Society is constantly adapting to all sorts of changes

Good piece in today’s WSJ, on the history of doomsday scenarios and apocalypse fatigue.

This has nothing to do with the soundness of climate science. The games begin when economists get their hands on scientific projections and try to translate temperatures into human impacts. They conduct statistical analyses of the effects that small year-to-year temperature variations have on things like mortality and economic growth, and try to extrapolate to the effect of very large, slow shifts in underlying climate. This creates absurd estimates that ignore human society’s capacity for adaptation. This is the latest iteration of the same mistake environmental catastrophists seem insistent on making in every generation.

This question of adaptation, and how to account for a future different from the present, is not an esoteric detail for science and economics. It is fundamental to understanding the challenge posed by climate change.

If you imagine society is static and incapable of innovation, the prospect of climate change must be terrifying—all of humanity paralyzed like Michelle Pfeiffer in “What Lies Beneath,” watching the bathtub fill slowly with water.

But horror movies are not reality. The 1960s overpopulation scare made sense, assuming that society would not find more productive ways to farm. The 1970s fear of impending limits to growth made sense, assuming that society could not expand a finite supply of resources. Those doomsday predictions failed because the underlying assumption was mistaken. Society is constantly adapting to all sorts of changes. If a projection of climate-change cost ignores adaptation, we can safely ignore it.

Posted in Environmentalism | Leave a comment

Book review: Without Precedent

Interesting book review over at NRO.  Surprising to me how even much more political that seminal SCOTUS decision was.  Here are three excerpts:


A new biography explores the long-running rivalry between the Federalist chief justice John Marshall and his Democratic–Republican second cousin, President Thomas Jefferson.

In the American republic’s early days, a seat on the United States Supreme Court was not the coveted plum that it is today. The first three chief justices each served for an average of less than four years, and associate justices were also likely to leave the Court while still in the prime of their working lives. The reason? The Court had limited jurisdiction, heard few cases, and did not pay particularly well. For a talented lawyer, private practice or political office was usually preferable to a judicial backwater convened in an unused committee room in the basement of the Capitol.

In Without Precedent, law professor Joel Richard Paul tells the story of John Marshall, the man who changed all that. Appointed to the court by the last Federalist president in the waning days of his administration, Marshall was seated at a time of his Jeffersonian opponents’ ascendance. He would spend the next 34 years leading a Court that became much closer to a co-equal branch of government than any of the Founders had anticipated. In doing so, Marshall imposed a Federalist vision on often-reluctant Democratic–Republican political branches, cementing his own vision of what the United States should become: one nation, rather than a confederation of disparate sovereignties.

*    *    *

Some of the circumstances are astounding to the modern observer. Although the case was filed directly to the Supreme Court in 1801, it was not heard until 1803 because the Democratic–Republican Congress had cancelled the Court’s 1802 session. And though Marshall was a key figure in the case, as his job had been to deliver the commissions, he declined to recuse himself.

The trial itself was no less bizarre. Madison ignored it entirely and did not send a representative from the government, claiming that the Court lacked jurisdiction. The testimony was a problem, since the person best qualified to establish the chain of events surrounding Marbury’s commission was sitting on the bench and unable to testify. The solution was to call Marshall’s brother, James, to testify about how he had been the one assigned to deliver them. Paul, in comparing this tale to Marshall’s correspondence from the period, notes that the story “made no sense” and that “it is apparent that James Marshall perjured himself in the Supreme Court and that the chief justice not only knew this but probably asked him to lie.”

That is a bold claim, but it is one backed up by the facts. Though it is shocking that Marshall, heretofore portrayed as a paragon of virtue, should stoop to commit a fraud on his own court, it is also believable. In a time of political strife, thinking that the fate of the nation rested on his shoulders, Marshall did what many enthusiastic partisans do against their better judgment: He lied for the greater good as he saw it. The episode illustrates the lengths to which partisanship drives otherwise decent people, and shows that the founding generation was no less susceptible to temptation than our own.

