Elizabeth Warren: Senator From Massachusetts—or the Roman Empire?
A revealing tweet suggests she doesn’t understand the limited power of her position.
Dear Reader (not including the guy in the Corolla who won’t get out of the left lane),
This should be the last G-File written from a car—well, from a moving car—for a while. We’re heading east on Interstate 70 toward Denver and I had a fantastic breakfast burrito from the Love Muffin Café in Moab. (Try the Bombero.)
Let’s start with something easy.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted something really stupid.
Amazon News @amazonnews@SenWarren 1/3 You make the tax laws @SenWarren; we just follow them. If you don’t like the laws you’ve created, by all means, change them. Here are the facts: Amazon has paid billions of dollars in corporate taxes over the past few years alone.
A U.S. senator says she wants to break up Amazon so that it won’t be “powerful enough to heckle senators with snotty tweets.”
That would require a lot of breaking up. Amazon could still heckle Warren at half its size—even at one-100th its size. Jeff Bezos could give away all his shares and open a frozen banana stand and he could still heckle Elizabeth Warren. You see, as Milton Berle never said, size doesn’t matter.
Pretty much anyone can heckle senators on Twitter—and in person! It happens, like, 10,000 times a day. Businesses can heckle them too, and not just big ones. The owners of the Love Muffin Café or Four Seasons Landscaping are welcome to get involved.
The interesting—and disturbing—thing about Warren’s far snottier rejoinder is that she seems to think this shouldn’t be the case. Indeed, she seems to think mere disagreement amounts to heckling. Still worse, she thinks businesses—nay, whole sectors—should be broken up so that they won’t have the temerity to disagree with a bloviating and demagogic senator. I wonder if Warren is offended when NARAL “heckles” Ted Cruz. I’m kidding of course—I don’t wonder about that at all.
I’m sure Warren has lots of reasons for wanting to break up Big Tech, but she didn’t list them here. By her account she thinks insufficient fear of Elizabeth Warren, the Cambridge Slay Queen, is justification alone for swinging her scythe. That disturbs me far more than literally anything Amazon or Jeff Bezos have ever said or done.
I don’t want to dwell on a tweet, but since I’ve been talking and writing about patriotism all week, I’ll use it to make a broader point.
I’ve been rewatching the BBC/HBO TV series Rome, and it strikes me how Warren’s reasoning is more fitting of a Roman senator than an American one. In Rome, being a senator didn’t so much confer power and status as confirm and maybe compound it (attention antiquity nerds: I know the Senate changed over time, work with me here). Talking back to a senator could definitely get you broken up—and I’m not talking about antitrust.
Of course, in the grand sweep of history, Rome represented a great leap forward in civilization. The Romans regulated power to a much greater extent than many of the civilizations that came before them. Still, a lowborn butcher or stable owner would be advised to speak respectfully to a senator.
In many ways, regulating power—political, not electrical—is what civilization is all about. For instance, the president of the United States is in one sense the most powerful person in the world. But while he can deploy staggering military might halfway around the globe, he can’t tell me to do a damn thing. At least not without a lot of paperwork, and even then it would be hard.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China don’t have presidents with defined powers, and neither do nations under the Divine Right of Kings—they have rulers. Now, Putin and Xi can’t necessarily do whatever they want, but what constraints there are on them aren’t legal or constitutional. They’re purely political. The calculation isn’t, “Do I have the power to do this?” It’s, “If I do this, can I get away with it?” Putin and Xi can have citizens killed. American presidents can’t. Yeah, sure, if they join a foreign terrorist organization and are hiding out on foreign soil, the president can get some paper moving and order a drone strike. But the president can’t at any time say, “That Goldberg guy sucks, take him out.”
And United States senators? They make the president look like an infinity gauntlet-equipped Thanos snapping his fingers by comparison. They have almost no formal power outside of the Senate. And when I say “almost,” I’m being extremely generous in case there’s something I’m not thinking of beyond special license plates, the power to nominate candidates to the service academies, and the ability to send out a lot of mail.
Beyond that, a senator can’t do jack without the help of a bunch of other senators.
