Between Damon Linker’s and Peter Weber’s columns, it appears to be partition week over at The Week (where I have also been known to hang my hat). Linker’s pro-Biden column leans heavily on then-Senator Biden’s having mused about partitioning Iraq to make the case for the Vice President’s foreign policy acumen, while Weber suggests one-upping Putin’s intervention in the Syrian civil war by supporting an independent Kurdistan.
Daniel Larison lays into both proposals in his usual fashion. But my question is: where’s the historical evidence advocates might bring forward to make their case for partition as a solution to inter-communal conflict?
The partition of India that created Pakistan is among the most famously sanguinary examples, but it’s not like history is full of successfully-imposed divisions of states. Northern Ireland’s status remains contested long after the Republic has moved on to more important questions. The Korean War never ended. The Vietnam War didn’t end until the partition of that country was undone on the battlefield. The crackup of Yugoslavia has finally achieved a kind of stasis after multiple foreign interventions. The breakup of the former Soviet Union left irredentist groups in Trans-Dniestria, in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, has famously destabilized Ukraine (which may yet itself be partitioned if things really go badly) and may yet tear apart NATO member state Estonia. And, of course, much of the Middle East is the fruit of the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire.
If I were looking for examples of successful partitions, I’d start with the “velvet divorce” between Bohemia and Moravia on the one side and Slovakia on the other. But of course, that’s an extreme outlier case in which both sides agreed from the outset on the desirability of separation. Other states have achieved independence on the battlefield or at the negotiating table, and have gone on to have cordial relations with their former metropole, but again, the precondition for success was agreement, won through some combination of superior force or persuasion. The track record of partitions imposed as a solution to irreconcilable ethnic or ideological difference is abysmal.
And when have we been in a position to impose such solutions anyhow? If we had said, some time in 2006, say, that we support the partition of Iraq, where would we have gotten the authority to implement it? Who within Iraq, apart from the Kurds, would have signed on to such a plan? If the government didn’t support our plans, we’d be in the awkward position of fighting against the government we had installed and were obliged to defend. Or, alternatively, we might have been in the position of implicitly endorsing ethnic cleansing intended to change the facts on the ground in advance of implementation of such a plan.
When someone talks about America “backing” an independent Kurdistan, what is generally meant isn’t securing an agreement by the Syrian or Iraqi government to recognize that new state’s independence, so that inter-communal relations could resume on a normal and equal inter-state basis. What’s meant is the assertion of a right to independence, and providing the material support to back up that assertion with force. It means, by definition, escalating the inter-communal conflict, in the hopes that victory for the side we are backing can be achieved expeditiously enough that the other side sees no alternative but to surrender.
And Syria and Iraq are not the only players in the mix, just the weakest. If Kurdistan is ever going to be a secure state, it will only be with the acquiescence of powerful states like Turkey and Iran that rule most of the territory where the Kurds live. The price it would take to win that acquiescence at the negotiating table is hard to fathom. Logically, one should assume that the price it would take to win it on the battlefield would be all the higher.
I have a great deal of sympathy for Kurdish ambitions. Kurdistan is kind of like 19th-century Poland, a country that ought to exist, and only doesn’t because of a historic injustice. But it’s worth recalling that what it took to restore Poland to the family of nations was the carnage of World War I; that World War II began with the agreement between Hitler and Stalin to reverse Polish independence; that the worst of the Nazi crimes were committed on Polish territory; and that after the war Polish national territory was forcibly relocated westward (Poland was the only victim of Nazi aggression to be treated in this fashion), after which Poland finally found the blessings of peace under Soviet domination.
This is not, I think, a model we should encourage the Kurds to emulate.
TAC is currently in the middle of a fundraising campaign, the catch phrase for which is “realism and reform.” And, as catch phrases goes, it’s not bad. Who, after all, is going to come out in favor of “delusion and sclerosis”?
Who, indeed? Little did I anticipate the 2016 Presidential contest.
