“Not-So-Random Thoughts” is an occasional series in which I highlight writings by other commentators on varied subjects that I have addressed in the past. Other entries in the series can be found at these links: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI, XVII, XVIII, XIX, XX, XXI, XXII, XXIII, XXIV, and XXV. For more in the same style, see “The Tenor of the Times” and “Roundup: Civil War, Solitude, Transgenderism, Academic Enemies, and Immigration“.
FREE TRADE RETHOUGHT
My position on so-called free trade:
- Estimate the amount by which the price of a foreign product or service is reduced by the actions of foreign governments or their proxies.
- Add that amount to the price as a tariff.
- Regularly review and adjust the schedule of tariffs.
All other trade would be unencumbered, excepting:
- the importation of products and services otherwise restricted by U.S. law (e.g., tanks, artillery pieces)
- the exportation of products and services that are used directly in the development, manufacture, and operation of sensitive military systems (e.g., fighter aircraft, anti-missile defenses).
Selective tariffs, based on actual costs of production, would encourage the efficient use of resources and protect American workers who would otherwise be victimized by unfair trade. But that’s it. Sweeping tariffs on imports — just to “protect” American workers — do more than protect them. They also penalize American consumers, most of whom are also workers.
William Upton, writing in light of current events (“Make America Autarkic Again“, The American Mind, March 13, 2020), would go a lot further:
In our over-globalized world, a policy of total autarky is infeasible. But a degree of autarky should be recognized as self-evidently in America’s national interest.
Autarky, for those unfamiliar, was an economic and industrial policy of self-reliance wherein a nation need not rely on international trade for its economic survival. This is not to say that said nation rejected international trade or isolated itself from the global economic order, rather that it merely could survive on its own if necessary….
[Oren] Cass notes that sound industrial policy has allowed nations like Germany and Japan to retain strong manufacturing sectors. Cass also emphasizes the pivotal importance of manufacturing, not just for the economy, but for American communities:
[M]anufacturing is unique for the complexity of its supply chains and the interaction between innovation and production. One of the most infuriating face-palms of modern economics is the two-step that goes like this: First, wave away concern as other countries with aggressive industrial policies … attract our critical supply chains overseas, explaining that it doesn’t matter where things get made. Second, wait for people to ask “why can’t we make this or that here,” and explain that of course we can’t because all of the supply chains and expertise are entrenched elsewhere. It’s enough to make one slam one’s head into the podium.
There may be something to it.
THE DEATH PENALTY
I was surprised to read the assessment by Theodore Dalrymple, a former prison doctor, of the death penalty (“The Death Penalty’s Demise and the Withering of Authority“, Law & Liberty, February 11, 2020). On the one hand:
If I had been a prison doctor while the death penalty was still imposed in Britain, I should have had the somewhat awkward task of certifying murderers fit for execution…. It was not permitted to execute madmen even if they had been sane at the time of their crime; but with the ever-widening and loosening of psychiatric diagnosis, I should no doubt have been tempted always to find a medical reason to postpone the execution sine die. I would have found it hard to sign what would have amounted to a medical death warrant, all the more so with the man before my very eyes. Nor would I have much relished attending the execution itself, to certify that the execution had worked….
But while I should not have wanted to participate in an execution, I was nevertheless viscerally in favour of the death penalty because it seemed to me that there were crimes (though by no means all of them murder) so heinous, so despicable, that no other penalty was adequate to express society’s outrage at, or repudiation of, them. Moreover — though quite late in my career — I discovered evidence that suggested that the death penalty did in fact act as a deterrent to murder, something which has long been contested or outright denied by abolitionists.
But on the other hand:
Does its deterrent effect, then, establish the case for the death penalty, at least in Britain? No, for two reasons. First, effectiveness of a punishment is not a sufficient justification for it. For example, it might well be that the death penalty would deter people from parking in the wrong place, but we would not therefore advocate it. Second, the fact is that in all jurisdictions, no matter how scrupulously fair they try to be, errors are sometime made, and innocent people have been put to death. This seems to me the strongest, and perhaps decisive, argument against the death penalty.
