Mind Your Own Business
Five Things You Need to Read Today
1. What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen
The main legacy of the pandemic in the US has been a series of weird lurches in the labor market and in the market for a variety of other goods, most notably lumber, where prices are just beginning to fall off from astronomical highs a few months ago.
Maybe some of this is inflation beginning to show up—the federal government has certainly been spending enough trillions to trigger some inflation—or maybe the price surge is temporary. But of course the federal government has been making things worse, thanks to a totally insane retroactive tariff system.
"[The Commerce Department] has published preliminary findings in the second AD/CVD administrative review, more than doubling the combined duty rate on Canadian lumber imported into the United States (from 8.99% for 2018 to 18.32% for 2019). This result shows three key concerns that I raised in my previous post....
"[B]ecause the United States applies a 'retrospective' system for collecting duties on imports subject to AD/CVD orders, the new duty rate announced last week for lumber (assuming it's confirmed in final results expected in November) would not apply to imports currently being imported but instead to lumber already imported back in 2019. Where final duty rates for those products end up higher than the estimated rates applied at the time of importation, US importers (who have no control over the process) would be on the hook for the difference. Where the change is significant (as it often is), it can result in millions of dollars in new and unexpected duty liability. Importers will also be forced to increase their cash deposits on imports now coming in (in line with the higher rate), but they won't know for years—when Commerce finishes its 2021 review—if they owe US Customs more or less in final duties. All of this creates even more financial uncertainty for importers, further discouraging them (especially smaller ones) from importing lumber from Canada.
"Finally, that Commerce doubled duty rates while lumber prices are sky high (and perhaps threatening the US economic recovery) again shows how insulated the AD/CVD process is from economic reality."
I think we should also be looking at more than mere political explanations for this phenomenon. Instead, a large part of the explanation is the economics of the seen and the unseen.
What the average person sees when they go to the store is the goods on the shelves and their prices. What they do not see is the massive global supply chain behind it. It's a complex network of suppliers, buyers, shippers, and brokers, and the reason you don't normally notice it is that this is all working smoothly behind the scenes and changes in supply and price happen so gradually that you don't notice them among the vicissitudes of normal life.
But the supply chains operate smoothly because they are optimized for normal patterns of production and consumption. When the whole system goes haywire, as in a pandemic, those normal patterns are profoundly disrupted. We saw this early in the pandemic with toilet paper, a product whose consumption is usually pretty constant, so that producers didn't feel the need to operate with a big margin of reserve capacity. That can cause an acute shortage when we all suddenly decide to stock up, causing an unprecedented spike in demand.
A lot of the chaos we're seeing right now is the same thing, but on the other end of the pandemic. Markets that were disrupted—the job market for waitstaff, the market for construction materials—are now returning back to normal. The problem is that nobody knows what "normal" is going to look like, and they won't know until they spend months, possibly years, testing it out.
Put another way, the smooth operation of markets is a vast and hidden achievement built up over years, and we only notice it at times like now, when these complex but invisible systems have to be rebuilt.
2. The Wars of the Tribes
Every five to ten years, American politics tends to take on a distinctive set of obsessions, sometimes for valid reasons, sometimes for stupid reasons. During the early 2000s, for example, it was the War on Terror, for obvious reasons. During the late 2000s and much of the Obama administration, it was the Tea Party movement and the rebellion against intrusive and rapacious Big Government. Since 2014 or so, the focus of politics has been the Great Culture War. In retrospect, the turning point was probably about here.
I can't entirely fight against this. When everybody stampedes in a new direction, it has real consequences that we need to be aware of and guard against. But we should recognize that the pattern can be deceptive. Behind the culture war battles, a lot of what is really going on will be incremental victories for "boring old liberalism," and by this I mean 20th-Century "liberalism," i.e., advocacy of an ever-growing welfare state.
Then again, that may be better than some of the alternatives.
"[A]n increasingly visible strain of progressive activism has certainly had a measurable effect on perceptions of the American political climate. But so far, its ability to directly impose policy has been mostly restricted to non-governmental institutions controlled by the highly-educated cultural left, such as media companies and liberal arts colleges. The new progressive style has yet to find a secure foothold in elective politics, even in Blue America—where are the socialist state governors? the leftist big-city mayors?—despite plenty of confident assertions that the Bernie Sanders campaigns and the AOC-aligned 'Squad' foreshadow the near-term future of the Democratic Party."
