Wednesday, June 3, 2020

top two problems in the current "racial moment"

IMO, the top two things that are sorely missing from "the debate":
1.) Most folks don't read (or watch TV) "liberally". It's sad in all cases (esp. when diverse media are available to us at such low cost). But it's ironic when folks who trumpet "diversity" (of certain narrow types) are not diverse in what they read, their media sources, how they construct panels to discuss these things, etc. They imagine that they're diverse, tolerant, and educated, when they're uniform, blinkered, and propagandists. Ignorance is rough enough, but it gets really nasty when it's combined with confident self-righteousness.
2.) Folks seem to miss the vital importance of (economic/social) class in these things, deciding to try to stuff everything in the box of race. Arguably, class is a (far) larger consideration. Easy thought experiment: is it easier for you to talk with folks of the same class and a different race-- or the same race and a significantly different class?

Saturday, May 23, 2020

the degeneration of media

Last week on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” moderator Chuck Todd played a clip from a recent CBS News interview with Attorney General William Barr. Unfortunately, the clip had been edited in a way that gave the opposite impression of what Barr was trying to say. NBC was publicly taken to task and has now apologized. 

The fiasco is one more example of general problems we’ve seen over time with the media: a decline in the quality of reporting and news coverage; an increase in media partisanship; and a tendency to pursue viewers through flash and style rather than substance. Their desire to appeal to customers shouldn’t be surprising. Even though our reflex might be to think of media serving “the public interest,” they are certainly passionate about profit and their employees are interested in career advancement. 

The current episode is also an illustration of two concepts in economics: "negative externalities" and “implied cartels.” First, a “negative externality” is a harmful by-product of a person's actions or a market exchange that is imposed on another party. COVID-19 provides a great contemporary example. An infected person is contagious and can spread the virus to others. 

The classic textbook example is pollution. The goal of a company is to produce, not to pollute. But pollution is part of the "bargain" — and unfortunately its costs are imposed on others. For example, when you buy a car from Ford, you're asking Ford to pollute for you. If a negative externality is significant enough, government intervention may be helpful. Then again, government action itself routinely creates significant negative externalities. 

When “Meet the Press” creates buzz for itself and partisan viewers with a fraudulent claim, it causes “pollution” — damage to society. If the fraud is detected, the entire industry is harmed. It also hurts itself, so that's good news in terms of incentives and fairness. But the damage extends well beyond itself. 

Second, the media acts as an “implied cartel.” A cartel is a collusion of sellers or buyers — to manipulate prices and gain more money. (Think about OPEC in oil, the NCAA in college athletics and labor unions in the market for labor.) An implied cartel functions like a cartel but without explicitly organizing. 

Without help from the government, it’s difficult to keep cartels together. The incentives to cheat on the agreement (to gain even more profit) — or to enter the market (to compete with the cartel members) — are too great. As such, it’s common for interest groups to ask government to restrict their competition — to establish or strengthen a cartel.

So, cartels, whether explicit or implicit, are likely to degenerate and fail, if they can form at all. "Black Friday" is a good example. Remember when it started years ago? Businesses opened early on the Friday morning after Thanksgiving and offered special prices. And then, the start of Black Friday moved back to midnight. And then it moved back to Thursday. 

And now, it goes for the entire week. Nobody formed a cartel, but the arrangement acted like a cartel —before it fell apart. 
The media is in a similar position. It had an implied cartel to be relatively objective, fact-oriented and serious. And for a long time, top-tier news providers stayed in line and were punished if they got out of line. But now, this line has eroded tremendously. So, the incentive to cheat the standards of truth and to grab viewer eyes has undermined the credibility of the media over time.

Negative externalities are difficult to stop without government regulation. But government regulation of the press is a troubling solution for many reasons. The best answers are in the market. But if enough people value “news” like this, it’s difficult to imagine how we avoid the continuing degeneration of news. Likewise, media are trying to make a buck. Their “greed” will continue to encourage them to cheat on the cartel — to buck the “standards of journalism” they’re supposed to pursue. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

more porn: food, houses, politics, and COVID

A number of years ago, I read an article describing "food porn"-- and it gave me a new angle to consider the popularity of such shows. Think about the camera work, the appeal to our "appetites", what consumers are looking for, hiding imperfections, its unreality-- and a comparison to (sexual) porn. (The same can be said of the various "house" and remodel shows.)
Now, not nearly all consumption of those shows is pornographic, but some of it is. The same is true of the current moment. A lot of folks have moved from "politics porn" to "covid porn" (or the intersection in many cases). If that's you, do yourself a favor, put down the magazine-- and if you have issues, don't renew the subscription.