I mean, yeah, in the actual Senate building they get to use special elevators and eat in an overrated dining room. But except for that stuff, they can’t do bupkis—and that’s in the Senate. Outside the institution, they’re just, well, people. If you ever meet a senator who says, “By the power of the Senate and the Constitution, I command you to give me that pizza!” you have every right to respond with, “Get out of my way, jackass.” While I’m sure the moment Ted Kennedy saw Braveheart he tried to invoke the right of prima noctis, that’s not how it works here.
Sure, they can be pests. They can slow things down. They can filibuster and ask for a reading of the bill.
But think about that: The only way an individual senator can exert actual power in the Senate is by preventing or delaying the institution from using its power more broadly. A lone senator can’t do anything to your way of life, but a lone senator can prevent—or at least delay—the Senate as a whole from doing something that affects your way of life. Everything else requires building coalitions with other senators, and even then, you still need the other chamber to agree and a president not to veto your scheme.
That is a great and glorious thing. And it is just one more point that Antony Blinken could have made to the Chinese last week. In our country, we are citizens and not subjects. The government works for us, we don’t work for it.
Which brings us back to regulating power: The best version of America revolves around the idea that everyone is equal before the law. Nobody by virtue of the circumstances of their birth gets better treatment under the law than anybody else. That’s why the Founders got rid of titles of nobility. That’s why slavery and Jim Crow had to be destroyed if America was going to live up to its ideals. Within institutions, there can be ranks and hierarchies. In fact, there have to be ranks and hierarchies for institutions to work. But your boss at work isn’t the boss of you outside work. In fact, your boss at work can be your subordinate in your bowling league, your church food drive, or your World of Warcraft expedition.
Societies where power is transferable across institutions tend to be unfree and unjust. Think of it this way: If generals can give orders to soldiers and civilians alike, then the distinction between soldier and civilian is a fiction. If senators have power outside of the Senate, then they aren’t our servants—we are their subjects. The same thing applies for CEOs, celebrities, and everybody else. Parents have powers inside their families that vanish utterly outside the family. I can tell my kid to clean her room. I can’t tell your kid to do jack.
There are lots of people who think their power and status should be transferable to every situation. Senators are sometimes famous for this. When John Kerry was a senator, he was a legendary practitioner of “DYKWIA” (“Do You Know Who I Am?”). Maybe there’s something in the Massachusetts water.
Which leads me to one last point: The diffusion of power allows for the multiplication of identity, and having multiple identities is the secret to leading a fulfilling and fully realized life.
When I say multiple identities, I don’t mean having a lot of aliases, different driver’s licenses, and fake mustaches. I mean defining yourself in many different ways and therefore having different sources of satisfaction. This an old hobby horse of mine, so I won’t rehash it all here again. Suffice it to say, you can simultaneously be the boss of a huge company and a servant to your church. You can be a low-level cog in a big company and the star of your motorcycle club or open mic night. I play a game on my iPad where there are dudes who have blue-collar jobs telling prosperous professionals what to do. It’s all good.
But granting people real power outside their institutions and roles means denying power to others. If you’re powerful in every walk of life, that means someone else isn’t. That’s how aristocracies and caste systems work. It’s also how countries with single-party dictatorships work. That’s not America, that’s not even Canada.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: So the girls have been staying with Kirsten, our friend and dog walker. They love it there, which makes vacations so much more enjoyable and worry-free. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t a source of adventure and hijinks for her as well. She texted me a few minutes ago with a report on the dogs. Here it is, lightly edited.
“Just now there was some buzzing in the back of the car, so Zoë immediately jumped back there to make quick work of whatever offending bug it was. All of a sudden Zoë starts snapping and leaping and writhing… it was a giant bumblebee that had landed on her back right where she couldn't reach it. At this point Pippa figured Zoe had finally lost it, so she threw herself in my lap and started trying to escape out of the window.
“Oh, did I mention I was driving? No? Anyway I managed to pull over and swat the bee off a wildly contorting ZoZo, haul Pip back in the window and we all took a few minutes just to calm down. Yeesh, never boring.”
And now, the weird stuff