Congress Declares Itself Non-Essential

Around the US, “essential” workers are going to work everyday and doing their jobs, COVID-19 pandemic or not. Factory workers are producing things. Truck and delivery drivers are transporting those things. Grocery store employees and food service workers are making sure food reaches our tables.

Congress, not so much.

When US Representative Thomas Massie (R-KY) tried to require his fellow politicians to actually show up at the Capitol to vote on the biggest one-off welfare handout in human history, and to  record their votes for posterity, all hell broke loose.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) called Massie a “dangerous nuisance” for having the gall and temerity to suggest that the House get the constitutionally required quorum (216 members) together and put them on record instead of just pretending it had such a quorum and holding an undifferentiated voice vote.

US Representative Peter King (R-NY) said it was “disgraceful” and “irresponsible” of Massie to imply that King should show up for work instead of sitting at home in New York collecting his $174,000 salary, his lavish fringe benefits, and his comfortable retirement package.

President Donald Trump called Massie a “third-rate grandstander” and advocated his expulsion from the Republican Party. I mention this only to acknowledge Trump’s expertise in third-rate grandstanding, and to suggest that he’s not otherwise qualified to so much as carry Massie’s briefcase.

And so it went down on March 27:

Massie called for a recorded vote. The chair pretended to count those standing in favor of a roll call vote and announced there weren’t enough.

Upon Massie’s further objection that the House lacked a quorum, the chair spent four seconds pretending to count to 216 in a nearly empty chamber before asserting that yes, there was a quorum, and declaring the bill passed.

If any other body pulled that kind of stunt, its members would find themselves in court answering to charges of honest services fraud. But when Congress lies, even as openly and arrogantly as it did here, it usually gets away with doing so. Massie presumably lost this battle.

But there’s a larger war on over the credibility of American politicians and political institutions, and if we listen to what Congress is actually saying, it just shot itself in the foot in public.

Here’s the message Congress just sent America:

“We as individual members of Congress are far too important, and Congress itself is far too un-important, for us to be expected to do our jobs if doing our jobs entails any personal risk, or even inconvenience.”

Or, to put it a different way, “we’re far more important than Subway sandwich artists, and the House of Representatives isn’t nearly as important as a Subway  store. Our safety and comfort is paramount and the job we do isn’t important enough to do right.”

I’m not sure I agree with Capitol Hill’s (when they bother to be there) perfumed princes and princesses as to just how very special and important they are, but I think they’re onto something with the second part.

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COVID-19: What Would Rosie The Riveter Do?

Half the readers I hear from accuse me of Trump Derangement Syndrome. The other half accuse me of rabid Trump fandom. In truth, I think of US President Donald J. Trump in exactly the same way I think of most other politicians: He’s usually wrong and often dangerous. But when he’s right he’s right.

He’s right when he says that America needs to “open up” soon.

If anything, his target date of Easter is too distant.

The longer we wait to get moving again, the longer it will take to recover.

The longer we wait, the more Americans will descend into, or fall deeper into, poverty.

The longer we wait, the more Americans will die of causes other than coronavirus.

If we wait TOO long, starvation and malnutrition will be among those causes.

We don’t have to like it. That’s how it is whether we like it or not.

One of the oddest assertions I’ve heard from American politicians is that the COVID-19 outbreak is “our generation’s World War 2.”

I’m far too young to remember World War 2, but I’ve listened to veterans talk about it, read its history, and love the era’s propaganda posters. Rosie the Riveter in “We Can Do it!” “Lay-Offs Cost Lives!” “Work To Win.”

I’m trying to imagine a propaganda poster for “our World War 2,” and all that comes to mind is a hand reaching out from under a bed to grab a government check.

That image isn’t nearly as inspiring, is it? Nor is the sentiment nearly as practical.

America won World War 2 by working and fighting. It isn’t going to beat COVID-19 by shutting down and cowering.

Our politicians are thoroughly enjoying their extended Mussolini cosplay holiday, but their “lockdown” orders and such are merely feeding their egos, not starving the virus. The longer we continue to put up with that authoritarian nonsense, the harder it’s going to get to reclaim our rights and put them back in their places. Once they get used to filthy serfs like you and me taking a knee when they pass by, they’re not going to want to give it up.

