Monday, December 21, 2020

December Economic Update

My very first Twilight Patriot post, which is by now nearly two years old, involved a brief comparison of the then-current purchasing power of the US dollar to its purchasing power in the year 2000. My conclusion was that inflation was quite a bit worse than the official sources were willing to admit – a dollar in 2018 was worth only 43¢ in 2000’s money, not the 68¢ of the official sources.

By reanalyzing GDP numbers in light of the new dollar values, I determined that America’s per capita GDP was only 75 percent of what it had been at the beginning of the century. I then concluded that the Trump Administration’s failure to admit that this decline was going on was evidence that there was no plan to do anything about it, and that we could all expect it to just continue for the foreseeable future.

I didn’t really talk about why this was happening, or about how anyone ought to respond to it, and the context-free sense of gloom seemed to rub a lot of readers the wrong way.

But over the last two years, I’ve formed more detailed opinions about what is going on in America right now, and how ordinary people can respond constructively. (And I have also noticed that people pay more attention to my posts when I share these opinions, instead of sharing context-free gloom). Hence the premise of the current post – an update of my thoughts on the economic situation in the United States.

The central fact of this situation is that a set of unbalanced economic arrangements, which have allowed the American nation to consume more goods than it produces and make up the difference by exporting fiat money, is coming unraveled.

While these arrangements held firm – that is, from the middle of the twentieth century until the present day – the biggest losers were the American working class, whose labour was in little demand when the strong dollar made it easy to replace American-made products with cheap imports. But once the system finishes unravelling – that is, one the dollar is no longer the global currency and America’s imports and exports have to match again – the situation won’t immediately improve. Instead, the whole country will have to endure a period of third-world-level poverty. The reasons for this are:

1) Too many American industries have vanished beneath the tide of cheap imports. Whether you are looking at steel, microprocessors, ships, shoes, pianos, or any other manufactured product, you will almost always see the same story: a once-flourishing domestic industry has suffered relentless decline, and America now relies mainly on imports from some part of Asia.

2) Our transportation infrastructure is old, rundown, and heavily dependent on a prodigious rate of oil consumption: 21 barrels per person per year, compared to 12 for the European Union, 11 for Japan, and 3.7 for China. Without a better rail network, public transit systems, etc. – which nobody in power is seriously trying to rebuild –  the coming oil shortage will be devastating.

It doesn’t help that neither party’s central myths allow it to make a level-headed assessment of the situation and propose realistic solutions. The typical Democratic voter has only enough economic knowledge to ask, “Are the rich paying their fair share?” Democratic politicians draw on this sentiment by promising welfare programs to benefit the poor, which usually turn out to be wealth transfers from the middle classes to whatever monied interest groups administers the welfare program.

Republicans have a leg up on Democrats in that their base understands that, in nearly all cases, the thing that would most benefit the poor is steady work, and that government programs are not the best way to provide steady work. Hence their consternation when they see so many jobs are being lost oversees.

Unfortunately, the Republicans’ rosy views of big business and the profit motive, and their habit of framing geopolitical events in terms of the righteous USA needing to assert itself against the malign Other, have totally scuppered their ability to understand what’s really going under the seams. Hence the typical Republican voter’s perception that China is taking advantage of the United States and needs to be punished, preferably by a loud, brash president who calls himself a “tariff man.”

But the uncomfortable truth about trade deficits is that trade deficits cannot be imposed from without. They are only possible because the Federal Reserve and the US Treasury have chosen to pursue a loose monetary policy. If the US didn’t send so much newly printed currency abroad, then every dollar’s worth of imports would have to be paid for by a dollar’s worth of exports, lest the country run out of dollars. (Before the advent of central banking, when gold and silver were the principal medium of international trade, there were no significant trade deficits.)

And while there are certainly Chinese interests who benefit from what is presently going on with America’s trade deficit, the fact of the matter is that China does not have the power to unilaterally force that deficit on the United States. Only America’s own ruling class can do that.

What most commentators see as a matter of China exploiting America is really a matter of one class of Americans exploiting another class of Americans. Specifically, the professional managerial class, or PMC – that is, the people who work in government, finance, education, real estate, insurance, IT, corporate management, and various other high-paying, non-offshorable jobs – have subvehiculated the rest of the American labor force.

As with all historical processes, there is a fundamental dynamic of rise and fall going on here. The PMC rose with the US-centered global financial system, and it will fall when the rest of the world abandons that system and dedollarizes (My prediction right now is that the dollar will still be the dominant currency in 2030 but not in 2040).

For most people, the best way to weather a transformation like this – ironic though it may seem – is to join the class that is not presently on the top. In the America of 2040, few people will enjoy the same standard of living that a middle-class American enjoyed at the turn of the century; however, those who are best off will be those who know how to work with their hands, as farmers, carpenters, metallurgists, repairmen, salvage workers, etc. These are the jobs that make up the bulk of the economy in a normal country – i.e. one that is not experiencing a glut of cheap imported goods.

I will now make another attempt at estimating the real purchasing power of today’s dollar, as compared to the dollars of a year ago, or at the turn of the century. This should help highlight the reality of the decline, to any readers who still doubt it. My data are from tradingeconomics.com; the 2000 and 2019 data represent closing prices at the end of December.

Gold         $265/ozt in 2000     $1,517 in 2019           $1,881 today

Copper      85¢ per pound          $2.80                         $3.63

Nickel       $3.51 per pound       $6.98                          $8.71

Brent Oil $26.67 per bbl          $66.39                        $52.28

Corn         $2.09  per bushel     $3.88                         $4.37

Soy            $4.60 per bushel      $9.52                          $12.20

Cotton      61¢ per pound           69¢                             77¢

Lumber   $224 per kbf             $405                           $850

To get from eight sets of data down to one, I used the geometric mean. This is different than the arithmetic mean (i.e. the old-fashioned average) because instead of adding all the numbers together and dividing by eight, I multiplied them all together and took the eighth root.