I'll have more updates on this below. The good news is that the Biden administration's legislative agenda has generally been moving slowly. In the meantime, we're waiting for the culture war fever to break so we have more bandwidth to deal with everything else.
I've been predicting that what will break it is a rebellion, not just from the center-left, but from black intellectuals, entertainers, and just normal citizens who realize the destructive implications of the ideas being advocated in their name (but without their permission).
So we see parents like this one showing up at school board meetings.
"Last week, a concerned mother, Keisha King, demolished [Critical Race Theory"] during a Florida school board meeting, arguing that CRT is racist.
"'It is sad that we are even contemplating something like Critical Race Theory, where children will be separated by their skin color and deemed permanently oppressors or oppressed in 2021.
"'Telling my child or any child that they are in a permanent oppressed status in America because they are black is racist, and saying that white people are automatically above me, my children, or any child is racist as well,' King righteously pointed out. 'This is not something that we can stand for in our country.'"
But the most interesting recent case is that of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian feminist novelist who has been widely celebrated and showered with awards. Yet if there is one iron rule of the Culture War, it is that you will never be woke enough.
Here's Cathy Young with the details.
"Seven years ago, early in the social justice revolution of the 2010s, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was one of that revolution's icons. Her call to arms ('We should all be feminists') was incorporated into Beyoncé's song 'Flawless' and showcased at the 2014 MTV Music Awards, with the word FEMINIST looming large in neon letters. Today, as the revolution rolls on, Adichie has emerged as a voice of dissent—or, to detractors, a voice for bigotry.
"Adichie recently caused controversy with a long essay titled 'It Is Obscene: A True Reflection in Three Parts.' The piece is a cri de coeur against the self-righteous zealotry of current social justice politics, particularly online, and against what has come to be known as 'cancel culture.'"
Check it out. Partly, this is about about some petty office politics among social-climbing African writers. (The continent is finally clawing its way up into the middle class and is acquiring the dysfunctional literary community that seems to go along with that achievement.) But there are some fiery words about the current obsession with orthodoxy.
"There are many social-media-savvy people who are choking on sanctimony and lacking in compassion, who can fluidly pontificate on Twitter about kindness but are unable to actually show kindness. People whose social media lives are case studies in emotional aridity. People for whom friendship, and its expectations of loyalty and compassion and support, no longer matter. People who claim to love literature—the messy stories of our humanity—but are also monomaniacally obsessed with whatever is the prevailing ideological orthodoxy. People who demand that you denounce your friends for flimsy reasons in order to remain a member of the chosen puritan class.
"People who ask you to 'educate' yourself while not having actually read any books themselves, while not being able to intelligently defend their own ideological positions, because by 'educate,' they actually mean 'parrot what I say, flatten all nuance, wish away complexity.'...
"And so we have a generation of young people on social media so terrified of having the wrong opinions that they have robbed themselves of the opportunity to think and to learn and to grow....
"What matters is not goodness but the appearance of goodness. We are no longer human beings. We are now angels jostling to out-angel one another. God help us. It is obscene."
Elsewhere, Adichie tells The Guardian, "there is a new liberal [sic] political orthodoxy that I believe will stifle art, particularly literature, in America."
"Will Trumpism be the subject of literature? I'm sure it will be. But will it succeed as art? I doubt it. Because it would require, for example, the acknowledgment of a Trump-supporting character as fully human, and I can already imagine a fiction writer getting panicky at the thought of a social media backlash for the crime of 'enabling the evils of Trump' or something of the sort. Ideological purity is dangerous and is becoming the lens through which many approach storytelling in America."
What she is warning against is the relentless didacticism that has been adopted by much of the highbrow artistic establishment.
Watching the spread of the "woke" orthodoxy, it is easy to see it as a vast united front supported by a broad consensus. But it is a doctrine of tribalism, so it inevitably succumbs to the wars of the tribes, fragmenting into hostile factions engaged in endless battles with one another.
What got Adichie in trouble was that she used ever-so-slightly unfashionable words to talk about transgender people, and she defended J.K. Rowling's comments on the issue. That put her on the wrong side of the most intolerant and aggressive tribe of all, the transgender activists.
To get a sense for this intolerance, here's another dispatch from Cathy Young, who has made a niche out of chronicling the wars of the woke tribes.
