The Poverty of Paul Ryan’s Vision

The 125th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in June, 2016.


Is Paul Ryan trying to prove to us that he’s every bit as out-of-touch as we fear?

We’re a little late to this but we think it’s still relevant. The other day, the Speaker announced (with a heavy heart) that he would vote for Trump. But he also indicated that his political strategy for the House is vaguely Gingrich-esque: pretend as though there are no other branches of government (certainly not an unwanted nominee of his own party) and try to govern in isolation. It didn’t work for Newt and won’t work for Ryan.

It’s certainly far less likely to work considering the central issue he’s chosen: poverty. Now, we’ve said before—but it’s worth repeating—that a lot, perhaps most, of the reformicon domestic policy ideas are worth pursuing. Especially if we do get a Republican administration that has to fill the 8,000 or so Schedule C and related positions in the Plum Book. All those people are going to need something to do and a blueprint by which to do it.  It’s better if they work from a good blueprint than a bad one. The President won’t be able to give personal direction on every aspect of policy but only to set a general direction and (hopefully) get his people moving on an agenda that his campaign had already laid out in some detail. One of our concerns about the Trump campaign, incidentally, is that they haven’t done this and don’t seem to be interested in doing it.

But the Trump campaign is vastly superior to Ryan in its core understanding of the core issues most urgent right now. Every new President can focus on three, at most four, such issues. Trump seems to have three: secure borders, economic nationalism, and interests-based foreign policy. We can have a debate about whether those are the most urgent issues just now. Indeed, the whole campaign may be said to be such a debate. We’ll see who wins.

Obviously, we at JAG think these are the most urgent issues just now. Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t. But does anyone—other than Paul Ryan—believe that developing a new poverty policy is the most urgent issue right now? Perhaps Jack Kemp’s ghost?

The poor will always be with us, sayeth the Lord, and a decent society should do what it can alleviate their poverty in ways that are non-corrupting and that promote their industry. But a sound anti-poverty agenda should address the core issues that are driving politics right now—in part because those issues bear directly on poverty.  Prudent political leaders (at the moment, that would be Trump and … ?) should also look for ways not to import or create more poverty, through stupid immigration, trade and economic policies. Keeping the borders open and the outsourcing flowing are at the heart of Paul Ryan’s overall political program. Both are, not incidentally, guaranteed to increase poverty in America. Does Ryan on one level know this, and that’s why he finds fighting poverty so urgent? Is he the political equivalent of a drug dealer calling for more treatment programs?

More likely he’s just so hard over for Kempism and Rawls’ “difference principle” that he can’t see past his own nose. Figures as diverse as Ronald Reagan and Stephen Hawking have speculated on the effects of an extraterrestrial invasion of earth. At least they agree that, in such an eventuality, the human priority would be self-defense. Paul Ryan, on the other hand, would doubtless be in his office putting the finishing touches on his latest Compassionate Conservative anti-poverty bill as the little green men with lasers surrounded the Capitol.

We liked Ryan in 2012—until he got his clock cleaned by Joe Biden.  That was kind of embarrassing.  Even today, we give him credit for a having a keen domestic policy mind.  But statesmanship transcends policy.  The most urgent necessity right now is not innovative domestic policy or more conservative box-checking—and certainly not more Kempism.  It is the Greatness Agenda.

The words “Trump” and “statesmanship” probably do not, to most people, appear to belong in the same dictionary.  They even look a little funny, there next to each other, to us.  But we ask again: what does it say about the Republican leadership and the conservative brain trust that it took Donald Trump to finger the three most salient issues in the most important election in a generation?  More important, what does it say that—now that it’s been plain for six months at least that Trump has identified the right issues—the Republicans and conservatives, rather than acknowledge reality, are all scurrying back to their same old, well-worn intellectual and political ruts?

—Decius

#Maginot Conservatives

The 123rd post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in June, 2016.