And on the third hand:
Although, on balance, I am against the death penalty, I do not assume that those who are in favour of it are necessarily moral primitives, which abolitionists often give the impression of believing. For most of our history, the rightness of the death penalty has been taken for granted, and it cannot be that we are the first decent, reflective people ever to have existed. The self-righteousness of the Europeans in this respect disgusts me when they set themselves up to judge others. France, for example, abolished the death penalty only in 1981 – AD 1981, that is, not 1981 BC. When the death penalty in Britain was abolished in 1965 after many decades of campaigning by abolitionists, more than 90 per cent of the population was still in favour of it. Almost certainly it believed, if not necessarily in a fully coherent way, that to abolish the death penalty was to weaken the authority of society and to lessen the majesty of the law. It was also to weaken the prohibition against killing and, though involving the taking of a life (the murderer’s), also lessened the sanctity of life….
In Britain, one of the effects of the abolition of the death penalty, the downward pressure on all prison sentences, has been little remarked. Punishment has to be roughly proportional to the gravity of the crime (exact proportionality cannot be achieved), but if murder attracts only 15 years’ imprisonment de facto, what sentences can be meted out to those who commit lesser, but still serious, crimes? Moreover, the charge of murder is often reduced to the lesser crime of manslaughter, in which sentences – as a consequence – are often derisory….
It is scarcely any wonder that in the years since the abolition of the death sentence, Britain has gone from being a well-ordered, non-violent, law-abiding society to being a society with the highest rate of violent crime in Western Europe. Of course, the abolition of the death penalty was not the only cause, for crime was rising in any case, but it brought its contribution to the festival of disorder that followed.
It seems to me that Dalrymple ends up arguing in favor of the death penalty. He is correct about its deterrent effect (same post). He is wrong to give heavy weight to the possibility of error. And he overlooks a conclusive argument in its favor: there is one less criminal who might be let loose to commit more crimes. All of those points and more are covered in these posts:
Does Capital Punishment Deter Homicide?
Libertarian Twaddle about the Death Penalty
A Crime Is a Crime
Crime and Punishment
Saving the Innocent?
Saving the Innocent?: Part II
More Punishment Means Less Crime
More About Crime and Punishment
More Punishment Means Less Crime: A Footnote
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
Let the Punishment Fit the Crime
Another Argument for the Death Penalty
Less Punishment Means More Crime
Why Stop at the Death Penalty?
STATE ACTORS IN ACTION
Once upon a time I made a case for rescuing the First Amendment from its enemies in
the telecommunications, news, entertainment, and education industries [which] have exerted their power to suppress speech because of its content…. The collective actions of these entities — many of them government- licensed and government-funded — effectively constitute a governmental violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech (See Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944) and Marsh v. Alabama, 326 U.S. 501 (1946).)
Leo Goldstein (“Google and YouTube Are State Actors“, American Thinker, March 9, 2020) finds a smoking gun
in the FCC Obamanet orders of 2010 and 2015. The 2015 Obamanet Order, officially called Open Internet Order, has explicitly obligated all internet users to pay a tax to Google and YouTube in their ISP and wireless data fees. The Order even mentions Google and YouTube by name. The tax incurs tens of billions of dollars per year. More specifically, the Order said that by paying ISP fees (including mobile wireless), each user also pays for the services that ISP gives to platforms and content providers like YouTube, even if the user doesn’t use them….
Platforms and content providers are misleadingly called “edge providers” here. Thus, every ISP customer in the US is obligated to pay for the traffic generated by Google, Netflix, Facebook, and Twitter, even if he used none of them!
Off with their heads.
RED VS. BLUE
The prolific Joel Kotkin weighs in on the Red States’ economic and electoral advantages:
Even in a state as deeply blue as [California}, Democrats’ disdain for the basic values and interests of their own base could unravel their now seemingly unbridgeable majority. At some point, parents, artists, minorities, small businesspeople and even sex workers will not be mollified sufficiently by a fulsome expression of good intentions. If more voters begin to realize that many of the policies being adopted are injurious, they may even begin to look again at the Republicans, particularly once the toxic President Trump is no longer on the ballot scaring the masses to toe the line. [“Democrats Risk Blowback with Leftward Turn“, newgeography, March 1, 2020]
* * *
The political and cultural war between red and blue America may not be settled in our lifetimes, but it’s clear which side is gaining ground in economic and demographic terms. In everything from new jobs—including new technology employment—fertility rates, population growth, and migration, it’s the red states that increasingly hold the advantage.
