Change Research has published results of their most recent poll, undertaken (I don’t use the verb arbitrarily) between December 5 and December 7. The poll shows Republican Roy Moore with the same 7% lead over Democratic Doug Jones that the Raycom News poll reported from their December 4 polling. Moore has been ahead by at least 3% in 4 of the 5 most recent polls, with an average lead that now approaches the furthest edge of the margin of error.
(Click to view image)
Two insights from the Change Research poll, one concerning partisanship and one concerning the strange evangelical openness to adult men in their 30s dating teenage girls. Let’s examine each in turn.
Among those Alabama voters who have made their decision in the last week, 61% say they will vote for Roy Moore, while only 22% will support Doug Jones. Among those making up their minds in November, the gap was far smaller, with Moore leading Jones by only 51% to 47%.
As Change Research emphasizes, these numbers represent a sharp return to embedded partisan loyalties in Alabama, with emotional attachment to the Republican Party (and an aversion to anything or anyone representing a challenge to the Republican Party) trumping a more nuanced and flexible commitment to the well-being of state and nation.
We can see evidence for this sharply inward and defensive turn in the intensity of the vitriol for Roy Moore’s opponent, Doug Jones, among these late deciders. The Change Research survey shows that the “late deciders” do not love Roy Moore, with 51% saying he has “weak character and integrity.” For unclear reasons, the poll indicates their views of Doug Jones are even more negative.
An even more interesting polling statistic is that 34% of evangelical Protestants say (setting aside the Roy Moore allegations) it sometimes or always acceptable for men in their 30s to date teenage girls, compared to 18% of all non-evangelicals. This data point is pretty remarkable, and it suggests the degree to which eroticized, objectifying, and adolescent male lusts infuse the culture.
This proclivity to sexualize teenage girls helps us to reconcile another strange twist in the polling data – that evangelicals use the term “morality” quite differently from non-evangelicals. Only 11% of Moore supporters consider character, integrity, and ethics to be more important than the policy positions of a politician, compared to 37% of Jones supporters. Among all religious groups, independently of political preference, evangalicals are far less likely to prioritize character, integrity and ethics over policy positions.
So when Roy Moore talks about “morality,” what he is really talking about is not an inner condition of ethical awareness and equilibrium, but instead about a narrow and fetishisized political program concerning reproductive health of women same-sex marriage that is largely about control and power over women and their bodies. We might more properly call this emphasis a focus “mooreality” (or, perhaps, “moo-reality”).
The Parallel Universe
Is this crazy stuff? Of course. Should these gothic obsessions drive our national (and local) politics. Obviously not. But Alabama and other parts of the United States do seem to inhabit a parallel universe characterized by a “brutalist” mentality I have discussed elsewhere in essays about Donald Trump and Steve Bannon.
The brutalist mentality conforms to the ethno-nationalist, hard-right worldview and agenda of the Trump Administration, which suggests that Roy Moore would be a worthy instrument of this worldview and agenda in the U.S. Senate. Indeed, just as the Marquis de Sade opened new frontiers in sexual torture games beyond the imagination of those who preceded him, Roy Moore could well take the Trump program into twisted new realms of punishment and degradation beyond Trump’s own wildest dreams.
We live in Roman times, and Republicans in Alabama need to appreciate the forking path in the road that Roy Moore presents to them. Republicans can choose to follow Moore into a dark and brambled forest with a howling, hollowing yellow moon. Or they can make the difficult but courageous decision to vote for Doug Jones, a Democrat, a decent and brave man, a choice that requires they choose invest their passions in state and nation, not in a poisonous partisanship.
As Politico reports, Neil Gorsuch on Thursday night delivered a victory lap speech at the annual conference of the Federalist Society. The article tells us that Gorusch’s big applause lines concerned his:
- Snide reproach to those who characterize the Federalist Society as a secret cabal scheming in darkness to infiltrate and control the federal judiciary; and
- Full-throated and triumphant affirmation of originalist and textualist judicial philosophies the Federalist Society and legal conservatives support as articles of faith.
Let’s consider these remarks in turn.
The Secret Cabal
This is what Gorsuch said. “If you’re going to have a meeting of a secret organization, maybe don’t have it in the middle of Union Station and then tell everybody to wear a black tie. It’s not a shadowy cabal in need of Joe McCarthy.”
