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By All Means, Investigate Everybody
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By All Means, Investigate Everybody

Just be prepared for any outcome.

Former President Donald Trump. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/Washington Post/Getty Images.)

Hurray for investigations! 

If they are, you know, investigations

Congressional Republicans have promised to look into the shady business dealings of Hunter Biden, the drug-addled-but-just-remarkably-successful-in-business son of President Joe Biden. At the same time, the Justice Department—the boss of which reports to President Biden—has announced the appointment of a special counsel to oversee investigations into Donald Trump’s attempts to illegally interfere with the transfer of power after the 2020 presidential election as well as the mishandling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago. 

If it turns out that everybody on both sides of the aisle is guilty of everything they are accused of and then some, I will be the least surprised American since Tiffany Trump opened up her wedding present from her father and found a $20 Trump Grill gift certificate inside. But there is some work to be done, first. 

That is because the question before us is not whether Donald Trump is a morally repugnant comprehensive human failure or whether Joe Biden is a grasping old creep who is a smaller and less significant creep than is Trump mainly because he is from Delaware, where everything is smaller and less significant. The relevant questions have to do with whether either of these grotesque disappointments or their near associates broke the law in some way that can be realistically prosecuted. I would not be surprised if it were the case that either or both of them had, but I do not know this to be the case—and neither do you, in all likelihood, unless you happen to be a drunk New York lawyer or a top-shelf Russian prostitute. 

I am not a lawyer. (I have many sins on my conscience, but not that one.) That being said, my understanding from my reading and conversations on the subject is that the worst of Trump’s post-election shenanigans—and here I mean his attempt to stage a coup d’état—may not have been illegal in any chargeable way. His legal efforts were pure bunkum, but it probably wasn’t a crime for him to try to pursue them; the January 6 rioters certainly were inspired by Trump and his minions, but apparently not in any way that would support a charge of inciting a riot; there may be a case that he was in a legal sense conspiring to commit a crime or to suborn illegal acts, but that isn’t obvious. Connoisseurs of Salon-style “the walls are closing in!” wishcasting have been wondering aloud—for months and with great frustration—why the Justice Department has not indicted Trump. They ignore the most obvious explanation: that DOJ does not have a plausibly chargeable offense. at least regarding the election-related stuff. Some of the lawyers I have spoken with do believe that there is a stronger case regarding the classified documents. 

Likewise, on superficial inspection a lot of the Hunter Biden story looks like stuff that adds up to bribery and corruption as a moral question, but charging and proving these as a legal question is a different kettle of stinky old fish. I never bought the storyline that Joe Biden is a fundamentally decent old man who could be relied upon to restore some dignity and normalcy in Washington in the wake of Trump’s venality and chaos. Biden’s actual performance in office has confirmed my skepticism. He’s a cretin, but that doesn’t mean that he is a criminal. And even if he is a criminal, that doesn’t mean he is the kind of criminal who can be successfully prosecuted, or even charged. (The gun case against Hunter could be a slam dunk, but even there we should take into consideration that lying about being a drug user on gun-purchase paperwork is a seldom-charged crime, as, indeed, are most of the chargeable crimes related to lying on that paperwork or trying to purchase a gun illegally. We should charge those crimes more than we do, but we don’t.) “He’s bad!” is not a legal argument. 

In general, I like the idea of Congress holding the president’s feet to the fire—that’s called “oversight.” In 1862—when there was a lot going on in Washington!—Abraham Lincoln was called to testify before the House Judiciary Committee, which wanted to know whether he (or, more likely, his wife) had leaked his annual message to Congress to the Herald newspaper, which published the remarks before they were delivered to Congress. Mary Todd Lincoln was a friend of the correspondent who got the scoop, and the House was on her case off and on throughout Lincoln’s presidency, partly due to household spending that was characterized as extravagant. (This was back in the good old days when Republicans were republicans.) I do not love special-counsel investigations for the most part—if the Justice Department cannot do its job in sensitive cases, that is a problem that is not solved by the appointment of an outside magistrate—but I do believe that those who wield political power, who are empowered to create and enforce the law, ought to be held to a very high standard when it comes to compliance with the laws over which they have so much direct power.

In spite of the ghastly clashing colors, the sight of Donald Trump in an orange jumpsuit would not displease me very greatly. Nor would I lose any sleep over seeing Hunter Biden prosecuted under the gun laws that I and millions of other legal gun owners conscientiously comply with every time we buy a new turkey gun or deer rifle. (Or a new semiautomatic rifle—the Second Amendment isn’t about hunting and never has been.) But as pleasing as those outcomes would be, none of them is as important to me—and none of them should be as important to anybody else—as maintaining the rule of law. Seeing to the maintenance of the rule of law is, after all, precisely why we conduct these investigations to begin with, and in the same way that we would not want to see someone receive especially liberal treatment because he is powerful and connected, we should want to see to it that the law is well and entirely satisfied when it comes to prosecuting the powerful and the connected. There are two ways to mess up the rule of law in these cases—erring on the side of permissiveness or on the side of vindictiveness—and it is important to avoid both of them. 

