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Pinching Pennies for Putin
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Pinching Pennies for Putin

J.D. Vance pretends to be a fiscal conservative in his quest against foreign aid.

Sen. J.D. Vance is seen in the U.S. Capitol after a vote on Thursday, May 11, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images)

There is a William F. Buckley Jr. line for every occasion, and the one for Sen. J.D. Vance is: “I won’t insult your intelligence by suggesting that you really believe what you just said.”

Vance came to his heartland populism via an education at Yale Law School, Peter Thiel’s money, Hollywood, and the New York Times bestseller list. A venture capital man who once denounced Donald Trump as unfit for the presidency and who currently is so intimately and uncomfortably attached to Trump that it is impossible to distinguish him from a hemorrhoid, Vance has decided to be the clown prince of a very small kingdom: the realm of people who feel very strongly that the U.S. government should accommodate Vladimir Putin’s imperial project in Ukraine and beyond. Vance is not stupid, and he has seen how far a clown prince can go in Washington. He even has some reason to hope that he is 1,659 days away from being elected president of these United States after serving as Donald Trump’s vice president and riding that lame duck as far as he will waddle. 

It is difficult to feel much other than contempt for what Vance has become and pity for the way he became it. My own background is similar to his in the worst ways, and I sympathize when it comes to the temptation to say to the world, as Vance has, “Tell me what sort of man you want me to be, and I’ll pretend to be that sort of man.” I can understand it, and even forgive it. (Eventually.) But you can never trust a man who has decided to be the Tom Ripley of American politics. 

Vance has set his sights on U.S. foreign aid—aid to Israel and Ukraine specifically, but foreign aid more generally. U.S. foreign-aid spending is up a bit in the past couple of years, and currently sits at about 1 percent of federal spending—most years, it is a good deal less than 1 percent of federal spending. Though it doesn’t amount to much, there are legitimate criticisms of our foreign-aid outlays: There is some variation year to year, but, typically, about $1 out of every $5 in foreign aid takes the form of military aid, which is typically offered on the condition that the money be spent acquiring goods and services from U.S.-based firms—i.e., whatever else it achieves, that money is also laundered into a kind of backdoor corporate-welfare scheme. Even without the strings attached, much of that money would be spent with U.S. providers—Americans are the world’s finest makers of arms and excel at the business side of war-making, a fact that embarrasses some people such as Vance and Ron Paul and professor Noam Chomsky and others of that ilk—but the conditions create perverse incentives, and Washington doesn’t need any more of those. Much of our support for Ukraine has consisted of drawing down existing U.S. military inventory, sending the materiel to Ukraine, and then using the appropriated funds to replenish our own stocks. That isn’t the worst way to go about it, though those who worry that increasing presidential discretion over the drawdown process are right to do so. 

Or, at least the few of them acting in good faith are right to worry. After their performance in the Trump years, Republicans are hardly in a position to complain about increasing presidential discretion—the presumptive 2024 Republican nominee argues, let us remind ourselves, that the president should be exempt from the law in toto, enjoying total immunity for any criminal acts committed in office. (Do I need to emphasize that that is insane? Because that is insane.) Politicians have a way of developing sudden-onset constitutionalism when it suits them. In much the same way, figures such as Vance have been known to develop sudden-onset fiscal conservatism. The great majority of federal spending funds a handful of programs that Republicans and Democrats generally refuse to think about touching—Social Security, Medicare, etc.—and money is no object when it comes to programs they favor. But when it comes to things such as foreign aid—or inconvenient investigations—suddenly, money matters. You know: Mind the billions and the trillions will take care of themselves. 

That is, of course, a cowardly ruse, a way of dressing up self-serving (and Moscow-serving) political expediency as fiscal discipline. Rep. Bob Good, current chairman of the so-called Freedom Caucus, relies on that ruse from time to  time. He insists that the foreign-aid package passed on Saturday would send the country on a “slide down into the abyss of greater fiscal crisis.” The aid under consideration for Ukraine amounts to less money than Social Security will spend in the next 16 days, but Rep. Good et al. are content to watch trillions go out the door while they nickel-and-dime the war to turn back Vladimir Putin’s invasion and occupation of a free and democratic country. 