Today’s Republican party may aptly be described as the party of delusion, living in a world where omni-directional belligerence is global leadership, where massive unfunded tax cuts are the height of fiscal responsibility, and where ignorance of basic facts is not merely tolerated but applauded as evidence of authenticity.
And today’s Democrats, running on the status quo at a time when more than two-thirds of those polled say the country is on the wrong track, and set to be led by the wife of the previous Democratic President, whose primary challenger is a 73-year-old self-proclaimed Socialist—how better to describe them than as the party of sclerosis?
It’s a depressing spectacle.
And more depressing than the spectacle itself is the fact that the bulk of the press treats it as precisely that: a spectacle. As if the country can be counted on to take care of itself, and we can content ourselves during elections with rooting for our preferred team and enjoying the show.
But not all of the press takes that attitude.
Last year, I made a point of saying that TAC didn’t have a party line, and wasn’t interested in promoting a particular ideological agenda. And that’s still true. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we believe, and it doesn’t mean we take a purely spectator’s interest in public affairs.
If there is one thing that unites the diverse factions and unclassifiable individuals around here, it’s the conviction that the Washington consensus in foreign policy needs to be questioned. That America needs to rediscover the virtues of restraint, to set priorities among our interests and desires, and to learn to work with other powers on common interests rather than attempting to dictate terms to ally and adversary alike. We’re holding a conference on the subject in November, and, as with our last such foray, we’re eager to use such discussions to build bridges between conservatives and liberals who, differing on other matters, see how vital it is that on matters of war and peace, a different voice is heard.
Because it is a different voice, one that gets heard relatively infrequently in the councils of either party, and is heeded even less. It’s striking, and depressing, to observe how, after the disastrous war in Iraq, and the substantial failure of our nation-building effort in Afghanistan, the current administration still found itself intervening in Libya, half-heartedly engaging in the Syrian civil war, and cheering on a Saudi war in Yemen—and did so even though people at the highest levels of the administration, including the President himself, expressed skepticism about the efficacy of such interventions. The pressures, internal and external, in favor of action are so predominant that it nearly always seems prudent, in a political sense, to give in to them.
So we have to change those pressures. And that change has to start with a persistent, ongoing effort to open up the national conversation to voices that advocate restraint, without equivocation or embarrassment.
I can’t say, as Churchill did, that if you give us the tools we’ll finish it, because that job truly is never-ending. But I can say that if you don’t give us the tools—the support we need to keep writing and publishing and arguing—then we’ll be finished.
And if you’ve read this far, you probably don’t want that to happen.
So please, in this one area, don’t err on the side of restraint. And, to the degree that you are able, show your support for The American Conservative.
With Walker out, I assume Chris Christie is ordering his staffers not to answer the phones.
But seriously: the debates appear to be doing their job in winnowing the field down from a huge number to a more reasonable-sized field. Kasich impressed in the first debate – and he’s still standing. Rubio impressed in the second debate – and he’s still standing. Perry couldn’t move the needle, and Walker moved it the wrong way – and they are out. Jeb . . . well, he’s a Bush, so he’s got more rope. But not an infinite amount thereof: at some point, if he can’t consistently outpoll his fellow Floridian, he’ll come under pressure to drop out and consolidate the establishment-acceptable vote.
The only problem is, that vote looks to be no more than a quarter to a third of the total, at least at this point.
Take the three non-politician candidates: Trump, Carson and Fiorina. Carson and Fiorina do not ring quite the alarm bells that Trump does among the establishment, but I am assuming that nobody among the party’s leadership or major donors is anything less than appalled at the prospect of being stuck with a complete political novice like Carson, or a disastrous failure of a CEO (and failed Senate candidate to boot) like Fiorina at the top of the ticket. But collectively, they pull in more than 50% – not only nationally (54% average across the most recent 3 polls), but in each of Iowa (56%), New Hampshire (54%), South Carolina (58%) and even Florida (58%) where Bush and Rubio are native sons.
