On wealth and the decline of institutions.
Dear Reader (Including any European heads of state gossiping about me like village women around the town well),
So, David French and the Morning Dispatch guys do this thing where they have a sort of mini table of contents at the beginning of each newsletter. The thinking is, people are busy. They’ve got jobs and secret masquerade balls to go to where aging overweight globalist dudes wear tuxedos as they hang out with winsome young slatterns. Oh wait, that’s Eyes Wide Shut.
Anyway, where was I? Oh, right: Tables of contents. I’ve long toyed with doing one. But I worry it will mess with the feng shui of the drawing room of my mind.
But what the hay; let’s give it a whirl.
Subjects covered today:
What’s the difference between Clinton’s emails and Trump’s phone?
The downside of pros and cons.
American gout and Warhol’s America.
Clinton’s emails vs. Trump’s phone.
Join me now in the wayback machine to a simpler time. When Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, she did something very bad: She deliberately used an unsecured private server for her email. Per Dr. Wikipedia:
An FBI examination of Clinton's server found over 100 emails containing classified information, including 65 emails deemed "Secret" and 22 deemed "Top Secret". An additional 2,093 emails not marked classified were retroactively classified by the State Department.
Hold that thought. Fast-forward to today. The Washington Post reports that Trump routinely uses unsecured cellphones to conduct sensitive phone calls. “It’s absolutely a security issue,” a former aide told the Post. “It’s a bonanza for them.” More:
Former officials said Trump has provided his private cell number to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but it’s unclear whether he has had conversations with those leaders on his cellphone. Four people in communication with him in recent months said that he continues to use that device routinely.
Former White House chief of staff John F. Kelly and intelligence officials made a concerted attempt in 2017 to get Trump to use secure White House lines, even after the president had retreated to the residence in the evenings, officials said. But when Trump realized that this enabled Kelly to compile daily logs of his calls, and the identities of those he was speaking to, Trump became annoyed and reverted to using his cellphone, officials said. “He was totally paranoid that everyone knew who he was talking to,” a former senior administration official said. [emphasis added]
Now, there were three major lines of attack against Clinton for her email system. I know this because I made these points all the time, as did virtually every fellow conservative I can think of. The first was that it was illegal. The second was that it put American lives or national security at risk because it made it easier for foreign intelligence services to steal classified information. The third was that she followed an immoral double standard, doing things that rank-and-file government and military officials could be prosecuted for.
It seems to me that the first line of attack doesn’t apply to Trump. He can declassify whatever he wants simply because he’s the president with the final say-so. This is one of those instances where the Nixonian claim that when the president does it, it’s not illegal is actually true.
But I am at a loss as to why the other two criticisms of Clinton don’t apply to the president, too. The rules we set up to protect classified information aren’t there for fun. They have a purpose: to protect classified information and national security. Who knows what Trump has said to Giuliani—or lord knows who else—on his cell phone? Maybe it wasn’t vital national security information. Maybe it was. But the non-rhetorical answer to the question, “Who knows what Trump said?” in those phone calls is almost surely: Russia and China and maybe a lot of other countries.
Even if the content of the conversations wasn’t vital national security information, it’s not unimaginable that Trump said things to his attorney—or lord knows who else—that would make useful fodder for blackmail.
We demand—on penalty of prison or dismissal—that rank-and-file national security officials follow secure protocols for a reason, but the president doesn’t seem to think those reasons apply to him, even though they are more necessary for him than any other government official
And yet, I somehow doubt we will see .0001 percent of the outrage we saw from countless “national security conservatives” when it was Hillary Clinton flouting the rules.
Pros and Cons of Impeachment.
Some people like to make decisions with long lists of pros and cons. I’ve always been torn by this decision-making technique. On the one hand, it’s a good way of identifying all of the factors at play. On the other hand, this technique tends to flatten the importance of the individual entries.
For instance, consider the age-old question: Should I eat my intern’s liver?
Livers are very nutritious and low carb
This intern is pretty annoying. His nose makes that whistling sound a lot.
That sharp kid from Northwestern is still available and this would open a slot
I’ve never tried human liver
The intern-coordinator at HR would give me a hard time
The intern wouldn’t be able to bring me coffee anymore—and he’s pretty good at that.
Taking his liver would be messy and painful—for him—and could stain the office carpet.
Removing his liver would kill him and murder is against the law and wrong.
You get the point: I could list 10,000 items in the pro column and they wouldn’t add up to equaling the grief I would get from the folks in HR (or that bit about murder being wrong).
Another problem: You don’t know what the future holds. I didn’t put “I might get caught” in the con column or “I might get away with it” in the pro column, but those are huge considerations.