Here’s the thing. No one believes the Federalist Society is a shadowy cabal. While not a large organization compared to its right-wing big brother, the Heritage Foundation, The Federalist Society is enormously well-funded and well-organized. One could infer the organization schemes and acts under cover of darkness, given its lack of emphasis on publishing research. However, the Federalist Society’s explicit mission has for decades been to function as an “activist” organization, with the clearly stated aims of:
- Recruiting law students to its values, methods, goals, and practices; and
- Packing the federal court system with its acolytes.
Gorsuch’s remark is therefore a disingenuous red herring, but one fully consistent with the feckless line the Federalist Society has fed its suppoters and backers for years – that we’re small, beleaguered, disparaged, and maligned / but plucky, feisty, principled, and courageous.
Originalist and Textualist Judicial Philosophies
This is what Gorsuch said. “The duty of a judge is to say what the law is not what it should be. Tonight I can report, a person can be both a committed originalist and textualist and be confirmed to the Supreme Court of the United States. Originalism has regained its place and textualism has triumphed and neither is going anywhere on my watch.”
Several points here.
- As Gorsuch well knows, the distinction between what the law is and what it should be is not binary, but subject to gradations of ambiguity, nuance, and consequence. His statement about the duties of judges is therefore rhetorical and ideological, not substantive and meaningful, and more significantly relevant as an ahtorical rendering of the Constitution as revealed religion.
- Originalism and textualism have likewise become ideological shibboleths freighted with meaning for those initiated to their mysteries. Federalist Society luminaries will tell us judicial review does not need knowledge or guidance assembled from legal precedent, legislative history, social science, natural science, or data science. Judicial review requires only the inert words captured in a small, fixed, and dated set of canonical “founding” texts (Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Federalist Papers, etc.). These “original” texts are a Procrustean bed, a Solomonic, incontrovertible measuring stick, no matter how anachronistically ill-equipped they may be for comprehending and adjudicating the most pressing matters and challenges of our time. Hence, legal conservatives such as Gorsuch will writhe around the unanswerable and possibly irrelevant question: What did this clause of the Constitution mean to the Founders? One might reasonably ask in return: Why not closely inspect entrails?
Gorsuch’s preening and strutting bombast reflects, generally, the triumphalist swagger of The Federalist Society, which for the past three decades has viewed itself as a government-in-waiting, now fully ascendant, and not in the least bit troubled by the need to saddle and mount the rampaging, caterwauling, bucking bronco they once swore never to ride.
When queried about why Donald Trump did not reappoint Janet Yellen as Chairman of the Federal Reserve, the Associated Press reported the following response from Trump economic whisperer, Stephen Moore.
Stephen Moore, an economist at the Heritage Foundation who was a senior economic adviser to Trump’s campaign, said Trump wants someone who will support loosening regulations. He also said the president simply wanted his own person in place.
“The job of the Fed chair is not just to be the lead person on monetary policy. This is the chief economic voice of the nation,” said Moore. “She’s not with the program.”
Questions Arise Over Departure of First Woman To Lead Fed (AP, November 3, 2017)
Stephen Moore is the chief economist for the right-wing Heritage Foundation. He is also on the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal. And founding president of the Club for Growth.
Stephen Moore is a go-to quote for journalists seeking a right-wing perspective on economic policy debates. But he is not a real economist in any sense of the term. His only advanced degree in economics is an M.A. from George Mason University. He does no economic research. And he is mostly known professionally for the depth and scale of his ignorance on economic details. Wikipedia may have put it best when it listed his profession as “writer.”
Stephen Moore is not a serious person, but dangerous because people who should know better (journalists) pretend he is.
The crudest presumptions of natural law theory still inform our political and cultural conflicts. In recent posts, I’ve focused on the logical and moral contortions a focus on creator worship as the ground of our being requires of revealed religions. Alabama’s Republican Party offers the most recent permutations of this bizarre fever dream.
On Tuesday, former (twice!) Alabama state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore (with a rich symbolism perhaps not fully appreciated) rode his horse Sassy into the unincorporated town of Gallant (population 850, also known as Greasy Cove) to cast a ballot for himself as the Republican nominee for the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions.
In the wake of a backlash against “DC swamp” candidate Luther Strange, Moore coasted to a win over nine other candidates, and will once again face (the geographically vast, awesomely named) Strange in a late-September run-off primary. As Senator, Moore promises to restore Christianity to the Capitol and fight the rise of Islamic “Sharia law” in the United States, commitments presumably of little significance to Strange, a former oil industry lobbyist.