Investigations, yes. Theater, no. 

Economics for English Majors: Low-Hanging Fruit

Didn’t we all hear that brick-and-mortar shops—and malls!—were finished, and that the magical economics of Very High Tech—input: intelligence; output: money—was the irresistible wave of the future? 

Here is a related question: How was the long tech boom like the industrialization of the Soviet Union? 

As they discovered in Eden, it is easy to get seduced by the low-hanging fruit. 

In the first half of the 20th century, capitalism’s reputation was at a low point—even before the Great Depression. Most of the important intellectual trends pointed toward central planning and managerial progressivism: Figures such as Thomas Edison had brought science out of the laboratory and into the public square, where it enjoyed enormous prestige, and many of the big scientific and engineering projects of the late 19th and early 20th-century, notably the setting up of electrical grids, relied on centralized planning and were undertaken in a way that assumed more general political regimentation of economic and material life. What used to be known as “Taylorism” or “scientific management” proceeded from the assumption that the same principles that led to verifiable and replicable outcomes in the scientific laboratory could be used to manage business enterprises, political agencies, and society as a whole. For the educated and the powerful of the time, these ideas may have implied radical departures from the American liberal tradition, but they also seemed to be based on a new set of self-evident truths. 

“Confirmation bias” is the habit of emphasizing information that reinforces your preexisting view of the world and eliding information that challenges it, and there was a lot of that among American observers in the early days of communism and fascism. Under the brutal and bloody leadership of Lenin and, later, Stalin, there really was a remarkable transformation of economic life in the Soviet Union, which saw a period of remarkable economic growth and a meaningful increase in real standards of living. This was, of course, a classic case of low-hanging fruit: When you begin with a very poor and largely agrarian society, industrialization and investment in physical capital often will provide very large returns—for a time. This happens in free societies such as the United States and Great Britain, which grew enormously wealthy in the Industrial Revolution, but it also can happen in unfree societies—and, if the regime in question is brutal enough, it can happen more quickly in unfree societies, as peasants are driven off the land and herded into cities and factories with mass industrialization (including the modernization and mechanization of agriculture) unfolded not as the result of market forces but at gunpoint. It is a very impressive feat that a vicious dictatorship can pull off—once. But if you have the right kind of eyes, it is easy to mistake that for the discovery of some new principle of social organization. 

Industrialization is not the only way of harvesting low-hanging fruit. The so-called People’s Republic of China began to open up its economy to trade and innovation in earnest in the 1990s and at the turn of the century—at just the moment when technologies such as the internet and sophisticated multi-modal logistics created an environment in which a little bit of capitalism would go a very long way for the Chinese. But we saw a less dramatic example of the same pattern with the rise of the personal computer and then that of computer networks. Think of the old midcentury office work force as the pre-industrial Russian peasantry: Millions of jobs and billions of routine tasks were either automated, partially automated, or eliminated altogether by new technologies. 

In those years, I was in the newspaper business, and part of my work was eliminating tens of thousands of man-hours of labor annually by replacing composing-room and printing-press work that had once required dozens of people with desktop-publishing systems that could eliminate pretty much everybody between the copy editor and the pressman who put the plates on the press. Similar transformations happened in practically every industry. The overall effect of this was a period of enormous prosperity and economic dynamism, but millions of jobs were lost, too, and a very large economic and social gap began to emerge between those who were prepared to benefit from the new economic arrangements and those who would have preferred to have seen the maintenance of the old factory/farm/office/bureaucracy mode of work. 

That this represents real progress is understood best by people who are a generation or so removed from the jobs that are lost: Today, a single man operating modern, GPS-enabled equipment can earn a very substantial income harvesting cotton, a job that within living memory was done by workers earning very low wages (my parents and grandparents picked cotton after work and school), workers who had themselves replaced earlier workers who had been, for generations, slaves. Nobody gets sentimental about the simple life of picking cotton under the hot Texas sun, but we do still hear a lot about the desirability of the life of a factory worker in the 1950s or 1960s—almost exclusively from people who have never worked on an assembly line and who never expect their own children or grandchildren to do so.

