"Trillion Dollar Train Wreck"
Five Things You Need to Read Today
Editor's Note: Check out a podcast I did for Symposium about attempts to regulate digital media and the lessons to be learned from the Fairness Doctrine as applied to broadcasters.
One of the points my guest made is about the arbitrariness and political favoritism of these regulations, and here comes a perfect example: a Florida law regulating social media that includes a giant carve-out for companies that own theme parks--a special favor to Disney and Comcast. But who knows who else might get in on this? "I, for one, can't wait to ride the AlgoSwings in GoogleLand and the Infinite Scroll Coaster at Twitter Village." Correction: Doomscroll would be a much better name for a roller coaster.
1. The Stupidest Culture War
As we approach the point where more than 50% of the US population is vaccinated, we're starting to see the coronavirus pandemic wind down. This winter's massive and incredibly deadly third wave is over, and daily deaths and hospitalizations have dropped to levels not seen since last summer's dip after the first wave, when the virus had not yet spread over much of the country. The only thing keeping the pandemic from fading faster is the spread of much more contagious new strains, but the average patient is now younger and less likely to die.
There will still be many deaths from this virus, and many unnecessary deaths, but from now on, that will not be a condition caused by the virus itself. It will primarily be a choice made by those who, for various reasons, are resisting getting the vaccine.
The partisan gap here is wide. The COVID pandemic may be winding down, but the COVID Culture War is forever.
The stupidest part of that culture war--the mask war--has actually been ramping up. Perhaps it is precisely because nobody is going to care about this issue in a few months that people feel they need to put extra intensity into it while they still can.
At any rate, that's why I wanted to pass on some good advice about how to deal with the COVID Culture War from now on, which is to opt out of it. (My only objection in this link is the phrase "believe science" in the headline, words that should never be uttered.)
"A lot has been lost in the past year. Among the losses: people's sanity.
"Consider this bit from Joy-Ann Reid's MSNBC show earlier this week, in which she discusses jogging outside while wearing two masks aftershe's been fully vaccinated.
"Or, if Fox is more your flavor of pundit-heroin, start with this Tucker Carlson clip. Here the Fox host tells viewers that if they see children wearing masks while playing outside it is morally equivalent to witnessing child abuse. 'Call the police immediately,' he insists.
"Like almost everything these days in American life, it feels as if we are stuck between two deranged and morally confused options.
"No, you do not need to wear a mask, let alone two, when you are a vaccinated person outside jogging....
"And no, you absolutely should not call the police or Child Protective Services on parents who still mask their children anymore than you would call the police or Child Protective Services on a child who is wearing elbow-pads while they are running. You might think it's unnecessary, excessive, and a sign of helicopter parenting. It probably is. Here's what you can do instead: Mind your own business."
We'll know the pandemic is really over when people stop feeling the need to have angry, useless arguments over it.
There is actually a lot to discuss about the pandemic as it moves into retrospect here in the US. (And there is a great opportunity for America to earn some good will by becoming a vaccine supplier to the rest of the world, which would also benefit us by suppressing the development of new and potentially more deadly variants.) Some of that discussion should be outside the usual partisan or ideological lines. Even someone as laissez-faire as me still grants that government has some legitimate roles in a pandemic--and even some advocates of big, active government have been willing to acknowledge the many failures of government in its pandemic response.
That's a discussion worth having, and I'll be trying to arrange something along those lines as we get into the summer. Stay tuned.
2. The Politics of Normal Life
For the average voter, the whole sales pitch of the Biden administration is that it is a return to normal. Alas.
Yes, some of the normality is welcome, such as the fact that I don't have to care about the president's Twitter feed because it never says anything but the usual bland political pablum. You have no idea how refreshing that is.
But the "normal" to which he is returning us is the normal of Washington, DC, which is to say: heedless spending on every pork-barrel project and handout politicians can think of. Jonathan Chait--who is all in favor of this--captures the flavor of it.
"Biden has acted as if he decided to slide the presidential public-engagement bar all the way to the bottom and see what happens. In his public communication, he has put forth the most minimal effort that the news media will tolerate without staging a revolt. His interviews are infrequent and mostly news free. Biden's rhetoric does not merely lack for galvanizing qualities; it is actively sedative....
"His proposals may be transformational, but they won't feel transformational to Republicans as long as Biden isn't on their television every hour talking about what a big deal they are.
"In 1920, Warren G. Harding campaigned for president on a promise to end the feverish moral crusades that had defined public life under his predecessor (including wars to save democracy and end a deadly pandemic). His promise to restore 'normalcy' has been attached ever since in the public mind with a downward ratcheting of government's role. Normalcy means inactivity, retreat, the status quo....
