Vladimir Putin, Brittle Oak
What Aesop tells us about authoritarians.
Dear Reader (Unless you communicate through weird clouds of pheromones like those ridiculous things in Star Trek Discovery),
So I just finished another lively edition of The Dispatch Podcast. With Scott Lincicome sitting in for Steve Hayes, there was 50 percent more undisciplined jocularity (and 500 percent more neoliberal shilling). Because there were so many topics we wanted to cover—albeit briefly—we opted for an extensive potpourri section. And now I’m way behind schedule getting this thing started, so please imagine me writing this frantically from the front seat of my car as I try to make up for lost time—because that’s exactly what I’m doing.
One of the unwritten rules of writing the G-File (as if there are written rules) is “when in doubt, have fun with words.” So let’s start there.
If you overheard someone saying “extensive potpourri section,” you might think they were talking about Bed Bath and Beyond or the Body Shop or maybe a wing of Gwyneth Paltrow’s home. But potpourri didn’t always mean—generally— a “miscellaneous collection” or—specifically—a mix of dried flowers and other things that smell like unmanly soap or unicorn farts. Its original meaning, via Spanish and French (and before that Latin), was basically stew of rotten meat or “stink vessel.” Pot means pot. Pourri shares the same root as putrid: the Latin “putrere,” which means to rot or decay (think putrescence). Thus the original potpourris were basically the stews people made to salvage whatever crappy meats they had lying around by making them into a stew. That’s where the whole “medley” of stuff meaning comes from—a medley of semi-rancid meats. Olla podrida, a Spanish stew that literally meant “rotten pot” got translated into “potpourri.” You can still find Olla podrida— and other dishes inspired by it—on menus around the world, even though the rotten meat part is (usually) not part of the recipe anymore.
So whether this “news”letter turns out to be a pleasing mixture of flowery phrases and the like, or a rancid stink pot, remains to be seen. Though in my experience, every G-File is the former to some and the latter to others. In that way, the G-File is a lot like rice cakes. The great thing about rice cakes is that while they can go stale, you can’t actually tell. Or something.
Biden’s fantasy budget.
I remember the first time I wrote for Commentary. I excitedly told a friend who was a great and accomplished writer (Martha Bayles, if you must know) and she smiled. “You do know Commentary’s editing technique, right?” she asked. I said no. She then proceeded to mime it out. She took a piece of paper on her desk and pretended it was my article and that she was reading it approvingly. “Mmm hmm, this is very nice.” She then put it aside and pretended to start typing from scratch.
There’s a metaphor in there about presidential budgets. I can’t remember a time when they weren’t “dead on arrival,” as the cliché goes. Congress likes to spend money and it’ll always defer to its own priorities over the White House’s. And yet the press always covers the president’s budget as if it’s a serious thing that signals something real. The truth is that the budget is, and has been for a very long time, a “messaging” document.
If you want to get even more meta—and I don’t mean consuming more Facebook products —the budget is word pork. What I mean is, activists, agency heads, lobbyists, legislators, and journalists need stuff to talk about. This is the point of what Daniel Boorstin called “pseudo-events,” things that seem like actual events when they’re merely “events” intended for generating publicity and media attention. If the president’s budget calls for cutting, say, mohair subsidies, people who love talking about mohair subsidies suddenly have something to do with their time. The chances of their talky-talk actually becoming reality are vanishingly small, but hey, you still get to go on TV. Of course, the hope—at least among the anti-mohair people—is that this time the words will have an abracadabra effect and change reality. That’s unlikely. Still, people get to yell on TV and lobbyists get to expense more lunches than usual.
Now this may be a bit too cynical. Presidential budgets do set rhetorical and to a lesser extent legislative priorities, at least for the president’s party. The actual numbers are, at best, conversation starters. And that’s the point. The budget should be seen as a conversation starter or a giveaway to people who make a living talking about certain topics, i.e. word pork.
But Biden’s budget takes this phenomenon to the next level. There are many different kinds of conversations, but one big dividing line is between conversations about reality and conversations about fiction. “Could Japan have won World War II?” is a conversation starter about actual stuff that happened. “Could Darth Vader and Monster Zero have changed the outcome of the Battle of the Five Armies in The Lord of the Rings?” is a conversation about the opposite kind of stuff. I like both kinds of conversations but, well, they’re different.