The advantage of the geometric mean is that I don’t have to decide how much weight to give to each commodity. For example, it doesn’t matter whether I start with an ounce of gold or a ton of gold; if the price of gold doubles, the geometric mean of all the prices will increase by a factor of 1.0905, and the same goes for all of the other commodities. The mean prices are given below:

Geometric Mean            $8.52 in 2000           $19.43 in 2019          $23.96 today

Divide those numbers out, and you will see that a dollar at the end of 2019 was worth 44¢ in 2000’s money, and a dollar today is worth only 36¢.

Now, before I go any further I should note that one effect of measuring purchasing power this way is that economic swingarounds seem much more intense than in a conventional analysis. For example, by my metric (and if you want, you can go on tradingeconomics.com and repeat the calculations yourself), the US dollar lost about three quarters of its value between 2002 and 2012, then jolted back up to half its 2002 value by 2016.

Obviously, the typical American did not experience nearly so intense a swing in his or her cost of living; this is because the processes which take raw materials like corn, oil, copper, and wood, and convert them into things the average American is likely to buy, also spread those costs out over time. Still, over the long term, the one drives the other, so steep and lasting increases in commodity prices are nothing to wink at. (Keep in mind that in 2000, a Whopper at Burger King cost 99¢, as opposed to somewhere around four dollars today).

So as it stands right now, the US dollar has about 0.80 times the purchasing power that it had at the beginning of 2020, and about 0.36 times as much as at the turn of the century. (Officially, the latter figure is 0.66). This puts the present-day US GDP at 76 percent of what it was in 2000, and the per capita GDP at a mere 65 percent of where it stood 20 years ago.

As usual, the decline is being papered over. (Just how many people still believe the official estimates is anybody’s guess – recall that they’re now saying that the 31.4 percent GDP drop in the second quarter of 2020 was completely reversed by a 33.1 percent gain in GDP during the third quarter, even though most of the covid restrictions have yet to be lifted).

 In conclusion: the official reports of an economic recovery (and of net growth over the last two decades) are propaganda. The decline in the real economy of tangible goods is something that America’s politicians can’t even admit exists, let alone confront in a constructive manner, so the gap has to be closed with fabricated numbers.

Eventually, this fiasco will end – what can’t be sustained won’t be sustained – but Americans, especially in the working class, should expect hard times now and in the foreseeable future.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Gerontocracy, Imperial Decline, and Joe Biden’s Palmist

The upcoming decade is not going to be an easy one for America. To begin with, there are the currently ongoing crises: the Covid pandemic, an economy which has been in a state of (mostly papered-over) decline since the 1990s, etc. Then there are black swan events, like the 9/11 attacks – things that happen that nobody could have anticipated.

But there are also the problems that come with being an empire in decline: the ballooning national debt, the deindustrialization of the homeland, the rising income inequality, the breakup of alliances and the strengthening of hostile nations, and so forth.

This all became inevitable way back at the end of the 19th century, when the United States decided to become an empire. Empires – by which I mean nations that militarily occupy a large part of the globe and force other nations to act in the imperial nation’s  economic interests instead of their own – always end in decline and fall. (This is the case whether or not the subject nations are allowed to enjoy nominal independence.)

Lest my dislike of the American Empire and my desire to see it end soon be seen as unpatriotic, I invite you to remember that, within the worldview promoted on this blog, the main losers of the American Empire are the American working class. Earning a living by making tangible goods with your own two hands becomes a lot harder in a country whose unbalanced financial arrangements allow it to import far more goods than it exports. Late-stage empires have little demand for productive labor in the homeland, hence the rise in income inequality and the worsening standard of living which most Americans are experiencing right now.

This is how empire always ends. As the network of subject nations comes unraveled, the imperial core is exposed as an economic backwater, with a rundown industrial plant, weak institutions, fractious domestic politics, corrupt government, and an effete, overprivileged elite who are woefully unequipped to lead during a time of national struggle. Think of Spain in the early twentieth century, or Russia in the 1990s.

The United States is entering such a period right now. This is not to say that you should expect a rapid collapse of our civilization – as with Russia and Spain, this sort of thing will take decades to play out, and will not end with a return to the middle ages.

On the other hand, just because the process is slow doesn’t mean that it can be reversed. The end result, distant though it was, has been inevitable ever since America decided to become an empire back in 1898 (or in 1900, if you consider William Jennings Bryan’s election loss to be the moment that America’s voters ratified what the McKinley Administration was doing in Puerto Rico and the Philippines).

But enough about imperial overreach and imperial decline. I will talk more about that subject in due time. For now, the long and short of it is that the big mistakes were made in the past, the consequences can’t be avoided, and things are going to get worse before they get better. A meaningful response to the crisis has to happen at the level of the individual, family, and community. (That is to say, we should not hang our hopes on national elections or national political parties).

Now for the real topic of this post: the sort of leadership that America can expect to have during the coming crisis. (Did I say that this article was going to involve a palmist? I did. Well, it will, but you’ll have to wait till the end).

The order of topics will be as follows: The Gerontocracy, The Opposition,  and The Palmist.

The Gerontocracy

Joe Biden is going to be America’s oldest-ever president on the day he takes the oath of office. Nancy Pelosi, at age 80, is presently the oldest person ever to be Speaker of the House. Mitch McConnell, at 78, is the oldest Senate Majority Leader. Basically, America is about to achieve a first-ever trifecta of gerontocracy.

Having old people in positions of power is not, on its own, a bad thing, but when a country’s upper leadership structure consists mainly or entirely of decrepit chair-warmers clinging to power until the grim reaper shows up to pry their fingers off of it, something has gone wrong. Whatever you call it – a failure of imagination, an ossification of the elite, etc. – the facts are that the same thing happened with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and, historically speaking, it is a common sign that a nation is in decline.

How will that decline play out? Probably not as dramatically as some people think. The gradual erosion of America’s ability to influence foreign affairs will continue. Future attempts on the part of the United States to regime-change smaller nations will, if tried at all, end in failure. The last remnants of America’s occupying force will be driven out of Syria and Iraq.

Asia and Africa will continue to dedollarize. Severe inflation will reduce the standard of living for most Americans, though the Congressional Budget Office will do its best to make sure that the official figures don’t reflect this reality. Oil will become scarcer as North American deposits run dry and the growing Chinese and Indian economies suck up more of the global supply. The United States’ infrastructure will keep on decaying. Illegal immigration will continue. Crime will go up. And so forth.