"But Biden defined normalcy in a different way. In his Inaugural Address, he called on his country to 'stop the shouting and lower the temperature,' even while proposing dramatic policies to redress long-standing ills.... A cynic may suspect that the president's idealistic vision of a mellow public sphere, in which everybody chills out while he signs a series of historic 13-figure spending bills, contains more than a dollop of self-interest. That is an awfully jaded assumption to make about Saintly Joe Biden. But that suspicion wouldn't be completely wrong. In a way, it's the point."
Now, let's add a few disclaimers here. This is the point in every administration when a sycophantic journalist or commentator offers up a theory about how secretly brilliant the president's strategy is, no matter what the actual reality. So a lot of this talk about how Biden's boring centrist demeanor allows him to implement a "transformative" agenda--other writers have been comparing him to FDR--is overblown puffery.
What I am more interested in this use of the concept "normal," and the extent to which everyone has reverted to the true normal of the politics of our era, which is big government and big spending.
3. "Trillion Dollar Train Wreck"
One of the reasons that of President Biden's legislative accomplishments are overblown is that he really has only one basic policy idea, which is to throw money at everything.
Jim Geraghty lays out Biden's agenda and sums it up as a "Trillion Dollar Train Wreck." Just be clear, the phrase "trillion-dollar" merely establishes the order of magnitude, not the specific amount. (Most ellipses are in the original.)
"What is the Biden presidency? The Biden presidency is...
"...spending $1.9 trillion on the 'American Rescue Plan,' commonly described as 'the pandemic-relief bill,' so you can move on to...
"...a $2.3 trillion 'American Jobs Plan,' commonly described as 'the infrastructure bill,' so you can move on to...
"...a $1.8 trillion 'American Families Plan,' which hasn't gotten a nickname yet, but will probably end up being called 'the education bill' because it pledges to provide, at minimum, four years of free education...
"...so you can move on to the 'Green New Deal for Cities,' which would 'provide $1 trillion for struggling municipalities'...
"...so you can move on to a 'Green New Deal for Public Housing,' which would spent $180 billion to 'retrofit, rehabilitate, and decarbonize the entire nation's public housing stock,' both of which are separate from...
"...the THRIVE Act, which would spend--excuse me, 'invest'--$15 trillion over 15 years to create 'family-sustaining, union jobs across the economy,'...
"Got that? Like the old joke about the turtles, it's massive spending bills, all the way down....
"Just in those first three Mad Libs bills listed up there--'The American [Noun] Plan'--Biden wants to spend an additional $6 trillion beyond what the federal government would ordinarily spend. That's about a third of the entire US economy, all on top of the $4.4 trillion the government spent in 2019, the last non-pandemic year."
But as I've been pointing out, the real story here is not that Democrats want to spend preposterous amounts of money. That's a "Dog Bites Man" headline if ever there was one. The real story is the collapse of the Republican opposition. I like the way this piece in The Dispatch puts it.
"The best way to gauge the success of American political movements is not by the depth to which they shape their native party, but the breadth to which they extend into the opposing side.
"By that standard, the American conservative movement hit its lowest ebb in generations last week. Its success was so towering 25 years ago that Democratic President Bill Clinton embraced smaller government, free trade, welfare reform, and fiscal discipline. Conservatism's failure now is so abject that not only has a new Democratic president repudiated those concepts in his first address to Congress, but the Republican Party that for decades made itself synonymous with the conservative movement also increasingly rejects its core tenets. The tidal shift toward big, activist, progressive government that began even before the financial crisis of 2008 has washed over both parties and left conservatism lost at sea."
I've given reasons for why the conservative movement finds itself in this condition. But my point is that the absence of an effective opposition to big government is the real crisis.
4. Problems of Their Own
The United States is not in a good place right now politically, and given how fast we're determined to eat our seed corn, I'm thinking it's only a matter of time until we're in a bad place economically, too. But it's important to keep this all in context and recognize that our enemies have problems of their own.
Check out this interesting run-down of some of the Chinese government's recent management debacles.
"The first failure was the Belt and Road project--a series of infrastructure projects outside China, mostly supported by loans from Chinese state banks. The idea was to strengthen China's ties with surrounding countries, secure resource availability, and hopefully provide a market for Chinese companies as well.
"But the project has been a debacle from the very start. In a Bloomberg post last December, I detailed its many missteps:
"From its inception, the program began to run into difficulties.... [M]any of the [infrastructure] projects that China financed [in Africa] were not well-thought-out, leading to a predictable wave of defaults. Many countries in Africa and elsewhere are now asking for debt relief, and it looks like China is going to take significant losses."