*    *    *

It was the direct filing to the Supreme Court on which the case ultimately turned. The Judiciary Act of 1789 had granted the Court jurisdiction over writs of mandamus concerning federal officials; that is to say, if a federal official refused to do his job, you could ask the Supreme Court to make him do it. Marshall, writing for a unanimous Court, found that Marbury did have a right to the commission, but that the remedy he requested — the writ of mandamus — was unavailable, as Congress did not have the right to expand the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction to include granting it.

The ruling was, as scholars have long recognized, a smart one. While holding that the Jefferson administration was in the wrong, he claimed that he could not stop it and so imposed no penalty or order. This left Jefferson and Madison nothing to which they might object. Had he ordered Madison to deliver the commission, Madison would likely have ignored him, just as he had ignored the case from the beginning. The Court’s authority would be diminished and the theory of judicial review weakened. Instead, he told Madison to do nothing, and Madison, by default, complied.

And it worked! Although the Court would not strike down another federal law until 1857, the principle became well-established. So too did Marshall’s leadership of the Court which, despite the continual addition of Jeffersonian judges, often issued unanimous opinions written by its chief justice. The force of Marshall’s reasoning and the charm of his personality were such that ideological opponents on the bench sooner or later came around to his way of thinking.

While we now speak of the Founding Fathers as a group, the steady stream of conflicts in Marshall’s life reminds us that their time was no less disputatious than our own. Marshall, as one of the younger and longer-lived members of that generation, got into more than his share of disputes, carrying his version of the ideals of the revolution into practice long after Jefferson and Madison were retired from public life. Their conflicts resolved into the political theory we now think of as American constitutionalism, and the result was the federal union that has endured until today.

Posted in Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

Scope creep

Victor Davis Hanson writes about the homelessness crisis in CA and the slippery slope that got them there:

In the eternal search for perfect justice and equality, what starts out as liberal can quickly end up as progressively absurd. The logic of equality of result, rather than equality of opportunity, demands that there is always one more group, one more grievance, one more complaint against the shrinking and overwhelmed majority.

The conservative ancient Athenian philosopher Plato once made his megaphone Socrates lament that in ancient Athens’ nonstop search for perfect equality, soon even the horses would have to be accorded the same privileges as humans.

Socrates’ fantasy was an exaggeration intended as a reminder about the craziness of always-creeping mandated equality. Now it seems not far from the mainstream positions of animal-rights groups.

If we insist that the human experience is not tragic and cyclical, but instead must always bend on some predetermined arc to absolute equality and fairness, then unfortunate results must follow.

One, what is welcomed as progressive on Monday is derided as intolerable on Tuesday. The French and Russian revolutions went through several such cycles. After reformers had removed absolute rulers, the reformers were soon derided as too timid. Then came far more radical revolutionaries, who were in turn beheaded or shot as dangerous counter-revolutionaries.

Second, when rules and regulations are always watered down as too exclusionary, the descent to no rules is quite short. The ultimate destination is nihilism and chaos. We see that now in Venezuela and Cuba — and increasingly in California as well.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Populism and responses to it

Two very interesting pieces about the rise of populism and the response to it.  From Michael Brendan Dougherty at NRO.

First Dougherty argues that “the center left is on life support” as “the populism is embraced by globalism’s losers flourishes, in Europe and America”

A thoroughgoing Marxist might look at the decline of the center-left parties in a certain way. Mindful of the decline of political power in organized labor — a decline that they could not or would not reverse — center-left parties tapped into the fundraising to be had in upwardly mobile “wine track” constituencies in urban areas and among the young, seeking out voters who were turned off by social traditionalism of right and center-right parties. In many countries, they also also turned to immigrant communities to build rainbow coalitions.