And the people who are supposed to be in charge will be old Democrats who can barely stay awake, while policy is being make by their advisors – basically, another collection of Democrats who are younger and woker (in both senses of the word). These people will do their utmost to make sure that every crisis is met with more promotion of white privilege armbands, childhood gender changes, and the like, while loose monetary policy and globalist trade agreements continue to benefit the salaried class at the expense of those who work with their hands. And if you oppose any of this, you will be called a racist.

(Perhaps you still need one more reminder of how bizarre the Left has gotten? If so, then take a look at how they’re calling Tulsi Gabbard a traitor for sponsoring a bill to keep transgendered boys out of girls high school sports. I wonder if they have ever heard of an animal called an “ox?” Oxen are castrated male cattle, used for pulling carts and ploughs because, even with their testicles gone, the males are still much stronger than the females. The same goes for human beings. Mainstream Democrats getting their way will mean that athletes who were actually born female will have no chance at winning much of anything).

The Opposition

Now for a quick rundown on the state of the opposition party. (That’s the Republicans, because Donald Trump lost the election).

The Republican Party’s months-long vacation from this aspect of reality will make it a laughingstock, though it’s hard to say how much this will actually hurt the party. Frankly, the Democrats also do things to make their party a laughingstock, and then they come back and win. American voters do not all have the same taste in laughingstocks, or so it seems.

As an example of some of the insane rhetoric coming from the Right, consider what the conservative Christian radio host Eric Metaxas is saying about people who think the election is over and Biden won. They are, in his words, listening to “the voice of the Devil.” They “might as well spit on the grave of George Washington.” If you aren’t “hopped up about this,” then “you are the Germans that looked the other way when Hitler was preparing to do what he was preparing to do.”

“We need to fight to the death, to the last drop of blood, because it’s worth it.”

This isn’t even the beginning of the craziness. If you want to see more of it (including the part where Metaxas says he is “proudly ignorant” of what evidence, if any, Trump has presented in court to back up his claims), then read this article by Rod Dreher, in which a video of the original interview is embedded. Dreher talks a lot about how he’s worried that Metaxas’ bloviations might lead to violence. Metaxas insists this isn’t the case:

“I know that the lunatics who believe in violence and stuff, they’re going to do that. But I don’t know that it has to happen…”

If you can spend almost a whole hour talking about how your enemies are the equivalent of Hitler and we need to fight them to the death, while insisting that you’re not one of those “lunatics who believe in violence and stuff,” then my conclusion is that (1) whatever point you were trying to make could have been made more clearly without bringing up Hitler, and (2) if somebody like Hitler ever does take power in America, you won’t fight in the resistance. (After all, Biden was a tyrant on the level of Hitler, and you didn’t take up arms against Biden).

Needless to say, we can’t expect the Republican opposition to do much of anything useful so long as its energy is consumed with talking about the election in those terms. And if Donald Trump does what some people are worried he is going to do and announces a 2024 campaign on the day he leaves office, then the whole Republican Party might end up doing just that.

The Palmist

Joe Biden has two dogs, named Champ and Major. He has said that he plans to get a cat when he moves into the White House. (Really, I will get to the palmist before the end of this article, I promise.)

The dogs and the cat are a good move – people are naturally drawn to soft and furry animals, and most Americans either have pets, or would have them if their landlords allowed it. Donald Trump’s failure to get one or more pets when he assumed office was a mistake: as the first president to ever not keep animals in the White House, he made himself seem more cold and distant.

Also, Joe Biden is presently in a walking boot after he broke his foot while playing with his dogs. This is not something that Presidents and soon-to-be Presidents normally do. (It is unclear from the news stories whether he tripped over the dog, or suffered the injury in a less direct manner). Suffice it to say that when he hobbles up the inaugural platform get sworn in, Biden will not be projecting the image of a healthy, alert, and vigorous man.

This is because he isn’t a healthy, alert, and vigorous man. Rather, he is the sort of man who, when he can be bothered to get in front of a microphone at all, says things like the following:

“I'm sure we can, we can prosclaim a palmist, with a palmist who wrote these following words, ‘The Lord is my strength and my shield and with my song, I give thanks to him.’”

Obviously, Biden was not really trying to relate something that he heard while consulting with a palmist. (Consulting fortune-tellers, soothsayers, astrologers, and the like is the purview of serious statesmen, like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Ronald Reagan. Joe Biden is not on the same level).

What happened is that Biden was trying to quote the Book of Psalms, but he no longer has the mental presence to string three coherent words together. (The media’s relative silence on the matter, compared with the wall-to-wall coverage that “Two Corinthians” got five years ago, is rather telling).

A man who can trip over dogs or try to quote the Bible by “prosclaim[ing] a palmist” is going to stumble rather blindly through his four years as America’s nominal chief of state. Just what sort of military or economic trouble he stumbles his way into is anybody’s guess.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Following The President Wherever He Goes

My most recent Twilight Patriot entry has earned a rather unusual distinction. If you go to Google and type (with quotation marks) “A cowardly moron could have wrote this article,” complete with the bad grammar, then you will get exactly one result: Intellectual Conservative’s copy of my post from the week after the election.

Obviously, the quotation isn’t from the text of the article – it’s from the top-rated comment in the comments section. And how did I go about convincing my audience that I was a “cowardly moron?” Why, by saying that Joe Biden had won the election, and that Donald Trump was making a fool of himself by insisting otherwise.

Notice that I did not say the election was free of fraud. (There has never been an election that was completely free of fraud). What I said was that Biden’s margins are big enough that for Trump to change the outcome by proving in court that a sufficient number of Democratic votes are fraudulent – and to do that in at least three states – is not realistically possible. Conclusion: Joe Biden is going to be the next President.

But for a certain faction of the American Right, saying this out loud makes me a “cowardly moron.” Perhaps these are the same people who are threatening to boycott Georgia’s upcoming double senate election in order to punish the GOP for stabbing Trump in the back? (FYI, the outcome of those races is going to decide whether Chuck Schumer or Mitch McConnell will be the man who decides how much of the Biden agenda gets through Congress.)

