Month: May 2015

The Butcher Doctrine


To: The office of the President
Cc: The office of the Sec. of State; the office of the Sec. of Defense; the office of the Chief of Staff
Bcc: The office of the Sec. of the Interior; the office of the Sec. of Homeland Security
Re: The present discontents

Dear Mr. President:

It is a great disappointment to me that no one in your administration could have foreseen the development upon which you’ve called me to advise. But far be it from me to accuse anyone of being willfully misinformed of the present state of the country they are tasked with running, and far be it from me to set a distinguishing line between relevance of and distraction with expansion-friendly policies outside of its borders. They always tell us we never stop learning, I guess they just left it to us to find out just how hard the lessons get.

On the other hand, the striking subtlety of the development of the crisis is rather unique. It seems even residents of the states in question did not take notice when display of the stars and stripes was re-raised under or replaced with state flags on all public buildings, or that some of those state flags had been markedly redesigned. Nor, it seems, did they bat an eye at the third party waves that swelled in their midterm elections. And they practically shrugged off decrees “nationalizing” the pharmacies, flouting drug laws, FDA regulations, and any vestige of education reform in equal measure. I suppose it was when the tire road blocks went up on their sections of the interstate highways that things started to look off. Or perhaps it was that YouTube video of that cardboard cutout of you being dragged by a pickup truck, being shot at with crossbows, and then roasted on a spit. No one was taking over the post offices so no alarm bells—literally or figuratively—went off. If this is a phase, as some pundits are suggesting, it is looking to be a drawn out and expensive one.

But these things you already know. You ask for advice on dealing with them and you shall have it.

First let me dispel any anxiety you may have that I or anyone else question your confidence or abilities. Clearly this is not the case. Yes, I didn’t actually vote for you myself, but clearly many others did. Every four years American voters go into the ballot booths, their minds alight with fires consuming every corner of the nation, and look to determine which of the two most credible candidates will extinguish them most ably. A clear majority left it to you to be the extinguisher. And no doubt for your part were you imagining yourself extinguishing those very same fires, perhaps even practicing Rooseveltian turns on your iPhone on the campaign bus. This is natural for every American, whether candidate or voter. The overlap here is very rare and would be precious if it didn’t feed into this particular problem.

America’s history is chain-linked with destruction-redemption narratives. If it is not a trait unique to us it is certainly a habit. This puts pressure on a chief executive to distinguish him or herself in the pantheon of his or her predecessors. It sends Presidents off on hunting expeditions for the next great nation-defining existential crisis, or worse it attracts singularly obsessive sociopaths to the office. These Presidents, however, are a few and privileged sort. For the rest of them, crises come with the timing of their stays. There is a reason, for instance, why James Madison is chiefly remembered for fathering the Constitution and why James Buchanan is barely remembered for anything at all. Your administration is being defined on this line as I am writing. Since subversion of the union is your crisis, I suspect people have been directing you to look to Lincoln. I would advise that you look carefully.

Seeing as how you—and several other candidates you defeated—announced your candidacy on April 2015, amid the 150th anniversaries of the Confederate surrender and Lincoln’s assassination, that legacy could not have been far from your or any other hopeful’s mind. But in your position you’ll need to search within yourself to see if you’re able, and not just willing, to meet the demands of a Lincolnian situation. Lincoln was a remarkably self-aware dictator, but he was a dictator all the same. He stretched the role of the executive beyond previously accepted confines. Under his leadership, the side being rebelled against was more radical than the side rebelling. The self-inflicted cosmetic surgery of that war was almost Ballardian really. Beneath his soothing, merciful rhetoric lays the longstanding trauma of his victory. The federalized republic is no less fictive than Westeros compared to the centralized superstate that has since emerged. To modern Americans, the indivisibility of the country is fact; its continental contours are granted; executive power is enshrined; they themselves are willingly chained to its ground in binds of satin.

Lincoln’s America has been one with a ferocious hunger for changes social, cultural, ancestral, and material, held together by his sentiment and his war’s trauma. If those seem like unworkable contradictions for a country as vast as ours that’s because they are. Congratulations, Mr. President, the trauma has been overcome, and the darkness has fallen on your watch. At least you have some choice in whether it shall be followed by dawn or by pitch blackness.

The situation, then, calls for a solution of Lincolnian magnitude, and here you can be the first President to actually not make the error of confusing Lincolnianism for simply repeating what Lincoln did but on a larger scale. The Civil War was a transgressive act; your policy for wringing order out of disorder must be also.

Allowing for secession is out of the question. Forget the Supreme Court; the American people will not tolerate any state or region to leave the Union. There would surely be a new name for the panic to be felt by those Americans who still believe in the enforced neighborliness between the states. The armed forces will be stretched to their limits containing both your own citizens and the rebelling citizens.

