Early 20th century socio-economic commentary: history in the making

Several years ago, I used to watch the television show Bones. The only quote I remember from that show was surprisingly pithy given its origins. Regarding a serial killer the team has finally tracked down and neutralized, the resident psychologist, Dr. Lance Sweets, says: “I was right. He was nobody – angry at history for ignoring him.” Contemplating the second part of the quote, one realizes that the potentially histrionic line holds some alarming applicability today.

Tom Palmer wrote a magnificent article, “The Terrifying Rise of Authoritarian Populism,” which he examined the way that failed individuals and communities turn to a collective identity to bolster their self-esteem, which in turn creates a dynamic conducive to populist ideologies of all stripes. The pressing question is: Why does the majority feel entitled to dictate to the minority, in a form of mob-rule wrapped in the husk of democracy? In order to understand, though never to solve, this question in America, the one country whose founders openly designed it specifically to avoid tyranny, both of the majority and the minority, one must look to a mixture of factors.

In Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, there is a snippet of story about the history professor “who couldn’t get a job because he taught that the inhabitants of slums were not the men who made this country.” Quite literally because none of the Founding Fathers came from insignificance, outside of Alexander Hamilton, the illegitimate son of a Scottish gentleman, a man who was rather blatantly waiting around for a woman of rank to become available and who didn’t leave his son any of his extensive property.[1]Given that Hamilton’s early promise belied his later invention of the early federal reserve and his apologetics for tariffs, the suspicion of historians – and Hamilton’s own peers if private letters among Jefferson, the Adams, and others are to be believed – that he had some bitterness toward the propertied class on the basis of his childhood is justifiable. Benjamin Franklin was very proud of the fact that he managed to make his own fortune – having parted acrimoniously with his solidly middle-class extended family. To be fair, Franklin never claimed to be “self-made,” just to have had to be self-reliant at an unusually young age for a man of his class. There is much to be admired in Franklin’s rigidly honest self-definition, especially today. To return to the quote from Rand, the idea expressed was not a comment upon the literal Founding Fathers but rather upon the building of identities and the falsity contained therein. 

The visualization graphic linked from FEE shows clearly the extent to which incomes have increased over the years. The discontent connected and displayed through dramatic claims about “shrinking middle-class,” “stagnant wages,” “1 percent,” etc. was predicted in 1907 by economist Alvin Saunders Johnson (1874 – 1971) in his study “Influences Affecting the Development of Thrift.” Starting with the question:

If it is proposed, through legislation, to liberate a given social class from some of the uncertainties and hardships of the laissez-faire regime, one of the first questions to be raised is: “What will be the effects upon the habits of saving of the class concerned?” 

After laying out in great detail why redistributive policies were bound to fail fiscally and socially, Johnson took direct aim at what he perceived to be the source of the problem:

To-day the working class is rising into an autonomous position. The workingman of to-day repudiates the term “the lower classes.” His position is not the same as that of the property owner, but it is not in his opinion inferior. It follows that any line of conduct rising normally out of his position as a wage earner will be held in honor by him. It is pertinent, therefore, to inquire what attitude toward thrift the exigencies of his situation lead him to adopt. 

It is no part of the workingman’s view of progress that each individual should become the owner of a capital whose earnings may supplement those of his labor. No such supplementary income should, in the laborer’s view, be necessary; and the work- man who endeavors to secure it for himself, instead of bending his efforts to the winning of better conditions for labor in general, is likely to be blamed for selfishness rather than praised for self-restraint. […]

Light-handed spending in time of prosperity, mutual aid in time of distress- such appears to be the approved conduct of a permanent body of property-less laborers. And if this is true, we may be quite certain that such practices will in the end be idealized, and that middle-class schemes of cultivating thrift among the working classes will meet with increasing resistance. Already it is easy to find bodies of intelligent workmen who express the greatest contempt for the fellow workman who is ” salting down ” a part of his earnings. 

All of these factors, predicted Johnson, would lead to increase inequality, social and financial, and anger with the socio-economic system. The inequality would stem, not from literal economic inequality, but from the loss of the “laborers” to discern genuine investment, in self, family, and business, from mere consumption, leading to a knowledge- and know-how gap.