"On June 15, the website Science-Based Medicine posted a mostly positive review of Abigail Shrier's book, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, by Harriet Hall, retired physician, former US Air Force flight surgeon, and skeptic blogger who writes about alternative medicine and quackery.
"Two days later, after intense and angry pushback in the comments and on Twitter, the article was removed—at first pending review by the editors 'due to concerns expressed over its scientific accuracy and completeness,' then permanently."
It's a sign of our times that a journal of "science-based medicine" would subordinate its editorial judgment to the requirements of politics.
The most interesting response, and the best guide for how to fight back against this new orthodoxy, comes from Shrier herself, writing at Bari Weiss's blog. Her response is predominantly about the timidity of the silent majority that lets itself be bullied by the woke minority.
"Half of Twitter seems to think I'm some sort of demon. But if you read my inbox, you'd think I was popular, awash as I am in secret fan mail and 'silent supporter' notes.
"Here is an entirely typical example—one of hundreds I've received over the last year:
"'Hi, Mrs. Shrier, I just wanted to drop you a quick note thanking you for your bravery. It might surprise you to know that I work for a prominent progressive politician (obviously I could never express my support for your work publicly). But it should be known that not everyone on the Left has totally lost their mind.'
"The author turned out to be a senior staffer for a popular 2020 Democratic presidential candidate. But the email itself was a version that I've come to expect: I agree with you, though I couldn't possibly say so publicly. I have a job to think of, a reputation to uphold, children to put through college, a mortgage to pay, promotions to gun for, a spouse to please, friendships to maintain. All of the trappings of a comfortable life....
"The fear these silent supporters express is rational. Even the most ordinary comments can get you branded as persona non grata, some flavor of 'phobe' or 'ist.' Hardly a week goes by without a story of some professor being reprimanded, a starlet losing a job, or a young reality TV figure abjectly apologizing for something he said that was completely obvious and true. Others have faced more profound threats—parents to the custody of their children, journalists and even editors of scientific journals to their physical safety. People I respect have lost livelihoods and marriages.
"And so, for over a year, I responded to those silent supporters with thanks and reassurance. You don't have to speak out, just send me your documents—I will expose it for you. No need to stand up for me publicly, just tell me what you know. For a while, this seemed a decent bargain....
"And it is easy to justify our silence. We tell ourselves that we are protecting our families by remaining quiet and in the short-term, and we may be. But we are also handing our children over to a culture in which freedom of conscience and expression are drowned out. We are teaching our children that truth shouldn't be our primary concern—or at least, that truth is negotiable or subordinate to being agreeable. They are learning that it is more important to remain acceptable to the powerful than to be truly free....
"The first hundred or so silent supporter emails meant the most to me. They made me feel less crazy and less alone. But the inescapable reality is that defeating this ideology will take courage. And courage is not something that can happen in private. Courage requires each one of us to speak up, publicly, for what we believe in. Even when—especially when—it carries costs."
I've been involved in my own share of controversies, and I'm very familiar with these messages from "silent supporters," which can be very encouraging but can sometimes be summed up as: "I'm behind you all the way—hiding."
It's time to stop hiding. The overwhelming majority of people don't want the censorious system of conformity that we're getting, and if we all spoke up at once, we would have nothing to fear.
Then maybe we can get back to a useful discussion about how both major political parties are working together to bankrupt the country.
3. Mind Your Own Business
So what is to be done? Andrew Sullivan has a good overview of the recent media attempt to gaslight us on Critical Race Theory being brought into the schools—to defend it while at the same time pretending that no such thing exists and it's all in our imagination. I won't excerpt that part, but if you've encountered that sort of argument recently, I suggest you follow the link.
He follows that up by talking about what to do and what not to do.
"Many of the bills attempting to ban CRT in public schools are well-intentioned and do not, in fact, ban CRT. But they contain wording to constrain the kind of teaching that is built on CRT that is far too vague, could constrain speech in countless unforeseen ways, and are pretty close to unenforceable. (When people are proposing body-cameras for teachers, you know they've gone off the edge.) Most of these bills, to make things worse, strike me as unconstitutional. And they cede the higher ground....
"[I]t's important to remember: many of those people [in institutions adopting CRT] don't really believe in this stuff; they're just too frightened by a ruthless but tiny minority to do anything about it. And the American people as a whole do not buy this. A new YouGov poll found that Americans oppose CRT by a 58-38 percent margin, with a whopping 53 percent having a 'very unfavorable' view of it. Yes, this is skewed because the subject has become ubiquitous on Fox News, and the MSM is doing all it can to downplay, dismiss, or dissemble on the issue. But a full and wider campaign exposing it, protesting it, and defending liberal education will, I predict, win big majorities.