While it’s tempting to linger on the incredible Gothic theatricality of this event (for example, the mixed metaphors of “the swamp” as the habitation of the “silk-stockinged elite“), for our purposes, we need initially only pay attention to Moore’s deranged, megalomaniacal Constitutional rants, which begin with the Bible, linger around themes such as God’s desire for families to keep loaded guns at home to protect their children, and end with the natural law gymnastics of early 19th-century Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story.
Moore’s jurisprudence and politics fully conform to the conservative commitment to natural law as a gift and instrument of God via revelation. “I’m not a politician. I don’t like politics,” Moore told a gathering of elderly white folks at Mr. Fang’s Chinese Restaurant on the night before the primary vote. “It’s what God has done through me.”
In a conversation that evening with Jeff Stein of Vox, Moore emphasized, repeatedly, “You have to understand what religion is — the duties you owe to the creator.” According to Moore, Justice Story, one of the most highly regarded jurists of the early Republic who in recent years has become, somewhat surprisingly, a fan favorite of legal conservatives and natural law enthusiasts, supported and refined the view that the duty of the Constitution and the First Amendment was to “foster religion and foster Christianity.”
Here, Roy Moore parses a view of religious liberty consistent with the precepts of Robby George, the Acton Institute, and other conservative Christians for whom conscience becomes the principled basis for ignoring legislation, regulation, and court decisions of the federal government with which they disagree on the basis of the “self-evident” precepts of natural law. Of course, this parsing has long formed the hallmark of Roy Moore as a jurist, with his placement of the stone tablets of the Decalogue in the Alabama state courthouse and his refusal to enforce the marriage equality ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court (with helpful cover from Antonin Scalia’s high court dissent and full-throated support from Robby George).
Roy Moore, quoting from Joseph Story’s Commentaries on the Constitution, has for several decades been instructing us that “the rights of conscience are beyond the reach of any human power; they are given by God and cannot be encroached on by any human authority without a criminal disobedience of the precepts of natural or revealed religion.” On Senate primary election night, with a flourish characteristic of the natural law synthesis initially formulated by Aquinas, Moore concluded, “We need to go back to the recognition that God’s hand is still on this country and on this campaign. We must be good again before we can be great. And we will never be good without God.”
Christian-conservative jurists and philosophers will often invoke Abraham Lincoln’s response to the Dred Scottdecision as the ultimate defense of conscience in response to judicial overreach. In reality, these appeals to conscience and religious liberty are, like patriotism, a last refuge of scoundrels. Arguments on behalf of conscience, natural law, and higher law – whether voiced by Antonin Scalia, Robby George, or Roy Moore – mask a theocratically minded support for states’ rights that both dissolves the foundations of nationhood and obliterates the rights of conscience when they fail the arbitrary test of Biblical authenticity.
I use Feedly to aggregate stories from about 80 publications, ranging from The New Yorker to Neatorama. On any given day, I scan 200 or 300 stories from this news feed. I select 50 or 60 of these stories to “Read Later” and use IFTTT to post them automatically to the Reading Room of my Jeremiadus website. The website currently archives nearly 9,000 stories, on pretty much any subject you can imagine, under the broad umbrellas of politics, science, literature, philosophy, and culture.
One would think the breadth of this feed would extend even beyond the prehensile reach of Donald Trump. But one would be wrong. Of these 9,000 stories, nearly 3,000 reference Trump somewhere in the article. This Trump tilt is not the result of my own selection bias. If anything, my instinct is to choose stories that eschew, ignore, abrogate, elide, defenestrate, and abandon Donald Trump. And yet there he is.
Today, Feedly launched a “mute” feature, allowing users to filter any word or term from their news feed. I “muted” Donald Trump and Feedly “banned” 1,300 recent articles from the publications I track. My world instantly lightened.
Trump is batshit crazy. We know this. But the weight slipping from my shoulders and from my mind has little do with his deranged clown act. The political antics of the Keystone Cop Republicans aren’t really even the source of my distress. The problem is that any time a story invokes Trump and the creepy dementors he has unleashed upon us, we all become rubber-necking assholes craning our necks and bugging our eyes to get the best view possible of the carnage unfolding on the road beside us. We become vampiric, pustule-sucking warlocks, slurping the toxins, getting off on the whole sordid mess.
There is nothing redeemable about the situation. Trump dirties himself daily, but of course our tragedy as a nation is that he dirties all of us. He brings us to our knees. How are we to think about this?