Then, add to that total the vote for those candidates with actual experience whom the establishment still likely finds unacceptable: bomb-thrower Ted Cruz, one-time libertarian gadfly Rand Paul, and Duggar family publicist Mike Huckabee. That group collectively polls 15% nationally, 15% in Iowa, 12% in New Hampshire, 11% in South Carolina, and 8% in Florida.
I’ll call the rest of the field establishment-friendly: Bush, Rubio, Kasich, Christie – that crowd. I’ll include in that group hopeless-cause candidates – Graham and Pataki and Jindal and so forth – because if they weren’t hopeless they’d be acceptable, and therefore I assume their votes could readily be won by another “normal” candidate more readily than, say, Cruz’s or Trump’s.
That group – all together – polls at less than 25% nationally, as well as in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, rising to 32% only in the Bush-Rubio state.
And those numbers haven’t moved all that much – particularly not the national ones. There’s been a lot of volatility in just the last couple of weeks. But the numbers for the “outsiders” versus “insiders” have been pretty stable.
Does that mean that consolidation won’t be enough to put one establishment-acceptable candidate over the top? Not necessarily – but it does mean that that candidate, whoever he is, will need to be able to do more than consolidate those voters already showing a willingness to vote for an “insider.”
Who would you bet is best-placed to do that?
Though I’ve long been skeptical that Iran is actually open to an across-the-board rapprochement, I heartily agree with Daniel Larison and Stephen Walt that we should not actually seek to minimize the chances of such a thaw in relations, but should do everything we can to maximize the diplomatic value of the opening created by the nuclear deal. In that spirit, I’ve got a modest proposal:
Pay Iran to take in Syria’s refugees.
The moral logic of such a proposal is not hard to articulate. Iran, as the main supporter of the Syrian regime, bears a heavy responsibility for the refugee situation in the first place. So it makes sense to demand that it take a primary responsibility for caring for the refugees, along with the Gulf states and Turkey, the main supporters of the rebels. The main moral claim on Europe with respect to the refugee crisis is that it has greater financial wherewithal to shoulder the burden than countries in the region. Shouldering a large share of the financial cost would show that Europe’s states recognize the justice of that claim.
The practical logic is also clear. In general, it makes sense to settle refugees near their homes, because the goal should be for them to return home after the conflict that displaced them is settled. And, indeed, the bulk of the refugees have settled in countries neighboring Syria: Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan — but not in Iran. Moving displaced populations on to Europe relieves pressure on those neighbors to resolve the conflict, and in fact abets Syria’s government (and some rebel groups) in their efforts to “cleanse” the areas under their control of populations deemed insufficiently loyal.
Finally, economic migrants might be far less interested in making a home in Iran than in Germany — so such an arrangement would deter them from trying to blend in with the refugee population to take advantage of Germany’s generous one-time offer of asylum.
Politically, meanwhile, this would be a substantial coup for the Iranian regime. It would highlight the country’s return to good standing in the international community, and show that it is capable of playing a constructive role regionally. It would enable Iran to brag of its tolerance in accepting non-Shiite, non-Muslim, and non-Persian refugees. It would embarrass the Gulf states, which have also taken in no refugees in spite of their wealth and direct responsibility for the conflict. And it would earn Iran some much-needed hard cash.
Jeremy Beer has been making an argument in these pages and others for a more charitable and less philanthropic approach to helping those in need – one focused on the human being before us and our relationship to them rather than on abstract efficiency in delivering services. You tell me whether my modest proposal is in harmony with the spirit of his argument, or thoroughly out of it.
Reihan Salam, appalled by the state of the GOP nominating process, wants to create a Council of Guardians to vet candidates before putting them before the voters:
Anderson and Cost envision a Republican Nominating Convention, in which roughly 3,300 delegates, 3,000 of whom would be elected by rank-and-file Republicans in their local communities and the remainder of whom would be Republican officeholders, would select five official candidates. . . . I won’t bore you with the mechanics, but the basic idea is that you’d eventually be left with a manageable number of candidates who’d then be asked if they actually wanted the nomination, and those who said they were up for it would then be whittled down to five officially-sanctioned candidates.