As liberals backed away from the hard politics of material redistribution, they found themselves trying to redistribute the honorific resources of society. Instead of dramatically expanding day care, you could talk about single mothers as heroes. Instead of integrating recent migrant communities in Europe, you could preach the end of the old national cultures as a liberation. Instead of building an economy that provided the material basis for family formation, you could praise nontraditional households and identities. Decades ago, it was the greedy plutocrat or boss who was the enemy. Now the enemy was the stultifying old culture that honored men who “worked hard and played by the rules.”

The results are everywhere to see. Almost anywhere that there is economic stagnation or deindustrialization — East Germany, Northern industrial towns in Britain, southern Italy, Appalachia — there is a populist politics that wants to reverse, slow down, or at least tame the economic and social consequences of globalism. Will there even be a center Left in five years?

In a separate piece the same author offers 3 potential responses to the challenge of populism:

Passive resistance: Wait for populism to fall on its face.

You may not wait long. Because technocratic liberalism did such a thorough job progressively stigmatizing populist ideas as low-status, marginal, and cretinous, the ranks of populist political movements are overstuffed with marginal, low-status cretins. Even if the voters empower them in protest of, say, a Hillary Clinton, surely the charlatans and jerks in the populist movement will immediately reveal their rank incompetence and be swiftly removed from office.

Triangulation: Take the criticism to heart and take some of populists’ issues on board.

This is the strategy of adjusting liberalism in order to save it. You can compromise with populism to a degree, in the name of preserving democracy. Perhaps you find trade barriers economically inefficient, but you can at least accept them as being the result of the democratic process. Perhaps you can enthusiastically accept the populist demand for Britain to regain its political sovereignty, and by doing so guide it to maintain the closest possible trading relations with Europe. Perhaps you can protect your broadly tolerant society, and maintain the racial and religious diversity your policies have created, by slowing down the rate of future immigration and strengthening a core national culture until it has assimilative power.

Brinksmanship: Assimilate the worst features of populism in order to defeat it.

Finally, you could determine that the stakes are existential and dig in for a ferocious battle. If you believe that populism and nationalism will, if unimpeded, vitiate your democracy, destroy your freedom to express your views, fill your society with an irrational fear of foreigners, and make your country an authoritarian nightmare, you could . . . opt to do all those nasty things on behalf of liberalism. Don’t like the democratic verdict? Ignore it. Or delegitimize it as the product of nefarious Russian interference. Think the populists are leveraging digital platforms to advance their agenda? Make legal-sounding threats until Silicon Valley transforms itself into the de facto speech police and ministry of propaganda for the liberal order. Encourage your most unstable people in utter hysteria and accept that a few of them may try to shoot congressman or assault people in the streets on behalf of the liberal world order. Make memes celebrating them.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Your so-called England is a hoax!

Interesting post over at NRO on national identity’s role in politics.  The author warns, “If post-nationalists succeed in deconstructing national loyalties, they will find that loyalties based on blood or creed come roaring back.”

After a brief introduction, the New York Times narrator comes to his point. “If you think about it, nationality is weird. The idea that you identify with millions of strangers just based on borders. That’s because national identity is made up” (emphasis mine).

He goes on to explain: “National identity is the myth that built the modern world, but it also primes us for dictatorship, racism, genocide.” …

I pause to note here that we’re glossing over quite a bit. Nationalism as a political movement was also what made democracy possible; it helped to overthrow ancient monarchies that routinely bequeathed nations with foreign rulers who just happened to inherit the chair. Further, national identity helped to create the social trust necessary to institute massive social-welfare systems. We might also note that while the Nazis made use of national loyalty, so too did the Poles, the French, the British, and the Americans who resisted and defeated the Nazi regime. And they could not have defeated the Nazis without that loyalty. …

“The national myth is powerful. It isn’t real. But that doesn’t matter. We’ve been taught for so long that this is who we are. Building a world based on shared values really means creating a new myth. But that only works if it feels as powerful as the last one.” (Emphasis mine)

Where to even begin? Well, here’s one way. Explainer journalism reflects the flaws of the Millennial generation that practices it. It combines precociousness with a fundamental intellectual laziness. It takes academic jargon in hand and whirls it around like a magic wand. Don’t like a concept? All you have to do is call it “contested” or “socially constructed” and it disappears.