The more quickly we seize back control of our lives — from the virus and from the politicians — the more quickly our lives will start getting better again.

Call me a Trump fanboy if it makes you feel better, but I’m with the president on this one.

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Don’t Let Politicians Use Pandemic as an Excuse for Dictatorship

By invoking the Defense Production Act, which “authorizes the President to require acceptance and priority performance of contracts or orders and to allocate materials, services, and facilities to promote the national defense or to maximize domestic energy supplies,” US president Donald Trump has declared himself America’s economic dictator.

He’s also moved to seal the nation’s borders, even as governors and mayors have banned public gatherings, ordered businesses to close or severely curtail operations, sealed off neighborhoods, and even in some cases — San Francisco comes to mind — ordered the entire populations of cities to remain indoors.

And we’re letting them do it.

Why? Because they say it’s about “public health.”

If this was about public health,  obvious vectors for the spread of COVID-19 like the Transportation Security Administration and its airport security screening lines would have been among the first things shut down.

Your neighborhood tavern, where people are seldom closely packed unless one is trying to sweet-talk another back home, is closed. TSA agents are still making airline passengers line up to be groped and coughed on.

If it was about public health, America’s non-violent prisoners would have been released to make more room for “social distance” between the remaining prisoners, reduce staffing needs, and prevent the virus from raging through captive populations.

Some prisons and jails are releasing some inmates or refusing to take in more. But not nearly as many prisoners are being released as Americans are being made prisoners in their own homes.

If this was about public health, government would be letting the market produce, and set prices for, essential goods instead of trying to seize control of production and suppress “price gouging.”

This isn’t about public health. It’s about political power. And things are getting very ugly, very quickly.

Vladimir Putin WISHES he had the power that American politicians have seized in the last couple of weeks.

Latin American dictators are green with envy at the enthusiasm with which Americans are surrendering our freedoms.

Pardon my French, people, but WTF?

A month ago half of us didn’t trust Donald Trump, half of us didn’t trust Nancy Pelosi, and many of us trusted neither. Now all of a sudden most of us seem to be practically begging both of them, and their henchmen, to order us around.

That’s not going to contribute to the public health. It’s not going to shorten the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s just going to crater our economy and leave us less free after than we were before.

If we force the politicians to knock this nonsense off now — by ignoring their orders until they run to the front of the parade by countermanding themselves — we might get off light. A short recession, maybe, and perhaps even some politicians who are scared into respecting our rights a little bit more, for a little while.

If we keep going along to get along, we’re more likely to end up thinking of the Great Depression and Stalin’s reign as versions of “the good old days.”

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Do Intellectuals Make Life Any Better?

There’s a path my life could have taken – could still take – toward the life of an intellectual.

I’ve just about always been interested in one or more of the favorite intellectual subjects of philosophy, history, politics, theology, economics, psychology, and sociology (whatever that is). I’ve always liked to have big opinions on things. And I’ve always preferred toying with ideas to toying with numbers or machines.

But I’m beginning to think this is an aptitude worth resisting. It’s not obvious to me that intellectuals as such bring a whole lot of benefit to the world.

Obviously this will be controversial to say.

For the sake of this post, I’ll be using a Wikipedia-derived definition:

An intellectual is a person who engages in critical thinking and reading, research, and human self-reflection about society; they may propose solutions for its problems and gain authority as a public figure.”

Let me be clear that I think everyone ought to engage in critical thinking. It’s in the rest of the definition that the problems start to emerge.

Every intellectual is a person who not only has a pet theory about what’s wrong with the world – but who makes it their job to reflect/research on that problem and write about that problem.

When you think about these intellectuals, what do you think of?

My mind wanders to the endless number of think-pieces, essays, and books with takes what’s wrong with humans, what’s wrong with society, or what’s wrong with intellectuals (that’s right – I’m currently writing a think-piece. Shit.) The history of this produce of intellectualism is an a stream of lazy, simplified pontifications from individuals about things vast and complex, like “society,” “America,” “the working classes,” “the female psyche,” etc. in relation to something even more vast and complex: “human life.”