The label #VichyRepublicans seems to be appearing all over political Twitter of late. And while this Journal has on numerous occasions criticized Trump for his policy ignorance, lack of discipline, apparent deficiencies in character and demeanor, and even “vices,” we find these incessant comparisons to Hitler more than a little ridiculous and really quite irresponsible.

However, let us consider the Vichy metaphor for a moment. It may be useful, if extended slightly, in one sense. For even a basic reading of history would indicate that if there are in fact #VichyRepublicans, then they must have been preceded by #MaginotConservatives.

Who are the #MaginotConservatives? They are, of course, the pundits and “elites” that have sat frozen in fixed positions designed for the last war of 20 years ago, facing in the wrong direction, aiming at strategically unimportant targets, elaborately funded yet totally incapable of effective action–providing a false defense of a demoralized, politically dysfunctional nation while (most visibly if not necessarily most importantly) neglecting even to secure a significant portion of the border.

In other words, leaving aside the analogy, if Trump is really so terrible, what does his winning the nomination say about the opposing version of conservatism?

There are three possibilities to explain Trump’s victory under this premise: (1) Trump is an evil but highly competent genius. However, given everything written by the #NeverTrump crowd about his bankruptcies, low fundraising, and lack of a “ground game,” it doesn’t seem that anyone, with the possible exception of Scott Adams, believes this. (2) The American people have become so degenerate that they are incapable of identifying or resisting a tyrannical demagogue. We haveconsidered this possibility at length as well. But, if it is true, surely both parties and their “intellectuals” must share a significant portion of the blame for failing to prevent this development. And, finally, (3) conservative leaders are so incompetent, conservative ideas so discredited, and conservative failures so egregious that even the most sensible, public-spirited voters would prefer someone as flawed as Trump over anything that TrueConservatism™ has to offer.

Thus, whatever one’s opinion of the mix of (2) and (3), remaining trapped in TrueConservatism’s™ bunker mentality is surely a downhill path to permanent, total, and in many ways dishonorable defeat. It is the unconditional surrender of the country to failed ideology.

Now, in fairness, we have also noticed recently that many conservative leaders and thinkers have begun acknowledging their own omissions and showing greater openness to rethinking conservatism. Let’s hope that continues. One does not even have to embrace Trump to recognize some merit in Trumpism, or, as we prefer, the Greatness Agenda. Undoubtedly that is a much healthier and more effective response than overwrought, deranged Twittering.

–Plautus

The Economic Consequences of Larry Summers Would Be Severe

The 119th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in June, 2016.


On June 23, the UK will vote on whether to remain in the EU.  On November 8, the U.S. will vote on whether to elect Hillary Clinton as president and, with her, Larry Summers as a senior economic policymaker.  Both could lead to outcomes with far-reaching effects, and in both cases, polling suggests that the outcome is in doubt, with prediction markets suggesting some meaningful probability of the radical outcome occurring.

What I find surprising is that US and global markets and financial policymakers seem much less sensitive to “Larry Summers risk” than they are to “Brexit risk”. While every Fed watcher comments on the implications of Brexit for the central bank, few, if any, comment on the possible consequences of a victory for Mrs. Clinton and, with her Mr. Summers, in November.

Yet, as great as the risks of Brexit are to the British economy, I believe the risks to the US and global economies of Mr. Summers’ return to policy making are far greater. If he is elected, I would expect a protracted recession to begin within 18 months. The damage would be felt far beyond the United States.

First, there is a substantial risk of highly erratic fiscal policy. Mr Summers has raised the possibility of more than $10tn in new fiscal spending measures financed by very short maturity issuance of US Treasury debt, which would threaten US fiscal stability. He has also raised the possibility of the US simply monetizing this debt in the manner of a failed state such as Zimbabwe or Weimar Germany. Perhaps this is just academic rhetoric. But historical research suggests that presidents and their economic advisers tend to carry out their major campaign promises.

