A coworker asked me this week what I’ll be doing for St. Patrick’s Day. I told him “Staying inside, locking my doors, and boarding my windows.” While I love and respect Irish culture, what this holiday has turned into is literally my least favorite day of the year to go outside and venture out and about. It is the ultimate “Bro Holiday,” and when it comes to being around wasted bros, young and old, yeah thanks, but no thanks.
One year when I was living in New York City, I went out at night and was getting more and more pissed everywhere I went because I couldn’t figure out why there were so many douchebag bros everywhere I went. It actually took me a couple hours and a few bars to realize it was St. Patrick’s Day. About ten seconds after my “Ahhhhhh, FUCK!” moment, I bounced the hell out, ran to the subway, and zipped home as fast as I could.
That being said, while in my opinion there is not much to love about the holiday, there is MUCH to love about Irish people and Irish culture. The first time I ever met an Actually Irish Person was at a pub in a small town in Germany when I was 19. It was your standard fare Irish pub, small, wooden furnishings, a husband and wife acoustic duo playing on stage. I ended up chatting with a bearded Irish man in his 50s and his gorgeous blonde wife who was probably around 35.
Two things stand out to me from that conversation. One was when he put his arm around me and said “Son, if yeh ever want to learn how to drink and fight, come to Ireland and I’ll show yeh.” He was a pretty warm, friendly guy, and I’m pretty sure this was a serious offer. The second is a very strange and funny scenario that happened upon our parting. As I was leaving, his lusty, busty, gorgeous wife gave me a long, warm, dare I say sensual good night hug, which positively tingled my young virginal body with delight from head to toe. And I’m sure she knew it. After holding and squeezing my quivering, frail body for a few seconds, she smiled and let me go. When I then went over to her husband and shook his hand, he gave me a hearty handshake, smiled his big friendly smile, said something about how good it was to meet me, and then, still holding our handshake, lightly punched me in the jaw and said “And stop looking at me wife like that!!!” before laughing like a bear and pulling me in for a hug.
If that’s not Irish, I don’t know what is…
Many years later, when I was in my early 30s, I dated an Irish cop for awhile. Gráinne was the very definition of a bad ass bitch. How was she bad ass? Oh, let me count the ways. First, I should relate the story of how we met. I was drinking at my favorite neighborhood bar in New York, sitting alone and relaxing. I saw her and was just dumbstruck by her beauty. She was your classic Irish beauty, tall, slender, dark haired and fairest skinned. She also had a presence, an aura, a magnetism. She was with some friends, and it would have been the height of uncouthness to approach her this way. So, being sly, when I noticed one of her friends walking back into the bar after having a smoke outside, I gently touched her arm to get her attention, and said “I think your friend is gorgeous, can I ask if she’s single?” She told me that she was, indeed, recently single, divorced in fact. BUT, the group of people she was hanging out with were her husband’s friends, so unless I enjoyed receiving a good beatdown behind the bar, I should very much stay away from her tonight. So I just said “Well, tell her I think she’s amazing, and if she’d like to talk to me, let me know.” Not long after, her friend returned with a slip of paper and said “She likes you, she said to call her.” My heart went utterly aflutter.
So besides being gorgeous and having a magical aura, why was Gráinne so bad ass? Well first of all, she was married to a man for a long time, working and paying the bills while he went to medical school. I learned that she was divorcing him just as he was about to graduate. To me that speaks very highly of her honor, integrity, and self-respect. I don’t know if there are many women, or men for that matter, who would support a spouse through something as challenging as medical school, and when they feel it’s not working out for them, leave just before the payout, so to speak. This is really a high-caliber person sort of thing to do. I think that most people, even if they thought divorce was inevitable, would have lied to themselves and their loved ones for at least a few years in the expectation of more favorable terms should the divorce come to pass. I really can’t say enough about how much I respected her for this move. To this day this is one of the most honorable things I’ve seen a person do.
The other thing that made her so bad ass was her unicorn-like combination of beauty and toughness. She was all of 5’10”, yoga-slender, ephemeral…and also a New York City cop, working midnights in some of the toughest neighborhoods in the city. I must now relate another story that conveys both her beauty and her integrity. She was approached by a modeling agent at one point in her 20s, and picked up to model for Versace for a bit. She made about $25,000 that month. But she only lasted a month. She said the models were as shallow and vapid as you’d expect them to be, and being a smart chick, could not stand being around, in her words, “those dumb bitches” all day. So she quit. Again I ask, would you quit a high status, lucrative modeling job because you were annoyed by the people you were working with? Let me answer for you: NO. I sure as hell wouldn’t. I might tough it out for a few years and sock some cash away, but I’m pretty sure that’s a move I would not make.
On the other side of the coin of her beauty was her toughness. She would often text or call me at 3 or 4 in the morning telling me about how she just chased down and tackled some drug dealer in Washington Heights, or had to fight a guy who was resisting arrest. She absolutely loved that aspect of her job, and was thrilled every time it happened. She also used to send me texts from the gun range about how firing her pistol turned her on, how shooting a gun was so erotic, and could she please come over in an hour. I got an unusual number of texts from her about her guns, sometimes mentioning what a pain it was driving between states with her pistol underneath her seat, talking about her favorite gun and asking what was mine, or some other quirk about gun use and ownership. She was an ephemeral fairy who liked to fight drug dealers and was in love with her guns.
How this all relates to St. Patrick’s Day is one of the best comments she ever made when I took her to my favorite Irish pub, on 72nd street. It was an off night, say a Tuesday perhaps. We were chilling in a corner eating and drinking at a table, and in walked a gaggle of bros wearing green and being all “We’re so wild, and so IIIIIIRISH!!!!” She looked at them the way you’d look at a maggot in your cheese and said “I fookin’ HATE plastic patties….” I had never heard this term before. After I stopped crying from laughter, I had to ask her what a plastic patty is. A plastic patty is someone who’s not FROM Ireland, but is more Irish than any person who actually IS. This is fucking brilliant, and perfectly describes what it is that I personally hate about St. Patrick’s Day, and many Irish pubs in general. For me, to be on a date with the most quintessentially Irish woman I could imagine, and hear this coming out of her mouth, followed by a litany of profanities, was the most wonderful thing that could happen to me.
