Dear Reader (and welcome to our new supercomputer overlords),
Greetings from the sky. I’m on my way back from a really terrific Dispatch event in Bellevue, Washington. It’s always good to be on a panel with Kevin Williamson because it makes me look like a cockeyed optimist with hair like Stalin. Now I’m on a plane back home. And—fair warning—I’m a little hungover, a little sleep-deprived, and completely unsure of what I am going to write about. So let’s find out together. If that’s not your bag, please feel free to jump ship now rather than go for the ride only to write in the comments that you were taken against your will.
Anyway, if the Wi-Fi holds up, you’ll be reading this a few hours from now, or maybe tomorrow morning. I often think about how kangaroos look like an Island of Doctor Moreau experiment in which deer were crossed with jacked-up weightlifting bros. But that’s not important right now.
I also think a lot about time when writing this “news”letter. In my head, I can hear the voice of Don Knotts screaming the lyrics of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” in a thick Welsch accent. Wait that’s not it. In my head, I feel like I’m “talking” to you in real time, but I’m actually talking to you from the past. We don’t typically think of it that way because the time intervals are so short. It’s sort of like that thing from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where we all have an innate ability to tell when someone is from far away. But because the distances on earth are so small, we usually don’t notice it. Similarly, if I wrote a note and put it in a time capsule not to be opened for 10,000 years, the superintelligent muscle-bound kangaroo people running Earth would experience my note as a message from the past. And if I rigged it to explode, it’d be a blast from the … never mind.
Thinking about time as anything other than the unfolding of reality over, uh, time, can get you into all kinds of trouble. And yet we all do it.
For instance, when I see the footage of all those migrants massing at the southern border, I often think of them as time travelers. In some very real ways, they are traveling from the past to the future. I mean this mostly in material terms. Imagine you have a rare disease. Let’s say you know with a great deal of confidence that in 20 years they will have a cure for it. If you had a time machine you’d use it to go get that cure. Alas, we don’t have time machines. But for millions of people, their societies essentially exist in the past. After all, people in very poor countries die from diseases that either don’t exist or don’t pose a significant problem in the United States or Europe. For those societies, a boat or caravan might as well be a time machine. There was a pretty bad movie called Elysium with Matt Damon, in which a handful of rich people live on a lavish orbiting space station called Elysium with all manner of life-improving and life-extending technology, while the people back on Earth lived in overcrowded squalor and misery. For the desperate poor, sneaking onto Elysium was indistinguishable from time travel.
You don’t have to buy Hollywood’s dystopian, warmed-over-Marxist, Morlocks-versus-Eloi sermonizing to see the point. Simply by crossing the U.S. border, a Latin American laborer becomes vastly more productive—a point I first learned from From Poverty to Prosperity by Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz. They interviewed William Lewis, the former head of the McKinsey Global Institute, who had this fascinating nugget:
We compared the construction industry in the U.S. with construction in Brazil and found that in Houston, the U.S. industry was using Mexican agricultural workers who were illiterate and didn’t speak English. They were not any different than the agricultural workers who were building similar high rises in Sao Paolo, say. And yet they were working at four times the productivity.
In other words, this isn’t just a statistical artifact of calculating per capita productivity by dividing total productivity by the number of workers we have. Our workers are actually more productive because our system is a multiplier of human effort, and it’s not all about technology. This is also a function of culture, various forms of intangible capital, etc.
I think we have to secure the border because mass, uncontrolled illegal immigration is unsustainable for about a dozen different reasons. But I have great empathy and sympathy for the people trying to get to the future as they see it. It’s what I would like to think I’d do if there were no legal options.
But I can already sense some of you are uncomfortable with this past versus future framing. There are people who understandably get upset by this kind of talk because it sounds an awful lot like saying, “We’re advanced and those people are backward.”
This is a mode of thinking that cuts across a lot of ideological fault lines, and can elicit charges of hypocrisy in every direction. If some progressive “influencer” living in Park Slope described rural, churchgoing Americans in the South as “backward,” many conservatives would take offense. But if some right-wing influencer living in Nashville called migrants from a developing country “backward” many progressives would take offense.
