The Dangerous Fantasies of Would-Be Presidents

Dear Reader (including all of the retiring Republican congressmen who got tired of all the winning),

There’s an old joke that goes something like this:

An engineer and an economist are on a hike in the forest. They fall down a deep hole. The engineer, looking at the sheer walls and the distant opening way above, says: “We’re going to die down here. We can’t climb out and there’s no one to hear us cry for help.”

“We’ll be fine,” the economist confidently replies, calmly brushing the dirt from his pants. There’s an easy way out. First, assume a ladder.”

Hey, I didn’t say it was an on good joke. But I have seen D.C. wonks bend over with laughter at it.

I bring this up because the Democrats have become a “First, assume a ladder” party. (This is not to say that the Republican Party is firmly planted in reality these days either. More on that in a bit.)

Pundits across the ideological spectrum praised the debate for dealing with “substance.” Fine, fine. Wonky substance is good, I guess. But it was a conversation wildly detached from the reality of the moment. I’m not trying to go all Flight 93 on you, but imagine if you’re in a life raft and everyone is debating how to signal for help and the bulk of the conversation were dedicated to the question of how to build a shortwave radio you have no parts for.

“No, no, the vacuum tube diodes won’t work! We need solid state diodes!”

“I for one will not sit here and let you besmirch the value of vacuum diodes!”

During the first debate, Rep. John Delaney made the monstrous suggestion that Democrats should try to do possible things. “Democrats win when we run on real solutions, not impossible promises, when we run on things that are workable, not fairy tale economics.”

Warren responded: “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”

It was like Delaney was in the life raft saying, “Maybe we can find a signal flare,” and Warren, Sanders, and co. were saying, “Don’t you understand how much better it would be if we used a shortwave radio?”

Warren’s rejoinder was greeted by the audience and much of the progressive punditocracy as if it were the rhetorical equivalent of the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique. “Poor Delaney doesn’t even realize he’s already dead!”

Never mind that this was deeply unfair to Delaney, who actually wants to do all sorts of ambitious things. He just has this weird fetish for doing possible things and not destroying capitalism.

The whole debate was premised on three pernicious fictions: one mathematical, one political, and one philosophical. Let’s take them in order.

Math, Horrible Math

Now, we have a rule in this “news”letter to keep math—or, as the British creepily say, “maths”—to a minimum. So if you want the Walter White Blue Sky meth of wonkiness, you can read Brian Riedl on all of these plans (or listen to our recent conversation).

The basic point you need to keep in mind is that, even if we put Bane in the White House and he and his minions literally confiscated all—I mean all—of the top one percent’s wealth, relegating Bezos, Buffett, and Gates to living under a highway fighting over the wet detritus in a cat food tin, it still wouldn’t come close to paying for the Green New Deal or Medicare for All. (The one-percenters have about $25 trillion; the bidding for these programs starts at $32 trillion.) And this all assumes that rich people don’t react to confiscatory taxes, that socialized medicine works great, and that the Democrats have the expertise to eliminate fossil fuels, retrofit every building in America, and within twelve years, solve every climate problem save for cow farts. It also works on the assumption that the American people want what they’re selling. (All of this stuff polls terribly. Most people are happy with their healthcare.) It also assumes that it all can get through Congress. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My point is: What the Hell are we talking about? It’s like everyone on the life raft agrees to assume all of the diodes into existence, but there’s still the problem of having no place to plug in the damn radio—which, again, doesn’t exist.

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