What the authors of “The Interpreter” have done is discovered that the concept of national identity cannot be reduced down to simple mathematical relationships. Because national identity assumes into itself facts that derive from social interaction and history, the explainer concludes that it is a myth. It isn’t real. It’s just made up. Of course, lots of things that you can study have these properties: languages are “made up” in this way. They change over time. Their uses vary in history and social context. English shows evidence of assimilating Latin, French, and Greek vocabulary over its life. It is conditioned by history. But it would be stupid to say that English is somehow unreal. N’est-ce pas?

The “Interpreter” authors have lots of other tricks. They completely elide the difference between national identity and modern nationalism as a political movement, giving both the late birthdate of the latter. Nationality is an ancient concept, going back to antiquity. It is a major theme throughout the Biblical narrative.

The jargon or the slick graphics have to be deployed, because if you actually reduced their explainer down to the core elements, it would be laughed out of the room. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I know you think England is a real thing. And Englishness, too. But I’m here to inform you that people in Cornwall were speaking Cornish well into the reign of Queen Victoria! Your so-called England is a hoax!”

The video also constantly invokes borders, for a reason: To make nationality sound silly. It indeed would be dumb to base your identity “just based on borders,” but in fact the relationship is the other way around. The identity is based on a shared homeland, or territory, along with shared law. National loyalty makes possible the kind of self-sacrifice that is necessary for living in peace with strangers. And in fact, the notable thing about national loyalty isn’t the times when, aggravated, it motivates us in war. War was very common before modern nationalism. Much more notable is the everyday peace and neighborliness that national loyalty fosters between people who may not share a tribe or a religious creed. Without nationality, we may still be trying to settle the wars of religion. With it, we were able to contribute to common treasuries whereby we provide for one other regardless of our ethnic background and religion. The border is just what you draw around this home.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

A disaster for American discourse

Charles C.W. Cooke argues that CNN’s ‘Stand Up’ Town Hall Was a Disaster for Our Discourse

Last night’s CNN Town Hall is being touted this morning as an “extraordinary moment,” a “conversation,” and a “debate.” In truth, it was none of those things. Rather, it was a disaster for American discourse, the ripples of which will be felt for years to come. One of the students who survived the shooting described it cynically as a “Comedy Central Roast of the NRA and the coming out party for my ADHD.” This, though, isn’t quite right. It was televised catharsis. And it was supposed to be.

Catharsis is good and necessary. So is grief. Anger can be, too. But the these things are not the same as debate or conversation, and, in some cases, they serve as brutally effective prophylactics against deep and constructive engagement. By encouraging legitimately distraught and enraged citizens to shout at politicians, CNN ensured that we could continue to conduct this dispute on a faulty and toxic premise: Namely, that the root problem here is that some among us simply refuse acknowledge that school shootings are an abomination. But that, as ever, is not the root problem. Indeed, contrary to the implications we heard last night, we are not having an argument about whether the victims of tragedy are really grieving, or about whether the footage taken from within the school is harrowing, or about whether these events should be stopped. We are having an argument over precisely what we can — and should — do. Those with considered opinions on that subject are not going to change them in the face of untrammeled distress, because they had already factored that distress into their thinking. Just as protesters against the Iraq War or the Patriot Act would not have changed their minds if they had been forced to watch footage of 9/11 or to meet repeatedly with the openly grieving families, those skeptical of gun control are not going to change their minds when confronted by tormented victims. That’s not what we’re arguing about.

Likewise, the public chanting of “do something!” will change no minds, because, in practice, “do something!” means “do what I want,” and we’re already arguing about that. As has been made obvious by the reaction to President Trump’s newfound enthusiasm for arming teachers, those shouting “do something” are just as capable of casting certain reactions as unhelpful and insane as are those on the other side whom they have deemed to be terminally recalcitrant. And so we’re back to square one.

