Dear Reader (including the poor Biden staffers who have to white-knuckle their armrests when not sucking down unfiltered Marlboros every time Joe Biden gives an interview),
If you’ve never heard the Milton Friedman shovels and spoons story, you will (and I don’t just mean here). Because everyone on the right tells some version of it at some point. The other Uncle Miltie (i.e., not the epically endowed comedic genius) goes to Asia or Africa or South America and is taken on a tour of some public works project in a developing country. Hundreds of laborers are digging with shovels. Milton asks the official in charge something like, “Why use shovels when earth moving equipment would be so much more efficient?”
The official replies that this is a jobs program and using shovels creates more jobs.
Friedman guffaws and asks, “In that case: Why not use spoons?”
The story might not be true, but the insight is timeless.
Here’s another story: When I was in college, we were debating in intro to philosophy the differences between treating men and women “equally” versus treating them the “same.” At first blush, the two things sound synonymous, but they’re not (indeed the difference illuminates the chasm of difference between classical liberalism and socialism, but that’s a topic for another day). I pointed out that there were some firefighter programs that had different physical requirements for male applicants and female ones (this was before it was particularly controversial—outside discussions of Foucault—to assume there were clear differences between sexes). Female applicants had to complete an obstacle course carrying a 100-pound dummy, but men had to carry a 200-pound dummy, or something like that. A puckish freshperson named Jonah Goldberg said: “I don’t really care if a firefighter is a man, a woman, or a gorilla, I’d just like them to be able to rescue me from a fire.”
A woman sitting in front of me wheeled around and womansplained to me that “you can always just hire two women.”
I shot back something like, “You could also hire 17 midgets, that’s not the point.”
(I apologize for using the word midget, which wasn’t on the proscribed terms list at the time.)
But here’s the thing: Sometimes it is the point. Whether you’re talking about spoons or little people, the case for efficiency is just one case among many. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s an important one, but it’s not the only one. Sometimes older children are told to bring their little brothers or sisters along on some trip. They’ll complain, “But they’ll just slow us down!” or, “But they aren’t allowed on the big kid rides.” Parents understand the point, but they are not prioritizing efficiency over love. Or, they’re prioritizing a different efficiency: Not being stuck with a little kid who’s crying all day because he or she was left behind.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer is when the chess tutor Bruce Pandolfini, played by Ben Kingsley, tells the chess prodigy’s parents that they have to forbid their son from playing pickup chess in the park because he learns bad chess habits there. The mom says “Not playing in the park would kill him. He loves it.”
Kingsley replies, accurately, that it “just makes my job harder.”
And the mom says, “Then your job is harder.”
I love that. I love it precisely because it recognizes that good parents recognize that there are trade-offs in life and that the best option isn’t always the most efficient one.
This is one of those places where you can see how wisdom and expertise can diverge from one another.
The Unity of Goodness
Efficiency can mean different things in different contexts. In business, it means profit maximization (or cost reduction, which is often the same thing). In sports, it means winning. Always giving the ball to the best player annoys the other players who want their own shot at glory, but so long as he can be counted on to score, most coaches will err on the side of winning. Starting one-legged players will wildly improve a basketball team’s diversity score, but it’s unlikely to improve the score that matters to coaches—or fans.
I’ve long argued that there’s something in the progressive mind that dislikes this whole line of thinking. They often tend to find the idea of trade-offs to be immoral or offensive. I call it the “unity of goodness” worldview. Once you develop an ear for it, you can hear it everywhere. “I refuse to believe that economic growth has to come at the expense of the environment.” “There’s no downside to putting women in combat.” “I don’t want to live in a society where families have to choose between X and Y,” or “I for one reject the idea that we have to sacrifice security for freedom—or freedom for security.” Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were masters at declaring that all hard choices were “false choices”—as if only mean-spirited people would say you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
Nowhere is this mindset more on display in environmentalism. Everyone hawking the Green New Deal insists that it’s win-win all the way down. It’s Bastiat’s broken window parable on an industrialized scale. Spending trillions to switch to less efficient forms of energy will boost economic growth and create jobs, they insist. I’d have much more respect for these arguments if they simply acknowledged that doing a fraction of what they want will come at considerable cost.
