Walk, Then Run
What government is for.
Dear Reader (Including Louie Gohmert, who, well, I can’t even),
So, in part to atone for the utter lack of punditry in Wednesday’s … special G-File, I’m going to get to the politics stuff. But I want to start at some altitude, so, as the cat hanging from the rope says, hang in there.
In the middle of the movie Traffic, there’s an odd little riff, not even a monologue. Benicio Del Toro, a conscience-stricken Mexican police officer, meets with some American DEA agents to talk about drugs and corruption in Tijuana. Those details don’t matter, but in the middle of the conversation, in a swimming pool no less, Del Toro asks, “You like baseball?”
He continues: “We need lights for the parks so kids can play at night. So it’s safe. So they can play baseball. So they no become—everybody like baseball. Everybody likes parks.”
And that’s it. He goes back to shop talk.
But later (spoiler alert), the movie ends with Del Toro at a night time baseball game, his hands clasped together, a look of almost prayerful satisfaction or gratitude on his face.
You can read what you want into it, but a common—and, I think, correct—-interpretation is that this was the whole point. What point? Well, the point of his travails and sacrifices. But also the whole point of what, in effect, the police are for: protecting kids and making sure they’re safe. But not just safe. Keeping a kid at home is one way to keep a kid safe. Indeed, the word “keep” originally meant to “guard” or “protect” or to “restrain someone from doing something.” A “keep” is a fortress or castle designed to protect its inhabitants from marauders.
The broader, nobler point is not to keep kids from danger in that sense, but to let kids be out in the world to enjoy the simple joys of being kids, outside, doing stuff like playing baseball.
I know I’m a broken record on this (Hayek-inspired) idea of the English garden as a metaphor for one view of the role of the state. Here’s how I put it in my book:
For instance, the French gardens at Versailles, with their ornate, geometric, nature-defying designs, illustrate how the gardener imposes his vision on nature. Nature is brought to heel by reason. The classic English garden, on the other hand, was intended to let nature take its course, to let each bush, tree, and vegetable achieve its own ideal nature. The role of the English gardener was to protect his garden by weeding it, maintaining fences, and being ever watchful for predators and poachers.
I went on (literally at book length). But you get the point. That’s what Del Toro was getting at. Police are being their best selves when they are visible in the background as a reassuring presence or, even better, not visible—-not because they’re not needed, but because they’ve done their jobs in such a way that the need is not powerfully felt in the normal course of life. The same principle applies to all sorts of things. The military does its job best when we don’t feel like we need the military. There are times when we desperately need doctors, but if you need to be surrounded by doctors, things are not going great.
I honestly think the same holds for the government generally.
John Podhoretz pointed me to this quote from Nathan Glazer, talking about how New York City took its eye off the ball in the 1960s.
New York stopped trying to do well the kinds of things a city can do, and started trying to do the kinds of things a city cannot do. The things a city can do include keeping its streets and bridges in repair, building new facilities to accommodate new needs and a shifting population, picking up the garbage, and policing the public environment. Among the things it can’t do are redistributing income on a large scale and solving the social and personal problems of people who, for whatever reason, are engaged in self-destructive behavior.
There are a lot of different perspectives on what government—local, state, federal—should or shouldn’t do. But what we often forget is there is an enormous agreement as well. We don’t argue about that stuff precisely because we agree on it. And if we do argue, it’s not because most people think the government shouldn’t be doing it, but because the government is doing it wrong or badly. Every opponent and proponent of gun control I know thinks the cops should combat gun crimes. Every champion of foreign policy restraint I’ve ever met—on the left and on the right—thinks we should have a military. They just think we should spend less on it or that it should do less (or both). Even the vast majority of libertarians agree that roads should be maintained, the food supply kept safe, kids educated, contracts enforced, whatever. They have ideas about limiting the role of government in providing these services, but they don't think the government shouldn’t provide them.
As I’ve written before, perhaps the most fatal flaw of Democrats is that they take it as a given that government can do the normal stuff well. As a result, they focus on evermore ambitious goals for government. Many progressives like to blame all of their failures to achieve their more ambitious aspirations on the right’s “anti-government ideology.” I’m not saying they’re entirely wrong to do so, but what I think they fail to appreciate is that most voters, even most Republicans, aren’t anti-government ideologues. They’re just skeptical of new initiatives when the government has so much trouble—and charges so much—with the stuff it’s supposed to do.
If progressives really wanted to restore faith in government, they’d concentrate all of their energies on tackling the stuff already on the government’s plate. If you’ve ever been a boss or a manager, or frankly a coach, parent, mentor, teacher, or any other person in a supervisory or advisory role, you understand the basic principle. Want to climb Mount Everest? Show me you can climb some smaller mountains first. Want to be the starting forward on the basketball team? Show me you can be a great substitute player first. Want to be a professional boxer? Let’s see how you do as an amateur first. Do the job. Demonstrate basic proficiency. Execute the job you’ve been given well, and then we’ll talk about giving you more responsibility. Walk, then run, and then we’ll get into a fun argument about whether it’s stupid you think you can fly.
Normalcy, rightly understood.