In the 21st century, we lead accidental lives. We appreciate the randomness of existence, but succumb to this randomness, rather than making use of it. We are overwhelmed by noise and can locate no signal. We are awash in images and words, with no ability to parse their meaning, to source them to an underlying reality about which we can (mostly) agree (most of the time). These images and words themselves, recursively, constitute their own reality, a slipstream that pulls us further away from each other, and from ourselves, until our shouts are merely echoes, globules of emotion, randomly firing synapses, ejaculations of judgment.
Fuck you! … fuck you! … haha … haha …
Trump is obviously a fully accidental species of human, a cratering self-inebriate, careening from one random moment to the next. He is a walking, talking meme. Entirely noise. Entirely unparseable. He truly doesn’t matter, because he possesses no meaning beyond himself. If he were to disappear, we would never miss him, but in the meantime he is all we can think about. So I am thrilled to be able to mute this deranged, minimally human person from my life.
We don’t need to agree about what is true. We only need to agree about what is false.
Consider the drunken sailor of random walk fame, whose problematic journey home inspires the mathematics underlying basic probability and resolves itself empirically in the fibrillations we associate with Brownian motion. Our challenge politically – and it is always a challenge but one now amplified to the nth degree by the random behaviors and speech irruptions of Donald Trump – is our compulsion to locate agency, and causation, in the actions of individuals. We are responsible for ourselves, a truism that has become ontological – we only know we exist because we believe we have free will and that we can own, understand, and account for our thoughts and actions as individuals. Cogito ergo sum.
Leaving aside for the moment the internally dubious merits of this Cartesian formula, the 21st extension of its logic has led us to a place where what we know about ourselves as thinking, acting individuals presumes no access to or understanding of what others know about themselves. Which sticks us in the middle of the radically subjective shit storm that has allowed Donald Trump to commandeer the ship of state. We each travel alone, in darkness. Meaningless beyond ourselves. And so free to judge without standards and without consequence.
But randomness is not the problem. Randomness is, in fact, the solution. Because, of course, truth emerges probabilistically. Form is itself the product of thousands and millions of inebriate movements. Meaninglessness resolves itself into meaning via randomness. Truth and causation will always remain elusive, but with a focus on the actions, not of single individuals, but of thousands and millions of individuals, we can make sense of our policy choices less subjectively, less reactively, less reductively and with a more humble sense of our individual cogito-ing selves in relation to the transpersonal dynamics of populations and of ecosystems, which are forever contingent and in flux.
The current healthcare debate illustrates the choices and the stakes of the decision to embrace risk, uncertainty, and randomness – as the idea of insurance itself, and the much-maligned but indispensable discipline of actuarial science, tell us we must. The Republican health care legislation backed by Trump obviously has nothing to do with actuarial science and population health (which would make single-payer a no-brainer) and everything to do with crude Old Testament impulses to reward and punish according to the code of the vendetta and to extract the pound of flesh as one would the barrel of oil or the lump of coal.
Which returns us to the drunken sailor of yore, whose journey is poignantly asymptotic. On his own, we know from probability theory, the inebriate sailor’s odds of returning home may be slim to none. But with a population of thousands or millions of drunken sailors, we can reliably predict how many will find their homes again, and at what intervals, without knowing for sure which specific sailors they will be. A profound and soothing thought.
With my Feedly mute feature, I can erase Donald Trump, misanthropic carnival barker who cannot leave home. Public welfare issues that matter in politics remain for me to ponder, clarified and restored by his absence.
Several days ago, The New York Times published a fascinating essay about the cult-like worship of Ayn Rand among Silicon Valley tech bros such as Peter Thiel and Travis Kalanick, and of Donald Trump administration insiders such as Rex Tillerson, Mike Pompeo, and Trump himself. In a much-read and discussed December 2016 LinkedIn post, hedge fund impresario Ray Dalio concisely (and presciently) characterized what we might expect the “traumatic” impact on politics to be when such a radically anti-statist worldview assumes pretty much every power the state possesses.
If you haven’t read Ayn Rand lately, I suggest that you do as her books pretty well capture the mindset. This new administration hates weak, unproductive, socialist people and policies, and it admires strong, can-do, profit makers. It wants to, and probably will, shift the environment from one that makes profit makers villains with limited power to one that makes them heroes with significant power. [For a fuller extract of Dalio’s perspective on the Trump administration, see the bottom of this article.]
