Identitarians vs. liberals

[I have a much better new post at Econlog, on monetary economics.]

Many intellectuals see politics in terms of left vs. right. Today, I wonder if the more important split is between those obsessed with identity politics and those who are not. In other words, left wing ideologues obsessed with identity issues are closer to white nationalists then they are to mainstream liberals (both progressives and classical liberals.)

Matt Yglesias has a cute tweet that illustrates this concept:

It seems to me that the far left and the far right increasingly share a view that identity trump’s everything else. As a result, both extremes agree that George Washington and Robert E. Lee are equally deserving (or undeserving) of being cancelled. In contrast, mainstream liberals on both the left and right believe that identity issues can be important, but lots of other stuff is also important.

White nationalists are so focused on defending white rights that they cross over from highly plausible claims (Washington’s accomplishments are more important than his faults) to much more doubtful claims, (former Confederate leaders deserve our respect.)

Extreme leftists believe that identity is such an all-important issue that Washington is roughly as tainted as Lee.

White nationalists believe that NFL teams should cancel sincere black protesters like Colin Kaepernick, while extreme leftists want to cancel highly respected scientists like Steven Pinker. Liberals believe people should be fired (if at all) only for extremely offensive views, such as advocating Nazi or KKK ideas.

At the bottom of this post you’ll see a list of the people who signed the petition favoring free speech. Notice that it includes many highly respected people on both sides of the ideological spectrum. (And one idiot, who backed off from the letter once she found out who else signed it.) Perhaps we have a new ideological spectrum, and just don’t know it yet.

Right now, I’m more worried about white nationalists, because they are the people in power in DC. But if someone claimed that 10 or 20 years from now the biggest threat will be “woke” people on the left, I would not necessarily disagree. We (liberals) are fighting a two front war. The key is to stick to our principles and don’t get drawn to either extreme based on phony “enemy of my enemy” arguments.

It’s often noted that left wing “woke” people are helping Donald Trump by pushing moderates to the right. Perhaps they believe that if only they and the white nationalists are left standing, they can win the battle. But can they? Didn’t the German communists believe they could win a battle with the fascists, once the moderate parties were made irrelevant via chaos in the streets?

[Don’t blame me for the analogy overreach—it’s Godwin’s Law.]

One solution is education. Not in the sense of telling students they should support free speech—that won’t work. You need to show them, to make them see that they should believe in free speech. Every student in high school should be exposed to several weeks of coverage of the right wing European nationalistic ideologies of the interwar years, and several weeks on left wing Maoist movements such as the Chinese Red Guards and the Khmer Rouge. They need to understand what happens when the extremes of the right or left take control. And please describe the torture in vivid detail; they also need to be toughened up. The world’s a brutal place.

PS. I waver back and forth in terms of how to view the thought control people on the left. At times their arguments seem funny, easy to mock, like something out of The Onion. Because it doesn’t affect me personally (yet), it seems like a big joke. But then I recall people I knew and respected who were badly (and unfairly) damaged by PCism run amok, back in the 1990s.

PPS. If you are a millennial interviewing for a company dominated by boomers, don’t you have an incentive to come across as a tough, irreverent person, who can take a punch and likes self-deprecating humor? Wouldn’t that make boomers feel safer about hiring the person? Or might they fear this person ends up fighting with coworkers? In other words, is it already too late? I’d be interested in the views of those closer to the job market.

PPPS. The recent NASCAR “noose hoax” perfectly encapsulates this moment in time. Some see racism everywhere, even where it doesn’t exist, while others want to scapegoat black people for mistakes made by white people.

Trump’s allies see the light

Here’s the Washington Post:

In short, Trump’s allies are admitting what numerous experts have said for months: That in order to seriously get back on track to economic recovery, we have to tame the virus first. And they’re admitting that this is a key reason he’s in trouble.

Trump bought into the “health vs. the economy” framing, which I kept arguing was wrong. Now his allies have come to the conclusion that the economy can’t get better if the virus is out of control.

In the Trumpist mythology, when he called for the LIBERATION of states from lockdowns, he was harnessing the populist rage rolling across the land over elites who were constraining Real Americans from getting back to their labor.

Trumpism’s propagandists have worked hard to keep this mythology alive. And media coverage of this or that Trump voter showcasing his disdain for masks as a badge of loyalty to him surely helps fuel it in his mind as well.

Yet it’s plainly obvious that Trump’s refusal to accept that core contrary truth — that we can’t roar back economically until the virus is tamed — is also a big reason his reelection is in trouble.

It’s not clear that Trump could have done all that much to slow the epidemic. But that’s not the point. He could have done at least a little bit to slow it. And far, far, far more importantly, he at least could have looked like he was trying to slow it down.