I’ve since met other fine folks from Ireland while out and about, but these experiences are the ones that made me really develop a love and fondness for Irish people and Irish culture. While I find the whole get-up about the holiday pretty shallow and fabricated, I do love that the Irish people have a rich culture, a sense of honor and tradition, and most of all, a sense of humor. If I ever find myself invited to celebrate with true Irish people on this day, then you can absolutely count me in. Until then, you can summarize my feelings on St. Patrick’s Day as this:
Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone, have fun out there!
This is a question that’s been on my mind for a long time.
Typically, when you envision an American farmer or farming family, you tend to picture rugged individual, self-reliant, conservative types, who pride themselves on knowing how to survive with minimal interaction with the outside world. Partly, it’s our strong and primordial emotional reaction of respect and admiration for growing your own food, the aura of grit and independence that radiates from such an endeavor and lifestyle. Partly it’s the romantic mythology of our agrarian past, both from our actual history and from its longstanding portrayal in American culture.
But there is another side to American farming that is much less discussed, and far less romantic: government subsidies. In 2020 alone, the government paid out around $46 billion dollars in farm subsidies. Just over $35 billion of that was for “emergency aid” to help bolster farms struggling with the economic effects of Covid (without even vetting the allocations based on need, of course, like most government programs). But the rest, over $10 billion, was for “traditional farm subsidies that were already in place.”
A theme that you’ll notice from me, from the very beginning and which you’ll see more and more over time, is that I believe in principles, and in philosophical consistency. And I expect that from everyone, from you, from me, “my side,” “the other side,” without exception. I consider it a requirement for me to view an individual, a group of people, or an organization as rational actors who can be engaged logically on a topic, and who can be given the benefit of the doubt as being generally fair and reasonable. And I will hold the people and groups with whom I align to the same standard, I will expect them to be logical, principled, and consistent just like everyone else. Which is why I have to call out as unprincipled and myopically selfish any person or interest group who asks or lobbies for government handouts and corporate bailouts, no matter which party they’re in, no matter how they vote, and no matter how much people hate me for it.
A true capitalist, a true adherent of free markets, and in my opinion, a true believer in the American philosophy of self-sovereignty and self-reliance, would not believe in or advocate for subsidies or bailouts for businesses, of any kind. This is no less true for a farmer than for a banker or someone engaged in any other type of business.
I would say this to a farmer or any other businessperson who thinks that they’re entitled to corporate subsidies or government bailouts: if you think you are entitled to them, then why not the guy who runs the sandwich shop down the street, the restaurant that just closed, or the bank that needs a billion dollar bailout? If we make an allowance for you and your business, we have to make one for everyone. If you have a right to a government subsidy, then so does everyone else involved in every other type of business. And now you have justified unlimited government expansion and interference with the free market, and all of the unintended and nasty consequences, like the government picking winners and losers, like central planners directing the behavior of businesses through financial incentives, and like bureaucrats punishing businesses or industries they disapprove of by cutting off their funds. You justify and unleash the full force of Leviathan if you can justify it for yourself to subsidize your business.
So are farmers capitalists or socialists? For me, this question usually comes to mind when the topic of health, sodas, and high fructose corn syrup comes up. By now, everyone knows that the cause of our obesity epidemic is the processed carbs and sugars that are the unfortunate staples of the American diet for most people. I’m a free market person, and I by no means want the government telling us what to eat or drink or do with our lives, not by “educating” us, or by force. (Side note: do you trust government education and social engineering? If you do, I would ask why, and ask you to think about the government’s track record of societal programming and reconsider). I want no part of Bloombergian soda bans or calorie counts. Not only do they do no good and have no practical effect, they are an untoward imposition on people’s liberty. Freedom means, it has to mean, the freedom to do dumb things and make bad choices as well as to do smart things and make good choices. These sorts laws also impose yet another undue compliance burden on businesses, another unnecessary cost that diverts resources from investing in research, improvements, and employees.
But at the same time, I admit that if we could snap our fingers and make soda or high fructose corn syrup disappear, it would go a long way towards improving people’s weight and health (assuming no replacement was found, etc…this is a utopian hypothetical, so we can imagine a single factor changing without having any other factors change in response, which is useful for thought experiments, but does not happen in the real world). Right now, a main if not the main culprit that is destroying people’s health in America is high fructose corn syrup, sweetening everything from soda to bread to yogurt to granola bars. It’s used as a sweetener because it’s a cheaper substitute for sugar, and because for taste purposes we do need at least a little bit of sweetener in most of our processed foods. And while a little bit of it seems to be in almost everything, it is of course far more concentrated in snacks, candy, and soda, which Americans consume far too much of.
So when I’m discussing health and obesity with my friends, the first obvious policy step when working on this issue is: stop subsidizing high fructose corn syrup. And while we’re at it, why not stop subsidizing, well, everything? In fact, the inspiration to write this article came from a snippet a friend sent me this week:
I’m not saying it’s a magic bullet, or that it would solve all our problems. But it’s an easy and obvious first step to try. And why wouldn’t we?
The answer to that is: the farmer’s lobby.
When you look into the matter, you get varying estimates on how much the U.S. spends on farm subsidies every year, ranging from $10 billion in the article I linked to above, to $14 billion, to $20 billion. In a longer view, we see that in a 15 year span $170 billion was spent in aggregate on these subsidies, and in a 25 year span, $116 billion on corn subsidies alone. Now I’m not getting into the weeds on farm subsidies, and for the purposes of this analysis, there’s no need to. As someone else said so eloquently, “The inner workings of subsidy programs is a subject best left to PhD economists.” We don’t need to know the details of these subsidies to know that they distort the marketplace and the choices that individuals and businesses would make if left to decide their preferences and best interests themselves.