Public and Private Capital
This Ayn Rand meme (thinking about “meme” in this case as a richly encoded phrase that serves as a viral delivery mechanism for capturing some essential quality of an otherwise messy and unwieldy social or political reality) surfaces a more specifically interesting perspective on the Trump phenomenon. Which is that Trump and his followers on the paleo wing of the Republican Party are not simply capitalists. In homage to Ayn Rand zealot Travis Kalanick, let’s call them uber capitalists, and what that means, concretely, is that they represent the emotional and intellectual biases – on pretty much everything – of privately owned capital. Which is an entirely different kettle of fish from publicly owned capital, with distinctions that are insufficiently appreciated, but that go a long way to helping us understand the Bizarro World we now inhabit.
Almost by definition, publicly traded companies must at least pretend to care about public opinion (investors, financial markets, yo) and they must comply with many laws and regulations that govern their relationship with global capital markets. In other words, these companies must address some tangible, empirical, bounded version of reality, with political and legal constraints that most of us, like them or not, would recognize and acknowledge.
By contrast, the world of private equity investment vehicles (such as venture funds or private equity funds), privately held industrial and commercial companies, and real estate development companies pivots on a visceral antagonism to the encroachments of the state and any conception of public good that in any way infringes on the ability of these entities to make money. The impulse here is an insistent, primal, unyielding imperative – hence the frequent association of liberated capital markets with “animal spirits,” another worthy meme invoked below by Ray Dalio. For a great example of this divergence between publicly and privately owned capital, consider the differences between two billionaire capitalists from the Midwest, Warren Buffett and Charles Koch.
The Primitive Impulse
These naturalistic metaphors matter. The defining flavor of the brave new world into which we have been ushered by Donald Trump is “primitive,” nothing more nor less than an unleashed, rampaging id characteristic of unhinged anti-heroes in auteur-driven films such as There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson) and The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorcese).
I wrote about the primitive impulse in a previous essay, Trump Likes to Watch: The Visual Foundations of Modern Politics. The Ayn Rand angle was one I had not fully considered. While I appreciate (as Ayn Rand Institute executive chairman, Yaron Brook, emphasizes) that most of the Trumpist / tech bro enthusiasm for Ayn Rand has little to do with anything she has actually written, or with any systematic understanding of her ideas, her oddball libertarian histrionics absolutely do validate these visceral, acquisitive impulses.
Venture capitalists (Peter Thiel), private equity investors (Bruce Rauner), hedge fund managers (Robert Mercer), real estate developers (Donald Trump), and industrialists (Charles Koch) largely operate outside the purview of public markets (and the web of mutually regarding connections and obligations the public sphere entails). We can appreciate how these businessmen would naturally embrace a version of social reality far more closely akin to a Hobbesian state of nature or to the grasping, sucking, omnipresent oral matrix of infancy, in which loss of control over one’s environment (or the illusion of control) means certain death.
Ayn Rand postulates a positive ethics of human engagement and fulfillment averse to the fear-based psychology of Hobbes and the world-swallowing narcissism of infancy. However, she fully and enthusiastically shares with private wealth holders an unbridled hatred of government, of bureaucrats, of regulations, and of the economic dependence and moral dissipation this version of the administrative state encourages and promotes.
Engineered Instrumentation of a Built World
The paradigmatic professional identity of these Ayn Rand admirers is not finance, but engineering (Thiel, Kalanick, Mercer – computer engineering; Tillerson – civil engineering, Pompeo – mechanical engineering; Koch – nuclear and chemical engineering). Obviously, the engineering background is not prerequisite for the Ayn Rand infatuation (“conscious capitalist” John Mackey of Whole Foods, a Rand disciple, has a background in religion and philosophy). But the correlation helps us to appreciate the salience of engineering’s zero-sum perspectives on economic life and economic competition. Consider the engineered instrumentation required to compel the earth to yield its fruits for a built human world.
This anthropogenic instrumentation of the world is an extractive model – a material carving out, expropriation, and depletion of resources that generally occurs in geologic time, while we consume and transform these resources in human time. This tension between two logarithmically different time scales requires enormous leverage – human technique and instrumentation that extends our reach, if not logarithmically than at least geometrically. Of course that is the purpose of engineered technology, which unconstrained foists upon humans a self-reinforcing illusion of omnipotence (while not truly dissipating the tension between geologic and human time).