But for too many people on the Right, politics isn’t about making a level-headed appraisal of reality, and then deciding how to act on it. Rather, their modus operandi is to borrow that line from the New Testament about how the elect will “follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth,” but with the populist leader du jour taking the place of Jesus.

This attitude is downright cultish, and as long as the Republican Party falls for it, Democrats and skeptical moderates alike will have every right to say that Republicans are blowing smoke whenever they claim to be the party of individual liberty and checks and balances and full-grown men and women who can think their own thoughts.

Nothing good can come from the Republicans’ refusal to be realistic about the role that the President is supposed to have in our system of government. He is not America’s CEO. He was not chosen to ‘run the country,’ or even to run his own party. He is one elected official among many. If he tries to lead his party on a flight from reality, then that party’s other elected officials ought to have the courage to say no.

Except that they don’t. When George Bush Jr. said that Saddam Hussein was building nuclear weapons and that invading and occupying Iraq would be a step on the way toward filling the Middle East with flourishing liberal democracies, only one Republican Senator and six Representatives had the courage to say no to his war. Meanwhile most Republicans, especially in the media, kept on defending Bush’s alternate reality years after events had stubbornly refused to accommodate themselves to the narrative.

This wasn’t even the first flight from reality on which Bush had led his party. Back in 2001, he and John Boehner crafted the No Child Left Behind Act on the premise that an elaborate system of federal bureaucratic controls would fix America’s school system – basically, he decided to start peddling an idea that was the exact, reverse opposite of the ideas on which small-government conservatives always run for office.

And the Republicans fell for it! Only 39 out of 263 congressional Republicans had the courage to vote against No Child Left Behind. The consequence was that Bush got to have, as his signature domestic policy enactment, an orgy of government overreach so dysfunctional that Barack Obama, of all people, ended up waiving most of its requirements.

Now let’s go back in time a little further, to when the elder President Bush said that David Souter, if confirmed to the Supreme Court, would be a great conservative judge. Bush had no real reason for believing this, because, in order to avoid a confirmation fight a la Robert Bork, he had intentionally picked a nominee with no record from which anyone might guess at his judicial philosophy.

But even though a lot of Republicans had doubts about Souter’s ideology, none of them had the courage to say no to a Republican President. The result was the near-unanimous confirmation of a leftist Supreme Court justice.

Ronald Reagan did pretty-much the same thing with Sandra Day O’Connor. Actually, what Reagan did was quite a bit worse, because (1) his party had a majority in the Senate at the time, and he could have gotten anybody confirmed, and (2) unlike Souter, whose record was a complete blank, O’Connor had a history of supporting leftist causes, which Reagan had to strain to overlook. The grousing from people like Phyllis Schlafly and Jesse Helms is evidence that movement conservatives knew that they were dealing with a slippery nominee. But at the end of the day, every Senator proved willing to follow Reagan into his fantasy land, and O’Connor was confirmed unanimously.

And this isn’t just a matter of playing follow-the-leader with the President. For far too long, the American Right has embraced an ethos in which loyalty consists of adhering to the narrative even when the narrative doesn’t adhere to the facts. You can see it in the rose-colored glasses through which Republicans view their Presidents; you can also see it in the way that so many otherwise intelligent Republicans are all-in for young-eartherism and climate change denial. Why? Because when holding an irrational belief becomes a marker of tribal affiliation, beliefs stop being checked to see if they fit the evidence.

And then it becomes way too easy to believe ridiculous things – for example, that it is a good idea to refuse to vote in the Georgia Senate runoffs in order to “punish” the GOP for its failure to keep Trump in office after his loss in the 2020 election.

Really, this shouldn’t take a lot of thinking to understand. When looking at a struggle in which your team clearly isn’t winning, and saying “I’m afraid that our team isn’t winning,” is a good way to get called a “cowardly moron,” then there is a simple way to sum up the situation: your team is setting itself up to lose again and again and again.

Donald Trump is not the Republican Party’s commanding officer. He isn’t its sole owner and proprietor, or even its CEO. Nor is he the divinely anointed end-times servant that the people at Liberty University want him to be, or the whitehat anti-puppetmaster extraordinaire that the dorks who follow QAnon insist he is. And Trump isn’t even the most powerful Republican politician right now (that would be Mitch McConnell).

From today until noon on 20 January, Donald Trump is just a citizen who happens to hold an important office.

And it’s the job of other well-meaning American citizens, whether their role in public life is large or small, to be candid about the President’s shortcomings, oppose his flights of fancy when they think there is a good reason to do so, and otherwise behave like citizens of a republic rather than deluded sycophants in a personality cult.

Monday, November 9, 2020

More 2020 Election Notes

One of the consequences of having had a presidential election six days ago is that people in the news are talking about politics slightly more than usual. (Circumstances being what they are, “slightly more than usual” is the only intensifier that makes any sense). I already wrote last week about how I don’t expect Biden’s win to have much practical benefit for Democrats – without the Senate, they can’t enact their agenda, and since the President’s party tends to do badly in midterm elections, there’s no reason to expect them to regain the Senate.

That being said, here are some other things I have noticed over the last few days.

1.      Donald Trump Is Making An Ass Of Himself

President Trump probably went to bed on Tuesday thinking that he was going to win and then woke up the next morning to realize that he wasn’t in the lead anymore. So did a lot of Republicans, including myself. It was a big disappointment.

            Honestly, though, I wouldn’t have guessed that almost a week later he would still be holed up in the White House, munching on an endless train of fast food and attended by only the most sycophantic members of his staff, as he carried on tweeting things like “STOP THE COUNT!” and “I WON BY A LOT!”

            One might be forgiven for thinking that the President has stepped into the role of the evil overlord in a children’s cartoon who spends the final minute or two of the episode pointing to his defeated army and shouting “No! This cannot be! I am invincible!”

             Needless to say, I don’t exactly regard it as beneficial to the Republican cause that Trump has decided to handle his loss this way.