Oh, but Ukraine has a corrupt government! Michael Brendan Dougherty will insist over at National Review. Ukraine does have serious corruption problems. These will not be improved by putting the entirety of the country under the boot heel of Vladimir Putin’s mafia state, which is to corruption what Iowa is to corn—a producer of almost incalculable bounty. One senses that other famously corrupt regimes would get a more sympathetic hearing from Dougherty et al.—in the event Putin were to occupy, say, the Vatican. One could as easily put Hungary in that sentence, and our New New Right friends are enamored with Hungary, but there would be no more point in Putin’s occupying Hungary than there would be in Donald Trump’s courting Vance—why buy the cow when the milk (and the cryptosporidiosis) is free?

Writing in the New York Times, Vance does a fair impersonation of Dilbert’s boss—the man who, in possession of one fact, acts as though this one single fact is dispositive. Here it is:

Consider our ability to produce 155-millimeter artillery shells. Last year, Ukraine’s defense minister estimated that the country’s base-line requirement for these shells was over four million per year but that it could fire up to seven million if that many were available. Since the start of the conflict, the United States has gone to great lengths to ramp up production of 155-millimeter shells. We’ve roughly doubled our capacity and can now produce 360,000 per year—less than a tenth of what Ukraine says it needs. The administration’s goal is to get this to 1.2 million—30 percent of what’s needed—by the end of 2025. This would cost the American taxpayers dearly while yielding an unpleasantly familiar result: failure abroad.

That is a familiar line of argument: We must fail in order to avoid failure. Vance is no doubt correct about those 155mm shells, and about the Patriot air-defense missiles that he also considers. That is true and important as far as it goes—but 155mm shells are not the only weapon available. Patriot missiles are not the only way to deal with Russian missiles and drones. War production often underperforms what war planners say they need. (Vance is perfectly willing to take the Ukrainian military’s word for it when it suits him.) We have examples of that close to home: For all the Rosie-the-Riveter nostalgia about World War II, U.S. war production was a complicated, at times corrupt, and often deficient enterprise. Even though the United States was protected from fighting on its own soil, both Germany and the Soviet Union increased wartime productivity more than the United States did. The British were obliged to create and produce their own amphibious-landing vehicles, for example, because the United States could not produce its DUKW vehicles (the “duck boat”) fast enough. But the war effort, as it happened, did not turn on the abundance of duck boats.

Not that Vance believes a word of this stuff, of course. He gives away the game easily and often. From Ian Ward, writing in Politico:

Vance is deeply skeptical of the so-called rules-based international order—the system of laws, norms and multilateral institutions established in the years following the Second World War to mitigate global conflict and facilitate international economic activity. As Vance sees it, this system has enriched economic elites while harming working-class people who are rooted in older industrial economies—all while failing to deliver on the ultimate goal of liberalizing non-democratic countries like China and Russia.

From this perspective, Vance does not see the United States’ decision to defend “the principles at the heart of the international rules-based order” in Ukraine as part of some high-minded and honorable policy. Instead, Vance sees it as a self-interested effort by economic elites to preserve a global order that advances their interests while screwing over the type of people he represents in post-industrial Ohio.

As he once put it to me, “I think you have to rethink the entire project.”

“The really interesting debate that is happening between the establishment right and the populist right is [about] challenging the premise … that things are going really well,” Vance told me. On the one side, establishment Republicans believe that the American empire is trending in the right direction; populist Republicans believe that the American empire is on the verge of collapse. The establishment points to falling poverty rates around the world; the populist right points to falling birth and life expectancies at home.

“There’s just this desperate effort to just argue that everything’s gone well,” Vance told me, “and, man, I just don’t buy it at all.”

There is some evidence that the U.S.-led liberal order creates opportunity for “the type of people he represents in post-industrial Ohio.” The career of one J.D. Vance, for example. Vance by his own account here is willing to break the world because he doesn’t think refrigerator repairmen in Columbiana County make enough money relative to his old venture capital buddies in California. Which is to say, the United States may very well end up allowing Russia to romp across Europe because one rich Silicon Valley douchebag thinks other rich Silicon Valley douchebags are making too much money.