The shadow boxing over raising the debt limit in 2011 (where all participants recognized the danger of default) was central to the stock market falling by 17 per cent. (Although not really… Europe was falling apart at the time and everyone knows that the debt ceiling was just a distraction.)

Second, in a world economy defined by regional trade blocks such as the E.U. and China’s One Belt, One Road policy, Mr Summers’ economic multilateralism is highly disadvantageous. Exports have not been a major driver of the American economy in years. They stopped really mattering in the late 1990s, when Mr. Summers was head of international at Treasury and advocated letting China into the WTO and giving it Most Favored Nation Status. Agreeing to let China enter more multilateral organizations that it will subsequently abuse does not currently require congressional approval. If Mr. Summers did even half of what he did in the 1990s, he would surely set off the worst trade fiasco since… the 1990s.

Third, prosperity depends on a secure geopolitical environment. Allowing North Korea to have a nuclear reactor and scaling Nato into parts of Eastern Europe that it does not plan to defend was a prescription for conflict with Russia and promoting nuclear proliferation. Ignoring that the US is at war with radical Muslims, and that radical Muslims are present in the Muslim world, is an invitation to terrorism. In such an environment, investment and trade are unlikely to flourish, and Mr. Summers was part of an administration that did all of these things in the past.

Fourth, Mr. Summers’ personality surely would take a toll on business confidence. He has proposed bringing back torture as a tool of US foreign policy by making foreign leaders listen to his lectures, particularly on the Japanese economy, which he does not understand. The world was likewise enraged by Summers’ claims in the past that women can’t succeed at the highest levels in quantitative disciplines. His infamously difficult personality, bullying, and apparent insensitivity resulted in the departure of Cornel West and other leading scholars of African and African American history from Harvard.  Meanwhile, Harvard’s endowment lost hundreds of millions of dollars as a result of Summers’ interest rate policy bets and asset allocation choices into risky, asymmetric derivative exposure, not to mention distracting conflicts of ego with respected economist Mohammed El-Erian. His political overseers, the Clintons, have been deliberately solicited lump sum payments from dubious international entities, while Summers presided over a scandal involving his Harvard “protege” Andrei Shleifer’s dealings in Russia, for which Shleifer was found by a federal court to have engaged in a conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government. As an adviser to the hedge fund D.E. Shaw, he is rumored to have pitched going long subprime assets near the peak of the bubble. Who will rest secure with Summers being involved in the Treasury Department or Fed, which oversee our money and banking system?

Finally, there is the question of uncertainty and confidence. Improving business confidence is the cheapest form of stimulus. Creating an environment where every tenet of the rule of law, internationalism and consistency in policy is up for grabs would be the best way to damage a still fragile US economy. In no election in my lifetime has a major party candidate for president wanted to bring into power an economic policy maker with such a bad track record managing the economy.

Markets are discounting the possibility of a return of Larry. Let us all pray they are right.

— Lucullus (with credit to Larry Summers)

Solidaristic Conservatism: A Reply to Ahmari

The 117th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in June, 2016.


[UPDATE: We see that Ahmari is trolling through the JAG archive looking for things to point and sputter at.  We drafted the below (we thought, respectful and serious) response before noticing that.  We’re not going to change what follows, but neither are we going to waste time further explaining things that Ahmari is obviously determined to misunderstand.  If he wants to make any substantive points, we’ll read them.]

I’m not very good at arguing via tweet, so I thought I’d take this discussion here.  Wall Street Journalwriter Sohrab Ahmari says of us that JAG is simply “Buchananite.”  As a factual matter, that’s inaccurate in both the narrow and broad senses.  In the former, we’ve specifically criticized Buchanan, e.g., for his opposition to the 1991 Gulf War, which we believe well-served American interests.  In the broader sense, as “Paleo-Straussians,” our intellectual framework differs from Buchanan’s in highly significant ways.  The first half of that formulation points to the similarities, but the second to the differences.