A lot of this stuff is downstream from what is often called “presentism.” For historians, this is a huge occupational hazard. If you read about, say, fascists in the 1920s or early ’30s, it’s really hard not to keep how the story ends out of your head. The Italian or British fascists didn’t know they were signing up for a project that would end with Auschwitz.
If you don’t keep this sort of thing in mind, it becomes very easy to start thinking people in the past were really terrible people. Some were, of course. But a lot weren’t— they just didn’t know how the story was going to end. Just consider the newly buzzy word, “dictator.” It was normal practice for American newspapers, during the period when fascism was rising in Europe, to use “dictator” the way we would use “czar” today. You might see a headline like “FDR Appoints Transportation Dictator.” The term just didn’t clang off the ear the way it does today.
Since we’re talking about time travel and dictators, among other things, one of my problems with all of the Trump-will-be-a-dictator talk is the air of inevitability to it. I think that actually can be dangerous. A lot of people talk about Trump becoming a dictator as if they have clairvoyance, a crystal ball, or some other means of seeing the future. The vast majority of people won’t be violent, but it’s not hard to imagine some Christopher-Walken-in-the-Dead-Zone type thinking he owes it to the future to do something terrible. Also, if you say he’ll be a dictator if he wins, does that mean he can claim a “mandate” to be a dictator?
Spoiler alert: No. But there is a sense in which all of this dictator stuff can become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Of course, I also think Trump disqualified himself from being president for a hundred different reasons, only the latest of which is his willingness to talk about being a dictator.
But let’s get back to presentism. There really are a lot of people who think that we’re somehow just better than the generations before us. They confuse the march of time with the march of “progress” as they define it. There are countless varieties of this stuff—Hegelian, Marxist, Whiggish, and Christian, just to name a few. (I recommend Robert Nisbet’s History of the Idea of Progress if you’re interested in this stuff.)
But there’s also a kind of non-ideological, generalized, smugness that is part of what I call “the fierce urgency of now”: “We’re so smart, those people back then were idiots. Just look at how they lived in black-and-white.”
I sometimes think this tendency might have an evolutionary component. There has to be some reason why so many teenagers in every generation just assume their parents are lunkheads who don’t understand the way the world really is. Maybe that attitude just lingers as part of the mental architecture for some people.
Regardless, I don’t have that kind of thing in mind when talking about this time travel stuff. I do think progress is real. Obviously, technological progress is real. But not all technological progress amounts to a win for human progress, or human flourishing. I think if you look at the scoreboard right now, social media has been a net negative. Are there upsides? Sure. I just think the downsides outnumber them. But that can change.
I’m just not a big teleology guy. For instance, over the last century or two, there have been moments when the smartest people said that technology will inexorably liberate humanity or enslave it. And at various times, one side or the other has had the better of the argument. Technology is not on the side of freedom in China right now because the Communist Party has figured out how to use it as a tool of social control. But that could change at some point in the future. I attribute agency to humans, not to things, by which I mean everything from tools to systems.
People almost always go wrong when they make straight-line projections from the present off into the future. This is my problem with slippery slope arguments. A defeat today doesn’t mean an inexorable and unending string of defeats for all eternity. Some defeats are necessary preconditions for future victories because they arouse the desire among the complacent to change course. Some victories lead to future defeats because they invite complacency among the victors.
Nothing is written.
There’s a fun economics brouhaha unfolding. Some very respected economists (Gerald Auten of the Treasury Department and David Splinter of the Joint Committee on Taxation) claim to show in a new paper that all of the gnashing of teeth and rending of cloth about inequality in America was overblown. Recall for the last couple decades, we’ve been told that inequality was getting worse. Thomas Piketty argued in Capital in the Twenty-First Century not only that it was getting worse, but that it was inevitable that it would only get worse if the market were left to its own devices. (I wrote a very long cover essay on all of this for Commentary at the time.) Markets don’t self-correct, Piketty contended, because “there is no natural, spontaneous process to prevent destabilizing, inegalitarian forces from prevailing permanently.” Without state intervention, the 1 percent would own everything. This new paper says, “nope.”
