Sunday, August 28, 2016

Herbert Stein on our Politics (in 1989)

“But it is the talk, and not only from the Right but also from the Left, and not only from the politicians but also from the ‘intellectuals,’ that is most distressing. People routinely say with apparent certainty serious things that are if not patently false at least highly uncertain. And there is no debate, no confrontation of facts or analysis. The things people say are not meant to be measured on the scale of truth. They are only the signs by which one indicates which team one belongs to, like the identification ‘friend-or-foe’ signals that warplanes emit. Perhaps this low quality of the discussion does not hurt, but it is surely ‘unlovely,’ in Herbert Simon’s favorite word of disapproval.”

Herbert Stein, April 1989 from On the Other Hand

Friday, August 26, 2016

Trump is Andy Kaufman

This is the week of Trump’s “flip-flop” on immigration. What is being missed is how much of the commentary is off base, is applying a standard that is largely irrelevant. The problem is of the if you are  a hammer all problems look like nails variety. In this case, our political commentators can’t help but analyze a campaign speech for its policy implications, but with Trump this concedes too much.

It was Trump spokesperson Katrina Pierson who offered up the big reveal when she said “he hasn’t changed his position on immigration, he’s changed the words that he is saying.” So embedded is the analysis template that this statement was largely mocked but Pierson was merely stating what should’ve been clear from the beginning. What I take her to be saying is that Trump hasn’t changed his position because he’s never really had one (hence my putting flip-flop in quotes). In his speech on immigration Trump was doing what he’s always done, putting words together in some sort of order.

A Trump speech or interview is a performance. The words aren’t meant to put across policy ideas they’re the act. A Trump speech is closer to an Andy Kaufman bit than a political statement. Take a look at this Kaufman appearance on SNL and tell me it isn’t essential Trump (go ahead its short, and I’ll wait:

Kaufman’s later extended joke where he challenged and later wrestled woman also anticipates Trump who just substituted media personalities for women as his foil. No doubt there were Kaufman fans, like Trump adherents who took Andy to be a champion of male power and thought he was taking on political correctness (though his act pre-dated the concept). And, if memory serves, Kaufman whined and complained when he lost wrestling just like the Donald.

The Trump campaign is I maintain part con, part the pursuit of self-esteem. His words derive from the mark not his views on politics. He doesn’t want to be president, he just wants people to say that he’s “here to save the day.” Analyzing Trump statements for political content is a category error, it is, in an important way, to miss the con.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Clintons Can Multi-Task

This week’s G-File is about the Clintons and corruption (but I repeat myself). In it Jonah Goldberg makes the case that the Clinton Foundation wasn’t primarily about the money and our focus on pay for play is evidence of a corrupted view of corruption. While acknowledging that the Clintons are not averse to wealth Goldberg argues the Foundation "was about keeping the Imperial Court in Exile well-tended to for their return to power."

Wellllllllllll, up to a point. I take Jonah's main point to be that the Clinton's corruption is centered on power not money and on this he is certainly correct. But it doesn't follow that all of their activities are similarly sourced, that there is a necessary unifying theory of corruption at play here.

Putin, Arafat, your pick of South America strongmen were in it for the power but that didn't keep them from amassing wealth. And this accumulation didn't just happen but was rather the result of their deliberate actions to live in a manner appropriate to their station.

I take it that the Clintons in the course of fundraising in Manhattan and Hollywood came upon the idea that there were a lot of things they'd like to have and that falling back to something like the lifestyle of their Little Rock days was positively distasteful. And it isn't hard to imagine that Bill and Hill in mixing with people who were not all that impressive but who had a lot more money than they did came to feel a bit cheated in the wealth department. The Clinton Foundation was the most efficient, politically acceptable way (working to help in Haiti!) to monetize their position of power in a way that would be completely in their control.

Yes, the foundation also helped to keep their political entourage together, but I don't agree with Goldberg that this was the central motivation. Those people weren't going anywhere as any Lanny Davis to Hillary email should make clear.

As Mel Brooks noted "it's good to be the King." First on the list of reasons why is power, but the palace, the jewels, the best food and fashion also make the list. I think the Clintons are capable of diversifying into the pursuit of wealth as well as power. The email scandal was about power, the Clinton Foundation is mostly about making money.