The best part of this kooky scheme? This convention would take place in February of the year of the election. These candidates would then take part in a series of debates, moderated by Republicans for Republicans, interspersed with a series of three regional primaries, in which party members would vote for their favorite candidates. . . . [I]n this system, the GOP nominee would be chosen by the end of April at the latest. Such a short, focused campaign would give less-moneyed candidates a better shot at securing the nomination, and it would free up candidates with real jobs to focus on them rather than on begging Sheldon Adelson for his sweet casino money.
Well, yes, it would – and if the GOP electorate had a great deal of trust in their party leadership, such a reform would probably go over reasonably well with GOP voters. But if they had that trust then it would also be unnecessary (though possibly still worth considering as a way of saving time, money and energy).
And of course, the fact is that not only is there no such high level of trust, the overwhelming evidence is that the voters positively loathe the leadership of the party. That’s why not only Trump (who started out rich and famous) but Carson and now Fiorina are doing so well, and why Cruz is trying to position himself as an insurgent like them rather than as a sitting Senator: because the GOP leadership is wildly unpopular with its own party’s voters.
Why it is so unpopular is a good question. The Trump phenomenon suggests the possibility that ignoring the base on touchy issues like immigration has alienated them – but it also suggests the possibility that there’s a much broader distaste for the economic priorities of the leadership and the donor class, and a far greater willingness to entertain heresies like higher taxes on some forms of wealth and income and greater government involvement in healthcare – provided that they are enacted by people they trust (i.e., not Democrats, but also not the current Republican leadership). But even if that’s not true, and the GOP electorate is as down-the-line movement conservative as the leadership would like it to be, and is just angry because that leadership compromises too darned much with a Democratic President, how exactly is an effort to restrict popular involvement in the selection process going to win those angry voters over?
I’m all in favor of reducing the influence of large donors over the nominating process of both parties. But I’m at a loss to see how precisely Salam’s proposal would do that. Wouldn’t those donors make abundantly clear to the Nominating Convention who they would be willing to support, and what they have to say to earn that support? Who would be financing the local parties in this scenario – and thereby underwriting the careers of the people vetting the candidates? And, really, how different is his Republican Nominating Convention from, say the Iowa caucuses, which are dominated by local GOP machers, and which Salam laments for having undue influence over the selection process?
Finally, it is worth pointing out that the Democratic Party has a pretty similar nominating process to that of the GOP. Anybody can run, and it takes some combination of raw talent, money, fame, organization and media savvy to get in the game. And yet their process has not descended into an appalling circus – and no, even in the unlikely event that they nominate Bernie Sanders, that wouldn’t be evidence that it has done so. So why blame the nomination process itself for the circus in the GOP?
The evidence of the last few cycles is that the GOP’s voters deeply distrust the leadership. The evidence of the response of many insiders to this most recent cycle is that the distrust is mutual. If you want to solve that problem, you probably shouldn’t start by institutionalizing it.
Where is the conservative Christian Bernie Sanders? A guy who stands up for the poor and the working class, but also for the unborn? I’d vote for that man — or woman — in a heartbeat.
I’m sure he would. The real question, though, is whether you’d respond to Sanders’ call to work together on issues of poverty and inequality across a difference on something as important (to Dreher) as abortion.
It seems to me that, in this context, a conservative Christian Sanders would be somebody who was down-the-line conservative on social issues, but who went to, I dunno, Yale to say: don’t make a shibboleth of your views on these social issues when you look for ways to help the poor. Be willing to put those disagreements aside to work with Catholic or Evangelical Christian – or, for that matter, Muslim – or other conservative religious groups, to serve those in need.
Except – Yale isn’t Liberty University. It is not, in the same way, an organization embodying and promoting a distinct ethos. It’s just a pillar of the establishment, dedicated to selecting the future leadership of America and training it to be the kind of leadership that it already, largely, wants to be (or that its parents want it to be).