Now, I can’t really weigh in on all the math in this fight, though given my skepticism about Piketty, you can probably guess where I come down. But here’s the basic disagreement according to The Economist:
All in all, [Auten and Splinter] find that after tax, the top 1% command about 9% of national income, compared with the 15% or so reported by Messrs Piketty, Saez and Zucman. Whereas the trio conclude that the share of the top 1% has sharply increased since the 1960s, Messrs Auten and Splinter find practically no change.
Yes, those two sentences explain literally decades of snarking about inequality as “the defining challenge of our time” in Barack Obama’s words.
Just to be clear, maybe Piketty et al. are right that inequality has increased since the 1960s. Maybe it had. That doesn’t sound wildly implausible to me. Though no one ever answers the question why in and of itself this is bad. What is the right share of national income that should go to the top 1 percent? Why is 9 percent okay, but 15 percent eeeeevil? Lurking behind such arguments is essentially an aesthetic judgment masquerading as something science-y that justifies the state redistributing resources as it sees fit.
And that points to my two biggest problems with the inequality obsessions.
First, people are obsessing about the wrong things. My AEI colleague Michael Strain has a good column on all of this. He writes:
The discussion has mostly centered on how much of the economic pie each group gets. But the size of the pie is not fixed. Since 1962, real economic output in the US has increased by 499%, leading to significant improvements in living standards and human welfare. The percentage of Americans in poverty has decreased substantially, new medicines and therapies have greatly enhanced people’s quality of life, and more women have entered the workforce.
Imagine for a moment that President Kennedy went on national TV in 1962 and said, “My fellow Americans, I have consulted with Karnack and seen the future. If we agree to make the richest people in America richer, we will also make all of you much richer too. We will increase economic output by 499% and pull millions out of poverty.”
Maybe you wouldn’t take that deal. But it doesn’t sound like a bad one to me. Certainly, reasonable people can disagree on whether this trade-off is desirable?
Of course, that’s not the deal.
Which brings me to my second, and more relevant, problem: the claim that there is some iron law to capitalism that leads inexorably to the rich getting richer, and getting richer faster, than everybody else. This is the “central contradiction of capitalism” according to Piketty. “Once constituted, capital reproduces itself faster than output increases. The past devours the future. The consequences for the long-term dynamics of the wealth distribution are potentially terrifying, especially when one adds that the divergence in wealth distribution is occurring on a global scale.”
This idea that the “past devours the future” as prior investments behave like the temporal Pacmen of Stephen King’s The Langoliers always struck me as preposterous.
But this is how so many arguments on the left and right work these days. Everyone thinks they’re prophets with perfect knowledge of what the future holds if you don’t listen to them. I’m not saying we shouldn’t prepare for various challenges. But the catastrophizers—whether on climate, wokeness, racism, inequality, Trump’s dictatorship—start from the position that their predictions are irrefutable and so therefore if you disagree you must be in favor of whatever calamity they predict. “Oh, so you want the polar bears to die?” “I guess you’re fine with Warren Buffet owning the world?” “So you think white people should rule the earth?” “Oh, so you think it’s okay for Trump to be a dictator?”
This sort of bullying is always in service to the real aim—to justify breaking or suspending the rules so the doomsayers can have their way without having to do the hard work of persuading people. A crisis is a terrible thing to waste, even one that hasn’t happened yet.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: So this G-File turned into a bit of a sprawling mess and now I’m in an Uber trying to at least get the canine update right without keeping everyone too late on a Friday. So, while I was in Washington state (where lots of folks gave me excellent canine updates about their dogs), the girls had a sleepover at Kirsten’s, which they always enjoy. Gracie stayed behind but was well-cared for and, frankly, I think she wanted the alone time. Before I left, we had two days of meetings at The Dispatch, which meant the beasts were extra cross with me for leaving them alone (the Fair Jessica is in Europe retrieving Lucy from her semester abroad). This led to some major chastisement from Zoë. Anyway, I’m looking forward to seeing them if I ever get out of this brutal traffic. As always, they’ll be well attended to.
And now, the weird stuff