I’ve been trying to come up with a pros and cons of impeachment list for a while now. But I keep running into these problems.
On the one hand, I think what Trump did is impeachable (and the fact that Giuliani is still doing it—as Trump’s lawyer—is outrageous). On the other hand, I don’t think that everything that is impeachable must lead to impeachment. Back on the first hand, I think that it will be bad for the country in the short- and long-term to let Trump claim “exoneration” if he’s not impeached. But on the other hand, if he is impeached in the House but not convicted in the Senate, he will claim exoneration anyway. If re-elected, Trump will conclude from his “exoneration” that he can get away with even more bad acts—and he might be right. Leaving the question up to the voters makes a lot of sense, but the fact that his abuse of power was all about putting his thumb on the scales of the election makes that calculation more problematic.
I try very hard these days not to score everything by “what’s good for the GOP?” for a bunch of reasons: Too many other conservative pundits do that already; what’s good for the GOP right now may not be good for the GOP—or conservatism or the country—in the long run, etc.
Despite the fact that a lot of people assume that I always take the most anti-Trump position possible, I’ve been consistently non-committal on the question for all of the above reasons and a bunch of other ones. That’s why I found Jonathan Turley’s argument pretty compelling, for reasons I lay out in my column today. In short, I think the process needs to ripen. The White House’s refusal to cooperate at all with the impeachment process is indefensible on the merits, but it’s a political reality. I understand why Democrats feel like they shouldn’t have to go through all the steps, but as a matter of political reality, I think they should.
I kinda miss the old “First World Problems” hashtag humor.
As readers of my most recent book—soon out in paperback!—know, I think we suffer from a pretty considerable gratitude problem in America.
Before all the woke scolds—both left-wing and right-wing varieties—come at me like an angry spider monkey, yes, yes, we have real problems in this country. And some people really do suffer from challenges and calamities that our overall good fortunes do not erase or, in some cases, even mitigate.
But get a grip, folks.
My friend Kevin Williamson once pointed out that in The Count of Monte Cristo, the Count’s alter ego throws a lavish dinner party at which he serves—wait for it—two different kinds of fish. He calls it “a millionaire’s whim.”
Sources vary on how many millionaires there are in the U.S., in part because there are different ways to define the term. But they seem to range from just under 12 million to 18.6 million. This, of course, obscures the fact that most of the things that once signified someone as a millionaire or simply “rich” have been sliding down the socio-economic ladder for generations. The first mobile phone, introduced by Motorola in 1983, cost $4,000, lasted a half-hour and was about the size of a large sneaker. I don’t know where the exact cutoff is. But you can be pretty poor and afford to order two kinds of fish over your phone for your next party.
I’m reminded of this passage from Tom Wolfe in Hooking Up:
By the year 2000, the term "working class" had fallen into disuse in the United States, and "proletariat" was so obsolete it was known only to a few bitter old Marxist academics with wire hair sprouting out of their ears. The average electrician, air-conditioning mechanic, or burglar-alarm repairman lived a life that would have made the Sun King blink. He spent his vacations in Puerto Vallarta, Barbados, or St. Kitts. Before dinner he would be out on the terrace of some resort hotel with his third wife, wearing his Ricky Martin cane-cutter shirt open down to the sternum, the better to allow his gold chains to twinkle in his chest hairs. The two of them would have just ordered a round of Quibel sparkling water, from the state of West Virginia, because by 2000 the once-favored European sparkling waters Perrier and San Pellegrino seemed so tacky.
Wolfe overstated things a bit, but you get the point.
If your child were afflicted with a life-threatening disease, how much would you pay for a cure? It’s a rhetorical question, but the correct answer, by the way, is “everything” or “anything.” Today, pretty much any child born into America is preemptively cured of all manner of diseases the moment they get a vaccination. Even those who do not get vaccinated are preemptively spared the possibility of getting smallpox because we effectively eradicated it. In other words, what a billionaire would have given his fortune for 100 years go (if he loved his kids) comes included with the basic package of being born American.
Prosperity is not necessarily ubiquitous in the United States and it’s certainly not uniform—nor should anyone want it to be. A society determined to enforce perfect economic equality has only one choice: to impose uniform poverty. A prosperous and free society—and you can’t have one without the other—will have some measure of economic inequality, because some people will choose vocations that will pay better than others. Innovation is the single greatest driver of productivity and prosperity. Innovation requires risk. Risk requires freedom and the possibility of reward for risk-taking.
Anyway, so far my point should pretty familiar to most readers. We’ve been democratizing prosperity for a very long time. And while it may not feel democratic or even prosperous for complicated reasons, the truth is undeniable.
