How Elizabeth Warren Is Like Michael Scott
Trying to get ahead by reading the room—and getting it wrong.
Dear Reader (Including Tom Steyer who just likes to hang out and say hi),
Mark Twain is credited with saying: “If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.” Though the truth is he may not have said it, I can’t remember.
But the point is a good one. It was some of the only really great advice I got from my first boss in Washington: Don’t lie. Yes, yes, I got that advice from others: parents, teachers, rabbis, a couple lawyers, a Very Special Episode of Blossom, etc. But my boss, Ben Wattenberg, was offering it in a special context. In Washington scandals and media firestorms (I happened to be tangentially involved in one), telling the truth may or may not be the right thing to do, but it is definitely the best strategy, all things being equal—and if you’re innocent of wrongdoing. I mean, if you committed multiple felonies or ate a couple humans, I can’t really tell you the best strategy is to tell the truth.
But if you did nothing wrong, lying can get you into a lot of trouble. If you lie, you’re part of the cover-up. If you tell the truth, fresh evidence won’t emerge to discredit you. If you tell the truth, inconsistencies in your story can be explained. If you lie, inconsistencies in your story will only lead to more inconsistencies and require more lies to cover them up.
I suspect everyone has some experience along these lines. You tell a small lie, maybe to prevent hurting someone’s feelings or maybe to avoid getting beat up in prison (“I didn’t drink your toilet wine, I swear!”). But then the lie requires more lies and those lies require more lies. And pretty soon, you’re telling people that your academy for super-intelligent German shepherds in Belize was closed because Fritz kept racking up credit card debt at Chewy.com.
Now, you might think this is all prelude to a discussion of Donald Trump, given his trouble with the truth. But you’d be wrong.
Warren’s forked tongue.
Elizabeth Warren is a remarkable liar. “Remarkable” is one of those funny words, like unique, that often sounds like a compliment but might not be. If asked about a dress, or a tie, or a baby with an unfortunately bright red unibrow, you might respond with, “What a unique dress” or, “That baby is remarkable!”
In other words, Warren’s a remarkable liar, but she’s not a very good one. Much like Barack Obama’s sense of humor and Donald Trump’s eloquence, Warren’s lying gets a boost from her fans. I remember liberals doubling over with laughter at Obama’s utterly banal dad jokes and mediocre quips (in fairness, sometimes he could be funny, particularly when scripted). I remain amazed by people who can listen to Trump vomit up a barrage of sentence fragments and non-sequiturs and then gush about his brilliant communications skills. (In fairness, Trump can approach eloquence—when scripted.)
Michael Brendan Dougherty has a fantastically frustrated I-feel-like-I’m-taking-crazy-pills rant on the latest episode of National Review’s Editors podcast in which he approaches one of John Belushi’s old Saturday Night Live “Weekend Update” tirades about Warren’s dishonesty and insincerity. “Everything about her is phony!” he rails. MBD notes how she changes her accent, her syntax, her persona based on perceived political need—I say perceived, because she often has a thumbless grasp of what the political moment requires. For instance, no one put a gun to her head and made her release a DNA study, to much fanfare, that proved her claim of being Native American was bogus. She did that all by herself.
Michael’s hardly alone. Our own David French has been like Jack McGee from the classic Hulk TV show when it comes to Warren’s fakery (for those of you not fluent in the canon, McGee was the reporter from the National Register who was convinced the Hulk was real). David:
My favorite Elizabeth Warren story involves a cookbook. Warren, who was at that time posing as a trailblazing Cherokee, actually contributed recipes to a recipe book with the name, I kid you not, “Pow Wow Chow.” But here’s the best part of the story. She plagiarized some of the recipes. Yes indeed, her version of “pow wow chow” came directly from a famous French chef.