The point that I’m making is that the very existence of these subsidies is anti-free-market, anti-self-sovereignty, and if you want to be dramatic about it (and why not?), anti-American. It is also apparent that the cost of these subsidies is not insignificant, year over year, and cumulatively over time. As the saying goes, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.” There is real money on the table here for farm subsidies, and the ethical and economic questions surrounding this practice affect our pocketbooks, distort the market, and incentivize public consumption and business production of patently unhealthy goods.
As an average taxpaying citizen, not involved in farming or distribution of agricultural goods, I am opposed to government subsidies of farms just as much as banks or any other business (and I hope you are too). As a free market, economics-minded conservative, I am opposed to these subsidies on principle as much as I am on pragmatism (i.e. I would still oppose them if the cost were trivial).
My question is: if you are a farmer, or involved in the distribution of agricultural goods, are you willing to reject the idea of corporatism and government subsidies for your industry, just as much as for any other, and if you’re not, are you honest and transparent enough to admit that you prefer socialism for thee, and capitalism for me?
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In 1996, I was a 21 year old junior enlisted MP deployed to Croatia and Bosnia to enforce the Dayton Accords under the NATO peace treaty. Some of the words I would use to describe myself at the time are the same I would use now: “Political.” “Opinionated.” “Argumentative.” “Extroverted.” One word I would not use to describe myself today that applied then is: “Liberal.”
For those who know me just a little, or who only know my writing, this may seem surprising if not downright shocking. But I have chronicled my transformation from a dedicated Democrat to recalcitrant Republican before. What’s even more strange about this story is how fundamentally different a person I was back then apart from mere politics: imagine me, the me you know and read now, minus 25 years of getting my ass kicked by life, minus the humility that age, mistakes and being wrong about any number of things has taught me. In other words: imagine the worst possible version of me, young, arrogant, full of myself, a supremely confident know-it-all. Or to put it another way: an average 21 year old.
Right about then, as I was deployed working long hours 7 days a week, with little to do when not actively patrolling a supply route, escorting a convoy, or guarding a blown up bridge, I needed reading material, desperately, and my Main Man From Minnesota, Al Franken, offered me just the sort of thing I was looking for: Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations.
At the time I knew as much about Rush Limbaugh as most of his critics know today: basically, that he’s like, a big fat idiot, who says dumb stuff, and is, you know, really offensive. And is hateful because, you know, he’s a conservative a-hole, & stuff. That about covered it.
Of course, I had never listened to him. Why would I? Like I said, I thought I already knew everything about him, so I didn’t have to stoop to listening to what he said to know he was wrong, that he was dumb, and that I hated him. Of course, this was in The Before Time when you literally could not listen to someone on the radio or watch someone on tv unless you caught them live in the act, so it’s not like I could have just gone to YouTube and looked up what he said that day, or any day, on any subject, or just browse his content to see what he was about. I just knew what I heard in the news outlets I listened to and read, snippets of outrageous or offensive things that happened to make the news when I happened to catch it. But I knew enough to have a pretty strong opinion of him. We didn’t use the word “trending” in The Before Time, but the concept and phenomenon were still the same, just with different media.
Now on this deployment, I had a good friend, one of the sergeants in my platoon, who was in some respects my political mirror image. If I was a snarky, atheist liberal, he was a sincere, christian conservative. While we were deployed together for nearly a year, we talked about politics a lot, and were kind of the political wonks or nerds of the platoon. And since it was an election year, we had a lot of good material to discuss, debating Clinton vs. Dole vs. Perot (I was ardently pro-Clinton, but I also as a rule like outsiders and anti-establishment types, so was open to listening to Perot and hearing arguments for him). Also, while my book from Al Franken was keeping me company during downtime and after patrols, he happened to have with him on our deployment a book by the subject of Franken’s mockery: Rush Limbaugh’s second book, See I Told You So.
I don’t remember whose idea it was, I honestly think it was his, because I’m pretty sure it would never occur to me to read something by a person I’d already completely made up my mind about, and I’m also equally certain I would have been horrified by the idea and laughed in someone’s face if they suggested it (in fact I think I might have). But in any case, me and my Republican friend did something rare in any age of politics, and certainly virtually unheard of now: in a truly gentlemanly exchange of ideas, we agreed to read each other’s Rush Limbaugh books, and dedicate the time to read an entire book by someone diametrically opposed to us politically, and of course, discuss it afterwards.
I can’t say that reading his book entirely changed my mind about Limbaugh, or suddenly made me conservative, or even changed my opinion about any particular political topic. But what it did do was something maybe more important: it humanized him to me, it made me see him as a fully-dimensional human being, instead of the partisan caricature I had been holding in my mind of who Rush was as a person. It turned him, in my mind, from a simple political punching bag, representing not just himself but the entire political right that I disagreed with, but a person with strengths, weaknesses, intelligence, and flaws, just like any of us.
It was an important step for my own personal development as a human being, in forcing myself to listen to someone I very easily could say I “hated” as a person and political figure before I had done this, someone I considered vile and loathsome, and not really worthy of thinking of or listening to as a human being. I think this is a very important step that everyone can take to understand people who may seem entirely alien to them based on their view of the world, which is usually based on politics these days, but it can easily apply to someone of a different class, from a different part of the country, or with different interests.
The thing that stood out most to me was Limbaugh’s brutally self-critical honesty about his journey to broadcasting fame. It’s been a long time, and I don’t have the book handy, but something he said really stood out to me and has stuck with me through the years. To paraphrase, it began something like this:
I’ve had many different jobs, and many different careers…and I failed at all of them. I had been fired from almost every job I ever had [he listed maybe five of them], and I started to gain a suspicion that I had no talents to speak of with which I could have a successful professional career or even gainful employment.