At the time Johnson wrote his study, the Progressive movement and its acolytes were running rampant in the US, promoting what we would call today a “soft” socialist state, and the campaigners were experiencing unusual popularity in response to an agriculture bubble due to subsidies that inflated land prices and a more general move toward socialism among urban workers. While the prototype socialists blamed consumption, adopting eagerly the vocabulary of Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class(1899), Johnson rejected the idea completely:

“Conspicuous consumption” is a proof of economic success, and wherever it is the most telling proof, the standard of economic success is likely to be a standard of consumption. But wherever economic success is better displayed in some other way, as for example by increase in one’s visible assets or productive equipment, the standard of consumption exercises little influence upon economic conduct. A standard of conspicuous possession or of productive power takes its place.[2]

Instead, the root problem was a mass loss of will to be capitalists and to engage in and with the capitalist system. This in turn stemmed from a desire for dignity, a pursuit doomed to failure because it was built not on the dignity of work and the worthiness of independence but upon class identity. Exacerbating the situation, as Tom Palmer explored, is the fact that this identity is collective, which fits with a rejection of capitalist pursuit because entrepreneurship is inherently a singular, individual effort.  

Today, we are facing the consequences of the rejection of what Margaret Thatcher called “the strenuous life of liberty and enterprise.” Those who embrace this lifestyle ideal are the ones who have made and continue to determine history. While they may be mappable as a network or a general type of group, all of their achievements lie outside a collective identity. Any set of people can be distilled down to a select set of characteristics that give the impression of a collective unity; for example, one can make a blanket statement along the lines of “the majority of tech billionaires are Ivy Plus dropouts” which would be true in a literal sense and false in its reductionist view. 

The collective view of the social peer must fail of necessity. It is what Johnson meant when he mentioned the derision directed by working-men at those of their fellows who stepped outside a collective concept of “place” and tried to become capitalists through saving. The policing of the peer in America has failed miserably as Palmer described when he wrote of individuals seeking solace in the notion that their community is successful, even if they are not. The illogic of this position escapes them: it is impossible for a community of individual underachievers to become successful merely through combining into a collective. History shows many times over that such a situation only increases the multiplication of failure. And it is the inexorability of history – though not, heeding Karl Popper’s admonition, historicism – that is the source of the anger today. The collective from the slums does not make history, and those who make up the collective are now angry at history for ignoring them.        


[1]To be fair to Hamilton Sr., not much is known about the circumstances of his estate. It is perfectly possible that it was entailed and therefore could not be bequeathed at will. Hamilton Sr did pay for an elite, in a Caribbean-colonies context, education and funded his son’s early ventures in New York City. Also a good proof for the idea that the bank of mom and dad is NOT a Millennial invention.  

[2]Johnson is an American economist who really deserves greater recognition. He grew up on the Midwestern plains, and in these fairly isolated circumstances, he articulated a theory of economics which he later recognized as part of the Austrian School. He co-founded The New School in NYC and was single-handedly responsible for the university becoming a home to Austrian and other central European scholars forced to flee from the Nazis. 

Mass shooting in perspective

Each of the past few years, about 35,000 Americans died in traffic accidents. This fact should be taken into account when considering recent massacres of civilians. I was wondering if anyone else would be cold hearted enough to go that way. So I waited a few days to comment on the massacres in Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton, to avoid duplicating others’ commentaries. Plus, I have technical difficulties associated with my current location. Please, comment or wave if you see this.

Of the approximately 35,000 victims about half died in accidents involving alcohol. I will assume, against my thesis, that only 10,000 people each year died indirectly or directly because someone drank too much alcohol and drove.

How to count victims of mass shootings has become – strangely enough- controversial. Nevertheless, I am quite certain that shootings, specifically, of strangers for other than greed, or jealousy, or disappointed love have not caused 10,000 deaths in any of the past few years, not even close.

Do you agree; do you see where I am going?

So drunk drivers kill many more people – about 10,000 annually – than mass shooters. The victims of the ones are just as dead as the victims of the others; the loss and grief associated with the ones must be similar to those associated with the others. The deaths from one cause seem to me to be as meaningless as the deaths from the other. (That’s by contrast with the death of a firefighter in the line of duty, for example.)