Which brings me to the real point I wanted to make. Not only is prosperity being democratized, so are rich people’s problems.
Andy Warhol famously said that in the future everyone will get “fifteen minutes of fame.” We’re not there yet. But it’s amazing how much closer we get to that aphorism every day.
This occurred to me the other day while thinking about Twitter and social media. Fame and wealth aren’t the same thing and don’t necessarily go hand in hand. But they do overlap a lot. Rich people tend to be famous and famous people have an easier time getting rich.
Social media makes it easier to become a “celebrity” than ever before. The most popular “YouTuber” is Felix Kjellberg, better known as “PewDiePie,” with 102 million subscribers. The lowest ranked person on this list of the top 15 YouTubers, Jimmy Donaldson, aka “MrBeast,” has 26 million subscribers. I know next to nothing about any of them. The highest-rated cable news shows are lucky to get 3.5 million viewers on a given night.
But my point isn’t simply the usual jaw-jaw about the decline of gatekeepers. There are millions of people on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and the like who have to worry about what they say in “public” the way only a relative handful of people did even a generation ago.
For most of human history, or even American history, the problems of celebrity were almost definitionally rich people problems.
Conservatives often like to point out that we’re so rich hunger is no longer really a problem but obesity is. For centuries, gout was called “the King’s disease” or a “rich man’s disease,” because it tended to affect the kinds of people who could afford to serve two kinds of fish at their dinner parties (though fish wasn’t really the problem). No shocker that rates of gout have been rising in the U.S. over the last 20 years.
If you listen to The Remnant podcast, particularly the Thanksgiving episode with Yuval Levin, you’ve heard me rant about the breakdown of institutions being a major driver of our social dysfunction these days.
Institutions are tools created by large groups of people, either intentionally or through the spontaneous order created by generations of trial-and-error. Whether it’s a community bank or the U.S. military or the Boy Scouts, institutions solve problems.
One of the reasons institutions are decaying, it seems to me, is that we’re getting so rich that we don’t need the institutions to solve a lot of problems—or we don’t think we need them. I once produced a documentary on the Cathedral of Notre Dame and did a lot of reading about the roles of cathedrals in medieval Europe. Obviously, they were a tool for worshipping God. But they were also a source of entertainment, commerce, formal communication from leaders, and informal communication from peers (church gossip is a thing, I’m reliably told).
I am not a subscriber to “common good capitalism” or “post-liberal” whatever, in large part because the specifics offered are so underwhelming. It’s mostly atmospherics and posturing from what I can tell right now. But the atmospherics and posturing do tap into a real truth of how we live now.
Why are malls dying? Because average middle-class Americans have a luxury largely unimaginable even a generation ago: They can order whatever they want to buy from the comfort of their own homes. Malls aren’t cathedrals, but for a while they served as more than mere sources of commerce. People gathered there, in the same way they gathered at the general store a little over a century or so ago.
In fact, Alan Brinkley in his brilliant Voices of Protest makes the point that the anti-department store populism of the 1930s (a huge issue in Germany as well), stemmed from the fact that department stores were killing the general stores, which were deeply embedded in communities. Farmers especially relied on rolling credit from local merchants that they couldn’t get from the new mega-stores like Macy’s or Gimbels.
Prosperity melts away old institutions because it makes them obsolete. This is a very good thing with very real downsides. I no more want to get rid of the internet than I want to go back to using butter churns. But we need to think much harder about how to create institutions that serve the real needs of an increasingly rich society (which is why I wish a lot of these traditional Catholics would spend more of their energy strengthening the church than on coming up with ways to strengthen the government).
I’m skeptical that government has much of a pro-active role in this project. But it doesn’t—or shouldn’t—have much of a role in a lot of things that are vital to human flourishing. And if it can help, I’m open to suggestions. I just need specifics.
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: Last week’s all-Dingo G-File was pretty popular. But the biggest response was, “Where’s Pippa’s all –Spaniel G-File!?” or words to that effect. I guess I’ll have to do that someday, but it’ll have to wait for the right “news”peg. After all, last week I was in Georgia watching my Carolina dog regress like William Hurt in Altered States into a primal being. It seemed worth memorializing. Maybe one day we’ll take Pippa to a manor in the English countryside where she can be her truest self. Though she’s doing a pretty good job these days staying true to her spanielness. Zoë meanwhile is still adjusting to her return to “civilization.” Anyway, not much to report and I’m short on time, but they’re doing great. Zoë is having a grandtime. Pippa has ball. She will always have ball. And they are taking the war to the crows the only way they can.
And now, the weird stuff.
Photo credit: Donald Trump pretends to make a phone call during a press conference in the Rose Garden. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)