            As for the possibility of Trump reversing the outcome through litigation like he was already threatening to do several weeks before the election? It’s a pipe dream. There is nobody serious who sees a potential repeat of 2000. To begin with, George W. Bush was ahead after the first count of the Florida ballots, and to win, he only needed to get the courts to halt the recounts, which he managed to do after a month of lawsuits. Also, the whole election hinged on just one state – if Bush won Florida, then he would become the next President.

            Trump, on the other hand, will have to flip three or four states in order to come out on top in 2020. And he will have to flip states where Biden won on the first count, by much bigger margins than the 537 votes (.009 percent of the total) that were at issue twenty years ago. There is a big gap between suspicion of fraud – of which there is plenty – and evidence strong enough to get the courts to disqualify two or three percent of the Democratic ballots in multiple states. The latter is not going to happen.

            Honestly, we would all be better off if Trump conceded defeat and then spent the next two months nominating judges, issuing pardons, and doing whatever else an outgoing President usually does during his final days in office. His present course of action just makes him look like a jackass.

2.     We Can Expect More Covid Relief When Spring Comes

Perhaps you remember how, at the end this summer (though it feels like a year ago) Republicans and Democrats talked about how they were going to pass a second Covid relief bill with another round of $1,200 checks for every American, plus other useful spending? Well, they didn’t pass it.

The reason is that the first bill, from back in March, gave people on unemployment insurance an extra $600/month beyond what they were already getting, and beyond the $1,200 one-time payment that went to everybody. The bill was passed in such a hurry that nobody had much time to debate the merits of this provision, but in the second bill, the Republican Senate decided not to reauthorize it.

After all, the Republicans said, people on unemployment insurance are already being paid money to make up for their lack of a job, so why should they get extra money, when so many people who aren’t on unemployment insurance but are still struggling – such as those who only had part time work, or who owned floundering small business – didn’t get anything along the same lines?

Democrats wouldn’t budge. Faced with the choice between $1,200 checks for everyone and ordinary unemployment benefits for the unemployed, versus no relief at all, they went for no relief at all, and went home shouting at the tops of their lungs about how Republicans hate the poor.

They could do that because Donald Trump was the President, and so it was his party, not theirs, that would be held accountable by the electorate for whatever happened. (One of the consequences of having a profoundly ignorant electorate is that it is nearly always in the opposition party’s interests to behave as obstructively as possible).

With Biden as President, the situation will be reversed. The Democrats will now benefit from trying to minimize economic hardship and get America back to normalcy as fast as they can. And most Senate Republicans have enough genuine love of their country to make a serious attempt to work with them.

Also, Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden, despite belonging to opposite parties, have a history of personal friendship. I am genuinely curious to see how far this friendship can get them.

3.     The Georgia Runoffs Are A Complete Mystery

When I wrote my last post, I said that Republicans would end up with 52 or 53 seats in the new Senate (53 turned out to be too optimistic, as Michigan was soon called for the Democrat). At the time, I wasn’t paying any attention to the Georgia runoffs; I had assumed that since Georgia was such a red state, the Republicans would easily win both races in this rare double-special-election.

As it turned out, Georgia this year made a surprise break for Biden. Neither Senate election produced a majority, so one Republican and one Democrat will contest each of them on 5 January. Naturally, Democrats are excited about their chance to get from 48 to 50 Senate seats after all.

There is a simple rule for predicting the outcomes of special elections, and it goes like this: The President’s party gets smashed. Just ask yourself why the Republicans won in Massachusetts in 2010 or the Democrats won in Alabama in 2017. It’s only possible because turnout is very low except among the people who feel like their party is the underdog and that it desperately needs to win in order to resist the tyranny of the incumbent President.

  It has been like this for at least three decades. The only special Senate elections in which the candidate from the President’s party doesn’t get beaten are the ones where an especially strong candidate is running on his party’s home turf, like when Cory Booker won in New Jersey in 2013. Even then, the margins are still smaller than usual.

So if there is such a simple rule to predict special elections, then why am I admitting complete cluelessness about Georgia?

The answer is that at this point, it is impossible to say which party is the President’s party. From a technical standpoint, it will obviously be the Republicans, as Biden won’t be sworn in until 20 January. But will the Democrats still feel like they need to turn out en masse to resist Trump, or will they act like he’s already beaten and let those seats slip away? And will the Republicans turn out en masse to resist Biden?

There are no examples from recent history of a special Senate election held during a transition, so I can’t answer those questions on the basis of experience. Speculation is all we have to go by.

Though if, by the time those elections roll around, Trump still hasn’t admitted that he lost, then the Democrats will be in a stronger position. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Joe Biden's Useless Victory

I am writing this on the evening after election day. Most of the votes have been counted, and only four states remain uncalled: Georgia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, which lean Trump, and Nevada, which leans Biden. But unless Trump wins all four of those states, which at this point is very unlikely, then Biden is going to be the next President – right now I will be so bold as to call it a 95 percent certainty.

Contra all the pundits and pollsters who foresaw a Democratic blowout, this election has ended up as a squeaker, just like the last one. At the beginning of the year, I predicted that Joe Biden would win the primaries, and Trump would win in the general election. Once Trump started bungling this year’s spate of crisis events, I admitted there was a chance he could lose, a la Carter in 1980 – the only other President of the last 120 years to lose re-election when his party had only been in the White House for four years.

But there is a big caveat for the Democrats: by winning the White House while leaving the Republicans with a 52 or 53 seat majority in the Senate, Joe Biden may well have achieved the most useless presidential victory in modern politics.

This victory comes at the end of a long, long struggle. Back in the 1960s, when Biden was still cheating his way through law school, he decided that he wanted to become a Senator when he was 30 (the minimum age) and then become President as soon after that as he could. True to his aspirations, Biden won Delaware’s 1972 Senate election at the age of 29 (he turned 30 before inauguration day). But his first two bids for the Presidency – in 1988 and 2008 – didn’t even make it into the primary season, though the latter at least netted him eight years of the vice-presidency as a consolation prize.

Biden didn’t give up, and now, at age 78, he is set to become America’s oldest president on the day he takes the oath of office. To get an idea of how long he has had to bide his time, just think about the fact that when former presidents Clinton, Bush Jr., Obama, and Trump attend his inauguration, they will all be younger than the man being sworn in.

Well, the guy has certainly got persistence.