Consider Greta Thunberg, the latest child redeemer of the climate change movement. She hates planes because they spew CO2. That’s why she sailed from Sweden to a conference in New York. As symbolism, it worked, at least for the people who already agree with her. But in economic terms, she might as well have raised the Spoon Banner off the main mast of her multi-million-dollar craft (that may have a minimal carbon footprint now, but required an enormous carbon down-payment to create). The organizers of this stunt had to fly two people to New York to bring the ship back across the Atlantic. And scores of reporters flew across the Atlantic to cover her heroic act of self-denial. Her nautical virtue signaling came at a price.
The organizers insist that they will buy carbon offsets to compensate for the damage done. But that’s just clever accounting. The cost is still real. And that’s not the only cost. It took her fifteen days to get to America. In other words, she actually proved the point of many of her critics. Fossil fuels come with costs all their own—geopolitical, environmental, etc.—but the upside of those downsides is far greater efficiency. If you want to get across the Atlantic in seven hours instead of two weeks, you need fossil fuels. The efficiency of modern technology reduces costs by giving human beings more time to do other stuff.
The Conservative Planners
The unity of goodness mindset has been spreading to the right these days as well. The new conservative critics of the free market see the efficiency of the market as a threat to other good things. And they’re right, as Joseph Schumpeter explained decades ago. For instance, just as earth-moving equipment replaces ditch-diggers in the name of efficiency, robots replace crane operators, and the communities that depended on those jobs often suffer as a result.
I have no quarrel with this observation. My problem is with the way they either sell their program as cost-free, or pretend that the right experts can run things better from Washington. They know which jobs or industries need the state to protect them from the market. They know how to run Facebook or Google to improve the Gross National Virtue Index. Many of the same people who once chuckled at the Spoons story now nod sagely. I don’t mean to say that there’s no room for government to regulate economic affairs. But I am at a loss as to why I should suspend my skepticism for right-wingers when they work from the same assumptions of the left-wingers I’ve been arguing with for decades.
Embracing Trumpism to Own Trump
Instead I want—or I guess need—to talk about another trade-off. I’ve been very reluctant to weigh in on the Joe Walsh project for a bunch of reasons. The biggest is that I am friends with some of the people cheering it on. But I think I have to offer my take.
I don’t get it.
Oh, I certainly understand the desire to see a primary challenger to Trump. I share that desire. And I understand the political calculation behind the effort. It’s like when one little league team brings in some dismayingly brawny and hirsute player from Costa Rica as a ringer. The other teams feel like they have to get their own 22-year-olds with photoshopped birth certificates in order to compete. My friend Bill Kristol is convinced that Trump must be defeated and that Walsh is just the mongoose to take on the Cobra-in-Chief.
I try not to recycle metaphors or analogies too much, but this seems like another example of a Col. Nicholson move. As I’ve written before, Col. Nicholson was the Alec Guinness character in The Bridge Over the River Kwai. The commanding officer of a contingent of mostly British POWs being held by the Japanese, Nicholson at first follows the rules and refuses to cooperate with his captors in their effort to use British captives as slave labor for a bridge project. But then his pride kicks in and he decides he will show the Japanese what real soldiering is like, agreeing to build the bridge as a demonstration of British superiority in civil engineering. [Spoiler alert] It’s only at the end of the film that he realizes that building the bridge may have been a kind of short-sighted moral victory, but in reality he was helping the Japanese kill allied troops because the bridge was going to be used for shipping Japanese troops and ammunition. When this realization finally arrives, he exclaims, “My God, what have I done?”
Walsh’s primary brief against Trump is that Trump is temperamentally unfit for office and a con man. Fair enough. But he has to focus his indictment on Trump’s erratic behavior. Why? Because he’s a terrible spokesman for much of the rest of the case against Trump. I may not call myself “Never Trump” any more, but I was in 2016. And back then, the argument against Trump wasn’t simply that he was erratic. It was also that he wasn’t a conservative, that he happily dabbled in racism and bigotry, and that he was crude, ill-informed, and narcissistically incapable of putting his personal interests and ego aside for the good of the country. I’m sure I’m leaving a few other things out. But you get the point.
Walsh may be sincere in his remorse over all the racist and incendiary things he said in the very recent past. He may regret supporting his anti-Semitic friend Paul Nehlen, though I haven’t found evidence of that. But none of that history should be seen as qualifications for the presidency, the Republican nomination, or support from conservatives.