Or, actually, we’re probably now even further back than that. A lot of Americans watched last night as a room full of people cheered for banning all semi-automatic weapons, and as a number of speakers cast their political opponents as murderers. What do we think the likely result of this will be? A newfound political harmony? Or a surge in NRA membership, a deepening of the culture war, an increase in gun sales, and a growing belief that “the other side” really does hate you? I daresay that lots of people who dislike firearms enjoyed watching Marco Rubio being berated. Indeed, if Twitter is any indication, they really, really did. But Marco Rubio’s views on this issue are not unpopular in Florida, and they are not unpopular in the country at large. I imagine that those cheering along with the castigations imagined that they were the person doing the berating. Millions, though, imagined they were Rubio. And they’ll proceed from there in future.

UPDATE:  2/23/18

John Podhoretz writes

Here’s the thing, my gun-restricting friends (and I have many). Those 35 percent of American households [who own a firearm] are geographically distributed in such a way that you’ll never secure your objective if you cannot engage the people who own guns in a conversation that begins with the proposition that you are better than they are.

Because they don’t think you are better than they are. They think they are just fine.

If they’re hunters, they do not believe hunting is evil. They think hunting is a noble sport, a proud tradition and a way of living off the land.

If they’re gun owners out of a sense of a need for protection, they believe what they are doing is providing security for themselves, their families and their property. They think they are being self-reliant, and the virtue of self-reliance is one of the most deeply ingrained American notions. Just ask Ralph Waldo Emerson.

And if they want guns just to want guns, they believe that is no different from wanting a Louboutin or a Birkin bag. They’re not demanding you stop wearing your fancy shoes, why should you control what it is they wish to purchase?

What you have to understand is that while you believe you have all the moral force on your side, you cannot make a gun owner believe that he is the Parkland shooter. Because he isn’t. And let’s face it — somewhere, deep in your heart, you think he is.

So if you genuinely want to alter the trajectory of America’s gun culture, stop thinking of yourself as a moral paragon and the people whose rights you are seeking to curtail as potential mass murderers and start thinking of them as fellow citizens you have to convince.

Heather Wilhelm writes that our willingness to listen to each other is rapidly vanishing.

But a televised political town hall dedicated to gun violence, held just days after a horrific high-school mass shooting — and populated by grieving parents and students — could only serve as a recipe for misery.

If you did watch it, however, you may have noticed something odd, creeping out from behind the obviously distressing subject matter. Our political dialogue, it seems, has become increasingly Twitterized…

Here’s the thing: In the wake of mass shootings — in the wake of that horrifying, sinking “not again” gut feeling shared by almost every single person across the nation — I understand why people want to ban certain guns. I disagree with the idea, but I understand it.

But here’s my worry: In our increasingly Twitterized nation, that relatively simple concept — “I disagree with the idea, but I understand it” — seems to be an increasingly endangered thought process. Political insults, of course, are nothing new. But just last week, New York Times columnist David Brooks earned widespread scorn and evisceration for a rather mild column suggesting that all Americans, including law-abiding gun owners, are worthy of respect. Yikes.

This is disappointing, because there are concrete steps we can take to try to tackle gun violence — and perhaps even some that could be accepted on both sides of the aisle. Here at National Review, for instance, David French has offered a substantial proposal for gun-violence restraining orders, which would stop people like Nikolas Cruz from getting weapons in the first place. Could we discuss it without yelling or booing or heckling or immediately dismissing it out of hand, in the grand style of Twitter dot com?

Here’s Jonah Goldberg:

When you turn the volume to ten on everything, you shouldn’t be surprised when your opponents invent an even louder eleven. But I am disgusted by the entire spectacle, and I feel sorry for a country that thinks any of this remotely normal.