Friday, May 1, 2020

COVID and the USPS

You may have heard that the Post Office is in the hospital with COVID-19. Part of the problem is that it has some pre-existing conditions. It enjoyed something of a sheltered and spoiled childhood. But that led it to becoming soft and flabby later in life. It has also endured capricious parenting—with regulations that have made its life more difficult. And it’s grown quite old, so it tends to be stuck on tradition and set in its ways.

Now, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) wants a “bailout”. (Hey, who doesn’t?) It’s been subsidized by taxpayers for years, but things have gotten more serious. The Post Office would be on the way to the ICU and likely death—if not for its rich parents (the federal government—well, taxpayers).

The USPS lost $8.8 billion last year—and this year will be worse. It has been designated as an “essential business”, so it remains open during the lockdowns. Our current macroeconomic woes are making things more difficult. But its problems are clearly persistent and systemic: operating with chronic budget deficits and producing services inefficiently in a sector dramatically impacted by technological advance.

As with some other businesses, its flaws have been more clearly revealed by the crisis. The weaknesses are especially evident when struggling businesses are in sectors that haven’t been hit that hard. They ought to be ok, but are not. Government budgets and pensions are in a similar position. When governments have spent recklessly, then the tough times are that much tougher. You might say that economic downturns tend to reveal the “co-morbidities” in business and government.

Over the last decade, USPS revenues are down slightly. Prices are up and shipping volume has doubled. But marketing mail has dropped a bit; overall mail is down 15%; and 1st class mail is down 30%. On the cost side of the ledger, the Post Office has the same number of workers as in 2013 and 6% more vehicles. It’s difficult to imagine that this makes good business sense in the face of stable revenues and advances in automation.

The Post Office has some inherent advantages. The government subsidizes shipping from overseas, especially China. It also subsidizes magazines and junk mail. (Thanks taxpayers!) And the USPS has been granted a monopoly in first-class mail. (Do you know that you don’t own “your” mailbox?) Having a monopoly is usually helpful for profitability!

But the USPS also faces two key problems. First, their employee compensation includes pensions and supplemental health care to Medicare in retirement. Most of the labor market has transitioned to “defined contribution” plans—where you and/or your company put money into a retirement account that you control. Among other advantages: if your company goes under, you still have your retirement account. But pensions and retirement health care are pay-as-you-go liabilities—promises by an employer to pay retirees as long as they live.
It’s easy to see why the private sector has moved away from these risky plans. But governments and their employees don’t face as much risk. They can bury the costs where the general public won’t pay much attention. And the government’s promises are seen as more secure, since they can tax us.

Beyond that, it’s not clear how such promises pensions should be financed. Actuaries can estimate how much will be needed and how much “should” be set aside—assuming life spans, rates of return, etc. But there is no simple answer to what percentage of anticipated future spending should be “in the bank” today or added each year. In 2006, Congress believed that these plans were dramatically underfunded and responded by drastically increasing the amount that the USPS had to pay into its funds—a significant part of its budget woes since then.

Second, the Post Office’s business model is obviously obsolete. Imagine that you were starting the USPS from scratch. You might offer home delivery for free—once maybe twice per week. (What mail do you receive at home that couldn’t wait a few days?) People could pay for more service if they want. Businesses would be offered a range of paid services. The Post Office wouldn’t receive any subsidies. And it would easily be profitable—with its monopoly in first-class mail and its monopoly power as one of a few companies in the package delivery industry.

Federal provision of mail services is actually encouraged in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. But this doesn’t imply that the government must deliver mail—or do it so inefficiently. Without dramatic changes to its retirement benefits and its business model, it should not receive any more subsidies or a bailout.