Perhaps the most surprising development is on the economic front. Over the past decade, the national media, and much of academia, have embraced the notion that the future belonged to the high-tax, high-regulation economies clustered on the East and West Coasts. The red states have been widely dismissed, in the words of the New York Times, as the land of the “left behind.”
Yet the left-behind are catching up, as economic momentum shifts away from coastal redoubts toward traditionally GOP-leaning states. Just a few years ago, states like California, Massachusetts, and New York held their own, and then some, in measurements of income growth from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Now the fastest growth is concentrated in the Sunbelt and Great Plains. Texans’ income in the latest 2019 BEA estimates was up 4.2 percent, well above California’s 3.6 percent and twice New York’s 2.1 percent. The largest jumps—and this may matter a lot in 2020—took place in the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Iowa. [“Red v. Blue“, City Journal, February 7, 2020]
[S]ocialism is gaining adherents even in the upper middle-class and among the oligarchy. One critical component lies in detestation of all things Trump even among CEOs, most of whom, according to a recent Chief Executive survey, want him impeached. Corporate America is increasingly embracing the notion of a guaranteed income and is adopting politically correct positions on such things as immigration, particularly in tech and on Wall Street.
But the most important driver for socialism comes from the burgeoning green movement. Long dominated by the elite classes, environmentalists are openly showing themselves as watermelons — green on the outside, red on the inside. For example, the so called “Green New Deal” — embraced by Sanders, Warren and numerous oligarchs — represents, its author Saikat Chakrabarti suggests, not so much a climate as “a how-do-you-change-the entire-economy thing”. Increasingly greens look at powerful government not to grow the economy, but to slow it down, eliminating highly paid blue-collar jobs in fields like manufacturing and energy. The call to provide subsidies and make work jobs appeals to greens worried about blowback from displaced workers and communities.
Combined with the confused and vacillating nature of our business elites, and the economic stagnation felt by many Americans, socialism in the West is on the rise. An ideology that history would seem to have consigned to Leon Trotsky’s “dustbin of history”, could turn the land that once embraced Adam Smith closer to the vision of Karl Marx. [“The West Turns Red?“, newgeography, February 25, 2020]
I have shown the economic superiority of the Red State model. But that isn’t enough to rescue the country from the perpetual allure of socialism. As I say here,
… States and municipalities governed by Democrats will ever more boldly pursue policies that undermine traditional American culture (e.g., unabated encouragement of illegal immigration, accelerated favoritism toward “identity groups”) and which are broadly destructive of the economic and social fabric; for example: persisting in costly, money-losing recycling and composting programs that do nothing for the environment (taking into account the environmental effects of the vehicles and equipment involved); the replacement of fossil-fuel sources of electricity by unreliable and expensive “renewable” sources; encouragement of homelessness by subsidizing it and making it socially acceptable; discouragement of family formation and stability through the continuation and expansion of long-discredited
vote-buying welfare programs; openly persecuting conservatives and conservative institutions.
All of that will intensify the divisions between Red and Blue States, and the divisions between Red State governments and the Blue cities within them. But that is a first-order effect.
The second-order effect is to make living in Blue States and cities more onerous for middle-to-low-income earners (and even some among the affluent), who will seek greener (Redder) pastures outside Blue cities and Blue States. But many (most?) of those refugees will not flee because they have come to believe that big government is the cause of their problems. Rather, they (especially the younger, more mobile, and more “socialistic” ones) will flee because they don’t want to suffer the consequences of big government (high taxes, high housing costs, etc.). But, being addicted to the idea that big government is good, and ignorant of the connection between big government and their woes, they will continue to vote for big-government politicians and policies. Thus will Blue States and Blue cites gradually turn Purple and, in many cases, Blue.
You read it here.
SERFDOM IN OUR FUTURE?