David Harsanyi writes that at the very least it was a clarifying moment:

The kids were indeed earnest, even if they were generally uneducated about gun laws, legal process, and the underpinning of the Second Amendment — which is to be expected. Those who use them as political shields, on the other hand, are cynical. Those who put them on TV to participate in a national Airing of Grievances are cynical. Those who point to the bodies of victims and argue with every American who refuses to accept the Left’s framing of the issue are the ones who deserve contempt.

What we’ve learned from the events of the past few days is that most liberals are uninterested in a holistic answer to school shootings — a unique problem detached from general violent crime, rates of gun ownership, region, or age. While there is no cure-all, a mix of improved background checks, a better reporting system, better law-enforcement reaction to threats, more community involvement, and mental-health reform could lower the number of shootings. Pulling back from the massive wall-to-wall coverage, which probably helps glorify these shooters for the next madman, might also help.

Yet as far as I can tell, banning or inhibiting gun ownership seems to be the only answer for the Left.

For instance, while we can never truly quantify how many shooters are dissuaded by new laws or restrictions, we do know some mass shooters can be stopped by armed Americans. It happens all the time. Why shouldn’t teachers and others who have a constitutional right to protect their homes and families do the same for their students? The dismissive, sneering reaction to that idea by most of the media and Democrats was telling. Now, I understand some Americans don’t want to send their kids to schools with armed teachers. That should be their choice. But the idea that a trained concealed-carry permit holder or guard couldn’t possibly stop or mitigate the damage done by a mass shooter defies reality.

So a real divide exists in America, not between those who want to “do something” and those who don’t, but between those who believe there is a natural right to own and defend oneself with a weapon — preferably a semi-automatic weapon — and those who do not. The latter position seemed to be prevalent among the young people at the town hall, and certainly among their cheering section. While I feel great sorrow for these kids and worry about my own, I have no moral duty to be on their side politically.

More immediately, events like the CNN town hall go a long way in convincing gun owners that gun-control advocates do have a desire to confiscate their weapons.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

What do we choose to accept?

Very interesting piece over at The Federalist.  Longish excerpt:

In November 2007, the novelist David Foster Wallace wrote a short essay for a special edition of The Atlantic on “The American Idea.” Writing about 9/11 and all that came after, Wallace proposed what some might consider a monstrous thought experiment:

Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, ‘sacrifices on the altar of freedom’? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?

Wallace’s point was that, in the wake of 9/11, a host of policies had been put in place—the Patriot Act, warrantless surveillance, private contractors performing military duties—without a substantive public debate about the trade-offs they represented and whether they were worth it. Wallace wanted to know what it said about us as a people that we were unable or unwilling even to consider whether some things might be more important than safety.

More than a decade later, we are still incapable of serious discussion of the trade-offs between safety and freedom. For the most part, we’re not even able to admit that such trade-offs exist.

Are you ready for another monstrous thought experiment? What if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to mass shootings is part of the price of the American idea? In some ways, mass shootings are a more apt example of what Wallace was talking about than terrorism. After all, we can arguably do something about a worldwide ideological and religious movement that uses violence as a political weapon—and we have. Whether the aggregate cost in American blood and treasure has been worth it is another question, but it suffices to say that we can do much less about a random madman intent on killing innocents than we can about ISIS and al-Qaeda.

Set aside, for now, the facile arguments for gun control half-measures that wouldn’t have stopped the Parkland shooting—or Las Vegas, Virginia Tech, Newtown, or the others. Consider instead what the Left thinks it would really take to stop these kinds of shootings: a repeal of the Second Amendment, followed by mass confiscation of firearms and subsequent heavy regulation of private gun ownership, along the lines of policies in many European countries.

[The right to bare arms] might sound academic or outlandish next to the real-life horror of a school shooting, but the fact remains that we can’t simply wave off the Second Amendment any more than we can wave off the First, or the Fourth, or any of them. They are constitutive elements of the American idea, without which the entire constitutional system would eventually collapse.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment