Five Things You Need to Read Today
1. The Addled Brains of the Right
I once characterized Trumpism as a "war on the brains of the right." But the right has been busy blowing out its own brains, and perhaps the real story of the last five years is how many conservatives intellectuals have given up their supposed principles, not after some fierce battle, but at the first touch of pressure.
Donald Trump's continued attempts to overturn the election results constitute a kind of breaking point for these intellectuals—the point at which they are required to become fully the opposite of what they spent decades pretending to be.
Trump's attack on the election is big and multi-pronged, and I won't try to sum up all the crazy here. I have already covered the spurious basis for Trump's claims of massive election fraud, but if you need a refresher, see yet another debunking of the latest round. Yet I almost feel embarrassed posting this because these claims have been debunked repeatedly, and if you're interested enough to be discussing the issue, you should already have encountered these facts. But one of the hallmarks of a conspiracy theory mentality is the temptation to bill oneself as a fearless seeker of the truth while stridently ignoring any facts that contradict your pet theory. So people who want to believe in the election fraud narrative will scour the Internet for anonymous blog posts and dubious YouTube videos and blow straight past contradictory information from reliable sources. Don't let this be you.
More to the point, Trump's election fraud claims have been rejected in every court where they have been presented, which now includes the Supreme Court, and they've been rejected because his lawyers have not been able to produce the facts to back up their claims—just a lot of chaff like speculation by anonymous people on the Internet and fabricated quotes from court rulings.
This is the sort of thing that ought to be decisive for the conservative movement's serious intellectuals, the ones who regard themselves as being motivated by ideas and arguments and evidence and not just to be pandering to the emotions of partisans.
Instead, here is what is actually happening, as recounted by Linda Chavez.
"Former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett, whose best-selling Book of Virtues made him rich, regularly appears on Fox News giving credence to some of Trump's wild claims of a stolen election. 'I believe this election was fixed,' he said this week, noting 'systematic corruption' and 'statistical anomalies' that made it improbable that Biden won.
"Roger Kimball, who is publisher of Encounter Books and won the prestigious 2019 Bradley Prize 'for advancing liberty and preserving democratic culture,' has amplified claims of suspicious vote tallies in multiple jurisdictions, mostly cities with large black populations....
"Leading the pack of Trump apologists, the Claremont Institute's scholars and publications have not only echoed Trump's claims of a fraudulent election, but even 'testified' that the 2020 elections violated state laws and the Constitution before 'hearings,' which were in reality nothing more than get-togethers that Rudy Giuliani organized with a handful of state legislators.
"John Eastman, a law professor who leads Claremont's Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, issued a blanket claim that Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin violated Article II of the US Constitution by allowing some absentee ballots to be counted in the 2020 presidential election, and that their state legislatures should, therefore, nullify the election and appoint their own slates of electors to choose the next president....
"Politicians may fear the wrath of Trump's legion of followers if they speak out, but what is it that drives the 'thinkers' like Bennett and Eastman?"
That's the question that has been haunting me for the past few years. I expect politicians to bend with the wind and am pleasantly surprised on the rare occasions when they don't. I understand that the talk radio demagogues and the online clickbait chasers have chosen a business model in which they pretend to lead while they slavishly follow the whims of their audience. But the people I can't understand are the highbrow intellectuals, usually with secure sinecures, who don't have to go with the flow but still do.
This isn't a product of mere external pressure. It's the product of some kind of internal fault—a combination of second-handed conformism and a hitherto disguised ideological sympathy for authoritarianism.
I'll have more to say about that in my end-of-the-year roundup next week. It's a smaller, slower story than the election but is probably more important in the long run—and it's one of the developments I'll be tracking in the next year.
2. "Hipster Trustbusters"
I cut my teeth as a young political writer by skewering the absurdities of antitrust law, particularly in the field of technology. Back then, it was the claim that Internet Explorer was going to help Microsoft totally dominate this newfangled World Wide Web. (Explorer was a Web browser, like Safari or Chrome. I feel the need to explain this because as far as I can tell, nobody uses it any more.)
Similarly, I have invited viewers to quake at the unbreakable market dominance of AOL and Barnes & Noble.
The new antitrust suits against Facebook provide some of the same absurdities. My favorite is New York Attorney General Letitia James, who is behind one of these suits, complaining that Facebook has "used its monopoly power to crush smaller rivals and snuff out competition." She posted this on Twitter—a competitor to Facebook.
Similarly, the supposed "smoking gun" in this case comes from internal memos about Facebook's attempt to ward off a rival social media platform launched by Google—which is also facing an antitrust suit. Pretty soon, we're going to have a whole raft of technology companies vigorously competing against each other while all simultaneously being accused of being "monopolies."
Is Twitter really a competitor to Facebook? Well, they are both part of the "attention economy," which means that they are competing for our attention. So every minute I spend on Twitter, God help me, is one that I don't spend on Facebook. But the old trick for antitrust prosecutions is to define a company's business so artificially that you include only the examples that support your case and exclude all the examples that undermine it. So we get a case based on the argument that when Facebook bought Instagram it was eliminating a dangerous competitor, but that Twitter and other platforms are not Facebook's competitors.
This is a notorious problem with anti-trust. Is McDonald's a competitor of Taco Bell? it depends on how narrowly you define your categories: just "fast food" or "fast-food burgers joints"? It's like how advertisers have figured out that every car can be "best in its class" if you define the class narrowly enough. Every company can be a dangerous "monopoly" if you define its business narrowly enough.
Still, the case against Facebook faces a special challenge: the fact that Facebook is free and completely voluntary. There is not a single person in the world who really needs to be on Facebook. So how can they be exploiting consumers?
Answering this requires some creativity on the part of the pro-regulation faction, and the solution for a new batch of "hipster trustbusters" has been to make antitrust rules even more subjective.
"Since the Reagan administration, government antitrust enforcers have largely viewed the Sherman Act—the government's main legal basis for antitrust cases—through the lens of economics and market efficiency. If a monopolist doesn't hurt consumers by charging higher prices and reducing output, there isn't any reason to deem its actions illegal.
"Those days may be over. The rise of large, networked enterprises such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon, which derive their power by amassing huge numbers of customers via telecom networks, as well as the recognition that globalization has exacerbated income disparities and depressed wages for ordinary Americans, have changed how a new group of young legal scholars view antitrust law. Instead of focusing on market efficiency, they are focused on market fairness. The so-called hipster trustbusters maintain that antitrust law should not only consider consumer welfare as measured by efficiency, price, and output, but should take into account how new industry structures create powerful economic actors that stifle upstart competitors and wield unprecedented political power....
"Up against the hipsters are antitrust experts who have adopted the 'consumer welfare' standard for evaluating antitrust law developed 40 years ago by the late Robert Bork, the onetime Supreme Court nominee who followed the Chicago school of economics. Championed nowadays by Virginia's conservative George Mason University law school..., the Bork approach uses economic analysis to bring logical reasoning to antitrust legal decisions.
"Until then, a company hit by an antitrust suit was at the whim of a judge who may or may not buy into whatever theory of competition the plaintiff or defendant presents. Bork adherents are horrified by the hipsters, who, they say, will turn back the clock and use antitrust laws to solve a host of vague social ills that the law is ill prepared to address."
That is exactly what is going on here. The "hipster trustbusters" have developed a theory in which antitrust can be invoked as a justification to attempt to reverse basically any market outcome that somebody doesn't like.
This is what every power-lusting politician has longed for—on the left, of course, but also now increasingly on the right. It was Attorney General Bill Barr, after all, who is reported to have pushed for the launch of the Facebook case. And notice specifically what this theory of antitrust empowers the government to target: "Companies could be forced to provide documentation on how a merger or acquisition might affect wages, wage growth, and even political power."