In a follow-up, Ahmari writes that our anonymity is a drama-queen pose meant to suggest that America is a police state, which we all know is a joke.  No, we don’t think America is a police state and we pray, God-willing, that it never become one.  But we also think that it’s trending in that direction in troubling ways, not least the persecution of dissident thought.  The chief way is to deprive people of their ability to make a living and then say “Free speech doesn’t mean consequence-free speech!” after they get fired.  This happens a lot today and the right is almost just as eager to do it as the left—in a way, more-so, because the right feels a greater need to demonstrate its Davoisie bona fides.  In any event, it’s fine if you think we’re making too much of this, but we assure you that, if so, it’s an honest misjudgment.  We’re not faking it for shock value.

Moving to more substantive matters, he continues: “If you want to rethink—or discard—free trade, liberal order, etc. and be taken seriously, you need to put names to ideas.”  We disagree that names make any difference at all and said so.  Ahmari seems subsequently to have taken some of the edge off this claim, so let us leave it aside.

We do think that the phrase “or discard” was wholly unnecessary, since we’ve not argued for discarding either the liberal world order or free trade.  We’ve actually defended the former, albeit with the argument that its conflation with the last 15 years of the neocon agenda is a prudential and historical mistake.

As for trade, we are not doctrinaire free-traders, it is true.  We are happy on this score to stand with Smith, who wasn’t either.  Or Reagan.  Or Lincoln.  And so on.  To make a very simple point, if there were truly free trade, why wouldn’t every “free trade” deal that America signs with other countries simply be one sheet of paper that says “There shall be free trade—no tariffs or any other kind of barrier—between the United States and Country X”?  Instead, our “free trade” deals require truckloads of volumes, each as big as the phone book.  (If anyone remembers those.)

There is no such thing as free trade.  There are just deals, good and bad.  And what is good and bad—necessary or superfluous, beneficial or detrimental—changes with the times.

We’re still pretty supportive of the WSJ’s 1980s program—for the 1980s.  (Bob Bartley’s absurd 1984 “There Shall Be Open Borders” Constitutional Amendment aside.)  We also find much useful and applicable in the paper’s 2016 program.  Just not all of it, and not—we’re pretty sure—the parts that its writers feel are the most important.  Though it has been interesting to watch the editorial page equivocate about Trump.  We assume some of that comes from on high.  But might it also signal a re-think of some of the editorial page’s most sacred dogma?  We can hope!

Steve Sailer (we further assume you don’t like him*, but credit where credit is due) recently wrote that the WSJ’s agenda of revitalizing individualistic conservatism made sense in the 1970s, when the country was stalled owing to the exhaustion of several decades of corporatism and collectivization.  But individualism long ago grabbed all the low-hanging fruit and ran out of fresh ideas.  It’s no longer delivering on its promises like it did 30-40 years ago.

What’s needed now is a revival of solidaristic conservatism, to help repair the civic fabric and restore a sense that we are all in this together.  That is what, it appears to us, Trump is offering.  Eventually this solidaristic conservatism will, too, run out of steam and stall.  And some of its adherents (not us) will insist that the solutions of 2016 must stand forever.  But for now, solidarism is what’s needed. Individualism can make a comeback if and when solidarism (perhaps inevitably) goes too far and squelches individual initiative.

We stand athwart history yelling “What difference, at this point, does it make?” but also “No dogmatism!”  That’s our core beef with conservative intellectualism, including the WSJ.  You guys aren’t wrong about everything, but in this present crisis, you’re more wrong than right about the big things most needed now, and Trump is more right than wrong.

—Decius

* To be clear, since it is unfortunately necessary in these troubled times to be absolutely clear, we certainly find some of his statements thoroughly objectionable as well (but, again, credit where credit is due).

Addendum on the Liberal International Order

The 115th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in June, 2016.


While we’re smacking around Robert Kagan, it’s worth clarifying a point raised but not fleshed out in our recent foreign policy post.