In what I thought was a very open and vulnerable passage, detailing at length his many professional failures (which couldn’t have been that far behind him when this book was written), and his personal sense of complete worthlessness, feeling that he had no talent and nothing to offer, he went on to conclude in the following way:
I began to work in overnight radio programs, the only gig I could get, and I would say a few words or make a few comments about current events in the middle of the night and in the morning at the end of my shift as people were driving to work. I eventually started taking calls and having discussions with callers, many of whom disagreed with me or were angry about what I had said, some of whom wanted to actually fight and argue with me. It was then that I discovered that I do have one talent: insulting people. For some reason, for better or worse, this is my gift and my talent.
Of course that is a vast simplification and paraphrase, but to me, that was a startlingly human and relatable moment, and I was impressed with the fact that he was willing to be that open and say that about himself, both admitting that about himself as a human being, and being frank about the true cause of his personal success. I thought then and think now that is an incredibly brave and impressive thing to do. If you don’t agree, ask yourself this: how willing would you be to publicize the most embarrassing thing about yourself, your deepest flaw as a human being? Is that something you think you would be willing to do, especially in a book that will be read by millions, talked about by millions more, in an environment where you have millions of enemies who hate you and who live to destroy you? This one part of the book made me respect him as a man, even if I still believed that all of his political ideas were insane.
I think a modern equivalent of this sort of exercise could be what I call “The Donald Trump Challenge,” in which I ask people who hate Donald Trump to say three nice things about him, or three things he’s done right as president. To me, this kind of question gets to the heart of people’s willingness to see a political opponent, or even a legitimate political enemy, as a human being. A corollary for myself would be my one-sentence opinion of Barack Obama: “He’s a really nice, cool guy who’s a good family man and who I would love to hang out with, who has terrible, naive, misguided political beliefs.” The form is a little bit different, but the point is I can say several nice things about Barack Obama as a person, and even a few as a politician, even though I vehemently oppose his overall worldview, politics, and agenda. It’s important to me to do this, for myself as a human being, to keep a sense of perspective that politics is not everything, and to force myself to see my political opponent as a person too. I find it personally important to be able to prove to myself, on an ongoing basis, that I can see my political opponents as people, and find what common ground there is with someone I disagree with like Barack Obama, and not just view him as a faceless, one-dimensional enemy. I want to know that I can still see a president whose politics I hate as a real person, and forcing myself to think about things I like about him is something I can do to help prove that to myself (besides, you know, voting for him against my own party in 2008).
Apart from reading this one book of his, I was never a lifelong “Dittohead” or Rush follower. I didn’t listen to him on a regular basis, or read his regular columns. But there is another aspect of his persona and his work that stood out to me: his near limitless capacity to inspire outrage among his critics and enemies. Perhaps this helped prepare me for Donald Trump, but I long ago dispensed with being shocked and outraged by what media personalities say. I had an important realization on this topic when I was attending college in New York in my mid-20s, when some campus controversy had sprung up about Ann Coulter. She had been invited to speak at my campus, and, predictably, there was a group of students who were “outraged!” and “offended!” that she was even allowed to speak, and somewhere around that time, someone had tried to pie her in the face at another school.
I don’t know how you miss this, I guess I had until then, but it’s really very, very obvious once you point it out: when a media personality, whether a political pundit like Rush Limbaugh or a shock jock like Don Imus or Howard Stern says something “outrageous” that “offends” people, and a million articles start circulating about the “terrible!” and “insensitive!” things they said: that’s the bloody point. That’s what they’re trying to do. It’s such transparent manipulation, it’s kind of embarrassing when you take just one step back and look at it. Creating shock and outrage is what they do, it’s part of the formula.
I’m not in their heads, but it seems pretty apparent that these situations and comments are entirely calculated, that these folks are saying things they know are “offensive” (to some people) in order to provoke outrage, create some heat, get people talking about them (“get clicks” these days), and to promote themselves. It’s just a big media game, where the “offensive” person makes some news, the “news” outlets and pundits get their ready-made talking points for the day, the “offender” gets mountains of free publicity, and the “shocked and outraged!” columnists and pundits get some easy, ready-made content where all they have to do is talk about how people are offended, maybe run a short clip of the “controversial” content, talk to a guest about why it’s offensive and just how offensive it is, and *BAM*: you have x number of pre-packaged minutes of cut & paste content, possibly hours spread throughout a 24 hour news cycle, or over the course of a few days or a week. I’m not in the media business, but it frankly just seems like a big, transparent game when you look at it that way.
Once I noticed this pattern (the comments, the outrage, the media talking about it, the “controversy of the minute” with my friends, the demand for cancellation or apology, etc.), I really just stopped caring about any of it. And whenever Rush or anyone else said something offensive, and I’d see articles about it or hear my liberal friends talking about “Did you hear what RUSH said this week??,” I just wanted to ask them “Don’t you feel silly, when he deliberately says something to offend you and get you talking about him, then you spend a week running around like a chicken with its head cut off doing exactly what he wants you to do??” It’s like people couldn’t help themselves but react exactly how he wanted them to react, and do exactly what he wanted them to do: talk about him. Once I realized what a calculated ploy it was, I could no longer take any of the outrageous comments Rush or any of the others made seriously. Would you take Howard Stern seriously when he says something gross or offensive, or would you know that he’s doing it on purpose to get a reaction out of people and generate some publicity? It’s interesting to me that people on the left who would mock the outrage of conservatives and could see the obviousness of the ploy when done by Howard Stern fell right into the trap for Rush Limbaugh, and vice-versa.
One final point: as I admitted above, I was never really a big consumer of Rush Limbaugh, so as I got older and learned to be more circumspect with my opinions, I refrained from having an opinion about him, as I do now on all topics about which I know little or nothing. But there was a point about ten years ago where my curiosity got the better of me, and I spent some time reading some articles written by Rush and Ann Coulter. You know what I found? They were really good writers, really smart people, and they made really tight, highly logical arguments. All things you would never know if all you know about them was some offensive comments you heard about in the news. When you take the time to actually read their arguments, they are far more intelligent and nuanced than a handful of prime-time soundbites. What I gathered from reading their articles was that their formula for writing was something like this:
*[insert some hyperbole or offensive comment or terminology to trigger liberals]
It seemed like that was pretty much it: in every well-formed, intelligent political article about immigration, or health care, or taxes, there was a pre-made section designed to insult or offend liberals, like it was literally in the format of the outline or Word document. You may think it’s gross, or less than classy, I might not to do it in my own writing, but ask yourself this: did it work? I think the results speak for themselves, in their notoriety, their influence, and in their bank accounts. And in the very fact that we’re here talking about them, right now.