But that raises an unpleasant question: Now that Biden has (sort of) achieved his personal goal – becoming President at as young of an age as possible – what is in it for his party?

The answer is: surprisingly little.

Had the Democrats picked Bernie Sanders or, really, anyone other than the most dull and uninspiring candidate to run in the primaries, they might have gotten themselves a leader with actual energy and charisma, arriving in Washington with a handful of new Senators and Representatives on his coat-tails.

Instead, they got an old, senile President who can barely stay awake, and only 47 or 48 Senate seats. Which leaves them in a very weak position.

Over the last few months, Democrats have filled the airwaves and the internet with talk about Medicare for All and student loan forgiveness and climate legislation and free college and repealing the Hyde Amendment and (as of 18 September) adding seats to the Supreme Court. Without a Senate majority, none of that is going to happen.

If Trump had won, the Democrats would have been shut out of power for the time being, but they would also have picked up a bevy of House and Senate seats in the 2022 elections (as a general rule, the incumbent President’s party gets clobbered in the sixth-year midterms). But with Biden nominally in charge and no bright orange hate object to inspire Democratic turnout, you can expect the Democrats to gain little or nothing in the upcoming midterms. From the standpoint of legislative potential, the Biden win was a Pyrrhic victory if there ever was such a thing.

Luckily for the Democrats, it has been nearly a century since America’s elected legislature played a leading role in making policy – in the modern system, that is usually a job for the civil service and the courts.

Biden can’t do much with the courts. All of his judicial appointments will have to go through a Republican Senate; for all we know, he might not even be able to provide a younger replacement for Stephen Breyer, the Supreme Court’s oldest liberal, in the event that Breyer wants to retire. Expect the current balance of three conservatives, three centrists, and three liberals to remain unchanged.

That leaves the civil service. Biden and Harris will certainly do their best to put leftists in all the key positions in the executive branch, within limits (i.e. as long as the GOP controls the Senate, nobody who’s spent the last four years talking about “whiteness” will get to head up a cabinet agency). Nevertheless, under Biden-Harris, we can expect  there to be more illegal immigration and more public celebrations of  deviant sexuality and more discrimination lawsuits filed against religious schools and businesses.

Well, slightly more. Even under Trump, most of the people who worked for the government were leftists (they’re called the “permanent civil service,” they don’t get replaced when the party in power changes, and they outnumber political appointees by more than one hundred to one). This is why so many government agencies, even under Trump, have spent the last year promoting wokeness, equity, antiracism, etc. And they will keep doing it under Biden-Harris.

Expect to see more local governments sponsoring events along the lines of Drag Queen Story Hour. Expect to see more people getting fired from their jobs for holding the wrong political opinions, especially if they work in academia, medicine, or white-collar corporate management. These firings will be blamed on Biden, but they would have happened anyway under Trump; I know this because they are already happening under Trump. Ditto with parents losing custody of their children for not affirming gender transitions.

The Supreme Court with its new Trump justices will do a good job of quashing overt censorship, but very little of what the Left is doing, or is planning to do, consists of overt censorship.

Getting banned by Youtube without an explanation or a chance to appeal? It’s well within Youtube’s legal rights. Getting fired from your job at a woke corporation because something you said several years ago has resurfaced on the internet and has been deemed racist or homophobic by the leftist mob? As before, it is within the corporation’s rights.

Ironically, the absence of Trump as a hate object on whom the Democrats can focus their rage will probably lead to a decrease in rioting and politically-motivated disowning of friends and family. Enjoy it while it lasts, because the major trends are still the same.

Neither Trump nor Biden has power over the media, the universities, or the major corporations. These are the institutions which together determine the long-term evolution of American public opinion. Ten years from now, this country will have less freedom of speech, less freedom of the press, and less freedom of religion than it has now.

You had better count on it. Without control of the Supreme Court, the Left can’t simply order us all to give up those freedoms, but high-tech mobs and woke corporations can still harass and censor and boycott their way to the same results.

I started off my post by calling Joe Biden’s win “useless” because it adds nothing to the Democrats' ability to get their agenda through Congress, while a Trump win would have detracted very little from their ability to impose that agenda on the American people by other means. But winning can mean different things to different people.

For Biden, winning meant seizing the Presidency at the youngest possible age. Biden won – sort of. For populist and idealistic Democrats, it means passing sweeping reforms in the Houses of Congress. The results of yesterday's Senate elections guarantee that these people aren’t going to win.

For the plutocratic oligarchy – the people who control the major corporations, the media, the Ivy League schools, and the permanent civil service – winning means maintaining the status quo, lining their own pockets, and keeping the country moving steadily leftward, except on issues like income inequality or environmentalism where leftward movement would interfere with their wealth. These people always win. Their power structure is designed so that populist movements like Trumpism – and Nixonism and Reaganism before it – roll off of it like water off a duck’s back.

But for each American who may be reading this, the most important question should be: how can I win?

The purpose of my blog has always been to wake people up to the broader patterns of civilizational decline that are going on around them, and help them to see that most of the milestones in America’s journey from constitutional republic to post-constitutional empire are by now in the past.

Many of my readers have criticized me for my pessimism, but I don’t consider my own predictions pessimistic. Decline and fall is the unavoidable fate of empires, ours as well as the Roman or Spanish or British empires before us. Pointing out that a nation is mortal – that, like everything on earth, it is subject to decay and death – is not the same as saying that the nation was conceived in rottenness or that the people within it have no future.

Quite the contrary. The American people – at least, the portion of the American people who realize what is going on – can win against the system. Specifically, they can win against the system by detaching themselves from the system.

Winning involves refusing to live in the same way as the American majority, it means being careful about how your children are educated so that they grow up holding your values instead of somebody else’s, and it means learning to work with your hands and adopting a frugal lifestyle in the expectation that the economic arrangements that privilege the United States over the rest of the world won’t be around forever. I have written before on the topic of living prudently in an age of decline; you can read some of my thoughts here.

And the reward, if you’re successful, is that you, or your children, or your children’s children, get to help build the next civilization on this continent, once the present one has finished crumbling. And if you ask me, that’s a much better prize than the one that Joe Biden just won for himself, when he committed to spend the next four years trying to stay awake long enough to pretend to be leading America.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Who Has The Power?