Software engineering and financial engineering, while not concerned so explicitly with material hollowing out and rebuilding of the earth, applies a similarly Archimedean understanding of leverage. Consider the reliance of speculative, trading entities on debt capital and their efforts, via high-speed trading, to instrument time across a logarithmic scale that transforms the finite we associate with human time (hours, days, months years) into the infinitesimality we associate with scientific time (the approximation of the infinitely small or vast). Quantum computing will only turbocharge this time-scaled financial leverage. Of course, the profligate electricity requirements of digital currency “mining” also discloses the convergence of financial and engineering mindsets around concepts and units of time.
The Zero Sum
Yaron Brook wants us to believe that capitalism and the trader ideal voiced by Ayn Rand is all about creating win-win outcomes. But Donald Trump’s philosophy of deal-making is all about separating the world into winners and losers. Private equity firms take companies off public markets and strip them bare. Extractive industries by definition employ brutal means to subdue and conquer nature. The worldview of privately owned wealth – with its implicit awareness of finity, of scarcity, of mortality – is deeply physical and very much about control and domination. That is its logic.
If there is a contractual basis to private wealth transactions, more often the focus of contrast is on establishing the legal framework for building moats and externalizing risk. There is no win-win. No equality. There is only live-die. The ultimate inequality.
Which may also explain the perverse obsession of these billionaires to lever themselves. With escape hatches from global meltdown (luxury fallout shelters and security bunkers, New Zealand citizenship, Mars colonization). With the engineered extension of our life span to Old Testament or Middle Earth elvish dimensions. Ayn Rand’s fictive worlds – with their commitment to individual survival as the ultimate (and truly only) human value – fully comport to this worldview.
Swashbuckling Heuristics of Private Wealth
Once we establish these parameters – specifically, the swashbuckling heuristics dividing the world between zeroes and heroes, takers and makers, gods and mortals (masters of the universe) – much about the Trump Administration becomes clear:
- Walls – Command and control of human bodies (migration, policing, incarceration, torture, reproductive health) and material goods (trade barriers).
- Suspicion – Assumptions about rampant fraud, abuse, deviance, and deceit in government, elections, and from impoverished classes, marginalized social classes and nations.
- Secrecy – Control of information alongside antagonism to behavioral and data transparency.
- Surveillance – Viewing and monitoring without being viewed and monitored (consider Peter Thiel’s security company, Palantir, another horrific dystopian appropriation from Lord of the Rings).
- Transactions – Obsession with zero-sum, transactional, contingent, negotiated bilateral bargains and agreements between state and non-state entities.
- Relationships – Limited concept of an abstract “public welfare” and a more emotionally resonant commitment to personal relationships and “family” (blurring the political distinction between rule of law and organized crime).
- Aggression – Aggressive, conflict-seeking interpersonal styles with disdain for virtues associated with humility and acceptance of uncertainty. Let’s call it “the rise of the asshole” (we are rife with White House exemplars).
- Progress – Boom and bust “trading” mentality and discomfort with linear ideas of progress based on legal and institutional norms and incentives.
- Business – Psychological alignment of private capital with small business, and the shared contempt of these two privately owned economic sectors for elites, academics, intellectuals, and public officials.
- Physicality – Focus on the built world, with a suspicion of ideas, abstractions, science, and data.
- Subsidiarity – Roman Catholic concept of parcelized sovereignty that superficially conforms to well-known ideas about constitutional federalism, but which can also hew toward a medievalized, feudal understanding of the private distribution of power and wealth.
Need I go on? I need not. Together these assumptions, qualities, and dispositions coalesce into a series of overlapping cognitive maps that are refractory – they sharply angle the private wealth community away from what we might loosely call science-based Enlightenment liberalism and toward a more profoundly medieval bunker mentality that is threat-based, tribal, feudal, mythic, and profoundly zero-sum. Welcome to Bizarro World. Where all your most hellish dreams will come true.
More from Ray Dalio on the Trump Administration.
Now that we’re a month past the election and most of the cabinet posts have been filled, it is increasingly obvious that we are about to experience a profound, president-led ideological shift that will have a big impact on both the US and the world. This will not just be a shift in government policy, but also a shift in how government policy is pursued. Trump is a deal maker who negotiates hard, and doesn’t mind getting banged around or banging others around. Similarly, the people he chose are bold and hell-bent on playing hardball to make big changes happen in economics and in foreign policy (as well as other areas such as education, environmental policies, etc.)….