A rational collective response should give priority to the avoidance of the many deaths from drunk driving over the much fewer deaths caused by mass assassins. Yet, the public reactions of the left are exactly the reverse of those rational expectations. In part, this inversion of priorities is due to the magnification the media affords mass shootings but not the slow massacre on the roads. In part, it may be due to the sometimes concentrated nature of the death tolls by mass shooting. This explanation, however, has only limited value because the small death toll at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, for example, was given much more publicity than is conceivable for any drunk driving accident with three lethal casualties.

This irrational ordering of priorities is made all the more puzzling by the fact that it would be much easier to reduce the number of deaths from drunk driving than by domestic mass shootings. Two reasons. First, people in jail can’t kill anyone with a car. The second reason is a little more subtle; bear with me.

Drunk drivers fall into two main categories, alcoholics who think they have to drive, and self-indulgent slobs. My intuition is that there are many more of the latter than of the former (especially among the young, who are overrepresented in car accidents) but I don’t have any figures. Self-indulgent slobs are capable of rational calculus. If the relevant punishment is severe enough and certain enough, they will become less self-indulgent. I used to be one of them. When the penalty for drunk driving went from about $100 to several thousand during my lifetime, I discovered that I could take a taxi, or pay a friend to drive me back, or drink at home. The quality of my life declined but it was worth it. It’s likely that my fear of heavy punishment saved someone’s life over the long run.

So, a credible remedial scheme is simple: withdrawal of driver’s license for a long period on the first offense associated with heavy fines for driving without a license. A significant jail term without possibility of parole would punish each subsequent infraction. Again, imprisoned drivers don’t kill anyone through their drunk driving. That’s a valid reason in itself to keep them locked up for a long time. It’s probably also economically reasonable.

So, I wonder why is there not a passionate public outcry on the political left and among its media partners in favor of a nation-wide remedial endeavor of the kind I just described?

Drunk driving kills many more Americans than do criminal mass shootings of the Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton kind. This, although suppressive remedies to drunk driving are conceptually straightforward. My friend Vernon Bohr pointed out in a comment on Facebook that accidental drownings of children alone claim more lives of all categories of Americans than do mass shootings. There are better priorities.

The indifference of the left to those more important preventable causes of mortality as compared to its display of strong collective emotion with respect to sudden death by shooting seems strange, on the surface. This strong emotion is usually, almost always associated with urgent calls for some sort of federal gun control.

The contrast is made all the more striking by the following legal facts: First, the regulation of behavior that is potentially harmful to others – such as driving automobiles – falls squarely within the purview of state legislatures, primarily, of Congress, secondarily. Number two, driving is nowhere a right, except by default. Possessing weapons, by contrast, is a right explicitly guaranteed by the US Constitution, and twice reaffirmed by the US Supreme Court.

So, why would the considerable emotional and political resources of the left, aptly guided by the mass media, be expanded on the deaths of comparatively few, on a problem that is difficult to understand, one whose resolution would also encounter strong legal obstacles? Why this relentless emphasis when there are obvious, bigger, more rational objects of collective compassion?

I am thinking of two answers. One, the unpredictability of shooting events make them seem more disruptive than the somewhat routinized highway deaths, including by drunk drivers. The logical implication of this explanation is that if mass shootings became more frequent, they would appear more routine, and thus, less disruptive, and less deserving of left-wing attention. Note that there is a long way to go between the few hundred annual casualties by mass killings, and the 10,000 I attribute to drunk driving alone.

Thus, mass shootings garner both attention and emotion – including on the left – precisely because they are comparatively rare. If this were correct, attention and emotion would diminish with an increased frequency of such events. That is not a trend I observe. Others may see it.

Two, the left, and its media component, may focus on mass shootings in preference to making more rational choices, not in spite of the legal obstacles in their path but because of them. In this perspective, the focus on mass shootings may not be an exercise in misguided compassion, but a means to a higher end.