Unilateral expulsion, on the other hand, is an untried but far worthier alternative. If there is nothing in American history on which to found its logic we, like some of our federal judges, can look to other nations for precedent. Many forget that Singapore came into existence by being expelled from Malaysia. The Czech Republic and Slovakia are the results of a bitter but amicable “divorce.” Even if the partition of Northern Ireland was almost entirely out of Ireland’s hands, lifting it through consent alone seems ever more remote. It can, and in this case, must be implemented here. You would do well not to expel all the conflicted states, perhaps one or two at first, maybe those with the least to be gained from you resource-wise if you’re not feeling too risky. This will send the message to the rest of them of your seriousness, and also prevent them from confederating. They will own their resources, they will own their social and economic conditions, they will own all the military equipment we gave their police departments that they would surely use against us if we came to blows.

Your authority grants this, and your resolve in doing so will decide how easily it can be questioned. The object of your conflict, if one has not yet been determined, is preservation of individual life and property. You yourself once tweeted that “America is the first power in history motivated by a desire to expand freedom rather than its own territory.”

A great President distinguishes him or herself from a caretaker President by being less concerned with reelection prospects and more concerned with being the last President, period. If this policy makes you just that, there’s little that can be done besides owning up to it. Encouraging and preserving harmony between current and former Americans is the task left to you, whether you want it or not. They will, in all likelihood, stand athwart you, and vanquish you, hopefully in just the polls. They will demonize you and try to erase your very being from its history. They will call you “America’s butcher,” though that is still a notch up from “American butcher”. If dealt with properly, with mercy and self-awareness, this will subside. Lincoln will have been overcome by a new New Birth of Freedom. And after a long line of American Churchill aspirants, an American Gorbachev is preferable to, say, an American Humungus.

[Author’s note: this piece was adapted from an entry of my newsletter, Black Ribbon Award, which you can subscribe to here, if you’re so inclined.]


Don’t reach for your revolver

Hermann Göring is apocryphally reported to have proclaimed, “When I hear the word ‘culture,’ that’s when I reach for my revolver.” Reading our public discourse surrounding the notion of “culture,” I’m disturbed to find myself momentarily sympathizing with the sentiment of Göring’s misattributed quotation.

“Culture” is now reduced to yet another frontier in the backwater battlefield of Internet debate between, for example, those who claim “the only way to break the cycle of poverty is to fix the culture of poverty” on the one hand, and those who scorn any “cultural explanations of inequality” whatsoever on the other.

But we would do well to think more deeply about culture than these Manichean treatments are able to do. It is vitally important today to try and understand what culture is, how it underlies and forms our communities, how we are responsible for acting as stewards for our culture, and how to understand cultures other than our own.

The explicit dismissal of arguments that appeal to culture, as in the case of the Jacobin essay, reveals a lack of appreciation for culture’s relevance as a way of understanding the workings of society that is not uncommon on the left. And in the case of the National Review piece, culture is treated so quickly and superficially as to reduce its profound importance and complexity, a trend I have noticed in other conservative analyses.

Such insouciance about culture from across the political spectrum points to our preference for quantitative and scientific methods of understanding. For example, we are told we can only comprehend the origins of poverty either through the cold economic analysis of class conflict, or instead by appreciating the importance of culture merely as “the upshot of two fascinating new studies” by a team of Harvard economists.

Thinking more seriously about culture than these journalistic examples have done requires seeing, as the American philosopher Stanley Cavell put it, that “the human creature’s basis in the world as a whole…is not that of knowing, anyway not what we think of as knowing.” Dismissing the importance of culture in favor of economic analysis, or appreciating culture merely as a byproduct of phenomena that can otherwise be quantitatively catalogued, comes as a result of seeing the human basis in the world solely in terms of knowing.

What Cavell and other thinkers who take culture seriously want us to see is that humans are more than just knowers. Our existence cannot be explained or understood by means of numbers alone, that way of knowing which seems most widely respected today. And part of the qualitative aspect of our existence is culture, a byword for something like the sum of history, tradition, language, religion, community, law, and the symbolic expressions of the arts, sciences, and humanities. These aspects of our existence are wider and fuller than – though frequently compatible with – the acquisition of knowledge.

So I am very cautiously heartened by efforts such as the Humanities in the Public Square project announced last month by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which intends to “put humanities scholars in direct dialogue with the public on some of the most pressing issues of today.”

I am by no means suggesting humanists are uniquely positioned to be insightful about important public issues – a dubious proposition, as countless counterexamples would demonstrate. And indeed the emphasis in the NEH project on established scholars might skew it towards certain obvious institutional and ideological biases. But I nevertheless think the input of those who study culture, taken in its broadest sense, could only increase the diversity of views in our national conversation, by expanding the relatively narrow confines of the prevalent expert culture, which will always privilege some forms of knowledge over others, and refocus attention on a theme of the most profound relevance.

Against the best efforts of culture’s despisers, we should restore culture’s rightful place as an integral means of social understanding and explanation. When you hear the word “culture,” don’t reach for your revolver just yet.

