Against Ludditism

I came across this article on my friend’s Facebook feed and was fascinated by it, or at least by the attitude it represented. Here’s how it begins:

I was backing my wife’s car out of our driveway when I realized I wasn’t watching the backup camera, nor was I looking out of the rear window. I was only listening for those “audible proximity alerts” — the high-pitched beeps that my car emits as I approach an object while in reverse. The problem was that my wife’s car, an older model, doesn’t offer such beeps.

I had become so reliant on this technology that I had stopped paying attention, a problem with potentially dangerous consequences.

Backup cameras, mandatory on all new cars as of last year, are intended to prevent accidents. Between 2008 and 2011, the percentage of new cars sold with backup cameras doubled, but the backup fatality rate declined by less than a third while backup injuries dropped only 8 percent.

This speaks to a real problem: technology does force a certain atrophy of some of our senses or brain functions. I can remember most of my childhood best friends’ phone numbers – numbers I haven’t called in two decades, but other than my wife’s cell, I couldn’t recall from memory one phone number I’ve acquired since I started using cell phones. As for backup cameras, if I drive the large family minivan (which has a backup camera) for any extended period of time, I get a little discombobulated when I get into my Mazda (no camera).

And yet, what are the tradeoffs? While losing a cell phone used to mean all your contacts were gone forever, usually the files are recoverable thanks to modern software, apps, and other technologies. Now you have those contacts until the end of time, and you don’t have to rely on a faulty memory to call a friend you haven’t spoken to in years.

Look at those backup number stats. While the author seems to argue that the injuries and accidents haven’t gone down at the same rate as backup camera installations, they have gone down, and pretty significantly in terms of fatalities. In other words, it would seem that the use of backup cameras has been a net benefit.

The author cites other technological fails – the Boeing 737 Max 8 for one – as cause for concern over our reliance on technology. Nevermind that the mass commercial aircraft is itself a major technological change from, say, sailing across the water or relying on a horse and buggy to carry you across the country. While these air crashes and the deaths caused by automated vehicles create headlines and cause concern, left unaddressed is the important question: do these technologies create a net benefit? Often the answer is yes.

Let’s look at automated vehicles. While there’s still some work that needs to be done I’m sure, consider the alternatives. I recently sat through a presentation where someone mentioned he was an EMT, and was stunned when he sat around on a Friday night and there were no crashes on the Beltway. A colleague said to him that’s because younger people take Uber or Lyft when they leave the bars rather than get behind the wheel. Now, those Ubers and Lyfts are currently operated by humans, but nonetheless they’re examples of smart technological process. And as those vehicles become automated they will become cheaper, and their use more ubiquitous. The end result is likely to be even fewer roadside fatalities.

Automation doesn’t come without concerns. Those Uber and Lyft drivers will be out of jobs. Electrified vehicles also tend to come with less maintenance issues, so mechanics will also see a decline in work. Then there’s the fact that people do actually just like to drive. And yet, there will be obvious benefits: a decrease in fatalities and injuries, which will lead to fewer medical and repair costs. If we’re not spending money on mechanical repairs, we’ll be spending the money elsewhere in the economy. And while we might like the freedom of driving, the ability to get other stuff done while HAL 2000 takes you to work has a certain appeal as well. Thus, the benefits of automation will very likely outweigh the costs, and probably by a long shot.

Now, as a conservative I ought to be concerned about the unforeseen consequences of automation. I alluded to one above. There is a car culture, especially in America, and there is a psychological component to driving your car around. And yet, the car itself, like the plane, is new technology. The car is barely over a century old, and mass availability of cars is even newer. I’m sure people enjoyed riding on horses or in buggies, but they adapted. We love our cars because they’re what we’re used to. But I’m not sure it will be a huge societal loss if we personally drive them less, or even not at all.

I could spend another couple of thousand words speaking about the pros and cons of the internet, and what social media hath wrought, but I won’t (at least at this time). I will just leave with this: while a healthy suspicion of technology is a good and necessary thing, we ought to carefully weigh the benefits of these changes along with the costs. Are our lives made better through these changes, and if the answer is yes, then maybe we ought to be grateful for those changes instead of advocating a return to stick shift.

The Real History of the Electoral College

Note: I’m reposting this from my old blog thanks to renewed efforts to get rid of the electoral college based on faulty premises.

It would take an act of enormous historical illiteracy to end my blogging hiatus. Congratulations are thus in order to the New York Times for providing me with such an example. In an editorial Jay Caruso has accurately labeled “historically inaccurate garbage,” the Times has called for the abolition of the electoral college. In the process of doing so, the Times’ editors reveal an understanding of American history which calls into question whether they’ve even taken high school-level American history classes.

The Electoral College, which is written into the Constitution, is more than just a vestige of the founding era; it is a living symbol of America’s original sin. When slavery was the law of the land, a direct popular vote would have disadvantaged the Southern states, with their large disenfranchised populations. Counting those men and women as three-fifths of a white person, as the Constitution originally did, gave the slave states more electoral votes.

Let’s address the slavery as the reason behind the electoral college argument. The New York Times links to a Time magazine article written by Akhil Reed Amar in which Amar attributes the electoral college’s existence to the advocacy of the slave states. He begins:

Some claim that the founding fathers chose the Electoral College over direct election in order to balance the interests of high-population and low-population states. But the deepest political divisions in America have always run not between big and small states, but between the north and the south, and between the coasts and the interior.