Americans are, on the whole, much attached to their Constitution. Modifying it is an arduous and uncertain task. Shortcuts to this effect are much appreciated. It would be difficult to find a more effective shortcut than the guided emotionalism the left supplies on the occasion of each mass shooting perpetuated by an American who is not also a violent jihadist. The spectacle of perfectly innocent victims, including children, cut down by someone seemingly exercising his constitutional right to bear arms must be the most formidable nonrational argument against that constitutional right. It can be mustered to sidestep collective choices – such as further reductions in deaths by drunk drivers – that would make the most sense from the standpoint of simple compassion. Thus, a one tenth reduction in deaths by drunk driver, and the corresponding shrinking of human misery, would do about twice more good than would the total (total) elimination of mass shootings.

The outburst of emotionalism expertly guided by the media we witnessed following three civilian mass shootings in quick succession is not about compassion, it’s about power. Every reduction in the autonomy of individuals increases the power of government, of those who are in charge of it through legitimate political means, and of the permanent bureaucracy.

Incidentally, I suspect there must be libertarian solutions to the vast and continuing problem of death by drunk driver, solutions that don’t involve putting people in jail. I don’t know what those are. I would like to hear about them.

Nightcap

  1. Is this the end of the American Century? Adam Tooze, London Review of Books
  2. The case for a Shi’a Century Fitzroy Morrissey, History Today
  3. The ‘Caliphate’ Is Gone. Where’s the ‘Caliph’? Kathy Gilsinan, the Atlantic
  4. Europe’s media has an actual bias problem Bill Wirtz, American Conservative

An optimist turns pessimistic

I won an essay contest back in my undergraduate days for an essay on optimism. I understand that poverty worldwide is on the run. I understand that none of us have suffered through a devastating worldwide war like most of our ancestors did. In many ways, we have it good.

But Donald Trump is still President of the United States of America. I still remember waking up to the news that he had beat Hillary Clinton. It was surreal (it didn’t help that I was living Austin, where everything is a bit foggier, brain-wise).

Unlike Jacques, who seems to be so in love with Trump that he would get down on his knees and do whatever Trump wanted him to do, I don’t like Donald Trump. I don’t think he’s done a good job. I don’t even care that the left-leaning press is dishonest when it comes to reporting on his administration. I think this is the difference between libertarians like me, who lean more to the left, and libertarians like Jacques and Bruno, who lean more to the right.

Jacques and Bruno are not really defending the Trump and Bolsonaro administrations. And they’re not really speaking up for these two administrations because they hate leftists more than they like liberty. Guys like Jacques and Bruno care more about Truth than anything else, and the global mainstream media’s narrative skews left and is often dishonest.

Me? I’ve grown accustomed to dishonesty in media. I’ve also grown accustomed to ignorance. I pick and choose which dishonest or ignorant bits I want to challenge. When journalists write or say something about guys like Trump or Bolsonaro that are blatantly wrong, I make a mental note of the dishonest nature of the reporting, but that’s about it. Guys like Trump and Bolsonaro are bad for liberty, after all. I’d rather focus on the mainstream press’ dishonesty when it comes to people like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. The fawning over her is at least as concerning as the dishonest portrayals of Trump or Bolsonaro.

Left-wing populism is just as bad as right-wing populism, and everybody in the democratic world is going to be stuck with populism for quite awhile. Truth is on its way out the door, and I don’t know if it’ll be back in my lifetime.

A short note on India’s air strikes in Pakistan

Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, while issuing a statement with regard to India’s air strikes on a training camp of the dreaded terror group Jaish-E-Muhammad (JeM) in Pakistan on February 26, 2019, dubbed these as pre-emptive ‘non-military strikes’. The Foreign Secretary stated that the Indian Air Force hit the largest training camp of the JeM, which is in Balakot, Pakistan, and a large number of JeM terrorists were killed in the strike.

The rising tensions between both countries have understandably caught the world’s attention.

JeM had claimed responsibility for the dastardly terror attack in Pulwama, Kashmir, on February 14, 2019 in which over 40 CRPF soldiers were killed. While efforts have been made to designate JeM chief a ‘global terrorist’ at the UN, China has blocked such moves.

The Indian side also made it clear that these air strikes were neither targeted at civilians nor at the Pakistani military. This served two purposes; one it would prevent further escalation and second, it could give some space to Imran Khan’s civilian government.