We believe, or speculate, that the reader who wrote to us asking if we disdain the “liberal international order” was (perhaps without fully realizing it) basing his question on a misunderstanding that originates with Kagan.  Or if Kagan did not originate it, he has done more than any single writer to retail it.

The misunderstanding—which, on Kagan’s side, is deliberate—has two parts.  First is the conflation of the post-World War II “liberal international order” with some kind of permanent truth about America’s role on the world.  Second, and related, is its usage to justify and even require whatever it is that the neocons want to do in the here-and-now.

The pose, in other words, is: it’s always been this way and it must always be this way.

Conservatives who’ve studied the American Founding should recognize this as identical to the left’s tactic of taking (for instance) “all men are created equal” and insisting that its logic has always pointed toward, even demanded, socialism.

But both halves of Kagan’s formulation are false.  First, it’s just obviously not true that the post-war liberal international order represents some sempiternal embodiment of American interests.  Its creation was a response to the challenges of a particular time, its burdens not ones we sought to take up but felt we had no choice.  Are those challenges permanent and unchanging?  The world looks a lot different than it did in 1945.  So why must American foreign policy be preserved in amber?

Second, and more important: in what way does the Present at the Creation era point to, much less require, anything like the democratization of Afghanistan or assisting al-Qaida take over Libya or Syria?  These are acts of plain lunacy.  If we could exhume and reanimate all six of Isaacson and Thomas’ Wise Men so that they could see what we’ve wrought in the name of their liberal international order, they’d have us committed.

In short, objection to neocon idiocies is not rejection of the liberal international order’s original purpose or still-useful elements, any more than admiration of that order requires embrace of said idiocies.

—Decius

Hey, Kagan! THIS Is What Real Fascism Looks Like

The 114th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in June, 2016.


Robert Kagan—who gives arrogant, fatuous, pompous windbags a bad name—a few weeks ago published what remains the single worst “conservative” piece on the Trump phenomenon so far.  We won’t bother to refute the main argument, since it’s really no different than Sullivan’s, only shorter and simpler, and we’ve already addressed the core issues at length.

Kagan writes that “this is how fascism comes to America.”  By “this” you might think he means this.  Orthis.

But no.  He means Trump.

Now, it’s true that Kagan’s piece ran before the San Jose violence.  But it was written after the Illinois violence.  After the riot in St. Louis.  After the mayhem in Arizona.  After Burlingame.  And after several other street-thug anti-Trump “protests.”  Kagan mentions none of that.

No, Kagan’s “evidence” for Trump’s “fascism” is Trump’s “attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture.”  Meanwhile, actual people commit actual acts that are in perfect keeping with the historic reality of actual fascism and Kagan has nothing to say.  Except to condemn … Trump.

He’s supposed to be a historian and expert in international affairs.  You’d think, then, that he’d be familiar enough with fascism to recognize signs of it when he sees it.  To be clear, we’re not saying that these mobs were in any way organized.  (Though neither do we rule out the possibility that George Soros, who seems to enjoy bankrolling anti-American street violence, might be behind it.)  The point is that beating up people for attending a peaceful political rally in support of a cause or candidate you don’t like is the textbook definition of fascist “ground game.”

If Kagan had an ounce of intellectual honesty in him, he’d know that, retract this embarrassing column, and apologize.  But being on the left means never having to say you’re sorry.  Since Kagan hasa lot to apologize for, perhaps that’s the real, deep-down reason why he returned to the Democratic Party.

—Decius

Recommended Reading

The 112th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in June, 2016.


For those new readers who may have been brought here by Peggy Noonan’s column, we encourage you to check out our featured articles for some of our longer essays:

Trump as Critic: The Need for a Greatness Agenda

Trump, Sullivan and Caesarism

Trump v. the Ruling Class

Toward a Sensible, Coherent Trumpism

The GOP’s Grand Bargain Fizzles

Edmund Burke Will Not Save Us

Twitter: @GreatUSJournal