My AEI colleague Alex Brill points out something interesting about Biden’s budget—it’s closer to the latter kind of conversation starter. In the preamble to the Treasury Department’s report on the budget it says:
The revenue proposals are estimated relative to a baseline that incorporates all revenue provisions of Title XIII of H.R. 5376 (as passed by the House of Representatives on November 19, 2021), except Sec. 137601.
Brill translates this for us:
In other words, the budget pretends that the failed effort to enact President Biden’s Build Back Better Act was a success and considers new budget proposals in addition to those policies. But you won’t find the price of the Build Back Better (BBB) Act (including its roughly $1 trillion in net tax hikes) in the budget tables.
He adds, with admirable understatement, “This strategy of detaching proposals from their budgetary realities makes it more difficult to evaluate the administration’s policy priorities.”
I should say so. If I say my net worth depends on assuming I found the steamer trunk full of diamonds I’ve been looking for, the number is really quite impressive. But I wouldn’t lend me money based on that assumption.
But let’s move on.
The brittleness of authoritarianism.
I’m really enjoying all the reports that Vladimir Putin’s disastrous miscalculations are attributable to the fact that his senior advisers are terrified to tell him the truth. A U.S. intelligence official told the Associated Press that there has been a “clear breakdown in the flow of accurate information” to Vladimir Putin because of this fact.
Obviously, this is part of the “information war.” That doesn’t mean it’s not true. One of the best things the Biden administration has done is releasing (presumably) largely accurate intel to screw with Putin’s plans. Critics fairly note that it didn’t actually deter Putin from invading Ukraine, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good tactic. Supplying Ukraine with anti-tank missiles hasn’t stopped the invasion either, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep doing it. Sowing distrust of, and among, Putin’s inner circle is a good idea. It’d be a good idea if it weren’t true. But it’s even better if it is in fact happening, because Putin and his advisers—and his generals—will recognize the truth of it and become all the more dysfunctional in the process.
But the larger reason I’m enjoying this stuff is that it confirms the reality that authoritarian regimes are brittle, a point Kevin Williamson has been nailing of late. The AP story makes it sound like the bad info pipeline to Putin started recently. That’s entirely wrong: The flow of bad information to Putin didn’t start with the war, it started the war.
Kevin uses the word “weak,” but I don’t think that’s the best adjective for this phenomenon (the best adjective in general, as everyone knows, is fuliguline—“of or pertaining to sea ducks.”) Authoritarian regimes are often very, very strong. But like marble they’re brittle. They can withstand enormous pressures, from within and without, but there’s no flexibility.
I’d say it’s like Aesop’s Oak and the Reed, except I think that’s a bit inapt as well. America ain’t no stinking reed. But to at least get some use out of the metaphor, authoritarian societies are like stands of oaks. They can withstand all the wind in the world so long as the wind isn’t very strong. A field of reeds can withstand any wind, because reeds bend while oaks rely on their strength and their strength alone.
And in there somewhere is the point. It’s not the bending of the reeds that’s relevant, it’s the oak’s reliance on a single factor that’s the problem with authoritarian societies. The answer to every problem is strength—as manifested in fear, intimidation, etc. The Russian army is top heavy with conscripts who don’t want to fight. The Ukrainian army is swollen with Ukrainians—and foreign fighters—who want to fight. I mean they don’t want to have to fight, but they’re eager to fight for what they’re fighting for because they have agency, free will, and a kind of commitment that cannot be coerced. Put continued fighting up for a vote, and I’d bet 90 percent of the Russians— at least the Russians in danger of getting shot—would vote to call it off because they were coerced into going in the first place. Some Ukrainians might vote likewise, but clearly the majority would vote to continue at least as long as the Russians are making it necessary.
But there’s a broader point. Liberal societies are diverse ecosystems. Our constitutional structure is merely a formalistic reflection of this deeper dynamic. The Constitution recognizes checks and balances between branches of the federal government, but also between the federal government and the state governments. It recognizes freedom of the press and religion in order to codify yet another stratum of checks and balances. Our system takes the precise source of authoritarian weakness and makes it a strength. Ambition, faction, courts, separation of powers, etc. are designed to keep government institutions and individual politicians honest. Such honesty gives liberal societies flexibility and options to deal with problems that the dishonesty of authoritarianism blinds itself to.
But as the Founders understood by studying stuff like Ancient Rome and the Republic of Venice, rulers can conspire to protect themselves as a class. (Just as Adam Smith understood that businessmen could opt to collude rather than compete if left entirely to their own devices and given license by the state.)