Trump still may win (40% chance), but this strategic mistake is making that task much harder. Perhaps Trump will be forced to provoke a military confrontation with China in October, to rescue his campaign.

PS. In a new book, Trump’s niece describes what Trump was like when young. Cheated on his SAT? Learning disabilities that make it hard for him to process information? Trashed his brother to get the family business? Reckless hyperbole that hides his pathological weaknesses and insecurities? Fakes his Christianity? No sense of humor? Bully? Narcissist? Liar? This is all new to me. Alert the media!

Don’t confuse science fiction with reality

Niall Ferguson has a Bloomberg piece that suggests we should welcome the new Cold War with China. It’s full of questionable claims:

The Chinese Communist Party caused this disaster — first by covering up how dangerous the new virus SARS-CoV-2 was, then by delaying the measures that might have prevented its worldwide spread.

The Wuhan local government did initially hide the severity of the outbreak from the authorities in Beijing, and China paid a heavy price for that crime. But if you are going to advocate a new Cold War you need something bigger than malfeasance at the local level. I can’t emphasize enough that the Beijing government had no incentive to prevent effective measures to stop the crisis. None.

Once Beijing become aware of the severity of the problem they acted decisively (on January 23rd), and simultaneously told the world just how dangerous the virus was. That doesn’t absolve them of blame for the earlier screw-up. The local cover-up of the outbreak could occur precisely because the CCP has decided not to allow free speech in its scientific community. But this is very different from suggesting a grand conspiracy to harm the world (and China!) by covering up the epidemic.

The US and much of the rest of the world responded to China’s January 23rd announcement by twiddling our thumbs for 6 weeks, doing almost nothing. The idea that getting a warning a few weeks earlier would have made any difference to the US is not just wrong, it’s laughable.

BTW, this isn’t the first time that Ferguson spread misleading information about China’s role in the crisis.

Ferguson then argues that the famous sci-fi trilogy by Liu Cixin is the best way to understand the Chinese worldview:

Yet the book that has done the most to educate me about how China views America and the world today is, as I said, not a political text, but a work of science fiction. “The Dark Forest” was Liu Cixin’s 2008 sequel to the hugely successful “Three-Body Problem.” It would be hard to overstate Liu’s influence in contemporary China: He is revered by the Shenzhen and Hangzhou tech companies, and was officially endorsed as one of the faces of 21st-century Chinese creativity by none other than … Wang Huning.

“The Dark Forest,” which continues the story of the invasion of Earth by the ruthless and technologically superior Trisolarans, introduces Liu’s three axioms of “cosmic sociology.”

I enjoyed this trilogy as much as Ferguson. But however much fun it is to look for real world political insights in sci-fi novels, one needs to be cautious in drawing analogies. China knows that any attempt to destroy the West would be suicidal, and vice versa. This isn’t interstellar warfare.

In Liu’s book the two powers are engaged in a one period game. The side that shoots first is likely to win. In reality, we are engaged in a multi-period game, where the “winner” is likely to be the country most open to globalization.

I use scare quotes for “winner” because it’s not even clear what it means to win. Are Italy and Switzerland involved in a competition? Who won? The one with more military power and GDP, or the one with higher living standards and more financial resources?

I’m not so naive as to think there’ll be no military/technological rivalry between the US and China, but I worry that people forget about what the US/Soviet Cold War was actually all about. Contrary to the claims of leftist historians, both sides were not to blame. The Cold War was caused by Stalin’s expansionist policies—his decision to conquer many countries and forcibly turn them communist. We were hardly guilt free (consider the Allende coup, or Iran 1953) but without Stalin’s post-WWII expansionism there is no Cold War. In contrast, restraint on the part of the US would not have prevented a cold war. It wasn’t symmetrical. (And don’t waste your time; I’m not going to argue with tiresome Chomskyites in the comment section.)

Today, China is not expansionist in the sense the Soviet Union was expansionist. Most complaints about China’s military involve either domestic repression (Hong Kong, Xinjiang), uninhabited islands/mountain passes with no clear ownership, or a theoretical risk of attack that has not happened (Taiwan). Not to mention that the US officially considers Taiwan to be a province of China, as does Taiwan itself. That’s nothing like the Soviet empire. Heck, that’s not even anywhere near as bad as Putin’s expansionist Russia.

Nationalists often add Chinese economic warfare charges that are based on a lack of understanding of how international trade benefits both sides. Or they point to examples of (non-military) bullying that are truly objectionable, but are minor enough to call at most for a new cold skirmish, not a cold war.

In contrast, aggressive moves like Trump’s unprovoked trade war with China or attack on companies like Huawei are simply brushed aside. It’s all China’s fault.