It’s not the most high-minded approach, but then again, I’ll bet neither is most of the news you consume. A writer hates to use cliches (a cliche in itself, I’m so meta), but I think this the perfect time to use the expression “It is what it is.” Human beings are just not always high-minded, or sophisticated, in our news and media consumption as much as in anything else. That’s our social and political reality, as much as our media reality. But if you take the time to really investigate the arguments of a person like Rush Limbaugh, you will find a lot more intelligence, nuance, sophistication, and humanity than you would expect as a mere headline-consumer of news. But really, who does that anymore? And who really did that to begin with? Rush Limbaugh gave conservatives what they wanted, cogent arguments for their positions, red meat in his rants against liberals, and a voice to a worldview many could not express for themselves. And he gave liberals what they wanted, a conservative boogeyman to rage against, and to caricature all conservatives with by his worst, most public, most offensive comments. So in a way, you could say that he did as much for liberals as he did for conservatives, that he was as important to them as he was to his fans.
Rush’s larger-than-life influence on politics and media is well-known, and has been well-chronicled by people far more familiar with his work and better qualified than I. But being a politically interested American in the last 30 years, I could not help but have been touched by his influence and his work, and I just wanted to share some of my own thoughts and experiences with his influence. I think the only thing I can comment or ask further at this point is: who will take his place in the domain of our politics, if anyone?
RIP to a great American.
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Over the weekend, a friend shared a WSJ story about the increasingly open, some might say now fully-bared, political partisanship of the New York Times, from the culture of the newsroom itself to the way that culture is causing the paper’s increased political radicalism and open advocacy for the pet viewpoints and social projects of its staff.
That article was interesting and worth reading, but what I found far more interesting was a linked article containing an in-depth analysis of the recent (read: Trump Era) history of the paper’s approach to, well, everything. Everything from news, to opinion, to (by some tortured woke logic) racial politics.
As is obvious to everyone who reads or watches the news, the media writ large adopted a uniformly partisan approach to reporting on the Trump presidency, with a visceral hatred of the Trump personage as their driving spirit. In other words, it was wildly apparent that the open hatred for Trump displayed in every day media coverage went beyond simple policy disagreements (such as, for example, a liberal paper opposing the Bush tax cuts), beyond even blatant partisanship (such as an openly Democratic newspaper opposing any Republican policy or politician by default), and veered transparently into seething personal hatred for the man himself.
Citing a prominent front-page story that the Times printed in August of 2016 and a book by media scholar Andrey Mir on the New Ethic of Journalism, the author describes how the Times knowingly and openly decided that it was time to
“throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of a half-century” and leap vigorously into advocacy. Trump could not safely be covered; he had to be opposed.
The old media had needed happy customers. The goal of post-journalism, according to Mir, is to “produce angry citizens.”
The news agenda became narrower and more repetitive as journalists focused on a handful of partisan controversies—an effect that Mir labeled “discourse concentration.” The New York Times, as a purveyor of information and a political institution, had cut itself loose from its own history.
This piece in City Journal is a really excellent article going over the history of the New York Times and its reporting since Trump, how they changed their approach to journalism generally, in the sense of prioritizing advocacy over reporting facts, in the sense of taking an openly and aggressively adversarial approach to a president rather than objective reporting, and how that has contaminated all of their reporting and every decision they make since then.
Not only that, it’s a near-perfect proxy for and explanation of how all other mainstream media have revamped their approach in the last four years, such as CNN, NPR, the networks, other papers, etc. The specifics for each media outlet may differ, but the reasoning, approach, and result has uniformly been the same. You cannot distinguish the new “journalistic standards” of the New York Times from any other major mainstream media outlet.
I highly recommend this article, so please read it if you can, in whole or in spurts, or bookmark it for later. I do think it’s actually “important,” as a general resource for recent history, and to send to friends to help them understand the media environment of the last four years that we still live with today.
It’s a tad long, but not really for a traditional newspaper article (though it’s not from a newspaper, I just say that for old people like me who used to read newspapers). I’d say it’s about a 15 minute read. Very good food for thought.
A friend just sent me the following inspirational message.
Happy Birthday, America!
“244 years ago tonight Jefferson was writing a declaration that he knew would result in death once published, Washington was already trying to form an army that he knew would be outnumbered 10 to 1, and Hamilton was under curfew in New York City sneaking around trying to plan the defense of New York.
Yes, times are hard and things are divisive right now, but we’ve been here before and we got through it. We will again!”
Whenever you talk to libertarians about police, and explain that they have to enforce things like traffics laws, loitering laws and trespassing laws (all things I think are important for civilized society, which they think are petty bullshit and should be abolished), and then go on to explain that when you fight the police when they arrest you, bad things happen, you always get the following response:
“Just following orders”
“Nazis followed orders too”
I think this is an indication of the childish psychology of libertarians. Like children, they can’t understand the concept of serving, of being in a rigidly hierarchical organization like the military or the police or even the fire department. Which is fine if it’s not for them.
But since it’s not for them, because they blindly hate authority so much (itself a sign of immaturity), they either don’t try or are actually incapable of empathizing with people in a job that requires duty and obeying orders. They can’t or won’t see them as human beings, because all authority is “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.”
Yes, cops obey orders. That’s called “being an adult.” We all obey orders at our jobs. Some are stupid. Some are bullshit. Some might be counterproductive. But it’s a job, and you have to do it. If the mayor tells cops to watch the city burn, like in New York, Minneapolis, Seattle, and every other liberal paradise, they have to watch it burn. If they’re told to enforce existing laws, they have to enforce them.