The Republic of Venice was one of the most meritocratic and dynamic societies in history, until the rulers decided to close the Gold Book and turn themselves into a permanent aristocracy. In the 20th century, every one-party state did much the same thing to one extent or another. It’s not a coincidence that children of high-ranking Chinese Communist Party members and oligarchs (often a distinction without a difference) are described as “Princelings” or the “Party’s Crown Princes.” Nor is it a surprise that Korea has replaced the divine right of kings with the divine rights of Kims. The Bolsheviks, likewise, turned party membership into a form of nobility. That’s because one party-systems are not “party” systems at all. They’re oligarchies. For understandable reasons we think of oligarchy as meaning “rule by rich people,” and it’s true that oligarchies are ruled by rich people. But that gets the causality backward. Oligarchy means “rule by a few people.” It just turns out that when a few people rule a society—without any checks and balances, rule of law, democracy, etc.—the few set about enriching themselves. A country designed to be ruled by rich people is called a plutocracy. Oligarchs, given the opportunity, make themselves plutocrats.
But not in Russia. The plutocrats don’t rule Russia, Putin does. Putin’s innovation was to create a new—or newish—kind of oligarchy. Instead of the military or a political party institutionalizing power of the few, Putin created a state-security apparatus that kept the rich servile and the military dysfunctional (I cannot recommend this Twitter thread enough).
Of course Western politicians surround themselves with sycophants and yes men (and women!) too. This has been a particular problem with both the current administration and the previous one. But, in liberal societies, even if you live in a bubble, it’s incredibly difficult to extend that bubble beyond your immediate zone of power, at least for very long. The press will contradict your b.s. Other politicians will recognize that their interests aren’t served by genuflecting to the groupthink of a White House bunker. Courts will stymie you—and so will voters.
In such an environment, truth can take a beating—and it usually does—but it remains a powerful commodity in politics. The bureaucrat who is sure that the only audience he should care about is the boss will tell the boss only what the boss wants to hear or do what the boss wants. It doesn’t matter if the actual policy won’t work. The boss won’t know (or he won’t blame the people who simply did exactly what he wanted). But the bureaucrat who is afraid the New York Times or Fox News or the relevant committee in Congress will find out, will hedge his risk—or maybe even just do the right thing and tell the truth. Because in liberal societies telling the truth is its own defense. Businesses in authoritarian regimes have no choice but to cave to the ruler because there’s no appeal, no alternative strategy. Journalists—at least most of them—will cease being journalists and will instead be narrative-peddlers for the regime. Voters are no longer actual voters, but props used to ratify a predetermined outcome. Lawyers aren’t adversarial checks on the status quo, but manipulators of words for the benefit of the rulers.
The net result of all this is that the regime becomes brittle. It cannot adjust to change because change is a threat to power. Moreover, change is predicated on the idea that there is some inconvenient truth driving the need to change, and inconvenient truths are dangerous truths—for the truth tellers. Everything becomes a story, written on the fly to please the ears of the ruler—at the direction of the ruler.
The day before he ordered the invasion of Ukraine, the story Putin told himself and told others to tell him, was in some significant sense true. Because power resides where it is perceived to reside. So Putin was strong. He could do what he wanted so long as what he wanted didn’t test the falsity of his story. China believed it. America believed it. His fans in the West were sure Putin’s story was true. But then Putin invited the whirlwind, and whirlwind is testing the oak.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: We had a little drama yesterday. As part of our unending quest to solve the mystery of Zoë’s WMD-breath, we needed to get a blood test. The thing is, Zoë hates going to the vet and becomes very panicky there, hyperventilating and growling at other dogs. I know lots of dogs don’t like the vet, but Zoë’s experience drags up her extended stay in the ICU when she had parvo and she feels super vulnerable. And a vulnerable Zoë is a handful. She tried to pull herself out of her collar and become a Tansmanian devil. She’s never bitey with humans, but a room full of stuff-toy terriers and sundry doodles is not a good place for Zoë in feral dingo mode. Fortunately we had no incidents and she was very happy to come home. Meanwhile, Pippa was sure that I was taking Zoë to the magical park of tennis balls and comfortable pillows and cried when I told her she had to stay at the house. That’s the thing, Pippa always wants to be in on the fun. Even if it’s just to check out the racoon Zoë found or to wrassle with her sister.
And now, the weird stuff