"I have a theory for why this happened. Chinese officials are used to China, but the rest of the world works differently. In China, farmers can be kicked off their land to make way for construction projects without too much fuss (other than some angry but ultimately inconsequential protests). But if China comes in and pushes governments in Pakistan or Malaysia to boot poor people off their land, either those governments will balk or they'll face blowback. The governments of other countries are probably going to be far less willing than local Chinese officials to sacrifice the livelihoods of their vulnerable populations on the altar of Chinese greatness--both because their social control is less total, and because they themselves don't have nearly as much of a stake in the Chinese system.
"Meanwhile, Chinese planners seemed to do a poor job of selecting and carrying out projects for Belt and Road. This might be simply because supply chains and regulation and labor systems work differently outside of China than in it. Or it might point to some underlying weakness in China's planning capacity. Or it might be a simple isolated case of incompetence."
I've got another theory, which is kind of the obvious one: Maybe the big Chinese infrastructure projects were carried out by corrupt government officials who are more concerned with their place in the political pecking order, or with how much they can divert from these projects into their own pockets, than with actual economic success. But let's continue.
"China's other big government stumble has been the vaccination effort. Earlier this year, China's government, including top health officials, state media, and state-sponsored spam networks, was spreading rumors about the safety and efficacy of US vaccines. Now those rumors look ridiculous, and the efficacy and safety of mRNA vaccines have proven to be second to none. Already countries like Israel have crushed the pandemic using Pfizer's vaccine.
"In fact, it was China's vaccines that ended up not working very well.... The CoronaVac vaccine showed only a 50.4% efficacy in a trial in Brazil--barely over the threshold for usability. The CanSino vaccine did a bit better in its own trials, at 65.7%, but that's still not great. One of Sinopharm's vaccines is supposedly more effective, at almost 80%, but that data has suspiciously not been published....
"[T]hese small failures might be an early warning that the Chinese government will stumble in the herculean tasks that it has set for itself in the coming decade. The 'Made in China 2025' plan and the push to become self-sufficient in semiconductors represent unprecedented forays into national-level industrial policy--something China didn't even have much experience with before around 2010."
China is a country that experienced an extraordinary growth in wealth and power by renouncing Marxism and Maoism and allowing its citizens a much wider degree of freedom. Now that it has achieved this wealth and power, Xi Jinping thinks he can use it to reimpose Maoism. I don't think that's going to work out for him or for his country.
We hear so much about the dominance of "woke" leftism, particularly in the elite universities, that I like to make a point of highlighting the exceptions.
Check out this great article by Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar defending America's Founding, which among other things is a celebration of that watershed year in the history of liberty, 1788. Why 1788? Read on.
"Much of the confusion began in 1913, when the American historian Charles Beard published his muckraking blockbuster, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, the 20th century's most influential work of constitutional scholarship. Beard portrayed the Constitution's leading drafters as moneymen lining their own pockets and those of their elite confreres. In Beard's account, George Washington and company were Gilded Age robber barons avant la lettre, fat cats rigging the rules for themselves and other one-percenters.
"Beard got lots wrong about the personal finances of various Federalists and Anti-Federalists, and it took decades of scholarship to set the record straight. By then, much of the cultural damage had been done....
"The personal finances of the Founders aside, the biggest fact undermining Beard and his disciples has lain in plain sight all along: The Constitution was put to a vote. This is the obvious meaning of the subject, object, and verbs of the document's dramatic opening sentence: 'We the People of the United States...do ordain and establish this Constitution.' And what a vote it was. The breadth and depth of inclusion were stunning--unprecedented and, in hindsight, transformative....
"[I]n 1788, ordinary folk across the continent weighed in on the proposed Constitution with both voices and votes. In eight of the 13 states, the usual property qualifications were lowered or eliminated; nowhere were they raised. In New York, all free, adult male citizens could vote--no race tests, religious tests, literacy tests, or property qualifications. These were not the ordinary rules for ordinary New York elections, but all of America understood the need for a special democratic mandate for the bold plan proposed by Washington and company. Never before had so many people played so direct a role in deciding their collective fate....
"Beard and his disciples missed all of this, and in the process mangled the key events and ideas of the late 1780s. If, as Beard and Zinn claimed, the Constitution was essentially antidemocratic, why did ordinary Americans vote for it? Why did they unanimously elect and reelect its avatar, George Washington, and put into power so many leading Federalists in the first set of elections under the new document?"
Note that this fits in with the somewhat more modern frame of "democracy," an emphasis on voting and majority rule rather than individual rights.
Yet it is still a profound and extraordinary thing for the citizens of a large nation to be asked to approve their own form of government and to do so through a process of rational deliberation.
The job of our intellectuals--and it's nice to see one of them doing it--is to make sure we remember how extraordinary and valuable this is.