UPDATES: 1.) A nice essay by Chris Edwards-- with a greater emphasis on privatization (fine with me) and noting that the USPS is exempt from federal, state, and local taxes. 2.) A good article on USPS real estate holdings / wealth-- which should be leveraged against financial problems and cash flow. 

Monday, April 27, 2020

review of Loconte's "A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War"

If you're into C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, or the impact of the World Wars on society, religion and culture, I'd definitely recommend Joe Loconte's book, A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War. In particular, he details the counter-cultural beliefs of Lewis and Tolkien about faith and free will, war and heroism. Along the way, he also explores the role of "iron sharpening iron" relationships-- friendships, teachers, and authors-- in their faith and their writing.  

Friendship with God and Man

Loconte describes Lewis' faith journey in detail. Well before The Chronicles of Narnia, it begins with an early, growing atheism after being raised in the Anglican church with its "ugly architecture, ugly music, and bad poetry" and sermons that seemed "vapid and irrelevant." (87) With the influence of an early teacher, William Kirkpatrick, Lewis embraced logic and reason (of a sort), defending his atheism with the fashionable arguments of the day (88). For Lewis at the time, Christianity was one false myth among many.  

Lewis' conversion to Christianity had many catalysts. Loconte describes Laurence Johnson, a friend to Lewis during WWI. Johnson was a man of conscience who took his principles for granted and lived them out in a compelling manner (98). After the war, Lewis formed a lifelong friendship with Owen Barfield. They disagreed on everything, but had mutual admiration and challenged each others' thinking. Barfield was especially helpful in convincing Lewis about his bias against tradition and his simplistic embrace of scientism and materialism (126-127). 

Then, Loconte turns to the impact of Lewis' friendship with Tolkien, starting in September 1931. "Their exchange-- an encounter between intensely creative minds over the meaning of Christianity-- should be ranked as one of the most transformative conversations of the 20th century." (129) Their chief debate was over the nature and origins of myths: Lewis believed they were man's effort to understand the world; Tolkien saw them emanating from God to convey something true about the world (130-131). Eventually, Lewis was persuaded that the Dying God had entered history, lived a life, gave his life, and conquered death-- the True Myth-- leading to Lewis' step from one faith to another (133). 

Fifteen years before the fateful conversations with Tolkien, George MacDonald's Phantastes had plowed up the fallow ground of Lewis' imagination-- on myth, aesthetics, creativity, and eventually, the Divine (82-83). MacDonald had a heavy influence on both authors. They "were attracted to the genres of myth and romance not because they sought to escape the world, but because for them the real world had a mythic and heroic quality. The world is the setting for great conflicts and great quests: it creates scenes of remorseless violence, grief and suffering, as well as deep compassion, courage and selfless sacrifice...Their depictions of the struggles of Middle-Earth and Narnia do not represent a flight from reality, but rather a return to a more realistic view of the world as we actually find it." (xvi)

Loconte also discusses the importance of friendship in general. In this, I was reminded of Wesley Hill's fine book, Spiritual Friendship, on the underestimated value of robust relationships. Beyond iron sharpening iron, they advanced each others' professional pursuits. Tolkien helped Lewis secure an academic position and find a publisher for his science fiction (179). Lewis was essential to Tolkien persevering to publish The Lord of the Rings (136) and even nominated him for the Nobel Prize in Literature (179). "It is hard to think of a more consequential friendship in the 20th century." (xiv)

Both also benefited from gathering with sets of friends. "The Inklings" are the most famous example (134), but Loconte discusses other, earlier groups. And the theme of friendship echoes throughout their fiction-- a key theme in both Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. After all, the first volume of the latter includes "fellowship" in its title. 

The friendships also gave them the intellectual and emotional strength to be counter-cultural. They were "swimming against the tide of their times." (xiv) All of this "makes the literary aims of Tolkien and Lewis all the more remarkable: they steadfastly refused the sense of futility and agnosticism that infected so much of the output of their era." (142) But peers helped them blaze that trail. 

On Heroism and War

To Loconte, heroism is where Lewis and Tolkien "depart most radically from the spirit of the age." (188) Modern heroes usually win through their own abilities, with some impressive firepower thrown in for good measure. Relying on a supernatural being seems like "a cheat" (188)-- both to good literary tastes and to the nature of man. But their heroes portrayed a combination of Divine provision and their participation. 