One of the unchanging features of modern American politics is that nearly every faction spends a lot of time loudly insisting that the only reason the country isn’t governed to its liking is because the opposite faction holds all the power.

It’s natural to think this way. When you realize that your own party is always falling short of what it has promised to do – whether that involves the Republicans not building the wall, or the Democrats not reducing income inequality, or what have you – then it makes sense to suppose that someone, somewhere, must really hold the power that your side only wishes it had.

Go to most conservative sites and you will see people vehemently denouncing the liberal elite that controls all of America’s most powerful institutions, and uses its power to govern as it wishes without regard to the opinions of the common man. Go to liberal sites and you will find an equal volume of invective deployed against a racist, plutocratic, conservative gerontocracy, which maintains power through gerrymandering and voter suppression even though most Americans dislike it and want to see it gone.

In its extreme form, the “someone else has all the power” meme produces conspiracy theories claiming that some hidden organization – be it the United Nations, the Zionists, Skull and Bones, or whoever – is governing America from the shadows. I’ve written before about why the conspiratorial worldview, despite being psychologically appealing, is wrong.

The milder version of this meme – the one which simply claims that the other political party has all the power – is also wrong.

Since most of my readership is on the rightward end of the political spectrum, they’re probably wondering what has become of the “liberal elite that controls all of America’s most powerful institutions, and uses its power to govern as it wishes without regards to the opinions of the common man?”

Well, it exists, and it’s the reason why American politics has mostly moved leftward over the last century. But this isn’t the same thing as saying that the Democratic party is all-powerful.

For example, where were the omnipotent Democrats when the Supreme Court decided Bush v. Gore? What about when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, or when every attempt to slow down climate change by restricting CO2 emissions has failed miserably? Why didn’t they stop the GOP from gerrymandering the House in 2010?

I could go on and on. But I started this post by asking a question: “Who Has The Power?” Since both Republican and Democratic office-holders are constantly finding their actions stimmied by the other side, and since there aren’t any grand conspiracies secretly running things, and since I’m not na├»ve enough to mistake our present system for the Founders’ “checks and balances” working the way they’re supposed to, I’m going to need to find another answer.

Three answers, actually. After pondering a long time on the question of who holds ultimate power in America’s present-day system, I’ve concluded that there are at least three answers, none of which, taken on its own, is the full truth. Here they are:

1.      The Supreme Court

If you are looking for the man, or body of men, which holds the summum imperium in the present-day American system, then it isn’t hard to find. The Supreme Court is in charge. The law here is whatever the Court says it is.

This is why when Justice William J. Brennan, probably the most influential liberal to ever sit on the Court, quizzed his new clerks on what the most important rule in constitutional law was, he bemusedly listened to their speculations that it might be the separation of powers, or the freedom of speech, before revealing the real answer, the Rule of Five. “If I get five votes,” he said, “I can do anything.

It hasn’t always been this way. Prior to the 1950s, judicial review existed, but it was subject to more checks and balances than today, and it was generally a conservative force. That is to say, although the Justices would occasionally strike down new and controversial laws, all the major innovations in American policy, such as central banking, women’s suffrage, Prohibition, and the New Deal, were still done through Congress or the state legislatures.

Then, under Chief Justices Warren and Burger, the Court transformed itself from what Alexander Hamilton called the “least dangerous” branch of government into a dictatorial committee with roughly the same powers as the Soviet and Chinese Politburos.

In short, by declaring itself the protector of every minority group who felt that its rights were being violated by more democratic institutions, the Warren Court became America’s Top Legislature. (That’s what “sole interpreter of the constitution” is a euphemism for). The Court then used this new power ruthlessly, to make a lot of dramatic changes to American law and policy that went quite a ways beyond suppressing the racial injustices which originally justified its power trip.

While this was going on, both during the period of rapid changes that ended around 1975, and during the calmer times since then, most American politicians have played coy, talking as if everything that had happened was an integral, if at times annoying, part of the constitutional system of checks and balances which the Founders gave us. (Does it really make sense to say: “one of our checks and balances is that the third branch of government is above checks and balances?” Is the Pope Catholic?)

So the upshot is that, for the last six decades or so, America has been a de facto dictatorship-by-committee, within a few constraints. The Justices are limited by the rate at which cases can work their way through the legal system (they cannot, for instance, do a page-by-page revision of the tax code), and by the need to get five out of nine people to come to an agreement (which is why the Court very often issues a decision to the effect of ‘we don’t want to be in charge of this aspect of the law’). They are careful to avoid getting involved in foreign policy. And they are also limited by the faint possibility of getting impeached or having their jurisdiction altered if they do something that both parties in Congress think is really, really bad.

That is why, to give one example, they couldn’t reinstate slavery, even if they tried. But there isn’t much else that they couldn't do.

2.     Moderate Republicans

To a right-winger, my first answer to the question of “Who Has The Power?” isn’t all that surprising. But there are uncomfortable implications, because you can’t simultaneously admit that the Supreme Court holds the summum imperium in this country, and blame America’s problems on “Democrats.”

Republican appointees have been a majority on the Court since 1969, with the size of that majority fluctuating between five and eight (!) seats. Also, the one time that the Court decided a presidential election, the Republican won. And yet, during all these decades, the Court has, for the most part, kept on advancing liberal causes.

For a politically astute conservative, the following names are synonymous with “traitor.” Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, John Roberts. But to whom are they traitors? Not to Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller and Bob Packwood and John Sununu, who were instrumental in getting them onto the Court.

The reason that you can rarely get an outspoken originalist like Robert Bork through the Senate is that there are a lot more Republicans who favor liberal jurisprudence than there are Democrats who favor conservative jurisprudence.

The conflicts over judicial philosophy are just one manifestation of the asymmetry between Left and Right in American politics. You can see the same thing across the whole gamut of legislative issues which work their way through Congress. It goes like this:

The Left is for rapid leftward change. The Right is sometimes for slow rightward change, but more often for just preserving the status quo. Inevitably, both Left and Right develop moderate factions. And the moderates are for... slow leftward change. The country does not go left as fast as the Left’s leadership would like (which is why the bulk of the Left still feels powerless) but it definitely goes left.