I recently mused about Walter Scheidel’s book, The Great Leveler. Kotkin addresses the thesis of that book in “Who Will Prosper After the Plague?” (Tablet, April 13, 2020):
[T]he wreckage [caused by the Black Plague of the 14th century] created new opportunities for those left standing. Abandoned tracts of land could be consolidated by rich nobles, or, in some cases, enterprising peasants, who took advantage of sudden opportunities to buy property or use chronic labor shortages to demand higher wages. “In an age where social conditions were considered fixed,” historian Barbara Tuchman has suggested, the new adjustments seemed “revolutionary.”
What might such “revolutionary” changes look like in our post-plague society? In the immediate future the monied classes in America will take a big hit, as their stock portfolios shrink, both acquisitions and new IPOs get sidetracked and the value of their properties drop. But vast opportunities for tremendous profit available to those with the financial wherewithal to absorb the initial shocks and capitalize on the disruption they cause….
Over time, the crisis is likely to further bolster the global oligarchal class. The wealthiest 1% already own as much as 50% of the world’s assets, and according to a recent British parliamentary study, by 2030, will expand their share to two-thirds of the world’s wealth with the biggest gains overwhelmingly concentrated at the top 0.01%….
The biggest long-term winner of the stay-at-home trend may well be Amazon, which is hiring 100,000 new workers. But other digital industries will profit as well, including food delivery services, streaming entertainment services, telemedicine, biomedicine, cloud computing, and online education. The shift to remote work has created an enormous market for applications, which facilitate video conferencing and digital collaboration like Slack—the fastest growing business application on record—as well as Google Hangouts, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams. Other tech firms, such as Facebook, game makers like Activision Blizzard and online retailers like Chewy, suggests Morgan Stanley, also can expect to see their stock prices soar as the pandemic fades and public acceptance of online commerce and at-home entertainment grows with enforced familiarity.
The modern-day clerisy consisting of academics, media, scientists, nonprofit activists, and other members of the country’s credentialed bureaucracy also stand to benefit from the pandemic. The clerisy operate as what the great German sociologist Max Weber called “the new legitimizers,” bestowing an air of moral and technocratic authority on the enterprises of their choosing….
Members of the clerisy are likely to be part of the one-quarter of workers in the United States who can largely work at home. Barely 3% of low-wage workers can telecommute but nearly 50% of those in the upper middle class can. While workers at most restaurants and retail outlets face hard times, professors and teachers will continue their work online, as will senior bureaucrats….
The biggest winners in the fallout from the coronavirus are likely to be large corporations, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and government institutions with strong lobbies. The experience from recent recessions indicates that big banks, whose prosperity is largely asset-based, will do well along with major corporations, while Main Street businesses and ordinary homeowners will fare poorly….
In the Middle Ages, many former citizens, facing a series of disasters from plagues to barbarian invasions, willingly became serfs. Today, the class of permanently propertyless citizens seems likely to grow as the traditional middle class shrinks, and the role of labor is further diminished relative to that of technology and capital.
In contrast to the old unionized workers, many people today, whether their employment is full-time or part-time, have descended into the precariat, a group of laborers with limited control over how long they can work, who often live on barely subsistence wages. Nearly half of gig workers in California live under the poverty line.
Historically, pandemics have tended to spark class conflict. The plague-ravaged landscape of medieval Europe opened the door to numerous “peasant rebellions.” This in turn led the aristocracy and the church to restrict the movements of peasants to limit their ability to use the new depopulated countryside to their own advantage. Attempts to constrain the ambitions of the commoners often led to open revolts—including against the church and the aristocracy.
… As steady and well-paying jobs disappear, the demands for an ever more extensive welfare state, funded by the upper classes, will multiply.
Like their counterparts in the late 19th century, the lower-class workforce will demand changes. We already see this in the protests by workers at Instacart delivery service, and in Amazon warehouse workers concerned about limited health insurance, low wages, and exposure to the virus.
As the virus threatens to concentrate wealth and power even more, there’s likely to be some sort of reckoning, including from the increasingly hard-pressed yeomanry.
In the years before the great working-class rebellions of the mid-19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville warned that the ruling orders were “sleeping on a volcano.” The same might be seen now as well, with contagion pushing the lava into the streets, and causing new disruptions on a scale of which we can’t predict.
Something like socialism (for non-elites) may emerge for the rubble. It will be the 21th century equivalent of bread and circuses: share just enough of the wealth to keep the proletariat in line.