I’m not trying to absolve China of the charges directed at it. But I don’t see how China bullying Australia over a call for a Covid-19 investigation is any different from the US bullying smaller countries over Iran, Huawei, or gas pipelines. Or even worse, bullying smaller countries because we don’t like their tax haven policies while we ignore foreign demands for records of the (far more numerous) tax evaders who hide their money in the US. We are both a bully and a hypocrite. There’s enough blame on both sides to refrain from a cold war over bullying charges.

The best argument against the Chinese government is that it’s highly repressive against its own people, far more repressive than the US government. With the support of President Trump, China has put large numbers of Muslims into concentration camps. I’m just as outraged by the Xi/Trump/Modi anti-Muslim policy preferences as other liberal-minded people, but how does launching a cold war help things? Are we also to launch a cold war against India over its brutal repression of Muslims?

In the end, this call for a cold war is a knee jerk reaction to a long series of resentments. I share the frustration with the CCP. But unless someone can clearly spell out the precise logic for why we should welcome a cold war with China, and the increased risk of nuclear holocaust that it implies, I’ll remain highly skeptical.

So do I favor doing nothing? No, I favor a policy that would be 100 times more effective are restoring American supremacy than anything the American nationalists propose:

Vox co-founder and editor Yglesias proposes that the only way to keep China at bay is to beat the Chinese at their own game, growing a population of 1 billion Americans. But how? One ingredient is a far more liberal immigration policy: “The solution to the illegal immigration crisis is to let more people come legally, not tie ourselves into knots trying to stop the flow.”

Polls show that huge numbers of Chinese people want to move here—disproportionately the most skilled. So lets bring in 100 million Chinese and 100 million Indians. China’s population is already set to fall sharply; let’s make it fall much faster, especially among the most skilled.

Instead, nationalists like Trump are stopping H1-b immigration. Our nationalists are the real enemies of America, which can only stay number one as a multiracial superpower.

PS. If you think that controlling islands in the South China Sea is “bullying”, then you may be interested in knowing that the largest such island is occupied by Taiwan. That’s right; Taiwan agrees that the Spratly Islands are Chinese territory. Is Taiwan a plucky underdog or a big bully?

PPS. Remember when most pundits (other than me) told you that China was losing the trade war? Funny how things turned out.

Demographic trends under Trump

A new Brookings article by William Frey discusses US demographic trends in recent years. One fact that jumps out is that for the first time ever the white (non-Hispanic) population is declining. Indeed the decline over the past three years has been sharp enough to offset gains prior to 2017, leading to the first decade of negative white growth:

(Note that many Hispanics identify as white, so this is a bit misleading.)

While the white non-Hispanic population declines, the black share of the population is fairly stable, edging up from 12.3% to 12.5%. It’s the other groups that are growing very fast, fed by immigration:

Wasn’t Trump supposed to stop this immigration? Fortunately, just as Trump was too lazy to address Covid-19 or build the wall or repeal Obamacare or build infrastructure or reduce the trade deficit, he was also too lazy to do much about immigration, which continued at roughly the same rate after he was elected. Legal immigration fell slightly, from about 1.18 million in fiscal 2016 to about 1.03 million in fiscal 2019, but the best estimates suggest that illegal immigration rose by a similar amount, leaving overall immigration little changed. What Trump did to is to skew immigration away from high skilled workers and toward low skilled workers.

As he gets more desperate, Trump is increasingly playing to his white nationalist base. But he’s not serving their interests. In the Alabama senate race, he’s opposing the most fervent supporter of his white nationalist policies, the man who supported Trump before anyone else—Jeff Sessions. This is good news. If the Trump movement switches from supporting alt-right ideals to a personality cult built around Trump, then his movement won’t survive after he passes from the scene. On the other hand a Tuberville win would be jumping from the pot into the fire. White nationalism would be weakened, but the politics of personality cults led by a macho leader would be strengthened.

Less fascist, more banana republic.

Happy Fourth of July!

What I’ve been reading

Back in March, I read a set of essays by Javier Marias. He’s a big fan of Joseph Conrad, who also happens to be my favorite novelist. I first read Conrad’s novels and stories when I was young (in 1977) and always planned on rereading them when I retired. I’m not yet retired, but the coronavirus lockdown seemed like a good time. After the NBA shut down, I figured that Conrad would cheer me up.

And he did. I like him just as much as in 1977, although in a bit different way. Then I liked his descriptions of nature, as well as the psychology of isolated men, the politics, and the almost Lovecraftian vision of a meaningless universe.