Vladimir Putin’s ill-considered invasion of Ukraine handed the United States a once-in-a-generation geopolitical opportunity on the proverbial silver platter. But Vance et al. turn up their nose at that silver platter, enraged that someone somewhere may be in possession of a silver spoon.

Words About Words

Another example of writers writing bad sentences because they are trying to avoid the use of perfectly ordinary words.

In March the novelist Percival Everett published “James,” a retelling of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, from the point of view of Jim, an enslaved runaway.

Not quite. An “enslaved runaway” is a runaway (from what?) who becomes (how?) enslaved. Jim is a runaway slave. You need runaway modifying slave in that sentence to make sense of what it is Jim is running away from. Writers attempting to be sensitive—attempting to advertise their own exquisite sensitivity—have turned to the idiotic phrase enslaved person as a substitute for slave, an evocatively ugly word that is, because of that evocative ugliness, a useful and true one. We do not need enslaved person to emphasize the humanity of slaves because human beings are the only creatures who are, or can be, enslaved. Unless you are some kind of fruity PETA knucklehead, nobody talks about enslaved donkeys. There are no enslaved maple trees, no enslaved microbes, no enslaved African gray parrots. 

Of course slaves are people. That is what makes slavery horrible. 

Economics for English Majors

One of the things that made New York City work—that allowed the city to get by with criminal misgovernment and municipal idiocy and terrible schools, etc.—was that people and firms at the tops of certain industries just had to be in New York. If you were in finance, you had to have a Wall Street office. If you were in media, advertising, publishing, fashion, art, theater, etc., you had to have a New York address. Every year, that becomes less and less the case. One of these days, it’s going to be Broadway, which is all that’s left of what New York used to be. From the Wall Street Journal:

America’s biggest bank is calling it quits on the street where American finance was born. 

JPMorgan Chase .. closed its branch Friday at 45 Wall St., ending more than 150 years of physical ties between the bank and the street that is a catchall term for the global money business. 

Today, a “Wall Street bank” is defined as a financial institution with trading operations that span the globe and investment bankers counseling CEOs. An actual location on the street doesn’t matter. 

Meanwhile, 23 Wall St. and other historic buildings are empty shells with vacant storefronts and “for rent” signs on their facades.

What will New York be in 20 years? What is it now?

Elsewhere … 

Things are not going super-well at Tesla just now, or in the overall EV market:

Tens of billions of dollars in subsidies for electric vehicles. Billions more coming to subsidize charging stations. Endless jibberjabber about “sustainable” this and “Green New Deal” that. Endless moral preening from the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Overbearing corporate arm-twisting. 

And the bestselling vehicle in the United States in 2023 was the Ford F-150 pickup. No. 2 was the Chevy Silverado pickup. No. 3? Ram pickup. 

Perhaps you are seeing a trend. 

So there’s gold, silver, bronze … whatever you get for fourth place … and then you come to Elon Musk & Co. Tesla’s Model Y came in a respectable No. 5, right between the Toyota RAV-4 and the Honda CRV, two small SUVs beloved by people who cannot afford bigger ones. Thanks to Uncle Sugar, the Model Y’s sales were goosed a bit in 2023 by the return of a $7,500 federal handout and state and local giveaways such as the Bay Area’s Clean Cars 4 All program, which will put up to $9,500 in your pocket if you swap an older gasoline or diesel vehicle for an electric one. That’s a lot of money—and a lot of market-distorting economic intervention—to push a $50,000 status symbol for affluent urbanites into fifth place. 

Juicing the markets is expensive—and it works only up to a point.

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In Conclusion 

For some reason, it has fallen to me to be the journalistic scold who complains when people misuse the name of Neville Chamberlain, an honorable man unjustly maligned by the historically illiterate. Some people took my “Marjorie Taylor Greene Is No Neville Chamberlain,” to be a defense of the witless beady-eyed Facebook troll who for some reason represents some of the people of Georgia in the House of Representatives. (Seriously: What the hell is wrong with you people down there in Chattooga County? Are you mad? Wicked?) If you haven’t read the piece—and more than a few of my correspondents obviously have not!—you might enjoy it.

Or not.

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.