It’s not that thinking about these things are wrong: it’s that most of the ink spilled about them is probably wasteful. Why?

Because core to the definition of intellectualism defined above is its divorce from action. Intellectuals engage in “reading, research, and human self-reflection,” “propose solutions,” and “gain authority as public figures,” but none of these acts require them to get their hands dirty to test their hypotheses or solve their proposed problems.

The whole “ivory tower” criticism isn’t new, so I won’t belabor the point. But I will point out two consequences of intellectualism’s separation from practical reality.

First, intellectuals don’t often tend to be great people. Morally, I mean. Tolstoy left his wife in a lurch when he gave up his wealth. Marx knocked up one of his servants and then kicked her out of his house. Rousseau abandoned his children. Even Ayn Rand (whom I love) could be accused of being cultlike in her control of her intellectual circle. Those are just the notable ones – it’s fair to say that most of the mediocre “public intellectuals” we have aren’t exactly action heroes. While they may not be especially bad, they aren’t especially good on the whole.

There seems to be some link between a career which rewards abstract thought (without regard for action) and the mediocre or downright bad lifestyle choices of our most famous intellectuals.

The second major problem with intellectuals springs from the fact that nearly everything the intellectual does is intensely self-conscious. Whether it’s a philosopher reflecting on his inability to find love and theorizing about the universe accordingly or an American sociologist writing about the decline of American civilization, the intellectual is reflecting back upon what’s wrong with himself or his culture or his situation constantly, usually in a way that creates a strong sense of mental unease or even anguish.

Have you ever seen an intellectual coming from an obvious place of joy? The social commentators are almost always operating from malaise and malcontent, which almost always arise from a deep self-consciousness.

Of course it’s anyone’s right to start overthinking what’s the matter with the world, and to feel bad as a result. The real problem is that the intellectual insists on making it his job to convince everyone else to share in his self-conscious state of misery, too.

How many Americans would know, believe, or care that “America” or “Western Civilization” was declining if some intellectual hadn’t said so? How many working class people, or women, or men would believe they are “oppressed”? How many humans would be staying up at night asking themselves whether reality is real? Both are utterly foreign to the daily experience of real, commonsense human life. And while the intellectual may draw on real examples in his theories, he’s usually not content to allow for the exceptions and exemptions which are inevitable in a complex world: his intellectual theory trumps experience. The people must *believe* they are oppressed, or unfulfilled, or unenlightened, or ignorant of the “true forms” of this, that, or the other.

I’m wary of big intellectual theories for this reason, and increasingly partial to the view that wisdom comes less from thinking in a dark corner and more from living in the sunshine and the dirt. The real measure of many of these theories is how quickly they are forgotten or dismantled when brought out into daily life.

People who use their intellects to act? The best in the world. But intellectuals who traffic solely in ideas-about-what’s-wrong for their careers? More often than not, they are more miserable and not-very-admirable entertainers than they are net benefactors to the world.

The ability to think philosophically is important. But that skill must be used in the arena. Produce art. Produce inventions. Be kind. Action is the redemption of intellectualism.

Disclaimers

*By “intellectuals,” I don’t mean scientists. On the humanities side, I don’t even mean artists. The problem isn’t artists: it’s art critics. It’s not scientists: it’s people who write about the “state of science.”

There are exceptions to the bad shows among intellectuals, but usually these are the intellectuals who are busy fighting the bad, ideas of other intellectuals: people like Ludwig von Mises fighting the ideas of classical socialism, or . The best ideas to come from people like this are ideas which don’t require people to believe in them.*

And don’t get me wrong: this is as much a mea culpa as a criticism of others. I’ve spent much of my life headed down the path of being an intellectual. I’m starting to realize that it’s a big mistake.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Coronavirus: Politically Created Panic is the Real Pandemic

As of early March, there were fewer than 200 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus in the United States. Nonetheless Congress passed, and US president Donald Trump signed, an $8.3 billion “emergency funding” bill theoretically related to containing the disease.