The only reason not to understand this is an adolescent bias towards and hatred of *any* sort of authority figure. I mean what kind of punk-ass bitch follows orders, anyways? Only bootlicking sellouts follow orders. That’s the mentality.
So libertarians can’t respect or understand cops doing their job, because they don’t see them as human beings, doing exactly that. Furthermore, even when it’s perfectly justified to arrest someone, take someone down, or shoot a violent person threatening their lives or the lives of others, they sympathize with the criminals, because they know that anyone the stormtroopers and bootlickers don’t like is the good guy, by definition.
Libertarian principles are still the best foundation and starting point for social and political philosophy. But the Enlightenment thinkers who created classical liberalism understood the need for and respected proper authority in society. Only a child thinks they should literally have no authority in life to answer to.
It’s not as bad as the childish envy and desire of something for nothing that socialists harbor, but this mental bias and cognitive crutch completely disables libertarians from being able to rationally analyze police as people, and policing as a job.
Today was my grandma’s birthday, on my mom’s side. A lot of people are important in my life, but without question, the two people who had the most influence on me growing up, who most formed me as a person, and who I am most like, are my grandmas. The ashes of my dad’s mom reside on my bookcase, along with a pack of her favorite cigarettes, and a seashell that she found on her lone trip to Florida, one of the few times she had a chance to travel out of state (it could actually be the only time, as far as I know).
My dad’s mom is responsible for my raunchy sense of humor, my ridiculous, outrageous laughter, and my generally mischeivious demeanor. My mom’s mom is responsible for my political consciousness, my sense of justice and fairness, my longing for peace between all people, and my overriding desire to see the world become a better place.
Today, on her birthday, I want to share a few words I wrote to celebrate her life when she passed away in 2007. God bless you, Ceil.
I’d just like to say a few words about the tremendous debt that I owe Ceil. Until I came back a couple weeks ago, I hadn’t really realized how much she had taught me, how much of my personality and my interests were due to her influence. Everyone here knows what a sweet, giving person my grandma was, how she gave her time to help individuals, but not everyone may be fully aware of how dedicated she was to politics in years past, how tirelessly committed she was to doing what she could to make the world a better place.
When I was a little kid, Ceil was constantly going to meetings and taking trips for one of the numerous political organizations she belonged to. For my entire life, words like “union” and “League of Women Voters” have reminded me not of politics, but of my childhood and my grandma. One of my first memories is of her taking me up on a podium and introducing me to Walter Mondale, so he could shake my little 5 year old hand. By the time I was in elementary school I could tell you why I thought Democrats were good, Republicans were evil, and why unions were vitally important to workers. I remember how once in fourth grade I shouted an angry, semi-revolutionary statement against Ronald Reagan at my teacher in front of the whole class when I thought she was talking him up. I have since learned a lot and changed my mind about some of my elementary school political positions, but there is no doubt whatsoever that I have my grandma to thank for teaching me at an early age to think about the world around me, about the people in it, about what’s right and what’s wrong, and for teaching me by unintentional example to always do the right thing, to speak up when I see injustice, to get involved in and be engaged with my society, and most of all, no matter what happens, just to never give up and to never stop trying to do better and to contribute what I can to my society.
Though she was quiet and unassuming, my grandmother was an extraordinary person. As did many people of her generation, Ceil had a hard life, and went through hard times that I can’t even imagine, both because of the times she lived in and because of the curveballs life threw her way. But through it all she never stopped smiling. Ceil, despite all she went through, never developed that hard, bitter shell that most of us get when people and life do us wrong. Through it all she still trusted people, saw the good in everyone, and took her greatest pleasure from seeing that other people were happy. She really did care for everyone and would never say a bad word about anyone. My grandma, despite growing up poor and not having the advantage of a college education, became a political leader in her community, read fine literature (some of it to me when I was little), and sincerely enjoyed her life and the people in it up to the very end. I’m in debt to her for my political consciousness, a large part of my intellectual development, for the example she gave me of how to care about and forgive other people, and most of all, for the unflagging support and love she gave me my entire life. If I could see her again I’d just want to say thank you, I love you, and I miss you terribly.
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When I was a young socialist (yes, you read that right), I had a lot of opinions about what people and society should do with their money. But I didn’t know a single thing about actual economics. No, not one thing. I was completely ignorant even that I should know things about economics, I was deep into the realm of Rumsfeldian “unknown unknowns.” I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and this meant that there was no way for me to learn on my own and teach myself to a better understanding. I was ignorant of my ignorance, which I now know is itself a well-understood and studied phenomenon: part of the condition of being ignorant is that you don’t know you’re ignorant. It’s kind like how part of being crazy is that you don’t know you’re crazy.
There’s even a fancy name for it:
This is a topic worthy of discussion in its own right, but I just want to mention it to paint a picture of where I myself have been regarding the topic of economics. This abstract basically describes my level of economic understanding in my 20s:
People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it. Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error. Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.
In essence, we argue that the skills that engender competence in a particular domain are often the very same skills necessary to evaluate competence in that domain—one’s own or anyone else’s. Because of this, incompetent individuals lack what cognitive psychologists variously term metacognition, metamemory, metacomprehension, or self-monitoring skills. These terms refer to the ability to know how well one is performing, when one is likely to be accurate in judgment, and when one is likely to be in error.
For example, consider the ability to write grammatical English. The skills that enable one to construct a grammatical sentence are the same skills necessary to recognize a grammatical sentence, and thus are the same skills necessary to determine if a grammatical mistake has been made. In short, the same knowledge that underlies the ability to produce correct judgment is also the knowledge that underlies the ability to recognize correct judgment. To lack the former is to be deficient in the latter.
If you would like to know more about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, you can read the Wikipedia article here, view and download the full paper here, or read it online in html here.
So there I was, Dunning-Krugered as hell about economics. So what happened? What always happens with me: I started arguing with people. I took my DK’d self with my DK’d ideas, and brought them all cocky and manly like to other nerds and wonks, and got my ass severely kicked and handed to me over, and over, and over again, in debate after debate. I literally cannot count the number of debates I lost, and how many times I didn’t just lose a debate, but basically got woodshedded like a red-headed stepchild.