At least, it goes left when the corporate world doesn’t say ‘No.’ Moderates get along very well with monied interest groups.

(Also, moderate Republicans tend to be pro-war. Perhaps you recall the Republican Presidential Primary four years ago when Donald Trump, the only candidate to say the Iraq War was a mistake, was painted by the media as a dangerous extremist, while Marco Rubio, who was running in the moderate lane, said that the best solution to the conflict in Syria was to declare a “No-Fly Zone” and then shoot down Russian planes that violated it? And I shouldn't even need to mention the “moderate” policies of John McCain and Lindsey Graham!)

Anyhow, American politics makes a lot more sense once you realize that moderate Republicans are in charge, and that the difference between liberal causes that fail (such as environmentalism or higher taxes for the rich) and those that succeed (such as LGBT equality and de facto amnesty for illegal aliens) is usually determined by which ones moderate Republicans can support while remaining true to their corporate sponsors.

In a two-party system such as ours, where one party’s job is to agitate for radical changes, and the other party’s job is to offer inept and half-hearted resistance, the gatekeepers are the moderate members of the conservative party. Leftist reforms, from the creation of a bunch of new regulatory agencies under Nixon to the No Child Left Behind Act to same-sex marriage, go from idea to reality the moment that moderate Republicans get behind them.

3.     No One

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a peasant living in Roman Syria in the third century AD. Life is hard for anyone who has to earn a meager living by tilling the soil in a Roman province, but your life is even harder than most, since your landlord routinely takes a bigger share of your grain than the law entitles him to, and the local tax collector does the same thing with your money.

You complain to the municipal judges, but they don’t do anything – after all, they’re on good terms with the landlord and the tax collector, and one doesn’t just walk away from a friendship that carries financial benefits.

You know that the Emperor is ultimately in charge, so it’s hard to think of the landlord and the tax collector and the judges as tyrants – after all, they have to obey the Emperor’s laws just like you do, and if they try to take his place, they’ll probably end up with their heads on a bunch of pikes. But the Emperor is off fighting barbarians on the other side of the Danube, and what’s going on here in Syria is the last thing on his mind – or at least, it will be, until the Queen of Palmyra begins invading and pillaging the whole eastern half of the Empire.

So it isn’t fully accurate to say that the Emperor is in charge, when he actually plays no role in most of the decision-making that affects how his subjects live. But the landlord and the tax collector and the municipal judges aren’t in charge, either; after all, the ability to plunder one corner of a complex system is not the same thing as control over the entire system.

Present-day America has a lot in common with third century Rome. The American Empire, like the Roman Empire before it, is going through a time without strong leaders – just a lot of people who have the ability to plunder one corner of the system, and who use that ability ruthlessly.

We saw that during the financial crisis of 2008, when so many bankers kept on granting themselves multi-million-dollar bonuses even when their banks were insolvent and their bills were being paid by the government.

A lot of people on both the Right and the Left looked at what was going on and concluded that America must be controlled by a conspiracy of bankers. But the power that the banks have doesn’t rise to the level of controlling much of anything.

Rather, the revolving door between banks like Goldman Sachs, and the federal agencies that are supposed to regulate banks like Goldman Sachs, is useful to the banks mainly because it gives them enough veto power to make sure that the agencies don’t do anything that’s against the interests of the banks. But it does not give them power to proactively steer government policy in any particular direction.

Nearly all regulatory agencies function in a similar way. They protect the largest players in the industries they regulate from accountability, and they also protect them from competition, by means of an ever-expanding regulatory burden that crushes smaller players. As one might expect, the overall effect on the economy is bad.

To give one example out of thousands, in 2013 a handful of FAA bureaucrats drove Great Lakes Airlines and several other small airlines out of business by unilaterally raising the flight-hours needed to be a co-pilot from 250 to 1500. As for the big players, like American, United, and Delta? If I recall right, they’re still here.

This didn’t happen because anybody convinced a room full of people that it was a good idea to put Great Lakes Airlines out of business. It happened because there are people whose job is to constantly expand the regulatory code, and other people whose job is to make sure that the burden of that constantly expanding regulatory code falls on someone other than the corporation they work for.

You can see the same pattern almost anywhere you look. Why has the Defence Department poured so much money down the rat-hole of the F-35, even though it has taken decades to develop, its cost overruns are legion, and nearly every unbiased analyst knows that the F-35 is inferior to the fighters from the 1970s and 1980s that it is supposed to replace?

The answer is that it is in Lockheed’s interest for the program to move ahead, and Lockheed has its fingers in enough bureaucracies to keep things from getting done that aren’t in Lockheed’s interests.

No single person, or small group of likeminded people, is dictating this. Nobody who chairs a congressional committee or occupies a big office in the Pentagon is unpatriotic enough to consciously act against the core military interests of the United States. At the same time, these people are institution men by temperament, and it isn’t in their nature to rise up and wrest control of the Defence Department’s policies away from the Department’s vendors.

Meanwhile, America’s university system is busily charging exorbitant tuition for mostly-useless degrees, and will keep doing so as long as the Department of Education is willing to shell out huge amounts of money on student loans with little repayment potential. This is a policy that won’t be reversed in the near future, because nobody is powerful enough to take on the monied interests that benefit from it.

At this point, giving more examples should be unnecessary. Suffice it to say that America’s experiment with government by driverless car won’t go on forever. Rome’s period of decadence and misrule between AD 180 and 284 ended beneath the firm hand of the cruel but competent Emperor Diocletian. A second period of misrule began around the year 395, and ended with the dissolution of the western half of the empire in 476. (It’s worth noting that each of these periods, as well as the interlude of relative prosperity, lasted longer than a typical human lifetime. I have written before about how empires don’t collapse quickly.)

What will put an end to our present period of weak leadership? Nobody knows yet. Either things will keep going in the same direction until the dissolution of the Empire, or else a strong leader will reconcentrate power and start governing in a way that’s more conducive to military success and long-term stability.

 One way or another, things will change. But how soon that change will come, and what form it will take, are not questions that can be answered with any degree of certainty.