Some “claim” this because, well, it happens to be true. The divide at the constitutional convention was not between slave states and non-slave states,* but rather between large and small states. Remember, the convention kicked off with a presentation of the Virginia plan. This plan, authored in large part by James Madison but presented by Edmund Randolph, set the framework for much of the debate at the convention. Among other things, the plan proposed a bicameral legislature with representation in both houses based on population. The smaller states objected to it, and put forward their own plan. The New Jersey plan called for each state to have an equal voice in the legislature, a la the Articles of Confederation.

* As Caruso correctly notes, at the time of the convention, only a handful of states had even partially abolished slavery, and only Massachusetts had totally abolished it. That’s not to say that New York and South Carolina were equally vested in the continued propagation of the institution, but in 1787 the north-south divide on this issue was not nearly as intense as it would become in future years.

When it came to the large-small divide, there was a mixture of states. The large states included Massachusetts, Virginia, and Pennsylvania – in other words a mix of predominant slaveholding states and anti-slavery states. The small states included Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Georgia – again, a mix of states with different views on slavery. Thus feelings about slavery had little to do with these respective coalitions. So already Amar is off to a poor start in actually grasping the nuances in early American history. But he’s not done.

One Founding-era argument for the Electoral College stemmed from the fact that ordinary Americans across a vast continent would lack sufficient information to choose directly and intelligently among leading presidential candidates.

This objection rang true in the 1780s, when life was far more local. But the early emergence of national presidential parties rendered the objection obsolete by linking presidential candidates to slates of local candidates and national platforms, which explained to voters who stood for what.

Even if one objects to the notion that political parties made this argument obsolete (they didn’t), it’s a bit anachronism to bring this into the debate over the electoral college, since parties didn’t actually exist at the time of the convention, and several of the Framers had rather deeply set feelings against parties (even if they would eventually spearhead the formation of those parties). So dismissing this objection when the reason for its supposed nullification didn’t yet exist is non-sensical.

Although the Philadelphia framers did not anticipate the rise of a system of national presidential parties, the 12th Amendment—proposed in 1803 and ratified a year later— was framed with such a party system in mind, in the aftermath of the election of 1800-01. In that election, two rudimentary presidential parties—Federalists led by John Adams and Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson—took shape and squared off. Jefferson ultimately prevailed, but only after an extended crisis triggered by several glitches in the Framers’ electoral machinery. In particular, Republican electors had no formal way to designate that they wanted Jefferson for president and Aaron Burr for vice president rather than vice versa. Some politicians then tried to exploit the resulting confusion.

Enter the 12th Amendment, which allowed each party to designate one candidate for president and a separate candidate for vice president. The amendment’s modifications of the electoral process transformed the Framers’ framework, enabling future presidential elections to be openly populist and partisan affairs featuring two competing tickets. It is the 12th Amendment’s Electoral College system, not the Philadelphia Framers’, that remains in place today. If the general citizenry’s lack of knowledge had been the real reason for the Electoral College, this problem was largely solved by 1800. So why wasn’t the entire Electoral College contraption scrapped at that point?

The 12th Amendment merely more carefully delineated the presidential and vice presidential election process. It did not amend the electoral college, nor did it necesssarily eliminate the basic need for the electoral college. But Amar knows the real reason the college wasn’t changed: demon slavery.

Standard civics-class accounts of the Electoral College rarely mention the real demon dooming direct national election in 1787 and 1803: slavery.

This sneering dismissal is ironic, as, if anything, slavery’s role in the formation of the constitution is over-estimated. But don’t worry, Amar has a tool at his disposal that most mere mortals who only have taken standard civics classes don’t: google. So Amar no doubt entered into his search “constitutional convention electoral college slavery” and came back with literally the only result that would have populated – a speech given by James Madison in July of 1787 during the convention.

At the Philadelphia convention, the visionary Pennsylvanian James Wilson proposed direct national election of the president. But the savvy Virginian James Madison responded that such a system would prove unacceptable to the South: “The right of suffrage was much more diffusive [i.e., extensive] in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes.” In other words, in a direct election system, the North would outnumber the South, whose many slaves (more than half a million in all) of course could not vote. But the Electoral College—a prototype of which Madison proposed in this same speech—instead let each southern state count its slaves, albeit with a two-fifths discount, in computing its share of the overall count.

As I said, this is literally the only time during the entire convention that slavery came up in the context of the election of the executive. Unfortunately for Amar, an actual reading of the entire convention debate outside of this one quote proves that his magic bullet is not so magical.

First of all, some context is in order. Throughout much of the early part of the convention it was assumed the executive would be chosen by the legislature. It wasn’t until about the second part of the convention that the debate really kicked in over the method of selecting an executive.

There were a couple of intertwined debates. Some argued that if the executive were to be selected by the legislature, then he should not be eligible to serve more than one term. If eligible to serve more than one term, then the executive would be beholden to the legislature, and would therefore not be an independent force.

Amar is correct in pointing out that Wilson advocated a popular selection of the president, and his fellow statesman Gouverneur Morris also advocated for a selection independent of the legislature. Many other delegates – both from small and large states, as well as anti-slavery and slaveholding states – scoffed at the idea of any popular participation in the selection of the executive. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts insisted on more than one occasion that the general mass of the population were ill-educated and would be easily duped, and as such should have no say in the selection of the executive.

As the debate continued over several days, it was clear that the dividing line was not between slave states and non-slave states, or even large and small states (though that certainly was a part of it), but rather between individuals who had a more populist bent and those whose inclinations were more, shall we say, aristocratic. The debate was in large part a reflection of the general feeling that the mass of citizens did not have the proper qualifications and knowledge to make such a crucial decision. Even those who did not think it proper for the legislature to choose the executive did not openly advocate a popular election.