Pete Davis on the Soul of Facebook Venting

Over at the porch:

“Perhaps we see in those upsetting anecdotes a post-Protestant demon — social sin peeking out from behind the social order. Perhaps the tension that must be vented is our uncertainty in the presence of such sin: Am I going to be tricked by this evil or am I going to be aware enough to see it at work? Am I going to become part of it or am I going to reject it? Am I on its side of the great divide or am I on the side of the redeemed?

Facebook venting resolves this uncertainty. By pasting a link to a news story and properly identifying the social evil at work – “This is racism!” “This is bigotry!” “This is evil!” – you stand at the digital altar and testify to your awareness of social sin. By ranting against the news story, you validate that you have rejected this sin, broadcasting that you belong among the redeemed. When you click submit, your uncertainty about your moral goodness is temporarily washed away: you can proceed with confidence that you are one of the elect. …

Of course, the reality is that we cannot be deeply involved in addressing every social ill that bothers us and we are still going to be tempted to rant on Facebook when we see upsetting news. For such moments, here’s an idea for an alternative form of Facebook venting: the next time we want to release the tension from an upsetting news story, we should (1) take time to find and research a person or organization actively working to heal the underlying social ill about which we are upset, (2) donate $5-10 to them and then (3) post about their work and our donation to them.”

Big government and economic development

Noah Smith has an interesting piece on big government and economic development. Namely, there is a strong correlation between the size of government and economic development. The bigger the government, defined as government spending as a percentage of GDP, the richer the country. This relationship is fairly strong. Take, for example, the Economic Freedom Index published by the Fraser Institute. The index is constructed by five metrics, size of government, property rights, sound money, international trade, and regulation. Of these, four are strongly positively correlated with GDP per capita. One, size of government, has a negative correlation.

The point being, the typical libertarian story about the importance of government spending on economic development is false, or at least, incomplete. Noah, however, then makes a common error. He confuses size of government with strength of, government. State capacity, as it is commonly described in the economics literature, is not necessarily defined by government spending as percentage of GDP. Think of state capacity as the ability of a state to get things done. Singapore, for example, has a great deal of state capacity, yet the size of government is small compared to other developed countries, 17% compared to 40% for the UK.

It is possible to have a small government that is strong, a big government that is strong, and a small government that is weak. It is very difficult to have a big government that is weak. This is because a weak government is unable to tax enough of the economy for it’s spending to qualify as a big government. This dynamic creates a bias where big governments are going to be relatively well off because they have strong states which boost economic growth.

I also think Noah is mistaken when he identifies public goods as the reason big government is necessary. Examining America’s budget, it is clear only a fraction of it is spent on public goods in the traditional sense. The big ticket items, military spending, social security, medicare, are not public goods. The latter two are transfers, and America’s military spending does not count as a public good (for Americans at least). Even railroads, which Noah mentions and are generally considered to have been one of the most transformative innovations, only increased GDP in 1890 by 2.7%. Given that rich and poor countries are separated by wealth magnitudes of 30 or more, a 3,000% increase, it would take 1200 public goods on the order of railroads to account for the disparity in wealth.

A more plausible explanation for the importance of state capacity is free trade, though in a fairly roundabout way. States are better thought of as a coalition of different interest groups. In the middle ages, this group was a number of local lords, princes, etc. Each of these territories would impose a small tax. Even though each tax was small, the sum was large, making trade prohibitively expensive in many cases. State capacity is important because a strong state would be able to crush these local taxing authorities, creating an internal free trade zone. Britain, for example, had higher tariffs than France during the first half of the 20th century, when the industrial revolution began. Britain’s advantage was far freer internal trade.

In the modern world there are no longer local princes and lords. There are largely analogous actors though. Latin America, which I am more familiar with, has extremely strong unions. Mexico, for example, only recently eliminated the practice of buying and selling teaching positions. This was heavily protested by the teachers union. These interest groups protect their rents, ensuring low economic growth. A weak state is dominated by these interest groups. A strong state is able to overcome them.

Republicans should give up because Hillary will win 2016

Our illustrious purveyor Jordan Bloom recently made a great case for putting South Carolina senator and dandy Lindsey Graham in the Oval Office. His commentary is a must-read, if only for the utter hopelessness of making Graham America’s first official dictator. You see, the 2016 election is over. Better start looking forward to 2024.

Come January 20, 2017, we’ll welcome Hillary Clinton to the White House.

I have a running bet with a friend: the former first lady and secretary of state will be the next president of the United States. An October surprise aside, Clinton has this thing in the bag. The Republican bench for 2016 is as good as ever, but it matters little. Politics is tribal. Self-identifying Republicans and Democrats will vote straight ticket. Independents are the key to victory, and the Clinton campaign theme will resonate more with them than anyone named Paul, Cruz, Rubio, or Bush.