So my question would be: is there a Liberty University of the left?
If there is, maybe someone can tell Fredrik deBoer so he can pay a visit.
Daniel Larison has his questions, all, as he admits, vanishingly unlikely to be asked. And, if they were asked, I think he knows what answers he would get: Venezuela is a rogue state and an enemy of America; you can never trust the Iranians; Iran is to blame for the war in Yemen; war crimes are extremely serious but the worst crimes are committed by the Iranians; and Britain is too loyal a friend to America to elect an America-hater like Corbyn.
Here’s my pointless foreign-policy five:
1. There have been reports of late that intelligence analysts believe their pessimistic assessments of the fight against the Islamic State are being distorted before being presented to the President and cabinet officials so as to make it look like the President’s policies are working better than they actually are. Similar allegations were made during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and during the Vietnam War before that. How will you, as President, assure yourself that you are getting accurate and not rosy-scenario assessments from those responsible for executing your policies? And how will the uncertainty that you are, in fact, getting good information affect your decision making process when it comes to war and peace?
2. You have said that, when America fights, we should fight to win, and not engage in open-ended nation-building exercises. [I’m sure they’ve all said something like this.] You’ve also criticized this administration for squandering hard-won victories (in Iraq, in Libya) by leaving rather than remaining engaged on the ground to secure the peace. [Most of them have said something of that sort as well.] How do you reconcile that apparent contradiction? If you were President, and faced with a war that was not going well, are there any circumstances where you would say that it was worth redefining our objectives so as to be able to end the conflict? If not, what would you do?
3. Is it possible for other countries to have legitimate interests that do not align with America’s own interests? If so, can you give some examples, involving both of allied and adversarial countries, that have such divergent interests, and discuss how you would manage those divergences as President? If not, could you elaborate on why such divergence is impossible, and whether you think other countries have a similar view of the question?
4. In meetings with your national security team, what percentage of time on average do you anticipate spending on security issues and other foreign policy questions involving each of the following regions: the Middle East and North Africa, South and Central Asia, East Asia, Russia and the former Soviet bloc, Western Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America? Be mindful that your numbers must total no more than 100% (and may total less than 100% if you anticipate ever talking about Australia or Canada).
5. The United States has long refused to adopt a no-first use policy towards nuclear weapons. This policy originated in a period when America faced an opponent in Europe (the Soviet Union) with substantial conventional superiority. Today, the United States enjoys overwhelming conventional superiority against any plausible opponent that might attack us, but has not changed this policy. Under what circumstances, if any, would you, as President, use nuclear weapons first in a conventional conflict?
I threw in that last one because it’s a personal bugaboo. But I do think it’s one of those policies that most Americans are unaware of.
What do we mean when we denounce someone as a hypocrite? That is to say – when and how does such a denunciation properly have force?
Damon Linker implicitly answers “not often” in his most recent column, arguing that the charge of hypocrisy is itself morally corrosive:
When we denounce someone for hypocrisy, we judge him harshly, but without having to express a substantive commitment of our own with regard to ends. The hypocrite is judged entirely on his own terms, accused of violating the ideal of human flourishing that he himself professes to uphold, revere, and use as a standard for judging others. The hypocrite is guilty, as we say, of having “double standards” — expecting exacting behavior from others while letting himself off the hook more easily. Simply pointing that out seems to allow us to be judgmental while remaining agnostic about whether we actually affirm any vision of human flourishing ourselves.
But that isn’t quite true. When we call someone a hypocrite, we often do so on the basis of two implicit moral assumptions: first, that a person who expresses a moral standard should be expected to live up to it with complete consistency; and second, that if a person fails to live up to it with complete consistency, the moral standard should be abandoned and replaced with one that can be consistently followed.
Those assumptions may not seem like much, but in fact they’re far more stringent — and morally corrosive — than the very different assumptions at work behind the scenes of the most widely affirmed moralities of ends.