[This was in my mid-20s, after a five year stint in the army, while an undergraduate at Columbia University]
But two things have saved me in life from having this sort of thing destroy me and ruin my self-confidence: one, that I can take a loss, and two, that I can learn from one. I would walk home from an argument outside of class or outside a bar, swearing and muttering to myself all the way home (on the inside, I hope). Mostly for being so stupid and so wrong, and occasionally, for being so arrogant. And each time, mad as I was, I was even more grateful, for having been so violently and suddenly disabused of such erroneous ideas. As one of my idols Sam Harris has said: I don’t want to believe a wrong thing for one minute longer than I have to. So I welcome intellectual challenges and people who can teach me something, or better yet, correct any wrong ideas I currently have.
Of course, as time went on, I sought to educate myself. Once I realized this was an intellectual weakness of mine, I read an uncountable number of articles on economics, sought out people who knew more than me (now to ask questions, rather than debate), and read a few foundational econ books. I realized through the course of these conversations that while I considered myself a policy wonk and a politics nerd, I was lacking a fundamental pillar of understanding these issues: that of basic economics. I realized that I was functionally illiterate in one of the core areas necessary to understanding our world, and to having an educated opinion on political topics. It was one of the most humbling intellectual realizations of my life, and maybe the first real moment and topic where I found myself sitting in silence with an awareness of my own profound ignorance of something so obviously important, if you actually knew anything about the world.
The reason I’m writing this essay is that I have come to realize that my own ignorance, while shameful and appalling, is not unique. In fact, I think it is the norm. Now just like I recently stated that I’m no mathematical genius, I’m also no economics genius. I’m not an economist, even by hobby, let alone trade. I’m no expert on economics or economic theories, even a lay expert or hobbyist. But here’s what I’ve come to fear/realize: I simply know basic economics very well, and that means I know more than 95% of people I meet. And I don’t mean 95% of people in the mountains of Arkansas. I mean 95% of college educated people with otherwise sophisticated and nuanced understandings of the world. I mean that just as I made it through high school and college without a single day of economics education, so does pretty much everyone else. Literally everything I’ve learned about economics has been self-taught. And in that regard, I think “the system,” whatever that means, our education system, society writ large, whatever, has failed me, and continues to fail current and future generations of Americans. I mean that you literally cannot have a reasonably educated and sophisticated understanding of politics and society without an understanding of basic economics. This is a disservice to all of us as a general citizenry, when most of our educated, voting adults pretty much know nothing about economic fundamentals.
And it’s not just politics. It’s personal. Understanding basic economic concepts has drastically improved my thinking and decision making in exponential, innumerable ways. I literally cannot imagine my life, thinking about politics, analyzing situations, or making decisions without knowing about things like opportunity cost, marginal utility, economies of scale, or comparative advantage. I cannot imagine how I could effectively analyze or understand pretty much anything about the world without these conceptual tools. Economics is in a very real sense an exercise in pure logical thinking. It’s about as close as you can get without using Actual Math or formal logic. That’s because it requires logical formulations and connections to make sense. It requires definitions and axioms (for example supply and demand and their effect on each other). It requires clear formulations and connections that can be reduced to formal logic terms such as “If A, then B” or “If A, then not B” (ceteris paribus reasoning, for example). You have to logically connect concepts and conditions to understand how they work together. It’s not a matter of interpretation, there is a right and wrong answer, and the strength of your logic determines your ability to find the right one, or to be as accurate as possible based on the available data. This is the beauty, the elegance, and the power of economic thinking.
A couple of examples from one of my favorite authors:
1. That which is seen, and that which is unseen
A very common economic fallacy, as well as general human cognitive error, is to evaluate a choice or an action by a very obvious (usually positive) effect, but to ignore a less obvious (usually negative) effect, which may precisely offset or even be greater than the apparent effect/benefit. Here’s an example: a trade policy, tax policy, subsidy, or other government action that benefits one group of people, let’s say farmers. Giving a generous tax break or subsidy or trade protection to this one group, on its face, at first blush, seems like a great thing…look at all the farmers we’re helping. Look how much better off they are. Isn’t it wonderful? How can you be against it? Do you hate farmers…?
What most people don’t see, because they’re not used to economic thinking, is that the benefits are obvious because they’re focused on a (relatively) small, discreet, graspable group of people, but the costs are distributed to everyone else in society. We may enact a policy that will help farmers, but the cost of that policy is that the cost of their goods rises for everyone else, or that the rest of us pay for their subsidies in other ways, perhaps in higher taxes. This is a tradeoff, and perhaps it is one we want to make, but most people are not even aware that we are making it, and therefore the tradeoff is not debated or factored in when crafting this policy. And we certainly ought to discuss if we do in fact want to make any of the necessary tradeoffs for any particular policy.
Again, benefits are focused, but costs are disbursed. We have to realize this whenever we craft any sort of economic policy. Everything has to be paid for. Yes, everything. Literally, everything. And we rarely ask what the costs are for our particular pet projects, and are typically discouraged from doing so if we try to bring it up. This actually raises another point, that everything has a cost, and we can’t just do everything that we’d like or that seems like a good idea, because we can’t afford it. That’s its own issue, but related to this one. If more people thought about the tradeoffs and costs involved in any particular policy, I believe most people would be a lot more conservative in their pet projects designed to help this or that particular group.
This is a long essay discussing this topic, but you can understand the principle well enough just reading the introduction and Part I.
In the department of economy, an act, a habit, an institution, a law, gives birth not only to an effect, but to a series of effects. Of these effects, the first only is immediate; it manifests itself simultaneously with its cause — it is seen. The others unfold in succession — they are not seen: it is well for us, if they are foreseen. Between a good and a bad economist this constitutes the whole difference — the one takes account of the visible effect; the other takes account both of the effects which are seen, and also of those which it is necessary to foresee. Now this difference is enormous, for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favourable, the ultimate consequences are fatal, and the converse. Hence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good, which will be followed by a great evil to come, while the true economist pursues a great good to come, — at the risk of a small present evil.
In fact, it is the same in the science of health, arts, and in that of morals. It often happens, that the sweeter the first fruit of a habit is, the more bitter are the consequences. Take, for example, debauchery, idleness, prodigality. When, therefore, a man absorbed in the effect which is seen has not yet learned to discern those which are not seen, he gives way to fatal habits, not only by inclination, but by calculation.
This explains the fatally grievous condition of mankind. Ignorance surrounds its cradle: then its actions are determined by their first consequences, the only ones which, in its first stage, it can see. It is only in the long run that it learns to take account of the others. It has to learn this lesson from two very different masters — experience and foresight. Experience teaches effectually, but brutally. It makes us acquainted with all the effects of an action, by causing us to feel them; and we cannot fail to finish by knowing that fire burns, if we have burned ourselves. For this rough teacher, I should like, if possible, to substitute a more gentle one. I mean Foresight. For this purpose I shall examine the consequences of certain economical phenomena, by placing in opposition to each other those which are seen, and those which are not seen.
2. Comparative advantage
One thing you will find in common with all professional and lay economists is a universal disapproval of trade barriers, tariffs, and protectionism. This is not because they don’t value the farmers, merchants, and tradesmen of their own country, or that they do not have proper patriotic feelings. It is because they understand basic and universal economic maxims. One such maxim is that every country, society, and culture has its own unique advantages for producing goods, and we all benefit when everyone uses them as freely and as maximally as possible. Conceptually, there is a bit of “what is seen and unseen” in this as well, but has the additional condition of specific advantages residing in each discreet group of people.
A very easy example of this is the environmental conditions for growing natural produce. It is probably possible to grow oranges, for example, in Minnesota. You could grow them for a few months in the summer, and conceivably build indoor facilities to grow them indoors year-round. But though such a thing is economically possible, it is not wise. We could do it if we tried, but it is obviously much more advantageous to everyone if oranges are grown in a climate naturally suited to their thriving, all year long, say in Florida.
Labor and Nature collaborate in varying proportions, depending upon the country and the climate, in the production of a commodity. The part that Nature contributes is always free of charge; it is the part contributed by human labor that constitutes value and is paid for.
If an orange from Lisbon sells for half the price of an orange from Paris, it is because the natural heat of the sun, which is, of course, free of charge, does for the former what the latter owes to artificial heating, which necessarily has to be paid for in the market.
Thus, when an orange reaches us from Portugal, one can say that it is given to us half free of charge, or, in other words, at half price as compared with those from Paris.
Now, it is precisely on the basis of its being semigratuitous (pardon the word) that you maintain it should be barred. You ask: “How can French labor withstand the competition of foreign labor when the former has to do all the work, whereas the latter has to do only half, the sun taking care of the rest?” But if the fact that a product is half free of charge leads you to exclude it from competition, how can its being totally free of charge induce you to admit it into competition?
To take another example: When a product—coal, iron, wheat, or textiles—comes to us from abroad, and when we can acquire it for less labor than if we produced it ourselves, the difference is a gratuitous gift that is conferred upon us. The size of this gift is proportionate to the extent of this difference. It is a quarter, a half, or three-quarters of the value of the product if the foreigner asks of us only three-quarters, one-half, or one-quarter as high a price. It is as complete as it can be when the donor, like the sun in providing us with light, asks nothing from us. The question, and we pose it formally, is whether what you desire for France is the benefit of consumption free of charge or the alleged advantages of onerous production. Make your choice, but be logical; for as long as you ban, as you do, foreign coal, iron, wheat, and textiles, in proportion as their price approaches zero, how inconsistent it would be to admit the light of the sun, whose price is zero all day long!
Simply put, every society and region has its own economic advantages, whether it be advantages of nature, a particularly developed and sophisticated industry, a highly skilled workforce (generally or in specific areas), cheap labor, the list is endless. When we do not restrict trade between all of these splendidly diverse regions and people, we all benefit, by everything being cheaper and more readily available in greater quantities than would be if we institute tariffs or other trade barriers to protect our own “hard working, indigenous” whatevers. Protectionism is, economically speaking, always bad, because it raises the cost and limits the supply of everything it touches. Again, this is not advanced, mathematical economics, accessibly only to calculus geeks. This is basic, common sense knowledge that allows us to maximize everyone’s economic and material well-being, and saves us from costly errors harming not just society in general, but the very people we seek to protect with trade barriers.
As I said, I’m no economic genius. I couldn’t calculate a supply and demand curve to save my life. But I know what one looks like, and have seen plenty of them. I can’t punch up a formula to calculate producer surplus or consumer surplus, but I know what they are, conceptually, and this basic economic knowledge allows me to rationally analyze the world around me, political decisions, and economic decisions on both a personal level and a societal level. I don’t consider my economic understanding to be advanced, but it is still greater than almost everyone I encounter when I discuss economic subjects. I think my grasp of economics is the bare bones baseline required to understand our world, and I think it’s a crime that we seem not to care about it as a society, and that we completely neglect it in the education of our young people. To have a functional, rational society, everyone should have at least a basic understanding of democratic and republican principles, our constitutional history and framework, and the core economic principles that dictate the success, failure, and cost of our political policies.
If I could snap my fingers and change one thing about our society, it would be to require at least two years of basic economics in high school and one in college (non-math intensive for the math-challenged), as a pillar of being an educated citizen with an ability to fulfill your basic civic duty. Until we make basic economic literacy a pillar of our education system and civic culture, we are likely to continue the economic and political deterioration of the last few years, and eventually, the consequences are going to catch up to us, in dramatic and painful fashion.
“I was surprised to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined, but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish”
I leave you with this: a great text, from The Great Man Himself. I have a few other recommendations for economics reading, more short essays with great economic realizations and truths that you can get through in one sitting, but I’ll save those for later.