My second-favorite Warren story involves breastfeeding. She once claimed to be the first “nursing mother” to take the New Jersey bar exam, making her, I suppose, the Jackie Robinson of lactating lawyers. The problem? There’s no evidence this is true. Women have been taking the New Jersey bar since 1895, and the New Jersey Judiciary was “not aware” whether they tracked the nursing habits of test-takers.
Warren is a bit of an academic grifter. She’s willing to fake her way to the top. When she came to Harvard Law School, she was—believe it or not—considered by some to be a “minority hire.” She listed herself as a minority on a legal directory reviewed by deans and hiring committees. The University of Pennsylvania “listed her as a minority faculty member,” and she was touted after her hire at Harvard Law School as, yes, the school’s “first woman of color.”
If you watch her presidential announcement video (“I’m gonna get me a beer”), the fremdschamen is palpable. She’s kind of like Michael Scott from The Office: She reads the room wrong, fully commits to a bit, and then thinks there’s something wrong with the people in the room for not going along with it.
When first we practice to deceive.
There’s a reason I’m bringing all of this up. Actually, there are several.
The first, is that as MBD notes, absent any other evidence, the presumption of sincerity in the whole “a woman can’t win” kerfuffle has to go to Bernie Sanders. Sanders is an Aesopian figure. Like the scorpion in the story, he is always true to his nature. If elected, he will be the Bernie he said he was going to be. Like Martin Luther, he will say, “Here I stand, I can do no other,” as he tries to seize the means of production or whatever the hell he thinks he can do as president.
On every issue I can think of, Sanders is entirely predictable because he is genuinely who he is and consistent in his views. He’s consistently wrong about a lot of stuff, but that’s not relevant.
Warren, on the other hand, is a very different creature. Which brings me to my second point. Warren rose through the meritocracy by reading the room and changing accordingly. And she was remarkably successful at it. She only seems like a Michael Scott character when talking to the larger public, because the larger public isn’t in on it. There’s a reason why Sanders has reliable support from blue-collar voters and young people: His authenticity is obvious (in this he’s sort of like Ron Paul, another cranky old man who was nonetheless consistent in his crankery). Meanwhile, despite having a remarkably similar program to Sanders, Warren’s support comes from the sorts of people who rose through the ranks of academia and media in much the same way she did: by reading the room. It’s no wonder the elite media and academia love her so. They look at her and see “one of us.” (The still-likely New York Times editorial endorsing her should be headlined “Gooble Gobble.”)
The lie of socialism.
Last, while I think dishonesty reflects on character and character is very important in a president (I hope people grasp my restraint and understatement here), there’s a policy component to all of this. Warren’s whole “I have a plan for that” shtick is precisely the sort of thing Friedrich Hayek wrote tens of thousands of words dismantling. Remember Warren’s Medicare For All backtrack? Don’t think of her original proposal as a flawed public policy program. Think of it as a lie. She said what she thought the room—aka., Democratic primary voters—wanted to hear, in the way she thought they wanted to hear it: in the form of fancy charts and graphs with lots of super-serious numbers. When it turned out that the plan would cost lots of people—including her voters—their jobs and massively raise taxes (because she lied about being able to pull it off without raising taxes on the middle class, something Sanders doesn’t say), she revised the “plan” with more off-the-cuff improvisations.
I don’t want to get too meta. But think of an unworkable policy as a lie. When the Soviet Union tried to collectivize agriculture, the whole idea was based on an untruth, a misunderstanding of human nature. And it didn’t work. When they allowed peasants to keep a small fraction of crops for themselves to eat or sell, total production went up. Why? Because a lie was replaced with a partial truth—people will work harder when they’re allowed to enjoy the fruits of their labor. (In 1982, for example, private plot farmers accounted for just 1.4 percent of the Soviet Union’s farmland, while producing 61 percent of its potatoes, 54 percent of its fruits, 34.3 percent of eggs, 30.2 percent of vegetables and 29 percent of meat and milk.)