Both wrote at length about free will, providence, and their "mysterious intersection." (152) The tragedy of WWI had undermined belief in free will, so their work was counter-cultural here as well (155). Likewise, diminished free will tempted from individual responsibility toward determinism, fatalism, and resignation (162-164). 

In contrast, both authors repeatedly depict choices-- often, painful decisions, in the midst of exceedingly difficult circumstances. And when their characters fail, there's still grace-- something that was usually in short supply under contemporary cultural beliefs. Ultimately, the Ring is destroyed by "a sudden and miraculous grace" (189)-- ironically, through Gollum-- rather than Frodo or the Fellowship. 

Given their wartime experience, their depictions of war were realistic. Tolkien began writing in camps and hospitals during the war (60). His description of the "Dead Marshes" matches the description of soldiers in the Somme Offensive (74). The hobbits seem to be modeled after ordinary soldiers, at least in their innocent pre-war days (75). Like the soldiers, the hobbits could not "perceive how the fate of nations depended on their stubborn devotion to duty." (77)

War provided much of the "raw material" for Lewis and Tolkien (xvi). Their overarching themes are "embedded in a narrative of brutal, physical warfare" (165). (On the same page, Loconte quotes a stanza from a Thomas Hardy poem that ends with the poignant phrase, "of ravaged roof and smouldering gable-end".) Yet their work cannot be seen as cavalier acceptance of either pacifism or warmongering (xviii). Their characters often exhibit courage, honor, and nobility. But as ex-soldiers, Lewis and Tolkien did not-- they could not-- glamorize combat (121).  

Tolkein includes "scenes of anguished refugees throughout his works." (166) In the great battle between Gondor and Mordor, "its dead are too numerous to leaves the victors 'weary beyond joy or sorrow'." (166) Lewis is gentler, given that his primary audience is children-- but still stark enough (168). For both, war is not "an opportunity for martial glory, but...a grim necessity...a striking lack of triumphalism; we find instead amazement and gratitude for surviving..." (168)

The lines between Church and State were blurred considerably during WWI in a combination of nationalism, civil religion, and holy war (33-34). "Cross and Crown must be kept together." (36) Looking back, after the carnage, it is strange to imagine. But it was true for both sides in the conflict. (Loconte argues that Germany and Prussia were even worse in this regard [39].) Of course, for believers, all of this is troubling and reminiscent of the Two Beasts-- the State and False Religion-- in Revelation 13. 

As for the soldiers, Loconte quotes Richard Schweitzer: "The religion of 90% of the men at the front is not distinctively Christian, but a religion of patriotism and of valor, tinged with chivalry, and the best merely colored with sentiment and emotion borrowed from Christianity." (49) As is still the case today, "Christianity" is often an amalgam of civil religion, cultural norms, middle class ethics, and the trappings of ritual. 

Loconte echoes numbers similar to what one reads in Adam Hochschild's excellent book, To End All WarsIn the 4.5 months of the Battle of the Somme, there were 1.2 million dead and wounded-- for just short of nothing (62). Overall, millions of soldiers dead and wounded. Tremendous loss of young life in Russia, France, Britain, and Germany. Even the U.S., despite its very late entry, lost more than 100,000 men (106). And then there are the civilian deaths from starvation, disease, and the Armenian massacre by the Ottoman Turks-- the first large-scale example of genocide in the 20th Century. 

The Role of "Progressivism"

Not surprisingly, "Progressivism" is woven throughout Loconte's account-- with its immense confidence in human progress. The worldview was at its high-water mark coming into the war-- as both men were coming of age. Disillusionment-- and recovery from some of its errors-- marks the period after the war, when both men began to write in earnest. 

Darwin's theory was dominant in terms of biology-- along its implications for philosophy, economy, and society, when over-extended in combination with scientism and materialism (12-13). One of the downsides of early Progressivism was a weighting of technology and "progress" over nature. Loconte talks about Lewis and especially Tolkien's displeasure with this (6, 8-10).  