The international community was quick to react to the attacks by the Indian Air Force (IAF), and asked both sides to de-escalate. The US, while asking Pakistan to take action against terror groups on their soil, also stated that both sides should de-escalate. In a statement issued on February 26, 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also asked Foreign Ministers of both countries to resume direct communication and avoid any ‘further military activity’.

A statement issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson also spoke in favour of India and Pakistan exercising ‘restraint’ and the need for peace and stability in South Asia. Even during Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Beijing, a day after the strikes, China, while condemning terrorism, emphasized on the need for reduction of tensions. It did not change.

Domestically, Prime Minister Narendra Modi received full support from the opposition, including the Congress Party. The President of the Congress Party was quick to tweet and congratulated the Indian Air Force. Even other prominent political leaders supported the IAF.

The Indian PM did not miss the opportunity to mention the IAF’s action at a political rally. While speaking at a rally in the Indian state of Rajasthan, Modi paid homage to the para-military troops who died in the February 14 terrorist attack, and also made a reference to the action of the Indian Air Force:

…I want to assure you that the country is in safe hands.

Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj also met with opposition leaders from different political parties on February 26, 2019. This was in stark contrast to the surgical strikes in 2016 on terror camps in Uri (located in PoK).

Some BJP spokespersons also made unnecessary uncalled for statements. (The BJP did issue instructions to its spokespersons to not issue any uncalled for statements).

Risks of escalation and Indian media

Sections of the Indian electronic media went overboard as usual, something which has been witnessed post 26/11.

While media channels may believe they are raising patriotic fervour, pushing the PTI government led by Imran Khan and the Pakistani army into a wall may not be a very smart move. As mentioned earlier, the usage of the word ‘non-military’ strike was meant to give space to the Pakistan government.

Post the attack, Imran Khan was criticised by the opposition and will be under pressure. His immediate reaction was that Pakistan would respond at a time and place of its choice and also asked the Pakistani nation to be prepared for all eventualities.

Post the Pulwama attack, a well-known Indian strategic analyst had made an important point:

The Pakistani army might be more likely to start a war if its image takes too hard a beating in the eyes of the Pakistani people, than if it suffers physical damage outside the limelight.

It is not just the electronic media, but the narrative on social media which further raises tempers.

Bobby Ghosh, a prominent journalist, made an interesting comment on Twitter:

People keep saying the India-Pakistan conflict is more dangerous now because both have nukes. But other new weapons greatly increase the risk: Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp… and hyper-nationalistic TV networks.

Conclusion

Not just the international community, but even sane minds in India and Pakistan realise the costs of conflict, and have been pitching for de-escalation. Apart from the role of the international community, a lot will also depend upon domestic narratives in both countries. While the Modi government received the support of the opposition post the Pulwama terror attack, it needs to focus now on not just taking all political players along but also ensuring that tensions do not rise further as things could go out of control. The media on its part needs to be more responsible, and as for the social media, a lot of it is driven by the views of the political leadership. The political leadership will thus need to change the direction of the narrative, so that tempers are calmed down.

RCH: Calvin Coolidge

I took on Calvin Coolidge this week. My Tuesday column dealt with Coolidge and his use of the radio, while this weekend’s column argues why you should love him:

2. Immigration. At odds with the rest of his anti-racist administration, Coolidge’s immigration policy was his weakest link. Although he was not opposed to immigration personally, and although he used the bully pulpit to speak out in favor of treating immigrants with respect and dignity, Coolidge was a party man, and the GOP was the party of immigration quotas in the 1920s. Reluctantly, and with public reservations, Coolidge signed the Immigration Act of 1924, which significantly limited immigration into the United States up until the mid-1960s, when new legislation overturned the law.

Please, read the rest.

Brazil’s sole openly gay congressman leaves the country after death threats?

According to The Guardian and other online sources in English, Jean Wyllys, “Brazil’s first and only openly gay congressman” left the country after death threats. But is that so? Running a great risk (or certainty) of being called homophobic, fascist, racist, taxidermist, guitarist, etc., I’m gonna give some information that The Guardian and other sources neglect.