For decades, the Soviet Union responded to the failures of their plans by killing or imprisoning people they blamed for the plan not working. In 1937, Stalin wanted the Soviet census to report a population of 180 million. When the surveys showed the real number was about 162 million (2 million souls fewer than the census three years prior), Stalin had the census managers shot or sent to Siberia.
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s Why Nations Fail is full of examples. Soviet industrial production was constantly bedeviled by the fact that it was all pegged to plans rather than to the realities of the market and human nature. “When the plan was formulated in tons of steel sheet, the sheet was made too heavy. When it was formulated in terms of area of steel sheet, the sheet was made too thin. When the plan for chandeliers was made in tons, they were so heavy, they could hardly hang from ceilings.” Absenteeism—defined as being off the job for more than 20 minutes without permission—was such a problem that it became a criminal offense. “Between 1940 and 1955,” they write, “36 million people, about one-third of the adult population, were found guilty of such offenses. Of these, 15 million were sent to prison and 250,000 were shot. In any year, there would be 1 million adults in prison for labor violations.”
The New Deal had all sorts of similar problems, which is why Jacob Maged was sentenced to jail for offering to clean a suit for five cents less than the official state-set price. It’s also why the FDR administration slaughtered millions of hogs—because reality proved their plans untrue.
No, I’m not saying that Warren and Sanders would have people shot or imprisoned when their plans inevitably failed (though they might end up slaughtering a lot of farting cows). The point is that when you ignore the reality of the market and the signals and incentives bound up in prices, you are operating on a lie no matter how much you gussy it up with PowerPoint presentations. And like the guy who covers one lie with another and that lie with another, a system dedicated to the idea that planners are smarter than the market will inevitably compensate for one untrue policy with more untrue policies.
This is where Sanders and Warren overlap. They both think they’re smarter than the market and that they can plan other peoples’ lives better than the people themselves. But Sanders comes to his dishonesty honestly.
A quick note on impeachment.
I’ve gone too long to get into the weeds on the upcoming impeachment trial—and it’s not like there’s a lot left to be said that can’t be said next week. (Also David’s Thursday newsletter covered a lot of the stuff I wanted to say.) But since we’re on the topic of lying, it seems to me this entire mess is the kind of cul de sac you get into when institutions and politicians are more concerned with defending the lies their people want to hear than pursuing the truth. Nancy Pelosi is so obsessed with Russia that she now thinks Mitch McConnell might be a Putin asset. Adam Schiff is in a constant state of overcompensation for the fact that he lied about evidence of Russian collusion and got caught. Donald Trump is so insistent on defending the lie that his phone call was “perfect” that he’d rather put his presidency and the senate majority in jeopardy than just admit the obvious and apologize. And many of those senators are more interested finding ways to hide from the truth, so they can defend some version of a lie.
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: So I took Pippa to the vet on Monday to have her recurring limp checked out. As I feared, the vet really couldn’t see any evidence of it because when Pippa is full of adrenaline all physical infirmities vanish. And Pippa freaks out more than any dog I’ve ever had at the vet. She bounces around the waiting and examination rooms, like runaway Flubber or that weird ball thing from the first Men in Black movie. The vet did say she felt a little “crunchiness” in one of Pippa’s elbows which could be the beginning of arthritis or maybe a bone spur. She recommended restrained activity which is a bit like asking bears to use only the designated bathroom at the Visitors Centers in our national forests. That said, the limp does seem to recur less these days. Pippa recovered nicely from the trauma. Meanwhile, it turns out that Zoë ruffs at roofers. Zoë had a glorious time this week chasing her buddy Sammie (and Pippa). And we’re finally getting back to regular order at treat time (after a few difficulties), now that the Fair Jessica is home and we’ve resupplied. Though Zoë’s sense of entitlement continues to grow. All in all, they’re still very happy dogs. Also, my daughter is very pleased that Gracie is developing a fan base all her own.
And now, the weird stuff.
Photograph of Elizabeth Warren, Tom Steyer, and Bernie Sanders by Scott Olson/Getty Images.