Whether in religious or philosophical form, moralities of ends tend to presume that we will frequently fall short of the standards they hold out before us. The whole point of the end is to serve as an ideal — a vision of what a human being should do but often won’t.
To insist that we only affirm standards that we can achieve with perfect consistency is, in effect, to drastically lower those standards from something that we strive for (while often failing) to something within much easier reach — which probably won’t be much different from what we would do in the absence of any standard at all. It’s a license for us to go easy on ourselves: to aim low and succeed.
A moral world in which no one was guilty of hypocrisy would be one divested of the entire vertical dimension of morality. In such a world, we might all respect each other’s rights, but no one would strive to accomplish great, rare, exacting moral deeds.
I’d much rather live in a world filled with hypocrites.
I understand his point – and I think that, in general, our culture could benefit from vastly less denunciation, shaming and witch-hunting on the part of would-be puritans of all political stripes. But I think his conclusion is considerably over-broad – and mis-states the rationale behind many denunciations of hypocrisy.
Many charges of hypocrisy are attacks not on the message but on the messenger. For example: if a candidate uses dodgy loopholes to avoid paying taxes while promising to get tough on tax cheats, someone who agrees with the candidate’s position might attack the candidate as a hypocrite because she wants a better tribune – someone who will be more convincing to voters inclined to be cynical about politicians and their promises. Or, the candidate might be attacked as a hypocrite because her behavior suggests she considers herself to be above the kinds of moral rules that bind us lesser mortals – and that kind of double-standard really is corrosive to democracy whether you agree with the moral rule in question or not.
Other times, the charge of hypocrisy is pretty clearly tied to a real disagreement about what the morality of ends should be, as opposed to an objection to ends as such. Let’s say you have a married, male, Christian minister, a firm opponent of gay marriage, who is revealed to be having an affair with another man. Clearly, this fellow is going to be zinged for hypocrisy. But those doing the zinging are not neutral on the matter of “ends” – far from it. It’s likely that, in their view, it is a positive good to be honest, privately and publicly, about one’s sexuality, and that repressing it does actual harm, both to oneself and to others. The minister is denounced not so much for failing to live up to his own morality of ends, but because he is a walking proof-text for an alternative morality of ends.
Now let’s change the example – say that the minister is revealed to be having an affair not with a man, but with a woman. He’ll still be zinged for hypocrisy, but the charge would read somewhat differently – because it is unlikely (though not impossible) that those doing the denouncing believe in an alternative morality of ends in which cheating as such is fine. And yet, the force still comes from a real disagreement within a morality of ends, and not a dispute about the legitimacy of a morality of ends. The force comes from an implicit argument that public profession of Christianity is a lousy means to the end of sexual fidelity – and that attacking gay marriage for being a threat to faithful heterosexual marriages is particularly obnoxious because it burdens an uninvolved minority with the sins of the majority.
The charge of hypocrisy, in other words, is usually embedded within a larger framework of argument, one which may affirm or reject the specific morality of ends that the accused hypocrite claims to uphold. Rather than deny the legitimacy of the charge of hypocrisy, wouldn’t bringing that context out into the open advance the cause of honest argument more effectively?
After all, without the charge of hypocrisy, how would you make some of the arguments above? If I believe that repressing one’s sexuality is harmful, and I can’t point to the hypocritical minister as a piece of evidence, then my argument is badly weakened – and for no obvious reason. Why am I obliged to say, in effect, that his actions have no bearing on the validity of the principle he stands for, when his actions are, to my mind, evidence that his principle has pernicious consequences? Isn’t the question of how principles play out in practice an extremely important question in debating said principles?
Finally: it’s worth pointing out that Christians have a particular problem with charges of hypocrisy, for two reasons.
Here’s the first one:
Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.
But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.
