America’s Modern Character: Paranoid Loser

“[Columbia professor Adam Tooze, writer of the definitive forensic analysis of the 2008 financial crisis in Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World,] does not buy the line that America is roaring back at the head of a resurgent West, even if the autocracies have suffered a crushing reverse over recent months. ‘I see America as the huge weak link,’ he said.

He broadly subscribes to the Fukuyama thesis that the American body politic is by now so rotten within, so riddled with the cancer of identity politics that it is developing a paranoid loser’s view of the world. The storming of Congress was not so much an aberration under this schema, but rather the character of modern America.”

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, “The world’s financial system is entering dangerous waters again, warns guru of the Lehman crisis.” The Telegraph. May 23, 2022.

Open question: Is the current populism and “paranoid style” of the American character an sign of decline or a trait that becomes more prevalent with populist resurgence?

The paranoid character of U.S. politics is not a new claim, see the Richard J. Hofstadter essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” The online version is Harper’s Magazine is currently behind a paywall. But, I’d imagine most city public libraries have a copy of it.

The paranoid style is a recurring feature of populist movements, right and left, evident from so-called militia/patriot movements to the “woke” left of our time. Nothing is really new about either. But, is there something new in this wave? Is it significantly different than movements that led to prohibition of alcohol and marijuana?

I’m inclined to see the current environment as a variation on a consistent pattern, like the Great Awakenings. Ultimately, these kinds of heated discussions are the strength of democracies, even when they lead to things like the U.S. Civil War. You get your say. If you feel strongly enough, you fight about it. But, in the end, a decision is made and you see how it goes. It’s not dictated by some clown at the top. It’s messy. But, it’s better than the alternative.

The Stealth Erosion of Dollar Dominance

“We document a decline in the dollar share of international reserves since the turn of the century. This decline reflects active portfolio diversification by central bank reserve managers; it is not a byproduct of changes in exchange rates and interest rates, of reserve accumulation by a small handful of central banks with large and distinctive balance sheets, or of changes in coverage of surveys of reserve composition. Strikingly, the decline in the dollar’s share has not been accompanied by an increase in the shares of the pound sterling, yen and euro, other long-standing reserve currencies and units that, along with the dollar, have historically comprised the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights. Rather, the shift out of dollars has been in two directions: a quarter into the Chinese renminbi, and three quarters into the currencies of smaller countries that have played a more limited role as reserve currencies. A characterization of the evolution of the international reserve system in the last 20 years is thus as ongoing movement away from the dollar, a recent if still modest rise in the role of the renminbi, and changes in market liquidity, relative returns and reserve management enhancing the attractions of nontraditional reserve currencies. These observations provide hints of how the international system may evolve going forward.”


Serkan Arslanalp, Barry J. Eichengreen and Chima Simpson-Bell. “The Stealth Erosion of Dollar Dominance: Active Diversifiers and the Rise of Nontraditional Reserve Currencies.” IMF Working Papers. March 24, 2022.

Perhaps central bank managers have heard of the concept of diversification?

What Would Americans Do? (Invasion Edition)

“As the world witnesses what is happening to Ukraine, Americans were asked what they would do if they were in the same position as Ukrainians are now: stay and fight or leave the country? A majority (55 percent) say they would stay and fight, while 38 percent say they would leave the country. Republicans say 68 – 25 percent and independents say 57 – 36 percent they would stay and fight, while Democrats say 52 – 40 percent they would leave the country.”

-“Vast Majority Of Americans Say Ban Russian Oil, Quinnipiac University National Poll Finds; Nearly 8 In 10 Support U.S. Military Response If Putin Attacks A NATO Country.” Quinnipiac Poll. March 7, 2022.

Perhaps related:

“There are differences in gun ownership rates by political party affiliation, gender, geography and other factors. For instance, 44% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say they personally own a gun, compared with 20% of Democrats and Democratic leaners.”

-Katherine Schaeffer, “Key facts about Americans and guns.” Pew Research Center. September 13, 2021

What I think is interesting is the 22(D) – 24(R)% who don’t personally own a gun. When they imagine fighting, what are they fighting with? Also, a question for liberal politics: if you have to worry about an invasion, does your position on “gun control” change?

MasterClass: Black History, Black Freedom and Black Love

“As part of the $2 million commitment at MasterClass to make content that inspires and educates on social justice and against systemic racism, for the first-time ever an entire class will be available to stream for free. The three-part class, Black History, Black Freedom and Black Love will be freely available on MasterClass.com during Black History Month. MasterClass has also teamed up with Amazon to make the class available to stream for free on IMDb TV and available for all U.S. Prime Members on Prime Video.”

https://learn.masterclass.com/blackhistorymonth

Recommended by a friend of mine, which would be enough by itself. Also, the class is taught by Jelani Cobb, Angela Davis, John McWhorter, Cornel West and Kimberle Williams Crenshaw. I’ll pretty much watch anything with Cornel West in it. I thought I’d add it here before watching it myself to give you more time to check it out.

The Pandemic Cyclone

“This chart shows the daily number of new Covid-19 infections in each state over time. The y-axis is the population-normalized number of new infections per day; the x-axis is the rate of transmission (Rt). Each dot is a state or territory of the US, colored by region, and the area of the dot is proportional to the estimated number of new Covid-19 infections on that day.

https://observablehq.com/@chrisjkuch/covid-hotspots

I thought this was an interesting way to visualize the time series data.

N.S.A. Research Director Interview

“In his first interview as leader of the NSA’s Research Directorate, Gil Herrera lays out challenges in quantum computing, cybersecurity, and the technology American intelligence needs to master to secure and spy into the future.”

Patrick Howell O’Neill, “Meet the NSA spies shaping the future.” Technology Review. February 1, 2022.

The leader of the National Security Agency’s Research Directorate is giving interviews? I guess times have changed since people used to refer to it as No Such Agency.

“The Long Telegram” by George F. Kennan

“In atmosphere of oriental secretiveness and conspiracy which pervades this government, possibilities for distorting or poisoning sources and currents of information are infinite. The very disrespect of Russians for objective truth–indeed their disbelief in its existence–leads them to view all stated facts as instruments for furtherance of one ulterior purpose or another. There is good reason to suspect that this government is actually a conspiracy within a conspiracy, and I for one am reluctant to believe that Stalin himself receives anything like an objective picture of [the] outside world. Here there is ample scope for the type of subtle intrigue for which Russians are past masters. Inability of foreign governments to place their place squarely before Russian policy makers–extent to which they are delivered up in their relations with Russia to good graces of obscure and unknown advisers whom they will never see and cannot influence–this to my mind is the most disquieting feature of diplomacy in Moscow, and one which western statesman would do well to keep in mind if they would understand the nature of difficulties encountered here…

…We must see that our public is educated to realities of Russian situation. I cannot over-emphasize importance of this. Press cannot do this alone. It must be done mainly by Government, which is necessarily more experienced and better informed on practical problems involved. In this we need not be deterred by [ugliness?] of picture. I am convinced that there would be far less hysterical anti-Sovietism in our country today if realities of this situation were better understood by our people. There is nothing as dangerous or as terrifying as the unknown. It may also be argued that to reveal more information on our difficulties with Russia would reflect unfavorably on Russian-American relations. I feel that if there is any real risk here involved, it is one which we should have courage to face, and sooner the better. But I cannot see what we would be risking. Our stake in this country, even coming on heels of tremendous demonstrations of our friendship for Russian people, is remarkably small. We have here no investments to guard, no actual trade to lose, virtually no citizens to protect, few cultural contacts to preserve. Our only stake lies in what we hope rather than what we have; and I am convinced we have better chance of realizing those hopes if our public is enlightened and if our dealings with Russians are placed entirely on realistic and matter-of-fact basis.”

George K. Kennan, “The Long Telegram.” wilsoncenter.org. February 22, 1946

The United States, Incorporated

“I propose we do so by creating two positions within the executive branch that operate in tension with each other. The first would be the chief operating officer, charged with managing the administrative agencies. The second would be the chief auditor, charged with leading a watchdog agency that monitors the administrative state for effectiveness and abuses of authority. Both the president and Congress would oversee the balance of power between the two positions…

…With a COO in charge of managing government agencies, the roles of Congress and the president would adjust accordingly. Congress would act more like a board of directors with respect to the agencies, and the president would act more like a board chairman. The COO would assume the responsibility of presenting a plan and budget to Congress for approval, while the president would have the authority to hire and fire the COO at will. In a spirit of conservative incrementalism, we could first apply the COO model to one functional domain, such as domestic infrastructure, before extending it to the others.

The second new position — the chief auditor (CA) — would lead a powerful audit agency that provides independent evaluations of agency performance. One might think of this agency as a bulked-up version of the existing Government Accountability Office.”

-Arnold Kling, “Designing a Better Regulatory State.” National Affairs. Winter 2022.

What could possibly go wrong?

Let’s abstract out most of the power of the President and Cabinet into one unelected position and give them a free hand to reorganize the government as they see fit. Further, let’s abstract out the oversight function on Congress to a single auditor. The President turns into a figurehead. Congress can pass bills, but it has no power to determine whether those bills are being implemented according to their intent.

Presumably, to extend the metaphor, citizens would become the equivalent of stockholders, but they never have the opportunity to sell their stock and buy another. They have the power to elect the board, who can pass legislation, but who are not accountable for the results. What happens when the federal government starts doing something people don’t like? They can vote someone in that will appoint another COO? Without any input on who this person is? They can elect someone who will pass different bills? What exactly will the President and Congress do?