First of all, Mr. Wyllys is not “Brazil’s first and only openly gay congressman.” He was preceded by at least one other “openly gay congressman,” Clodovil Hernandes (1937-2009). Mr. Hernandes was elected for Congress in 2006 and before that was for several decades a respected (although sometimes controversial) fashion designer and television presenter. Mr. Hernandes was always open about his sexuality and while in Congress had good relations with Jair Bolsonaro, frequently accused of homophobia by Brazilian and international media – including The Guardian.

But coming back to Mr. Wyllys, he rose to fame after winning the Brazilian version of the of the Big Brother reality franchised television show in 2005. Following that, he ran for Congress in 2010 representing the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL. Socialism and freedom – a contradiction in the very party’s name) but received only an average of 13,000 votes. His election was only possible, considering the number of votes he had, through the votes of another highly voted candidate of the same party. In 2014 he ran for reelection and this time, justice be done, received a great number of votes: almost 145,000 – more than enough to be elected by his own rights, although still way behind Jair Bolsonaro himself, who received 464,572 votes in the same election. However, in the last elections, Mr. Wyllys went back to electoral mediocrity, with meager 24,295 votes. Once again, as in 2010, he was benefited by his electoral law and party votes and got elected, despite being behind candidates who received way more.

After Bolsonaro was elected president in last October, many leftists in Brazil declared they were part of “The Resistance.” One of the mottos of this informal group was “nobody lets go of nobody’s hand.” There were many rumors on the internet saying that Mr. Wyllys would leave Brazil with Bolsonaro’s election. Answering these rumors he said, “the slogan of my campaign was resistance. For all those who spread fake news saying that I would leave Brazil, I am here and here I will stay.” However, Mr. Wyllys’ resistance didn’t last for a month. Just a few days before the swearing-in he released a note from overseas stating that he will not assume his position as a congressman in February and that he will also not return to Brazil due to alleged death threats. Mr. Wyllys didn’t present any proofs of the death threats he affirms is receiving.

Mr. Wyllys despicable 24,295 votes – and the downfall from his previous almost 145,000 – show that he is actually a minor figure in Brazilian politics. However, considering the cover given him by The Guardian and other media, one might think he is something else. One might think that his alleged death threats are a major threat to Brazilian democracy. But let’s consider some things that The Guardian and other media ignore:

Last September, during the presidential campaign, Jair Bolsonaro suffered a knife attack in Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais. Bolsonaro’s stabber, Adélio Bispo de Oliveira, was affiliated to PSOL – Mr. Wyllys’ political party – between 2007 and 2014. According to official records of Brazil’s House of Representatives, on the same day of the attack, Mr. Oliveira was in the House, in Brasília. Brasília and Juiz de Fora are almost 700 miles apart. Did somebody register his presence to create an alibi? Immediately after the attack, Mr. Oliveira was assisted by extremely expensive lawyers. The identity of who pays these lawyers is secret. If all these things don’t raise eyebrows, I don’t know what to do.

In 2016, during the voting for the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, Mr. Wyllys spit on Jair Bolsonaro. Mr. Wyllys spit was followed by a wave of leftists spitting on opponents as a sign of political resistance.

The case is still under investigation, but there is a lot of evidence that Fernando Holiday, a black and gay city councilor for São Paulo, suffered a murder attempt last December. Evidence also suggests that this was a political crime, for Holiday defends a controversial social security reform. But I don’t see The Guardian celebrating that São Paulo, Brazil’s greatest city, has a young, black, and gay councilor or that worried that his life might be under threat. Maybe because Holiday defends free-market and conservative policies?

Joice Hasselmann, elected for Congress in 2018 elections, also claims she received death threats. The difference between Ms. Hasselmann and Mr. Wyllys is that she presented proofs: in late November a pig’s head with a death note was left on her residence’s door. The case is under investigation. A woman, elected for Congress of one of the world’s largest democracies is apparently receiving death threats, but the coverage by international media is minimum. Maybe because Ms. Hasselmann is conservative?

In sum, Brazil’s democracy is fragile indeed. A presidential candidate was stabbed. A counselor in the country’s largest city was the victim of a murder attempt. A congresswoman by the country’s most populous state receives death threats on her home. If Mr. Wyllys is indeed receiving death threats, he shouldn’t leave the country. He should honor his voters, despite how few they are, and most of all, he should cooperate with the police.