Ah, yes, it all makes sense now. Statist academics are scheming to give politicians the power to target private companies for nakedly political reasons. In Facebook's case, that motive is obvious. Politicians on both sides are angry at social media companies, for different specific reasons. The left wants social media companies to blacklist the political speech of people on the right. The right wants to force social media companies to broadcast their favorite conspiracy theories. In either case, Facebook's real offense is that it is an avenue of political discussion that the politicians would like to control.
Antitrust is just an excuse to do that.
3. Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists
The irony here is that the biggest thing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is doing to quash his competitors he is doing with the approval of the pro-regulation politicians.
Zuckerberg knows that there is a mania in Washington for regulation of social media, and like many a businessman before him, rather than opposing regulation categorically and on principle, he is going for regulatory capture.
What is regulatory capture? It is when a regulated company, usually the largest and most established firm in the field, seeks to influence and "capture" the authority that regulates it, harnessing government as a weapon against its competitors.
That's what Zuckerberg has been trying to do by endorsing a re-write of the Section 230 rules that made the modern Internet possible. (For a primer on Section 230 and its many misinterpretations, see here.)
"Facebook supports rewriting Section 230, and it's starting to lay out the changes it wants. That's the big takeaway from a nearly four-hour grilling of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. The point was quickly lost in a pre-election political scuffle—but in the coming months, it'll be one of the most important things to watch....
"If Facebook starts lobbying for the PACT Act, that's potentially a big deal. Facebook was a key backer of FOSTA-SESTA, a bill that removed Section 230 protections for content violating anti-prostitution laws. That bill became law in 2018, and Facebook itself was fairly well-equipped to deal with the changes—while smaller sites like Craigslist got hit hard. The PACT Act could have similar effects. Facebook already has a legion of moderators and a policy team that releases detailed transparency reports. A smaller site could have far fewer resources. The PACT Act has a 'small business provider' exception, but it's a fairly narrow one."
We need the big guys like Facebook to stand up to the government to protect the freedoms the little guys rely. Instead, they're calculating about how to make friends with the government at the little guys' expense. Once again, as Ayn Rand predicted, we're going to have to save capitalism from the capitalists.
4. Planning for the Next Pandemic
I pointed out a while back that the COVID-19 vaccines, which are just about to go into distribution now after emergency authorization from the FDA, were actually developed in the early days of the pandemic. Everything since then has just been the time required for the clinical trials to prove the vaccines' safety and effectiveness.
This is necessary, because a vaccine with significant side-effects could potentially cause more damage than the disease itself. (A COVID vaccine developed in Australia was dropped when it caused false positives on HIV tests, interfering with diagnosis and treatment of that disease.) A vaccine that is ineffective could produce a false sense of security.
So this process cannot be skipped—but could it be sped up? Here's an interesting argument for that.
"For all of modern medical history, Christakis writes in Apollo's Arrow, vaccines and cures for infectious disease have typically arrived, if they arrive, only in the end stage of the disease, once most of the damage had already been done and the death rate had dramatically declined. For measles, for scarlet fever, for tuberculosis, for typhoid, the miracle drugs didn't bring rampant disease to a sudden end—they shut the door for good on outbreaks that had largely died out already. This phenomenon is called the McKeown hypothesis—that medical interventions tend to play only a small role compared to public-health measures, socioeconomic advances, and the natural dynamics of the disease as it spreads through a population. The new coronavirus vaccines have arrived at what counts as warp speed, but not in time to prevent what CDC director Robert Redfield predicts will be 'the most difficult time in the public-health history of this nation,' and do not necessarily represent a reversal of the McKeown hypothesis: The country may still reach herd immunity through natural disease spread, Christakis says, at roughly the same time as the rollout of vaccines is completed. Redfield believes there may be 200,000 more American deaths to come. This would mean what Christakis calls a 'once-in-a-century calamity' had unfolded start-to-finish between the time the solution had been found and the time we felt comfortable administering it. A half a million American lives would have been lost in the interim. Around the world, considerably more.