Enter James Madison. It’s odd, though understandable, that Amar focuses on Madison, as at the time he delivered his speech at the convention cited here he was closer to Wilson than most of the other delegates. The bulk of his speech was actually dedicated to expressing his opposition to the legislative method of choosing the executive. In point of fact, Madison expressed his preference for a popular vote, a preference he repeated at another point in September when the convention made its final determinations. What Amar is quoting is a small section of Madison’s address where he concedes the potential drawbacks to a popular vote. Contrary to Amar’s implication, Madison’s concern was not with how the southern states would be disadvantaged by slavery, but rather the more restrictive franchise requirements that existed in the south. Madison’s argument was that more people would be eligible to vote in the north, irrespective of slavery, thus furthering the imbalance. Madison repeated this point in September, with absolutely no mention of slavery.

Therefore the one and only convention speech Amar points to as proof of his thesis actually contradicts it, at least when read in its entirety.

And that is the entirety of Amar’s argument – this one speech, and the fact that a whole bunch of Virginians were elected president. Nevermind that those Virginians included the man who led our country to independence, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and one of the primary authors of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. No, it’s all about slavery.

There were literally dozens and dozens of speeches made at the constitutional convention regarding the election of the executive, and one of them contained a passing reference to slavery. Yet Amar, and in turn the New York Times, uses this as justification for contending that the electoral college is completely about defending slave interests. Even if one counters that the framers were too wily to openly state their true intentions, a careful reading of the entirety of the debates shows that the delegates were motivated by completely different factors.

And of course there is one of the most elegant defenses of the electoral college ever made – Federalist 68. In it the author celebrated the electoral college for giving the people a voice in the selection of the president while providing an intermediate body of electors whose judgement would presumably be more discerning. As the author states, it’s all about preserving an orderly process:

It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder. This evil was not least to be dreaded in the election of a magistrate, who was to have so important an agency in the administration of the government as the President of the United States. But the precautions which have been so happily concerted in the system under consideration, promise an effectual security against this mischief. The choice of several, to form an intermediate body of electors, will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of one who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes. And as the electors, chosen in each State, are to assemble and vote in the State in which they are chosen, this detached and divided situation will expose them much less to heats and ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people, than if they were all to be convened at one time, in one place.

Now who was the author of this celebrated piece? Why, none other than the bastard, son of a whore and a Scotsman. Yes, the immigrant, New Yorker, and ardent slavery opponent Alexander Hamilton. Somehow I don’t think he viewed the electoral college as a vestige of slavery. But what did he know?

Amar tries to move the goalposts by arguing that even if the electoral college at inception wasn’t about slavery, later events (which, by the way, he completely exaggerates while relying on dubious methodolgies to determine who really should have won the election of 1800) made it about slavery. Now, it’s curious that the institution which made Abraham Lincoln’s ascendancy to the presidency possible should retroactively be seen as a gatekeeper for the peculiar institution, but so be it.

Now let’s get back to the Times. The editors throw in a whole bunch of other familiar arguments about the folly of the electoral college and its unfairness. Since this is strictly an historical post I won’t get into all that, so I’ll let you read the rest of Jay Caruso’s post. I’ll just note that throwing in the slavery non sequitur is nothing more than an attempt to gloss over the weakness of the Times’s overall argument. By continually parotting the historically inaccurate line that the electoral college is all about protecting slavery – an argument repeated by equally historical illiterate leftists on twitter and other platforms – we are supposed to throw away this “ancient” and “outdated” mode of election. Unfortunately these arguments do nothing more than to reveal that those making them don’t even have the first clue about American history and the debates surrounding the constitution, thus making anything else they have to offer of dubious merit.

At the very least we can take confort in the knowledge that people like Akhil Reed Amar have little influence outside the barely-read pages of Time.

Akhil Reed Amar teaches constitutional law at Yale University. This essay borrows from his recently published book, The Constitution Today.

 To quote Dr. Hibbert, upon learning that Homer is working at a nuclear power plant: Oh Good Lord. Although this picture might be more appropriate.
facepalm

All Bond Movies Ranked

Here’s something a little different. Now that I finally watched the one Bond movie I had not seen in its entirety from start to finish (see number 23), I can finally offer up my definitive ranking of all 24 Bond movies. Note: The spoof Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again are not included.

1) Goldfinger: Every bit of the Bond formula is done to perfection here: the villain, the henchman, the Bond girl, the top notch opening song and sequence: all among the best in Bond history. It also manages to be a bit campy without being absurd. Sean Connery’s Bond carefully hues the line between badass and sauve lady’s man in a way that would not really be replicated again, with perhaps Daniel Craig coming closest.

2) On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: George Lazenby’s only appearance as Bond stands out if for no other reason than it being the only time until the number six movie on the list that Bond shows anything like emotional vulnerability. Opinions certainly vary, but Telly Savalas to me is the signature Blofeld, though I could be persuaded toward Donald Pleasance.

3) From Russia With Love: For many, Daniela Biancha as Tatiana Romanova might be the greatest of all the “Bond girls,” and I wouldn’t particularly argue with that. As for the movie itself, I wouldn’t fuss with anyone who put either of these three at the top of the list.

4) Casino Royale: The Bond franchise desperately needed a fresh start after the disastrous Brosnan era and the mediocrity of latter-day Moore and Dalton, and what better way than to go back to the beginning with the very first Fleming novel. Daniel Craig was perfectly cast as Bond, and the script was the most faithful adaptation of a Fleming story since the Connery era ended. It brought the Bond franchise in the present without sacrificing the essential elements of what makes Bond so good.

5) Dr. No: The common thread among the top five movies on the list is that they are faithful adaptations of Ian Fleming’s novels. When they started veering from the plot towards the end of Connery’s run and especially in the Moore era is when the franchise started to falter. Hee we have the first in the series. It would take a couple of more films before the formula was clearly established, but this sets the series off on phenomenal footing.