And yet, it is precisely these things that make him attractive to his conservative supporters. Trump is an entertainer who trolls his enemies with offensive statements for attention, so let’s find someone who does the exact same thing!
Walsh may have been a one-term congressman, but his true vocation was as a shock-jock trolling provocateur. It’s ironic. As I’ve argued countless times, much of Trump’s bigotry in 2016 stemmed less from any core convictions than from a deep belief that the GOP’s base voters were bigoted and he needed to feed them red meat. Trump's reluctance to repudiate David Duke derived primarily from his ridiculous assumption that Duke had a large constituency he didn’t want to offend. He may have believed the Birther stuff, but he peddled it because that’s what his fans wanted. And Joe Walsh was one of those fans.
It may also be true that Walsh never really believed most of the bilge he was peddling and that he was doing the same thing Trump did—feeding the trolls—on a smaller scale. But if that’s the case, then he’s a con man, too.
I don’t want to beat up on Walsh too much because, again, his epiphany may be sincere. There are lots of people who pushed certain arguments too far only to recognize that the payoff was Trump and the transformation of conservatism into a form of right-wing identity politics. There are a lot of Col. Nicholsons out there. And I have too much respect for Bill Kristol to believe that he would lend his support to someone he believed to be as bigoted as the man Walsh seemed to be a few years ago.
But from where I sit, the prize we should keep our eyes on isn’t defeating Trump; it’s keeping conservatism from succumbing to Trumpism after he’s gone. This isn’t easy, and no tactic is guaranteed to be successful. We’ve never been here before. My own approach is to agree with Trump policies when I think they’re right—judges, buying Greenland, etc.—and disagreeing when they’re wrong. My own crutch is to simply tell the truth as I see it, regardless of whether it fits into some larger political agenda or strategy. Truth is always a legitimate defense of any statement.
But for those who see themselves as political players as well as public intellectuals, I think this is a terrible mistake. Intellectually and morally, the case for continued opposition to—or skepticism about, Trump cannot—or rather must not—be reduced to simple Trump hatred. But by rallying around Walsh—instead of, say, Mark Sanford, or Justin Amash, or, heh, General Mattis—that’s what it looks like. Because you can’t say, “I’m standing on principle in my opposition to a bigoted troll and con man as the leader of my party and my country and that’s why I am supporting a less successful bigoted troll and con man for president.” Walsh isn’t a conservative alternative to Trump; he’s an alternative version of Trump. And his candidacy only makes sense if you take the “binary choice” and “Flight 93” logic of 2016 and cast Trump in the role of Hillary.
Let’s imagine the Walsh gambit works beyond anyone’s dreams and Joe Walsh ends up getting the GOP nomination (a fairly ludicrous thought experiment, I know). If so, I have no doubt that my friend Bill Kristol will say, a la Col. Nicholson, “My God, what have I done.”
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: It’s good to be home. The beasts were delighted to see us. Everything is settling back to normal, except for one intriguing development. I think Zoë has finally had enough with Pippa’s tennis ball routine. The other day on the midday walk with the pack, Kirsten managed to film Zoë putting an end to the tennis ball shenanigans. She took the ball and buried it. It was, to use an inapt phrase, a baller move—and she was unapologetic about it. Maybe she just didn’t like all the commotion with the other dogs, because she’s tolerant of the tennis ball stuff again. Or maybe she was being protective of her sister given that many of the other dogs in the pack are known thieves. Regardless, they’re doing well and having fun.
If you haven’t tuned into The Remnant lately, please give it another try. The first episode of the week was with Niall Ferguson and the feedback has been great. The latest episode is with my friend and AEI colleague Adam White on all things constitutional. Word of mouth is really important in building up audiences, so if you can spread the word about The Remnant or this “news”letter, I’d be grateful.
Last week’s G-File
This week’s first Remnant, with Niall Ferguson
Trump's not going crazy; he's just lost his nemesis
This week’s second Remnant, with Adam White
Biden can only win by running a "front-porch campaign"
The latest GLoP
And now, the weird stuff.
A sign of the end times
What is this
A chimpanzee uses Instagram
Quite the prank
Cows are funny
Star Wars sets, then and now
Florida Man doesn't disappoint
Hard nope (again)
There's a first time for everything
Living his best life
I hate it when this happens
I like hats
The hero we deserve