Now I have a better ability to understand novels with more complicated social structures (which helps with works like Nostromo.) Nonetheless, the shorter novelas in exotic settings are still my personal favorites, even if Nostromo is in some sense the “greatest” of his novels, with Lord Jim and Victory close behind. The travel to faraway places aspect of his writing now seems slightly less thrilling, as we know so much more about what exotic places look like than back in 1977, when we just had small pictures in National Geographic to look at, not “Planet Earth in 4k”. And now I’ve actually visited countries like Malaysia.

For me, Conrad’s books are escapism (as are Stevenson, Kipling, Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, Chesterton and other 19th century writers.) I prefer to live (mentally) in the period around 1900. It’s an escape from the depressing 21th century. Of course if I’d lived in 1900 I’d long for the Napoleonic Era, as did Conrad. He hated steamships.

Javier Marias is a strong opponent of fascism (he’s Spanish) and also a strong opponent of political correctness. That sort of describes Conrad’s politics (although the issues were a bit different back in 1900) and also basically describes my views. Conrad has views that appeal to both the left and the right. When I first read Conrad in 1977 (53 years after he died), his books seemed sort of prophetic, and 43 years later they seem even more so. That must count for something, right? Other author’s views don’t hold up nearly as well.

As far as I can tell, here are some of Conrad’s views:

1. The beauty of nature is very important to life.
2. The universe is cold and meaningless—most people live by comforting illusions—fairy tales. But look for meaning anyway.
3. Integrity is all-important. Do a good job.
4. Don’t be impressed by worldly success. A good inner life is better than becoming “successful.”
5. Men and women are quite different.
6. Utopian ideologues are fools.
7. Don’t envy (and attack) those who have more success.
8. Don’t look down on (and exploit) primitive people—we are no better.
9. The previous two mistakes (#7 and #8) cause much of the evil in the world.
10. Physical labor is healthier than mental labor.
11. Meaning drains out of life as we age. The world becomes less “romantic”.
12. Thinking is the enemy of action. (Hamlet seems to influence his writing in Lord Jim, Victory, The Rescue, etc.)
13. Life is romantic (when young), or not worth living.
14. Suicide is understandable.
15. Good fiction is truer than most non-fiction.
16. The telephone is an abomination.
17. Maps are interesting, and easy to understand.
18. The natural world is full of marvels and the supernatural is boring.

Conrad was probably a better person than me in almost every way: morally, aesthetically, intellectually. But I look at the world in much the same way, agreeing with most of the list above. He never saw the sea until he was about 16; whereas I didn’t see salt water until age 20. (I was in Tampico, Mexico, at night, and I smelled it before I saw it. Until I was a junior in college I had no idea one could smell the ocean from 100 yards away.)

Reading his essay on the sinking of the Titanic makes me think he’d have been good at blogging.

My opinion of Conrad’s books isn’t of much value. I’m no Harold Bloom. I suppose it’s no more complicated than the fact that among the great writers, some connect with us more at a personal level. I don’t have the mental make-up to appreciate Jane Austen as much as I appreciate Conrad, no matter how hard I try. It has nothing to do with “who’s better.”

But FWIW, the biggest surprise was “Romance”, coauthored with Ford Maddox Ford, which I finished just an hour ago. (I believe that Conrad wrote most of it.) It was the final volume in a set of 26 books by Conrad that I read over the past three months, and had missed this book when I was young. Critics didn’t much like at, and I see why. They tried to write a popular romance like Treasure Island, but ended up with something more ponderous and bloated. Nonetheless, its 541 pages are full of entertaining sections, some beautifully written, and I didn’t want it to end. I only wish I’d read it when young, when I might have enjoyed it even more than Nostromo. Whereas Treasure Island is a book for 13-year olds of all ages, Romance is a book for 23-year olds of all ages. (I also missed “Suspense” the first time around, which I found worthwhile despite being unfinished when Conrad died.)

Nostromo might be the best book on Latin America ever written. And has any other great writer ever written stories convincingly set in 6 widely separated locations (East Indies, Africa, London, Russia, Latin America, the Roaring 40s)?

If you are interested in reading his best shorter pieces, pick up “Tales of Land and Sea”. Only Heart of Darkness is famous, but at least 6 of the 12 stories/novelas are brilliant. My favorite book.

PS. Here’s Lovecraft on Conrad:

“Conrad’s reputation is deserved — he has the sense of ultimate nothingness and the evanescence of illusions which only a master and an aristocrat can have; and he mirrors it forth with that uniqueness and individuality which are genuine art. No other artist I have yet encountered has so keen an appreciation of the essential solitude of the high grade personality — that solitude whose projected overtones form the mental world of each sensitively organised individual”

Yeah, Lovecraft is a snob.