6) Skyfall: After the disappointment of Quantum Solace, it was heartening to see a second strong effort from Craig. Sure, some of the plot is utterly ridiculous, but it showed a different side of the character.

7) The Spy Who Loved Me: Easily the best of the Moore movies, and the turning point of the franchise before it devolved into high camp. Also the one time when not being faithful to the novel was a good call.

8) Thunderball: It’s generally more highly regarded by others, but I’ve always thought it was a bit too busy, and the underwater scenes are simply hard to keep track of. Still brilliant, otherwise.

9) You Only Live Twice: The absurdity of Sean Connery trying to pretend to be Japanese aside, the introduction of Blofeld (finally) as the big bad is worthy of a top ten entry.

10) Live and Let Die: As cringe-worthy as some of the blackploitation scenes are, and as silly as the general plot may be, it’s still a ton of fun. It certainly sets the scene for the what the Roger Moore era would be: for good and bad.

11) The Living Daylights: Timothy Dalton was basically a 180 degree turn from Moore, perhaps turning too far to the hard-edged version of Bond. This movie would be an island of good in a sea of awfulness between the end of the Moore era and Craig.

12) SPECTRE: It disappointed, but was still a fairly solid feature.

13) Diamonds are Forever: Connery came back for one more turn, and it may have been better had he just remained retired from the series. There are still some high points, including the delightful Tiffany Case (Jill St. John), but Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd are more awkward than imposing. Throwing shade at Howard Hughes was certainly an interesting choice as well.

14) For Your Eyes Only: After the sheer awfulness of Moonraker (more on that later), a good comeback and the last of the good Moore movies. Bit of trivia: the ending of the movie with Bond and Melina being drug behind the boat as shark bait comes from the novel Live and Let Die. 

15) Licence to Kill: This may have taken the concept of a more hard-edged Bond a tad too far. Bond going on a bloodthirsty, revenge-fueled quest is something they would kinda reprise with Quantum of Solace, though dialed back a notch.

16) The Man with the Golden Gun: We really didn’t need to see a return of Roscoe P. Coltrane Sheriff JW Pepper. A slightly ridiculous movie but Christopher Lee is enjoyable enough as the villain.

17) Goldeneye: The best of the Brosnan movies. That tells you all you need to know about this period.

18) Octopussy: I’ve seen this multiple times and I’m still not sure what the hell the point is supposed to be.

19) Quantum of Solace: This happened.

20/21) Die Another Day/The World is Not Enough: Completely interchangeable and forgettable movies. I’d have to rewatch them to remember what the plot was supposed to be, and frankly I’d rather not. One of them had Denise Richards and, well, my brain has tried to blot the memory of that performance permanently.

22) A View to a Kill: The only Bond theme to hit the top of the Billboard charts. It singlehandedly saves this movie from being at the bottom of the list. Christopher Walken being Christopher Walken is normally enjoyable, but this was just awful.

23) Tomorrow Never Dies: The scene in which Eliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce) is speaking to his media henchmen is the most cringe-inducing scene in the history of the franchise, and that is a high bar. It plays out like a scene which would have been cut out of one of the Austin Powers movies for being too over-the-top. Pryce’s performance is especially disappointing, because he’s at an 11 on the maniacal villain scale, and he needed to be at about a 7.

24) Moonraker: James Bond in space. Some argue this is so bad it’s campy good humor. No. No it is not.

Political Bubbles and Assuming the Worst

The revelation – or really confirmation of what we all expected since day one – that Jussie Smollett staged to so-called hate crime committed against himself is the second significant case inside of a month of a viral story’s narrative crashing to Earth. Last month we witnessed the full fury of the internet unleashed upon the boys from Covington, only to have it been confirmed that not only were they innocent of the original allegations against them, they were basically the victims.

With two major stories now having exploded in the media’s face, we should naturally expect some circumspection from the media and from the general public going forward, and a reluctance to pounce on a story before the facts crystallize.

BWAHAHAHAHAHA. Nah, that’s not going to happen. Here’s CNN’s resident “conservative” SE Cupp:

This is a variation of the “conservatives pounce” theme. When leftists say or do something . . . deplorable, the media reaction is to call out conservatives for either exposing or highlighting the deplorable activity.

No one will learn a damned thing.

As for why people might be so eager to assume the worst of Trump supporters, the political bubbles we dwell in may explain much. Most of us reside in cocoons, reading news sources and social media feeds of those with whom we agree with politically. Not only does this cocooning impair our ability to understand the other side of the political spectrum, when we are exposed to the other side, it’s usually the worst elements of the other side. This is especially true on Twitter. When someone from the left is retweeted onto a conservative account – and vice versa – odds are it is someone expressing the dumbest opinion imaginable. The retweet is done for the express purpose of mockery. Therefore, we begin to hold even lower opinions of the other tribe. When a few schmuck alt-right accounts with a few thousand followers are retweeted by a member of La Resistance, the inclination is to believe that these are somehow representative of all of MAGA  nation. Similarly, if conservatives only see the most screeching members of La Resistance  retweeted into their timelines, they may come to believe that the left is more rabid than it might truly be.

And I do not absolve myself from any of this. I used to read a lot more left-wing political accounts and blogs than I do now.

Even if you’re not so inclined to start reading more Vox (or Breitbart), it would be good to keep in mind that not everything you see, especially when it is presented by co-partisans, is necessarily reflective of the entirety of the political thought of your political opposites.

 

The Emergency Order, Bad Arguments, and Logical Fallacies

Now that President Trump has issued the emergency declaration on the wall, I thought I would reiterate something I said multiple times during the Obama administration: there is no “The President thinks something is really really important but Congress won’t act so the President just gets to do whatever he wants” clause in the constitution. The Veruca Salt standard simply doesn’t exist. While I think the Democrat opposition to the wall is overwrought (and indeed now some have even indicated they want to remove the border barriers that doers exit), President Trump has had ample time to secure additional border wall funding. A changeover in Congressional leadership doesn’t constitute a national emergency.

I wanted to take the bulk of this post to address some of the responses I’ve seen, both in opposition and in defense of this action.

I’ll start with one argument made by opponents of the move that I deem to be overstated. They argue that this will set a precedent for future Democratic presidents to declare national emergencies over, say, climate change and healthcare*. There is a little bit of truth to this – as I said on twitter, each new precedent has a bit of snowball effect. But when looking at the cast of characters which constitutes the current Democratic presidential field, who doesn’t think that one of them will do this anyway? President Obama’s DACA order was arguably even less meritorious than President Trump’s actions here (where exactly was the crisis in not providing legal status to the children of illegal immigrants?), and it was President Obama who uttered his petulant “I’ve got a pen and a phone” threat when he grew frustrated with the constitution’s pesky limitations. If anything, Democrats have grown even more radical, and I don’t think President Trump increases the likelihood of future despotic actions.

* I’ve seen more than a few tweets in recent days about 28 million uninsured Americans being a graver national emergency. But I’m confused: wasn’t Obamacare supposed to solve this problem? I thought Obamacare was a “big fucking deal.” Well if there are still 28 million uninsured, maybe it was really nothing more than a “little useless clusterfuck.”

The flipside of the above is the argument from defenders of the administration is that we already have precedent, so Donald Trump’s actions are not unprecedented. Again, there’s an element of truth here, but that doesn’t make right-wing defenders of the president any less hypocritical. If you were (rightly) crying bloody murder every time President Obama used his pen and picked up his phone, you cannot now defend President Trump doing the same. If the “but daddy I want it” justification for emergency declarations is pathetic, even worse is the “but mommy he did it first” defense of the declaration. Speaking of setting precedents, you now have sent a clear message that the right-side of the political spectrum is cool with unilateral, unconstitutional, and unlawful presidential declarations so long as the end-result is fine by you. That seemingly less than about ten percent of the American public consistently even cares about constitutional law is indeed depressing.

As for the unlawful part of this, defenders say that “hey, Congress set us on this path, and the president is just doing what’s in his legal authority.” I’m not one to shy away from blasting Congress for cowering in fear to assert its rights as the superior  branch of the federal government, but I am not persuaded that the president is acting within the very generous parameters laid out by Congress. As David French explains in National Review, this is an abuse of the statutory authority given away by Congress.

Look at the list carefully. He’s listing criminal challenges. He’s listing humanitarian challenges. He’s listing the problems on the border that have existed for decades and that Congress has enacted comprehensive statutory schemes (including funding civilian wall construction and civilianimmigration authorities) to combat. Gang activity and drug-smuggling are grave problems, but they are crimes, not acts of war. The declaration doesn’t even try to argue that there is a precise, unique challenge that only the military can counter — such as a national disaster that would require the use of the military’s unrivaled heavy-lift capabilities or its immediate access to manpower.

Instead, the declaration cites the wasteful 2018 border deployment, but that is only evidence that the military has been used, not that it must be used. If the mere fact of a deployment were proof of the necessity of military intervention, then there would be no limiting principle on a president’s action. The message is clear — the military is “required” simply because he says it is required.

I was called a “neocon” on Twitter for having the temerity to argue that the president has no constitutional or statutory authority to justify issuing this emergency declaration. It is a sign of the lack of intellectual heft of much of the populist right that they believe defending constitutional norms is a sign of “new” conservative thinking.

I guess I could just sit back and laugh when President Harris issues a presidential emergency declaration shutting down the health insurance industry and forcing all Americans onto Medicare. It could be humorous to see the contortions of the overwhelming majority of Americans suddenly switching their opinions on such declarations. Instead I’ll just weep as our constitution becomes all but a dead letter.

Democrat Party Priorities

Earlier this week, Virginia legislator Kathy Tran pushed legislation to liberalize Virginia’s abortion laws and to do away with even the minimal restrictions on third trimester abortions. In support of Tran’s effort, Governor Ralph Northam had this to say in response to a question about the availability of abortion in the case of a child who has actually been born:

This is why decisions such as this should be made by providers, physicians, and the mothers and fathers that are involved. When we talk about third-trimester abortions, these are done with the consent of the mother, with the consent of physicians, more than one physician by the way, and it’s done in cases where there may be severe deformities, there may be a fetus which is non-viable. So in this particular example, if the mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen, the infant would be delivered, the infant would be kept comfortable, the infant would be resuscitated if this is what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physician and the mother.

This stance is an extreme one even in the Democratic party. Yet here is a full rundown of all the major Democratic party players in response to Northam:

(crickets)

On Friday, a photo emerged that showed Northam’s medical school yearbook page. Among the items was a photo of two individuals, one in black face and the other in a KKK robe. Presumably one of the two individuals was Northam. On Friday night, Northam apologized, but then on Saturday he backtracked in one of the weirdest press conferences in world history. He claimed that neither of the two individuals was he, and he also suggested that there be a facial recognition scan – how a facial recognition scan be done on a hooded figure is a mystery. He did say he had actually worn blackface for a Michael Jackson dance contest, and then came a bizarre explanation of having to apply shoe polish. There was even a moment during the presser where it seemed Northam was set to moonwalk before his wife reminded him where he was.

When it came to chastising Northam for the yearbook catastrophe, there has been no shortage of Democrats who are now calling for him to resign. Here is a rundown of just some of the Democratic presidential candidates condemning Northam and calling for him to step down.

Meanwhile, here is Hillary Clinton:

Other prominent Democrats have also chimed in and called for Northam to step down.

This has been a rather revelatory moment in American politics, and it has shone a bright line on the soul of the Democrat party. A governor defending infanticide draws absolutely no criticism, yet the revelation that this same individual may have posed for a racist photo 35 years ago means he should be cast into the exterior darkness.

Even if one concedes that silence does not connote support for Northam’s abortion stance, the comparative reactions to these two events should make abundantly clear where the Democrat party’s priorities lie. In a sad way, had Democrats stood by Northam they would be less morally repugnant. But their manifest lack of interest in condemning infanticide (if not outright support) is brought into clear relief when contrasted with their unified reaction against a man posing for a racist photo three and a half decades ago.

While we might applaud the Democrat party for coming a long way since their adulation for a man who spent many a day wearing the klan robe, it’s unfortunate they are less concerned about respecting the rights of at least one class of humans.

What An Incredibly Stupid Week

I’ve said I hope to refrain from discussing current events on this blog, or at least reacting to every news story other than to talk about larger constitutional and philosophical principles surrounding them. One of the reasons is my complete frustration with the state of the media and how things are reported, and what stories are reported. This past week served as confirmation of at that approach. Let’s recap the week that was, where things just dumber each day.

First, there was this Gillette toxic masculinity ad, which I think became viral late Sunday or last Monday. This is one of those moments where the reaction to it, and then the reaction to the reaction were more the story. Count me among those who just gently shrugged his shoulders at it. I can see what Gillette is trying to say, though why a razor company feels obligated to spread the message is beyond my poor ability to comprehend. Perhaps the reaction to it would have been more muted had it not come on the heels of the idiotic APA guidelines on “toxic masculinity.” I have only daughters, but I’m more afraid of them coming home with any of these guys than that I’m going to confront some toxically masculine son-in-law.

And then it got dumber from there.

President Trump then had the temerity to buy fast food and serve it in the White House to the National Champion Clemson Tiger football program. He said the government shutdown meant his cook staff couldn’t prepare a meal, so he bought a whole bunch of Burger King, McDonalds, and Wendy’s. I think the most overwrought reaction to this were those who claimed this proved that the president was a racist – because I guess only non-whites eat fast food and no member of the Clemson team is white. Amazingly this dominated the next two days of the news cycle, because we just needed to hear every possible analysis of just how wrong it was for the president to serve fast food to probably the only set of humans who can afford to eat fast food calorie-wise – athletes.

This was only displaced in the news cycle when BuzzFeed published a story by Jason Leopold claiming he had seen evidence proving President Trump had directed Michael Cohen to lie about the Russia investigation. Most sensible people waited for confirmation of the story, while others put on their impeachment party hates and started counting the days to his big Senate trial. But the story never was confirmed, and Robert Mueller’s office responded, saying “BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the special counsel’s office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony are not accurate.” This may seem like a non-denial denial, but I have to question why the Special Counsel’s office would have responded if the report were completely true. I don’t think this completely forgoes the possibility that Trump will wind up in legal hot water, but at this point BuzzFeed’s credibility should, again, be called into question. Still no other outlet has come forth to corroborate this story, and it seems more likely than not that this a nothingburger.

But that was all just the warmup for the stupidest, most despicable event of the week. Fortunately for me I was at a family event on Saturday, and thus could only briefly scroll through Twitter and Facebook. Therefore, I only saw some mentions of the altercation that had taken place near the Lincoln Memorial for the March for Life. So when I finally had an opportunity to sit down and watch the videotape, much more evidence had emerged. Some things became immediately obvious to me. First, there were no chants of “build the wall.” It’s possible some voice shouted that at some point, but it’s not clear who or even if that’s what was said.

Second, the original story of some high school kids getting in the face of a lone Native American protester were manifestly untrue. The longer videos clearly show it was the black Israelite* organization who were hurling all sorts of racist, homophobic, and other slurs at the boys, not the other way around. Then Nathan Phillips entered the fray, and things did not de-escalate, though that was his stated purpose for walking up to the group.

*: Just to be clear, that’s what they call themselves. I once saw them in New York, and as I called them by that name in response to a friend who asked me who they were, some woman chided me for using a supposed slur. 

I’m not going to recount everything that happened. By now I’m sure anyone reading this has already seen the videos or is familiar with what took place. Robby Soave has one of the most detailed and accurate assessments.

As I said, I fortunately came to this story a day late, so didn’t have the opportunity to opine about matters before more details became available. Others, however, were quick to condemn the kids, especially Nicholas Sandmann, who emerged as the Emmanuel Goldstein of the weekend. I’ve never heard of a Nazi smirk, but he has one according to the bright lights of the internet.

The treatment of Mr. Sandmann is particularly galling when you consider that he acted more responsibly than any other human being in this affair. There’s even a point, caught on video, where he clearly signals to one his classmates to knock it off when said classmate began getting into it with one of the other protesters. Rather than representing the smirking face of hate, Sandmann was a young man who showed great resolve and fortitude in the face of – let’s call it what it is, hatred.

There are numerous takeaways from this event. Perhaps none are as important as this: maybe wait a moment before posting your social media hot take. It’s true that waiting for “all the evidence” to come in may entail literally waiting forever, but it couldn’t hurt to wait for more than one initial viral video.

But at least some who initially attacked the boys repented and apologized when moire evidence started coming in. Others, however, just dug in their heels. Either they’re lying about seeing the longer videos, or else these people are so blinded by their ideological hatreds that they refuse to see truth when it is literally in front of them.

There are many to blame in this fiasco, and few who come off well. Let’s start off with who deserves the least amount of blame or hate: the aforementioned Nicholas Sandmann. As for the bulk of his classmates, I’m starting to take the position that they, too, largely acted well. Did some of them act foolishly and respond poorly to some of the antagonism? Perhaps, but how should a 16 or 17-year old respond when a bunch of nutjob racists are yelling at you, or some other weird dude begins playing a drum in your face? As for the MAGA hats, this is the only semi-legitimate criticism, but only insofar as wearing any partisan political regalia should be frowned upon at the March for Life because we want to try to keep partisanship out of the event as much as possible. But the idea that the hats themselves are inherently bad or equivalent to a Klan hood, as was repeated throughout the Twitterverse, is obscenely stupid.

Next up, we have the chaperones. I have not heard a satisfactory answer to where they were during this. Could any of them have stepped up to protect the boys, or did some try only to be shouted down? This is one part of the story I’d like to investigate further before passing judgment.

Nathan Phillips, meanwhile, at best exaggerated his role in this or just blatantly lied, intimating that he went in there to play peacemaker, when it is clear he was dead set on stirring up the agitation. Of course, the black Israelites are the worst direct actors in this story. They are an insane group of angry bigots, and anyone attempting to defend them in any way should be shunned.

Then there’s the media. Oh, suddenly they had something to report on during the March for Life. Let’s ignore those anti-Semites marching in Washington the very next day, we’ve got some southern, Catholic, white boys to demonize. It took most major media outlets a full two days before some of them started to say, “Hey, maaaaaaaybe we kinda sorta got this one completely wrong.”

But I reserve my greatest ire for both the school and for the archdiocese of Covington, with special mention for the archdiocese of Baltimore. These venerable institutions wasted no time in throwing these students under the bus. What’s more, when the situation began clearing up and the real news began trickling in, they failed to retract their earlier groveling statements. Only very recently did the Archdioceses of Baltimore and Covington walk back a little bit, but only through mealy-mouthed statements saying that they were “investigating” the incident. What’s there to investigate? It’s the same mealy-mouthed shit being spewed by Fr. Jim Martin, who refuses to fully apologize for throwing stones at these boys, and instead chooses to offer passive-voiced, conditional-laden non-apology apologies.

Amy Welborn has more to say about Jim Martin and that other noted guardian of charitable speech, Mark Shea. Donald McClarey, meanwhile, has noted the cowardice of Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville and his failure to retract his earlier condemnatory comments.

For those who are not fans of harsh language, I advise you to skip this next paragraph.

Hey, assholes, you know how you buried your heads in the fucking sand while your colleagues were out there diddling boys and seminarians, and how you continue to evade all sense of responsibility? Yeah, you might want to think twice before you trash faithful Catholic boys and men before all evidence comes in. But I guess you don’t much care about evidence, because you obviously didn’t give two shits while seminarians were telling you what was happening inside the walls of your seminaries. So the next time you mail your pleas for your archdiocesan appeals, just know the envelopes and the papers inside are going to be used for their only useful purpose: toilet paper.

Ahem. So that’s where we are. The only confident prediction I will offer from all this: we will learn absolutely nothing from this.

That’s Not How the Constitution Works, Mr. President

Hey guys, do you recall the “if Congress isn’t being reasonable, the President gets to do what he wants” clause of the U.S. Constitution? I don’t, but evidently President Trump has access to the secret Constitution.

President Trump on Wednesday resumed his threat to bypass Congress and fund the construction of a border wall by declaring a national emergency if Democrats maintain their opposition to his funding demands.

“I have the absolute right to do national emergency if I want,” Trump told reporters during a White House pool spray. “My threshold will be if I can’t make a deal with people that are unreasonable.”

As AP reminds us earlier in his post, this is the same exact rationale President Obama employed with DACA. It was outrageous then, and it is outrageous now for President Trump to consider using executive action here.

President Obama threw quite a few presidential tantrums – the equivalent of Veruca Salt saying “But Daddy I want it” – whenever Congress didn’t give him what he wanted, so he acted unilaterally and without constitutional sanction, and fortunately he was slapped down quite a few times, and unanimously so, by the Supreme Court. Sadly, President Obama is not the only president to think that “urgent” matters give him unprecedented authority. Blame Congress both in its dithering and in its unwillingness to slap down presidents if you want – I certainly do – but it takes one to do the unconstitutional tango.

It doesn’t matter how important a given president thinks the issue is. There are clear mechanisms for pursuing a given action, and the president does not just get to act unilaterally in most cases just because Congress can’t agree on a given course. Sometimes executive orders are given under rightful circumstances. No one in their right mind should think we’ve reached such a crisis point of national security that the president should be able to go all Samantha on Bewitched, blink his eyes, and get what he wants.

And if you do think the president would be acting justly in this matter, I hope you take the same position when a future Democrat president declares that climate change is the moral equivalent of war and he can thus shut down all coal and natural gas plants on his say-so.

Populism and Conspiracy Thinking

Last week Tucker Carlson blew up the right side of the internet when he delivered this 15 minute monologue on his nightly show. It was ostensibly a response to Senator Mitt Romney’s op-ed in the Washington Post, blasting President Trump for his rhetoric and character. But in reality it was so much more, and represents a sharp divide between “populist” and traditional conservative/libertarian economic thought. It has spurred a number of critical responses as well as defenses. David French had one here, and Ben Shapiro has now written a pair of pieces as well.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Frankly, I find this debate a refreshing change of pace because the focus is on fundamental principles. Most of Carlson’s critics concede the truth of much of what he says, though they are critical both of his solutions (or lack thereof) and the level of blame he places on elites.

There is a lot here to discuss, and indeed it touches on some of the topics I had been hoping to cover. Here I am just going to focus on one very narrow issue, and it’s one David French touched upon. Listening to – or reading – Carlson’s talk, I heard a lot of familiar notes. Whenever I read through populist screeds in various social media settings, a common refrain is that some external force is the reason for all that ails either the individual or society as a whole. By external force I mean some force outside the person himself. Some kind of nefarious group – politicians, Democrats, Republicans, masons, etc. – is pulling the strings and are the cause of our woes.

Carlson’s monologue was full of these indictments. Here’s French quoting Carlson:

And he talks about wealthier Americans as if they’re indifferent to the plight of their fellow Americans. Here’s Carlson: “Those very same affluent married people, the ones making virtually all the decisions in our society, are doing pretty much nothing to help the people below them get and stay married. Rich people are happy to fight malaria in Congo. But working to raise men’s wages in Dayton or Detroit? That’s crazy.”

As French notes, this just isn’t true.

In 2017, Americans gave more than $410 billion in charity, and the idea that this charity flows principally overseas is ludicrous. Gifts to international charities represented only 6 percent of total giving, and foreign aid represents roughly 1.2 percent of the federal budget, an inconsequential sum compared with the immense sums we spend in the United States on economic development and social welfare. America is consistently one of the most charitable countries in the world, whether measured by volunteerism or money.

The more subjective aspect of this claim is that the rich just don’t care about the plight of poor people or the folks in Appalachia. While it’s easy to pin bad policy choices on a lack of concern, this is not necessarily accurate. Or as French puts it, it’s less about rich Americans not caring as them just making poor policy decisions.

What struck me about all this is that there’s a common subtext with conspiracy thinking. For conspiracy theorists, there’s always some cabal working behind the scenes to destroy everything. The World Trade Center didn’t get taken out by a pair of planes flown by Islamic terrorists – oh no, it was Bush and Cheney and a neocon plot to eventually invade the Middle East and take all their oil. No, those kids in Connecticut weren’t gun down by a madmen, it was a plot by the US government to force gun control upon us.

The thing about conspiracy theorizing is that in some ways it serves as a comfort to those who espouse these ideas. Here’s why. It is unfathomable to think that terrible events could be random. Or, better yet, it’s difficult to accept that these truly events could have happened in the United States without some sort of sign off by the deep state. Because if some random mad man can just shoot up a school, or if 19 well-funded terrorists could take out the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and kill thousands, the world becomes a much less ordered place. I mean just look at the paranoid discussion centering around the new world order – and I don’t mean that one, brother. The key word there is “order.” Because if the world isn’t being run by such cabals, then there’s decidedly less order in the world.

In many ways I think this is what motivates populist thinking. If there is an opioid crisis in Appalachia, then the remote cause can’t be the choices those individual living there made. The crisis must have been precipitated by men of evil intent. Because the flip side of conspiracy and populist thinking is that if we get rid of the bad men and replace them with well-intentioned people, then there is a solution to the world’s ills.

The chaos and tragedy of the world is not just that – it’s not the natural state of a fallen world, but a predetermined outcome. It’s unthinkable that bad things could just happen in the United States or the citizens of the country. Ultimately, if we just adjust the gears, then things will be okay.

I recognize that this this is not an entirely fair comparison, and there’s a little bit more complexity to Carlson’s and others thinking. Yet I can’t help but see this underlying connection. It’s an outlook that is both fatalistic and yet naively optimistic, because the subtext is that a fix is just a flick of the light-switch away. It is a shared worldview that is uncomfortable with disorder. Ultimately both modes of thinking are dangerous in their own ways, but more on that to follow.

A Civics Lesson for Our Speaker

So Nancy Pelosi recently had this to say:

When Pelosi was asked whether she considers herself equal to Trump, she said, “The Constitution does,” The New York Times reported.

Pelosi’s position as Speaker makes her the second in line for the presidency should something happen to Trump, after Vice President Pence, according to the Constitution.

There are two ways to intepret Pelosi’s comment, and neither one is flattering regarding her understanding of the constitution. The more charitable interpretation is that she means the legislative branch is co-equal to the executive. In this case, she would be underestimating her own branch’s standing. Jay Cost and Luke Thompson have a done a fantastic job on their Constitutionally Speaking podcast to debunk this long-held cliche about “co-equal” branches. If you have spent any time examining the political thought of the Framers, you’d immediately be disabused of the notion that they thought the three branches were equal. The legislative branch, as the branch representing the people, was held to be the superior branch. One can look at the powers delegated to each branch and recognize the implicit belief in legislative superiority. What the constitution expounded was not “separate but equal,” but rather the idea that each branch had defined roles, with some amount of intermingling powers as a “check” on those powers. But the idea they were equal in weight is not supported by a reading of the constitution or an understanding of the history.

If Pelosi is instead asserting that her position is equal to the presidency itself, well that’s just absurd on its face. That the Speaker comes second in the line of succession is proof not of its equality, but of its inferiority to the presidency. The Speakership is barely mentioned in the constitution other than to define how the Speaker is chosen. The Speaker of the House’s powers are largely a creation of House rules, not of the constitution itself. The Speaker cannot issue executive orders, appoint constitutional officers, make war, or any of the other myriad constitutionally defined powers of the executive. While Congress as a whole may be superior to the Executive, the Speaker of the House alone is not even remotely within the president’s orbit in terms of actual power.

We’re already off to a wonderful start in Nancy Part II.