Christianity had also added syncretisms with the "social gospel" of human advancement (14). Amazingly, this included a penchant for eugenics (15-21), which Lewis and Tolkien both critiqued implicitly in their narratives. (In addition to their frequent emphasis on freedom and dignity, note Tolkien's creation of orcs by Dark Lord Morgoth and Lewis' themes in Perelandra.)

The Progressives fostered optimism that the days of the great (religious) wars were over (2-3, 27-29). "Progress" also meant a greater ability to conduct war more efficiently when needed. Unfortunately, the progress didn't include ethical advances in when or how to conduct it (22-23). Loconte quotes Paul Bull here: "The Age of Progress ends in a barbarism such as shocks a savage. The Age of Reason ends in a delirium of madness." (47)

Once war was over, the Progressive faith was renewed a bit through Woodrow Wilson's call to peace through government, treaties, and the League of Nations. Loconte observes that all over Europe, public places were named for Wilson (103-104). But the promise was not fulfilled and this aspect of the faith was short-lived. Moreover, war was followed by "the three horsemen": the Spanish Influenza, atheistic communism, and Italian fascism (111-114).

Much of the post-war blame was put instead on liberal democracy, Christianity, and Western Civilization, leading to tremendous cynicism (105, 122-125). This impacted norms in literature. Loconte counts about 400 novels from the 1920s and 1930s that saw war as "inherently ignoble and irrational." (120) Both Tolkien and Lewis wrote in contrast to-- and as opposed to-- this norm. 

What didn't get enough attention: those in power can easily have or develop values that are inconsistent with human dignity and worth. Of crusaders, "however noble the motives may be, they easily become twisted by the thought of glory and the taste of power." (158) Usually, through "a subtle and gradual perversion...the universal temptation to exploit, dominate, and control the lives of others" (159). And the power of groups and peer pressure, quoting Lewis in This Hideous Strength: "to make men do very bad things before they are yet, individually, very bad men." (161)

As Loconte notes, "the major disillusionment of the 20th century has been over political good intentions.” (159) This has led to interventions ranging from ineffective economic “stimulus” to gulags and killing fields. But good intentions cannot—well, should not—satisfy for long. Both Lewis and Tolkien call people to something beyond intent—toward lives of purposeful decisions, robust fellowship, heroic self-sacrifice toward higher ends, and working toward freedom and dignity for all. May we follow in their footsteps—within the magical worlds we inhabit and the mythical dramas we enact. 


For my key blogs on Lewis, click on quotes from Mere Christianity; my review of Abolition of Man; and my essay on Lewis, Huxley and JFK (who all died on the same day). I don't have nearly as much on Tolkien, but I would recommend my review of a fine book on how LOTR connects to politics

Here are bullet-point and prose reviews of Adam Hochschild's excellent book on WWI: To End All Wars.

For a book that covers similar themes from the perspective of WWII, see my review of Alan Jacobs' The Year of Our Lord 1943.

For more of my writing on eugenics, check out my overview, including Indiana as the first state to implement a eugenics law; my review of Leonard's must-read book which adds angles on Progressivism and economics; and my review of Bergman's book while implicates Darwinism.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Jeff Gibbs & Michael Moore's "Planet of the Humans"

Michael Moore vs. renewables-- and released on Earth Day?! Wow! Here's a link to the video on YouTube (free for the first month). And a good article from Forbes that introduced me to it. 


-The film's view is utterly Malthusian. But at least it's much more realistic about theory and practice-- and counting more of the costs. While troubling and ultimately deeply anti-human, the Malthusian angle is secondary to gaining a ton of clarity on the renewable energy movement; without that, you can't get to the population problem through his lens.

-Renewables cannot possibly replace oil/coal, until we can store energy and get much more efficient in producing it. (Also, no mention of nuclear, aside from a passing poke at 1:22.Toward the beginning (:07) and the end (1:26), Gibbs uses devastating segments on the utter hypocrisy of energy used at alternative energy events. Beyond that, the film is crushing on the footprint of producing wind/solar (not exactly very small!) And the industry relies on technology produced by "the Koch Brothers": HI-larious and DEE-licious!

-The last 25 minutes is on the profit motive and especially cronyism (both of which he labels "capitalism")-- with some absolute haymakers directed at McKibben and Gore. The charges of (and evidence for) cronyism about Gore, McKibben, etc. should be deeply troubling to anyone who calls themselves liberal or leftie (or maybe even Dems).

-The discussion about religion around 50:00 was interesting! Much of this reduces to the equivalent of (largely blind) religious faith/beliefs for most folks. Jeff Gibbs apparently had an evidential/anecdotal epiphany that made him open to evidence. He became a "seeker" looking for "the truth". Upon that evidence, he's moved away from alternative energy as the great hope to depopulation as the only legit answer (given other parts of his worldview). Moreover, he's quite-comfortably incorporated AE into another dominant (and eminently reasonable) theory: the use of govt, PR, etc. by AE'ers for (crony) capitalistic ends. More broadly, how does one fill the void once the god is dethroned?

-The emphasis on biomass is not nearly as extensive as the critics say. There are 17 (uncomfortable) minutes on biomass as an energy source (:52-1:09). But much of it is used to poke at "industry insiders" and activists​-- rather than critiquing biomass per se. As for an even-handed benefit/cost an even-handed benefit/cost analysis, the movie is not great on that. But it's (ironically) far better on that account than the reviewer about the movie. 

-McKibben's reaction to the documentary--he says he's been libeled, because although he previously supported biomass, he is on record as opposing it. (And 1:35:20's wrap-up said that he has clarified that he is opposed to biomass.) It'll be interesting to see how the libel suit goes. (In contrast, I haven't seen any charges about libel in response to Schweizer's takedown on the corruption of prominent Dem pols.) McKibben also says he receives no corporate money. His claims in the interview/film about 350's funding were howl-inducing. $19.1 million in the most recent year and he didn't remember the key funders. LOL! If you only want to watch snippets on him, there are key moments for him at 1:14:30 (on his investment reqs) and 1:24:40 on claiming not to know how he's funded.

This response on DailyKos was mostly ad hominem, guilt by association, fallacy of authority, etc. (It's also telling that the critics don't have a problem with the anti-human perspective.​) And of course, as a free speech fan, I'm sorry to see efforts to try to shut this down, rather than debate it. In any case, I encourage you to watch/judge it yourself, esp. since it's stirred up so much in terms of science and religious views about the environment. 

This article on Vox is more impressive as critique. The most compelling point she makes (assuming it's true) is that the info is not the most recent. She repeats the odd criticism about the film's "focus" on biomass, missing the larger point of that focus. She's critical of the film's anti-human focus, so I appreciate that!

Here's a solid review by Michael Shellenberger in Forbes. And a really strong piece from Pierre Desrochers at AIER, including the "Bootleggers and Baptists" angle. 

Heartland Institute has a nice podcast on this. Among other things, I was surprised to learn at the end that they're not "climate change denialists" (unless one uses a weird/deceptive and rhetorically-useful version of the word): they acknowledge anthropogenic global warming and are even open to carbon-reducing policies. They think the models over-estimate and they think the policies are more costly than admitted, but that ain't "denial". 

libertarian responses to COVID

 I’m curious what the ideal Libertarian reaction would be to this situation? And had there been a big or little L in White House at time of this, could they have withstood the enormous public and political pressure for lockdowns and financial restitution. I don’t think Trump was an advocate for either and he can take incoming pretty well. Thoughts?
  • Eric Schansberg There is no single answer to this for libertarians or Libertarians-- anymore than there is on immigration, abortion, or a handful of other issues. It depends on assumptions-- and unfortunately, with COVID, our (wildly different) assumptions can only be lightly held at this point.

    The opening principle, from econ, would be "negative externalities"-- when your actions have a significant (negative) impact on others. One can find a role for govt to intervene in such cases, because voluntary behavior alone may lead to inequities and inefficiencies. (See: pollution by firms as the most notable example.) In such cases-- at least in theory / on paper-- various types of govt intervention may be helpful. So, that takes us to the possibilities among lockdown policies. But the benefits of such should be weighed against their costs-- most notably, the econ consequences.

    As for the (more) macro, what should the govt do? A lower-case L approach might include local/state efforts to help, including an extension or tweak of existing programs like UI. Even here, one would worry about whether the activism was being done well vs. causing more damage. The federal govt might relax taxes and regs (ideally, eliminating the latter permanently in most cases). But I can't imagine going much beyond that.

    One thing that's new to me: econs often talk about inefficient trade restrictions that are for the national interest-- e.g., defense items like tanks, guns, steel. Even if we're not good at those, one can make a political argument that we sacrifice some econ to be careful. One can now add medical supplies to that list.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Schweizer's "Profiles in Corruption"

In his book, "Profiles in Corruption," Peter Schweizer documents abuses of power among key national Democratic politicians. He calls them “progressives,” but the targets also include those who are generally considered “moderate” among those on the Left. Even so, his focus is motivated by their common desire to greatly expand the size and scope of government. Of course, all of this is meant to improve the world, at least as long as it’s run by elites like them. 

The book’s title is a spoof of John F. Kennedy’s famous book, "Profiles in Courage." In contrast to the selfless and courageous service that could make government more effective, Schweizer is asking what our most avid big-government politicians have done with the power they wield. Quite reasonably, he notes that their checkered pasts make it problematic to honor their passion to wield even more power.

Schweizer’s decision to ignore Republicans serves to narrow the field, but otherwise it’s an unfortunate choice. It leads to the perception that he’s a partisan hack. And certainly one could do a similar book on Republicans, motivated by their exaggerated or hypocritical claims to be “conservative” — fiscally or otherwise. Surely, he missed bigger fish in the GOP to describe smaller fish among the Democrats. Still, the book is worth a read, as far as it goes. 

Whatever biases he might have, Schweizer certainly seems thorough — with 90 pages of endnotes. And apparently he’s accurate. Although his reports are blistering, I only see a few partisan rebuttals on-line rather than a parade of lawsuits accusing him of libel. (My only critique was his characterization of Elizabeth Warren on bankruptcy law. After reading and writing about her three books on public policy, I’m deeply troubled by her staggering hypocrisy on policy. Schweizer's criticism there, however, seems unwarranted.)

Early in the book, Schweizer takes a brief poke at the media. But his entire book is an indirect indictment of their failure to report on such things. He talks about Hillary Clinton (and the Clinton Foundation) in his introduction. And he provides smaller chapters on Eric Garcetti (mayor of Los Angeles) and Sherrod Brown (senator from Ohio and a potential choice for vice president) to fill out the book. But his top targets are six of the most prominent candidates for President in the current primary season. 

Schweizer critiques Kamala Harris and Cory Booker for campaign-finance shenanigans. He criticizes Harris and Amy Klobuchar for selective enforcement of laws when they served as district attorneys — especially Harris, for the apparent connections to donor interests. (He also tags Klobuchar for her trouble with high levels of staff turnover.) He underlines how massive corruption continued unabated in Newark under Booker — as well as his unseemly connections to Mercury Public Affairs and the Mueller investigation. And he details a staggering array of corrupt dealings in the Biden family — with son Hunter (in tandem with Devon Archer), sister Valerie, son-in-law Howard Krein and brothers James and Frank.

(Along the way, Schweizer also provides a variety of interesting biographical nuggets: Harris is a mix of Jamaican and Indian ancestry, with the latter influencing her religious beliefs. And she had an affair with Willie Brown — a prominent California  politician, 31 years her senior — who helped to advance her career. Cory Booker has been active in and influenced by Judaism. And he is descended from slaves and slave-owners, making his argument for reparations seem especially strange.)

Schweizer describes Warren’s use of “Native American” to advance her career, as well as her lucrative corporate consulting and the political connections she used to profit her daughter and son-in-law. He points to Bernie Sanders for evasion of campaign finance information and enriching his family (girlfriend and then wife, Jane — as well as her daughter Carina and son David). Schweizer also discusses at length the unfortunate tenure of Sanders’ wife as president of now-defunct Burlington College. And ironically, given their rhetoric, Schweizer notes that Sanders had few investments in “socially responsible” funds, while Warren had none. 

Even though all of these politicians frequently talk about income and wealth inequality, they are part of the top tier in terms of income and wealth. More important, they’re part of “the 1 percent” in terms of power. It seems naïve and damaging to give them even more weight. Schweizer makes clear that their use of power has been abusive, corrupt and regressive — rather than admirable, conscientious or “progressive”.