Regarding economics, if you haven’t read Ayn Rand lately, I suggest that you do as her books pretty well capture the mindset. This new administration hates weak, unproductive, socialist people and policies, and it admires strong, can-do, profit makers. It wants to, and probably will, shift the environment from one that makes profit makers villains with limited power to one that makes them heroes with significant power….
This particular shift by the Trump administration could have a much bigger impact on the US economy than one would calculate on the basis of changes in tax and spending policies alone because it could ignite animal spirits and attract productive capital. Regarding igniting animal spirits, if this administration can spark a virtuous cycle in which people can make money, the move out of cash (that pays them virtually nothing) to risk-on investments could be huge. Regarding attracting capital, Trump’s policies can also have a big impact because businessmen and investors move very quickly away from inhospitable environments to hospitable environments. Remember how quickly money left and came back to places like Spain and Argentina? A pro-business US with its rule of law, political stability, property rights protections, and (soon to be) favorable corporate taxes offers a uniquely attractive environment for those who make money and/or have money. These policies will also have shocking negative impacts on certain sectors.
Even the wacky libertarians at Mises Wire have today indirectly voiced their concerns about this blunt-force and mythologized vision of national unity. As Mises Wire editor Ryan McMaken emphasizes, however we may bemoan the painful divisions within our nation, the United States has never in any true sense been “one nation” united by a common religion, language, and culture. McMaken points to obvious fault-lines in national life that have organized and given shape to cultural conflict – between pre-Columbian inhabitants of north America and European settlers; between annexed Hispanic populations and European ranchers, farmers, and miners; between free-labor states and slave states; between industrial and agrarian populations; between polyglot immigrants and English-speaking natives; between established Protestant sects and insurgent religions (before Islam, there were rising populations of Catholics, Jews, and Mormons); between migrant African-Americans and settled European urban working-class enclaves.
Of course, the nation’s ability to absorb these cultural conflicts – which is the renewable source of our energy, strength, and resilience – could not be more opposed to the small-minded, tendentious, and self-enraptured vision of the Trump speech today in Warsaw. The Trump vision (which is of course really the vision of his “Steves”) owes far more to an infatuation with an idea of “Western Civilization” – based on primitive, medieval concepts of control, fidelity, allegiance and honor, and made relevant through transposition into the familiar (but empty) tropes of “family, faith, and freedom,” and of “small-town, traditional values.” Of course, anyone who has traveled through small-town and rural America will quickly disabuse themselves of the idea that escaping from decadent metropolitan fleshpots deposits us in a bucolic scene of chastity and virtue. Rural America sits on a decrepit tax base with fragile prospects for economic growth and greatly enfeebled institutions insufficient to support its aging, immobile populations and unable to provide the basis for the sort of flourishing of generations any culture requires.
Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon have latched on to the “clash of civilizations” meme as if the Christian West has in the most recent millennium never stopped being at war with neutered cosmopolitan elites and ululating Islamic hordes, In his fantastic book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, a controversial (in a good way) history of the exponential decline of violence over time, another Steve – Harvard polymath Steven Pinker – gives us a framework for thinking about the unhinged ignorance of Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon – and puts the lie to this idea that there is some kind of organic continuity between Catholic Europe in the the Middle Ages and Western Civilization in the 21st century.
Pinker’s book actually offers any number of angles for thinking about our current cultural conflicts, including a concise (although now somewhat dated) assessment of the more authentically and persistently “medieval” aspects of Islamic culture that allow unabashedly cruel and violent habits to persist, without reducing these practices to some essential “evil” within Islam itself. Pinker also invokes and dismisses the Samuel Huntington “clash of civilizations” argument that fuels the crusading militancy of the White House Steves.
But I would like to close by simply allowing Steven Pinker to pose some questions about the comparative iniquities and evils of city life and rural life captured by the demographic and political arc of “western civilization” in the past thousand years. For our purposes, the value of these questions is the extent to which they free our minds from what we might loosely call the “fear porn” so liberally peddled by the paleo wing of the Republican Party.
Do you think that city living, with its anonymity, crowding, immigrants, and jumble of cultures and classes, is a breeding ground for violence? What about the wrenching social changes brought on by capitalism and the Industrial Revolution? Is it your conviction that small-town life, centered on church, tradition, and fear of God, is our best bulwark against murder and mayhem? Well think again. As Europe became more urban, cosmopolitan, commercial, industrialized, and secular, it got safer and safer.
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