But the low-hanging fruit of rote and routine office work was harvested pretty quickly. Internet companies, particularly Google and the social-media platforms, similarly harvested the low-hanging fruit of advertising very readily, and part of their current problem is their discovery—their utterly predictable discovery—that this is not an inexhaustible resource. Many of the easiest and most obvious gains from trade that presented themselves over the past 30 years or so have been incorporated into our baseline economic expectations, often in ways we don’t appreciate: Food at the grocery store seems very expensive right now because of recent inflation, but the typical American family still spends a much smaller share of its income on groceries than did a family of similar economic standing in the 1950s or 1960s or 1970s. Likewise, houses seem a lot more expensive than they used to, but they are bigger and better than they used to be, too: By one estimate, the inflation-adjusted price per square foot of a house in the United States increased only about 4 percent between the late 1970s and 2017.

Why is low-hanging fruit an eternal issue? Think of it as something like the observer effect in a scientific experiment, or the reason you can never have an effective long-term system for predicting the stock market: The actions you take influence the system in which you are operating, and that includes the action of accumulating knowledge. Technology companies make their money by solving problems, and, sometimes, they solve a problem in a permanent way. Selling personal computers was a great business in the 1980s and the early 1990s because relatively few people and offices had them, for example. In the early days of the industry, building the kind of high-tech logistics operations that you see in companies such as Walmart was a great business, too, because those systems did not exist or had not been implemented, and the enormous savings that companies could realize by adopting sophisticated inventory-management methods funded some big profits for the companies that built those systems. But you only get to do that once, really—in a mature market, there is money to be made from refinement and maintenance, but these usually are not as profitable as creating something ex nihilo. Creating Facebook made some people very, very wealthy; making Facebook 3 percent better (whatever “better” means in that context) will sustain some good jobs but probably won’t create a lot of billionaires. 

The technology industry that boomed in the 1990s and continued to look a lot like a golden goose until very recently was never going to be a turnkey money-factory forever and ever—that isn’t how business works. As difficult as it is to keep Elon Musk’s current Twitter antics and the word “mature” in one’s head at the same time, what we are seeing is certain high-profile technology companies entering into maturity, which often means slower growth and less impressive margins. There was a time when General Electric looked like it was going to be an eternal fixture in American capitalism, but capitalism follows only one rule:

This, too, shall pass. 

Words about Words

There never was any such person as Narcissus, Oedipus, or Baron Munchausen, but these fictional characters (before you comment: Yes, there was a Baron Hieronymus Karl Friedrich von Münchhausen, who inspired the fictional character, but the fictional character is not, you know, real) have given their names to familiar psychological terms, a testament to the vividness of the myths and stories associated with them. I was thinking about that after reading the New York Times headline “The End of Vaccines at Warp Speed.” With apologies to Jonah Goldberg, known Trekkie, there is no such thing as warp speed or warp drive, these having been the invention of John W. Campbell, a 1950s science-fiction writer and made into household words by Star Trek. (“Household words” were made into household words by William Shakespeare.) There may never be any such thing as a warp drive or travel at warp speed, but the metaphor will probably last a very long time, even though it refers to a notionally literal thing that does not literally exist. 

While I am on the subject of Jonah, on a recent podcast he referred to the great shredder Yngwie J. Malmsteen, but neglected to use the middle initial that Yngwie has always used to distinguish himself from all the other Yngwies in our popular culture. I think the “J” in Yngwie J. Malmsteen is as necessary as the “S” in “Harry S Truman.” Or “Harry S. Truman,” if you prefer. 

And on the subject of special counsels, an NPR correspondent assured his listeners that Jack Smith, the newly appointed special counsel in the Trump matters, has a “long and lengthy résumé.” For those of you keeping score at home, that is long and lengthy—just to make sure you get it. 

Elsewhere

Even though his announcement was pretty weak stuff, it would be foolish to pretend that Donald Trump could not plausibly win the Republican nomination or that, having won that nomination, he could not be elected president. I don’t think that is the most likely outcome, but it should not be dismissed. More in the New York Times

And if you want to hear me talk about it after reading me writing about it, I joined Jane Coaston and Ross Douthat for a New York Times podcast on the same subject. 

On The Dispatch Podcast, Sarah Isgur asked me to pretend to be someone waking up from a coma and encountering the Republican congressional leadership fight for the first time. I think I did a pretty good impression of someone actually waking up from a coma. Stay for the Mitch McConnell-as-Hanniba-Lecter stuff: “His pulse never got above 85 …”

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In Closing

I will have more to say on the subject of gratitude on Thanksgiving. But, as a preview, I would like to share my gratitude for The Dispatch and my colleagues here, and, especially, for you readers and subscribers, who keep this project going and give us a reason to keep it going. There are many among us who, for reasons that often are dishonorable, want us to believe that we live in the worst of times. But even with our many challenges, these are surely among the best days there have ever been to be a member of the species H. sap. and, in particular, H. sap. Americanus. We live in times of great prosperity and security, with much that is beautiful and interesting close at hand for those who want it. My own blessings in this life are so far in excess of my deserving that it would be difficult even to describe the gulf between the two. I hope to keep that in mind and will try to do so.  

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.