If it made sense to run government in this way, wouldn’t these kinds of qualities already be important for running for President or being appointed to the cabinet? I’d imagine positions like Deputy Secretary are filled with people with years of experience in the federal agency they are part of. Would it make sense to replace these people with other people with broad “industry” experience?

Is the organization of government the same as organization of corporations? Is it even the same skill set?

Some obvious problems. What happens when the COO and Auditor positions collude? What happens if the COO position is so powerful a President is unable to fire her? For example, it’s a billionaire that paid to get the President elected and act as a figurehead and now the billionaire plans to run the country?

The least of your problems is the government gaming the auditor’s metrics. But, it’s also not an insignificant problem.

There are so many reasons the argument provided in this article is bad. As bad as “democracy” or “representative democracy” is, the hot mess of it is surely better than this idea.

The New York Times Problem, Exhibit: Abortion

“The Supreme Court seems all but certain to rewrite the country’s abortion laws when it rules in coming months on a case from Mississippi. But the real-world effects of that ruling will differ enormously depending on how far the justices go.

In one scenario, only a small share of abortions now being conducted in the U.S. — less than 2 percent, perhaps — would become illegal. In another scenario, the ruling could lead to sweeping changes in abortion access and a large decline in abortions.

-David Leonhardt, “A Portrait of Abortion.” The New York Times: The Morning Newsletter. December 14, 2021https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2021/12/the-fda-just-made-medication-abortions-a-whole-lot-easier-to-get/

Every weekday morning and Sunday, I read David Leonhardt’s The Morning Newsletter to my wife. Her politics are Democratic Party liberal politics, and The New York Times is the paper of record for liberals in the United States. So, this newsletter explains the thinking of that demographic.

While I enjoy talking to my wife about the issues of the day, I find the framing of these issues by the The Morning Newsletter bordering on incompetence. As you can see from the quote above, the framing of the issue is a false dichotomy, between less or more restriction, with an understanding that abortion is some surgical procedure done by a doctor, or by some illegal clinic harkening back to Prohibition. But, I’d say there’s a key element missing in The New York Times discussion. There are modern medical abortifacients, i.e., mifepristone and misoprostol, that can end a pregnancy. Together, they are an “abortion pill”. Here’s Planned Parenthood providing an overview:

“Abortion pill” is the common name for using two different medicines to end a pregnancy: mifepristone and misoprostol.

First, you take a pill called mifepristone. Pregnancy needs a hormone called progesterone to grow normally. Mifepristone blocks your body’s own progesterone, stopping the pregnancy from growing.

Then you take the second medicine, misoprostol, either right away or up to 48 hours later. This medicine causes cramping and bleeding to empty your uterus. It’s kind of like having a really heavy, crampy period, and the process is very similar to an early miscarriage. If you don’t have any bleeding within 24 hours after taking the second medicine, call your nurse or doctor.

-“The Abortion Pill.” Planned Parenthood.

So, you no longer have to have a surgical procedure to have an abortion. You simply have to take two medications, within 48 hours of one another.

Now, the implications of that fact are profound. This means that stopping abortions is as practical as stopping people from taking drugs or drinking alcohol. Decades of a U.S. “Drug War” and the experiment of Prohibition illustrates a simple fact. The minute you prohibit a legal means of getting something done, you create an illegal market for it.

The implications are obvious. The level of restrictions that the Supreme Court allows and individual states implement will create illegal markets in mifepristone and misoprostol. As with other drugs, it will be impossible to prevent these drugs from reaching the people that want them.

So,, prohibiting surgical abortion might have the counter-intuitive effect of creating a illegal market for abortion drugs that will make abortion more accessible, not less. And, when the Pro-Life movement understands this fact, they will then try to go after women using these medications, except instead of draconian drug laws, they’ll create abortion specific laws or try to make using these medications an action that can be charged as murder.

Action, reaction. All very predictable, and all not even hinted at in the The New York Times dichotomy of more restrictive and less restrictive options.

Perhaps, we should give David and the other writers at The Times the benefit of the doubt. It is a daily, and they are limited in the amount of detail they can put in. However, this doesn’t change the fact that their efforts are more likely to misinform people than provide them with a useful framework for understanding the world.

Fake news is everywhere because most of the thinking presented in mass media is bad, top to bottom. It’s not a problem of a particular political point of view. It’s a problem across the board. The real question one should be asking is: who benefits from viewing the abortion issue as a dichotomy hinged on the decisions on The Supreme Court? A question left as an exercise for the reader.

Update: Not even two days after writing this Mother Jones reports:

“The Food and Drug Administration announced on Thursday that it will loosen restrictions on the abortion pill mifepristone, allowing people to receive the pill via mail or pharmacy instead of having to appear in person at a clinic or hospital.” 

-Lil Kalish, “The FDA Just Made Medication Abortions a Whole Lot Easier to Get.” Mother Jones. December 16, 2021.

Action, reaction.