Had the federal government done nothing at all, the “beer flu” might have conceivably have ended up killing a tiny fraction of the number of Americans who will die of influenza during the same period.

Now that the federal government is blowing $8.3 billion, the chances of that happening will likely decrease — not because coronavirus will kill fewer people, but because influenza will kill more. Attention paid to, and resources thrown at, victims of the predictable annual flu epidemic will decrease in favor of the minor but newly lucrative COVID-19 nuisance.

Yes, nuisance. Even the US Centers for Disease Control, a big beneficiary of health panics, says that “information so far suggests that most COVID-19 illness is mild” (especially among those without underlying serious health conditions), that the virus “is NOT currently spreading widely in the United States,” and that “[f]or most of the American public, who are unlikely to be exposed to this virus at this time, the immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low.”

So, why are people losing their minds? In a word, politics. Congress and the president are throwing $8.3 billion worth of gasoline onto an already raging fire of unjustified panic.

Rahm Emanuel’s Law: “Never let a serious crisis go to waste.”

Every Politician’s Corollary: “Even if you have to manufacture  that crisis out of whole cloth.”

Panic kills people, and politicians are just fine with that as long as it increases their stature among, and power over, the survivors.

At this point, the main protective measure I recommend is laying in a couple of weeks’ worth of food and water. Not because you need to stay home to avoid the coronavirus, but because the panic might result in shortages or even idiotic government measures like mass quarantines. And having some food and bottled water around is always a good idea anyway.

If it makes you feel better to avoid travel and large crowds, wear a mask when you can’t avoid those things, and wash your hands 80 times a day, knock yourself out. But stay calm and be aware that you’re just going through self-comforting motions. Politicians, not viral nuisances, are the biggest threat to your survival.

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Yes, Trump Should Talk With The Taliban

On March 3, US president Donald Trump spoke (via telephone) with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, chief of the Taliban’s Doha diplomatic office and signer, on behalf of his organization, of the recently concluded Afghanistan “peace deal.”

“The direct contact between an American president and a top Taliban leader would once have been unthinkable,” writes Michael Crowley at the New York Times.

Why? Crowley doesn’t elaborate, but in my opinion the claim of unthinkability goes a long way toward explaining why the US government spent nearly two decades unsuccessfully attempting to wrest control of Afghanistan from the Taliban before coming to its senses — in the person of Donald Trump — and seeking to bring the folly begun by George W. Bush and continued by Barack Obama to an end.

It was, in a word, “unthinkable,” for the longest time, that a bunch of Central Asian hillbillies might successfully resist the will of Washington for five times as long as Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia did.

It was “unthinkable” that US forces better armed, better trained, and more lavishly funded than those who landed at Normandy or took Okinawa could possibly be brought low by light infantry with no air force, no artillery, and no safe logistical haven, wielding weapons scavenged from a war which ended 30 years ago.

But that’s what happened.

When a war ends, it’s reasonable to expect that the losing regime’s head of state will talk to and treat with whomever the winning team designates as its representative, if that’s what the winning team demands.

The word isn’t being openly used by either side, but let’s call it what it is: Surrender.

The US government has surrendered in Afghanistan.

No, not unconditionally. But it has surrendered nonetheless.

And that’s a good thing.

The war became obviously doomed to go down as a fiasco within weeks of the US invasion, when the Bush administration stopped pretending the US presence was about liquidating al Qaeda and started in with a bunch of “nation-building” nonsense.

Eighteen years — not to mention several thousand American and more than 100,000 Afghan deaths — later, the Taliban controls more of the country than it did those few weeks after the invasion.

The US was never going to win the war.

The only question was how long the US would spend losing the war before admitting it had lost the war.

That question has now been answered: Eighteen years, four months, and 25 days.

If part of the price of extricating the US armed forces from the Afghan quagmire is a phone call between the losing side’s president and the winning side’s chosen representative, that’s not just “thinkable,” it’s a price we should all applaud Trump for paying.

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