"A layperson might look at the 2020 timelines and question whether, in the case of an onrushing pandemic, a lengthy Phase III trial—which tests for efficacy—is necessary. But the scientists I spoke to about the way this pandemic may reshape future vaccine development were more focused on how to accelerate or skip Phase I, which tests for safety. More precisely, they thought it would be possible to do all the research, development, preclinical testing, and Phase I trials for new viral pandemics before those new viruses had even emerged—to have those vaccines sitting on the shelf and ready to go when they did. They also thought it was possible to do this for nearly the entire universe of potential future viral pandemics—at least 90 percent of them, one of them told me, and likely more....
"'We do this every year for influenza,' Rasmussen says. 'We don't know which influenza viruses are going to be circulating, so we make our best guess. And then we formulate that into a vaccine using essentially the same technology platform that all the other influenza vaccines are based on.' The whole process takes a few months, and utilizes a "platform" that we already know is basically safe. With enough funding, you could do the same for viral pandemics, and indeed conduct Phase I trials for the entire set of possible future outbreaks before any of them made themselves known to the public. In the case of a pandemic produced by a new strain in these families, you might want to do some limited additional safety testing, but because the most consequential adverse effects take place in the days right after the vaccine is given, that additional diligence could be almost immediate."
If a faster way to develop a vaccine is a huge leap forward, so would be a faster way to test it.
The biggest mistake we're likely to make in 2021 is to celebrate that the global pandemic is over—and then forget the whole issue, rather than using what we have learned this year to plan for a much better response to the next pandemic.
5. "Enlightenment Literature as Foreign Aid"
In a time of rising authoritarianism, I just came across a story about one of the best, most hopeful initiatives attempting to move the world in the opposite direction: an effort to translate books on Enlightenment ideas into Arabic and disseminate them throughout the Middle East.
"Faisal Saeed Al Mutar is working to help his fellow Arabs access greater knowledge and reclaim a measure of dignity into the bargain.... After alighting on American shores, Al Mutar started the not-for-profit Ideas Beyond Borders (IBB) to help make Arab-Muslim lands more hospitable to certain liberal points of view. IBB's mission has been to develop and implement intellectual programs to equip and empower individuals in the region with the sort of knowledge that is never easy to come by in authoritarian states, and is generally treated with extreme prejudice even by many of its advanced thinkers....
"Those acquainted with the history of secular thought will be familiar with some of the material put out by IBB. Modern polemics that undermine faith-based dogmas and make the case for liberal values struck Al Mutar as essential to disseminate in these lands of censorious belief and stifled politics. 'Our primary aim is to spur critical thinking in places where conspiracy theories and all varieties of misinformation are rife,' he recently told me. The works IBB has published include Sam Harris's The End of Faith, Maajid Nawaz's Radical, and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now....
"But it is John Stuart Mill's On Liberty that best illustrates the task Al Mutar has assigned himself. For it is this classic liberal text—the Heterodox Academy version of which IBB will soon publish—in which Mill most cogently advocated for a culture that offered a rich diversity of opinions enabling the pursuit of truth and progress....
"At a time of widespread breakdown in the order of the Middle East, the defiant act of putting banned books, articles, and now videos into greater circulation may come off as weak medicine for what ails Arab lands. But it is also a time when Arab identity has been shaken by the eclipse of last decade's Arab Awakening, and such a modest but noble intellectual effort can help shape a new socio-political identity based on liberal principles for a region badly in need of both."
What I like best is the headline's description of this effort: "Enlightenment Literature as Foreign Aid." I am a foreign policy hawk, but I have to say that if we put a tenth of the effort into spreading powerful ideas as we do into building powerful weapons, we would find a lot less need to employ any of that hardware.
Then again, the reason we're not doing that is because we first need some of that ideological aid to rescue ourselves on the home front first.