"This is how democracies work. Illiberal ideologies can come in and quietly and quickly spread, enabled by our own human penchant for tribalism. And at first, they succeed, especially if they have fully captured the elites. But, as the impact is felt on the ground, and as the incidents of extremism mount, the resistance will grow. Let's use liberal means—airing this topic, exposing its arguments, decoding its language, explaining its ultimately totalitarian logic—to beat this illiberal menace in the field of public opinion."
Peter Savodnik provides a great anecdote about how the rallying of a silent majority tends to work.
"In the former Soviet Union before social media, there was a calculus to demonstrating. If you wanted to demonstrate against the regime, and you didn't want to get arrested, you had to wait until enough demonstrators showed up to ensure that the riot police wouldn't be able to arrest them all.
"In other words, you had to wait for the people who were willing to get arrested. But since there weren't many people willing to get arrested, and since it didn't take long to arrest those who were, it was nearly impossible to achieve a critical mass. That was what made the Orange Revolution special: The demonstrators attained critical mass."
Attaining critical mass is going to be much easier in this case, because the punishment is mere social disapproval, and there are a lot of things that are worse than that.
Savodnik goes on to describe one of the most effective counters to Political Correctness, which is simply to mind your own business—literally.
"In Silicon Valley...another kind of revolution is taking shape. A handful of founders and CEOs—Brian Armstrong of Coinbase, Jason Fried of Basecamp, Shopify's Tobias Lütke, Medium's Ev Williams—have said the unsayable. In the face of shop-floor social-justice activism, they've decided, business owners should resolve to stick to business.
"No hashtag coders. No message-board threads about anti-racism or neo-pronouns. No open letters meant to get someone fired for a decade-old tweet. No politics. As Armstrong put it in his famous (or infamous) September 27th, 2020 blog post, business should be 'mission focused.' A software developer explained that the conciliatory approach has become too costly: 'The Slack [stuff], the company-wide emails, it definitely spills out into real life, and it's a huge productivity drag.'
"In October, a pseudonymous group inspired by Coinbase's Brian Armstrong came together under the banner 'Mission Protocol,' with the aim of getting other companies to start 'putting aside activities and conversations' outside the scope of their professional missions.... Paul Graham, a famed venture capitalist and 'hacker philosopher,' tweeted his support to 1.3 million followers. Melia Russell, who covers the startup beat for Business Insider, noted that startups were jumping into the Mission Protocol threads 'with a hell yes.'"
I talked above about how fragmentation into tribal warfare is one of the inherent weaknesses of the woke orthodoxy. This is another one: Its tendency to be a drain on productivity, and therefore on wealth, and therefore—over the long term—a drain on influence.
I don't know if living well is the best revenge; I've never liked that saying, because if you're still fixated on revenge, then you're probably not living well. But living well, and thereby pointing the way to a better way of doing things, is definitely the most constructive answer to an irrational ideology.
4. The Man in the Middle
As I said at the beginning, these culture war clashes could end up pulling a lot of attention away from old-fashioned "liberalism" in the 20th-Century sense, which is to say a whole bunch of bills spending even more trillions that we don't have.
Fortunately, the most conservative Democrats in the Senate—West Virginia's Joe Manchin and Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema—have refused to back elimination of the filibuster and as a result have sunk the Democrats' overreaching election reform, leaving the way open for something more reasonable.
But we have another big ally: President Biden. It's not that Biden's own political preferences are really all that moderate. He would happily spend trillions. It's that Biden is a bumbling loudmouth. Politically, he has two left feet and a penchant for sticking both of them in his mouth.
Hence the spectacle of Biden apparently sinking a bipartisan compromise on his big infrastructure bill.
"After weeks of closed-door negotiations, Mr. Biden strode to the cameras on the White House driveway on Thursday, flanked by an equal number of Democratic and Republican lawmakers, to proudly announce an overall infrastructure agreement totaling $1.2 trillion over eight years that could cement his legacy as a bipartisan deal maker.
