizes at 1.2—1.2 would represent a big increase—China will have a population of only 480 million by the end of the century....
"As analyst Andy Xie wrote in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post this month, 'Population decline could end China's civilization as we know it.'"
In the short term, China's recent belligerence is a major threat. In the longer term, it is the lashing out of a system that has delusions of great power grandeur but is actually on its way to the dustbin of history.
5. The Great Race
So much of our political debate begins in midstream, with the latest controversy over a piece of legislation or an outrageous thing done or said by a politician. But we need the occasional reminder to start with basic principles or to look at things from a broader context.
That second issue—seeing things in the broadest context—is what I like about this article, which reminds us that the most urgent priority for humanity is our need for massive and sustained economic growth.
I've linked before to the good news that we are well on our way to the extermination of "extreme poverty," defined as living on less than a dollar a day per person. It is often objected that not-so-extreme poverty isn't any fun, either, and that's true. So this report looks at people living on less than $30 a day (which in my day was enough to hitchhike across the galaxy).
What is more interesting is that it asks what it would take for the majority of people in the world to escape this level of poverty.
"One of the most important insights of economics is that people live in poverty not because of who they are, but because of where they are. A person's knowledge, their skills, and how hard they work all matter for whether they are poor or not—but all these personal factors together matter less than the one factor that is entirely outside of a person's control: whether they happen to be born into a large, productive economy or not.
"The comparison of a high-income country like Denmark and a much poorer country like Ethiopia makes clear just how important this aspect is. A person living in Denmark has a chance of 86% that they are not poor. A person who happens to be born into a country where the average income is low is almost certainly living in poverty. In Ethiopia more than 99% of the population live on less than $30 per day. This is why a rise in the average level of income in a country—economic growth—is so crucial for reducing poverty....
"The minimum necessary growth to reduce global poverty to the level of poverty in Denmark is 410%.
"An increase by 100% would mean that the size of the economy would double. A 410% increase is therefore a 5.1-fold increase of the global economy. Or put differently, a world economy with substantially less poverty is at a minimum five times bigger than today's global economy."
This is understating the issue, because this figure only includes the growth required to raise the rest of the world to First World standards, but it assumes this is done while the First World stands still, which would be impossible. The rest of the world can't grow while the wealthiest nations stagnate.
Notably, saving mankind from poverty is not a matter of redistributing wealth. It requires creating a whole lot more of it.
That puts in context all of the other contests and controversies of our day. As an urgent humanitarian issue, mankind's top priority for this century should be to create the conditions under which human ingenuity and enterprise can increase global wealth by a factor of ten.
We can absolutely do this, but it's going to require giving up the vanities and illusions that drive most of our day-to-day politics.