I’ve hammered Joe Biden for misreading his “mandate” dozens of times. He campaigned on basic competence, decency, bipartisanship, etc. And even when he didn’t campaign on that—he did spend a lot of time in his basement, after all, and he did pander to the base quite a bit—that was the subtext of his entire candidacy. But then, after the Democrats won two seats in Georgia and the Republicans soiled themselves on January 6, he let his ego and resentments get the better of him. He let a bunch of liberal historians convince him he could deliver a new New Deal and be a more “transformational” president than Barack Obama. If my friend Tevi Troy updates his book Intellectuals and the American Presidency, he’ll have to add a devastating chapter on how Doris Kearns Goodwin, Eddie Glaude Jr., Walter Isaacson, and Annette Gordon-Reed—the historians who advised him “to go big”—played a central role in ruining his presidency. (His chapter on the Trump presidency would be a page-turner too. Maybe it’ll come out in time for Peter Navarro to read in his cell.)
Remember, in many ways the worst of the pandemic was still ahead of us when Biden was inaugurated. I don’t blame Biden for this, but it’s not a trivial fact that more people died of COVID on his watch than on Trump’s. And pandemics are one of those things that government is supposed to handle. The American people rightly wanted government to do that job. I’m not saying that Biden mishandled the pandemic—that’s a different argument—I’m saying that handling the pandemic would have been enough. There was no groundswell for abandoning Afghanistan or spending trillions more on social service programs, no matter how many times Bernie Sanders and his crowd claimed otherwise.
One of the remarkable aspects of the slow-rolling progressive nakba that Biden’s presidency is turning into is how policy arguments played, at best, a secondary role to arguments over spending money. Instead of arguing about how best to craft policies to deal with problems—real and alleged—progressives found themselves talking about dollar amounts as if they were a substitute for policies. Bernie Sanders adopted the bizarre position that his demand for $6 trillion on top of the trillions Democrats already spent on COVID “relief” and infrastructure was itself a kind of compromise. Hence spending a mere $3.5 trillion should be seen as a kind of minimum down payment. The idea of spending money smarter played the same role as using ducks as toilet paper. It just didn’t enter into it.
By the way, right now 93 percent of the $122 billion set aside for schools as part of the American Rescue Plan hasn’t been spent. Just try to propose diverting some of that money to making schools safer in the wake of the Uvalde massacre.
Part of my theory of why everything got reduced to dollar amounts has to do with the moral hazard of the Trump presidency. Trump saw all policy through the prism of stump speeches and press releases. When it came to spending—and tax cutting—he just wanted big, impressive-sounding numbers. By abandoning any commitment—even rhetorical—to reducing spending, debt, or deficits, he contributed to a partisan environment where Democrats would feel liberated to outbid Republicans (as is their wont).
But that’s only part of it. The more important part of the story is that progressives spent much of the last decade convincing themselves that inflation isn’t a thing—or if it is a thing, it’s a good thing. Modern Monetary Theory was one facet of this magical thinking. Remember the $2 trillion coin? But also, progressives convinced themselves that expanding the baseline of the budget is a good in and of itself. That’s because of the stupid way we talk about spending in this country. A reduction in the rate of growth is called a “cut” and an actual cut is called a heartless attack on the most needy, you monster. (It’s because of this sort of nonsense that Biden thinks he can brag about reducing the deficit.)
If, down the road, progressives conclude we have to adopt “Scandinavian” style consumption and wealth taxes to pay for a “Scandinavian” style welfare state, so be it. (I put Scandinavian in scare quotes because most of the people who talk about Scandinavian social policy have no idea how Scandinavian economies actually work.)
But those are the people Biden has surrounded himself with. In their partisan and ideological myopia they are the functional equivalent of MAGA types, hell bent on Making Progressivism Great Again. I think my track record on beating up on the original progressives of the Progressive Era is beyond reproach. But there’s an irony here. The O.G. O.P.s were all about policy. They wanted to import the scientific method into government. That was the whole point. They thought “disinterested” experts knew enough about how things really worked that they could take the politics out of politics and just follow facts, data, and the new “social” science. They were wrong in important regards. But at least they leaned into policy. And some of those policies—in areas like public health and safety in particular—were real improvements.
A real return to normalcy wouldn’t just involve rejecting the nastiness and disorienting weirdness of the Trump presidency—it would involve getting back to basics. And by that I don’t just mean living within our means, though that would be nice. I mean conceiving of government as an institution that needs to do only a few things—and needs to do them well. If you look at many of the challenges bedeviling the Biden administration—baby formula shortages, supply chain issues, rising crime, inflation, the hangover from Afghanistan, the looming student debt relief asininity, even election reform and last year’s school closures —they all stem from either letting base party politics drive policy or from a negligent disregard for the basics of public policy.
Work on getting the lights at the baseball field working first. Then we can have a conversation about “transforming” this or making that “great” again.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: I had to take poor Pippa to the groomers. As fate would have it, I’ve never taken her there before. I’ve always had to do pick up. I had no idea, despite the Fair Jessica’s accounts, just how much she hates going. She gave me the worst stink eye ever on the drive down. I truly struggled to get her out of the car. And while we were waiting to go in, she shivered as badly as she does at the vet. We’re going to find a different groomer because we think part of the problem is that they actually just don’t like dogs there. Lots of people say we should use a mobile groomer, but amazingly, all the ones we’ve called say Pippa—sweet, harmless little Pippa—is too big. Anyway, all has been forgiven. And she looks marvelous and her belly is baby seal soft, which creates a positive incentive structure for more belly rubs. Zoë, meanwhile, is mellowing with age. She even let Warren ride shotgun on the midday adventure. There was a time when we were concerned that Zoë wouldn’t let Warren in the car (Warren, by the way, is part of Kirsten’s extended pack and a sweetheart). And Gracie is taking it easy.
And now, the weird stuff