"Mr. Biden and his top aides had successfully struck a limited agreement with key centrist senators to rebuild roads and bridges while carefully signaling to liberals that he still intended to embrace a measure—likely to gain only Democratic support—to spend trillions more on climate, education, child care and other economic priorities. It was an 'I told you so' moment for a president who is supremely confident in his ability to navigate legislative negotiations.
"But in a stray comment during a news conference an hour later, the president blurted out that he would not approve the compromise bill without the partisan one. 'If this is the only thing that comes to me, I'm not signing it,' he said, answering a question about the timing of his legislative agenda. 'I'm not just signing the bipartisan bill and forgetting about the rest.'
"It may not seem like much, but it was enough to upend Mr. Biden's proud bipartisan moment. On the one hand, he was saying out loud what liberals [sic] in his party wanted to hear. But to the centrist senators and Republicans, it made explicit a notion that had only been hinted at before—that Mr. Biden not only intended to sign a second, more ambitious package, but that he would also go so far as to veto their bipartisan plan if the larger bill did not materialize."
Biden was quickly forced to disavow the comment, claiming it as an inadvertent gaffe—which, given his history, is totally believable. It's looking like we might still get the bipartisan infrastructure bill, but $1.2 trillion over eight years—$150 billion a year—is a lot smaller than most of the other spending plans Congress has been considering. And if this is what's happening at the beginning of Biden's administration, you can see where this is heading.
Note also how this is a product of Biden's status as the "Man in the Middle," which requires him to try to appease both sides—and he ends up satisfying neither.
5. "The Biggest and Most Important Story in the World"
As a reminder that things can go right, I'll refer you to an interesting podcast on the anniversary of the repeal of the Corn Laws, a regime of economic regulations on agriculture, as an illustration of how free markets make everyone better off. It is one of history's great political achievements.
But I'd prefer to focus on what's going right now, and what caught my eye was a report that the newest "Asian Tiger" is...Bangladesh? That's global capitalism for you. Another country that has long been a byword for poverty is now on the by now well-worn path to prosperity.
"I find most people's thinking about global growth to be remarkably parochial, status-quo biased, and stereotype-driven. By now it's generally taken as given that countries in East Asia are able to ascend rapidly to developed-country status, using a more-or-less traditional approach of export-oriented manufacturing and climbing up the value chain....
"But when it comes to developing countries outside East Asia or the periphery of Europe, I find that discussions of their growth prospects suddenly turn gloomy.... The official reason for pessimism is 'premature deindustrialization,' and there's some concern that labor-intensive manufacturing will be automated away....
"All those skeptics should take a look at Bangladesh. The compact but populous South Asian country has quietly been powering ahead using a very traditional-looking growth model. A Bloomberg article recently reported that Bangladesh has now surpassed both India and Pakistan in terms of GDP per capita. That's an astonishing milestone. In purchasing power parity terms, India is still ahead, but the gap is closing.
"How is Bangladesh managing this feat? Did it manage to create a new type of development model based on services, as Stiglitz recommends? Nope. In fact, it's doing the very same thing that Britain did when it became the first country to industrialize, over two centuries ago. It's making and selling a bunch of clothes."
The author of this piece, Noah Smith, is a center-left economist, though he is one of the more thoughtful and interesting ones. So he partly tries to sell this as a triumph of government-planned "industrial policy." But note what a lot of the policy actually consists of.
"As in many countries, an important part of that strategy entailed designing special economic zones, areas in which regulations, incentives, and basic infrastructure could be provided to ensure conditions for success....
"In addition to SEZs, a series of policies and external factors over the years contributed to the stellar performance of RMG [ready-made garments] exports…The Multi-Fiber Arrangement, which allowed Bangladesh to import quota-free until 2005, provided the initial impetus…The policy of creating a special bonded warehouse system designated RMG as a "100% export-oriented" industry and created a duty-free environment for the sector even though huge tariff and non-tariff barriers affected the rest of the economy. Moreover, effective taxation of earnings from RMG was very low and income from RMG enterprises is exempt from taxes."
So this new Industrial Revolution was based on light regulations, free trade, and low taxes. Imagine that.
But what I really like about Smith's article is his conclusion.
"We should remember that far away from our bickering culture wars and policy debates, the lifting of the world's indigent masses to the safety and comfort of material plenty is still the biggest and most important story in the world."
Looked at that way, both the left and the right in America should be heartily ashamed that they are ignoring this story in favor of their latest culture-war hobby horses.
The world will probably still become a better place. They just won't have had much to do with that.