Jesus’s denunciation of hypocrisy is hard to square with the wisdom of “the tribute vice pays to virtue.” Close to the core of Jesus’s ethical message is the claim that the Pharisaical approach – articulating laws for every aspect of life such that, if you stay within their bounds, you are righteous – far from being the path to righteousness is a path to sin. The law is still the law, and we’re supposed to follow it, to the best of our ability. But we should not follow people who declare themselves masters of the law, and we should not be impressed by people who make a show of their righteousness – we should not be hypocrites ourselves and we should not follow hypocrites.
So, when Christians act like Jesus’s Pharisees, they have a harder time relying on defenses that are explicitly rejected by Jesus.
But the deeper reason for the difficulty is that Christianity’s alternative answer to the problem of sin is, well, hard to swallow. Grace, justification – these are very weird, mysterious ideas that I suspect most Christians don’t really understand. They can sound, to someone who hasn’t swallowed them, an awful lot like a get-out-of-jail-free card, like a claim that once you say you’ve been saved, then you have no further obligation related to your past sins, and even future sins will be readily forgiven. It can sound an awful lot like, well, hypocrisy.
It isn’t – or needn’t be. Whether it’s true or not, and whether it “works” or not (which – for a pragmatist like me – amount to the same thing), Christianity is a powerful and sophisticated system. But as I understand it, the way you’re supposed to comport yourself within a Christian framework is rather like the way a member of AA is supposed to comport herself: as someone permanently addicted to sin, powerless to fight that addiction, seeking always to confess and make amends for past sins, and aware that only by the grace of a higher power has she made it through this day, and that tomorrow is yet another day in need of that same grace.
The standard of sinlessness cannot be met – that’s part of the Christian system’s point. And the standard of saintly humility can’t be met either. But there’s limited evidence that the kinds of people who are typically charged with hypocrisy were even trying to live up to it.
That may be the biggest reason why the charges so often stick.
Would Donald Trump be just as wealthy – or even wealthier – if he had simply put his money in an index fund?
“It takes brains to make millions,” according to the slogan of Donald Trump’s board game. “It takes Trump to make billions.” It appears that’s truer than Trump himself might like to admit. A new analysis suggests that Trump would’ve been a billionaire even if he’d never had a career in real estate, and had instead thrown his father’s inheritance into a index fund that tracked the market. His wealth, in other words, isn’t because of his brains. It’s because he’s a Trump.
In an outstanding piece for National Journal, reporter S.V. Dáte notes that in 1974, the real estate empire of Trump’s father, Fred, was worth about $200 million. Trump is one of five siblings, making his stake at that time worth about $40 million. If someone were to invest $40 million in a S&P 500 index in August 1974, reinvest all dividends, not cash out and have to pay capital gains, and pay nothing in investment fees, he’d wind up with about $3.4 billion come August 2015, according to Don’t Quit Your Day Job’s handy S&P calculator. If one factors in dividend taxes and a fee of 0.15 percent — which is triple Vanguard’s actual fee for an exchange-traded S&P 500 fund — the total only falls to $2.3 billion.
It’s hard to nail down Trump’s precise net worth, but Bloomberg currently puts it at $2.9 billion, while Forbes puts it at $4 billion. So he’s worth about as much as he would’ve been if he had taken $40 million from his dad and thrown it into an index fund.
Not quite. First of all, with multiple children, multiple wives, multiple homes, etc., Trump has got some pretty hefty expenses, which have to be paid for somehow. This is one of the many ways in which Trump is different from, say, Warren Buffet.
But there are more important reasons why the comparison is problematic, which I thank Matt Levine for delineating so I don’t have to.
First of all: the value of the S&P includes intangibles, but most assessments of Trump’s worth do not credit much if any value to his much-ballyhooed brand:
Bloomberg’s computation of Trump’s net worth basically takes the value of his buildings and golf courses; it “doesn’t value Trump’s brand beyond accounting for cash held in accounts for his licensing deals and business partnerships.” But of course the value of the S&P 500 doesn’t come from the value of its cash and buildings. It comes from expectations of future earnings. Trump claims that he’s worth more than $10 billion because of the value of his brand, which “goes up and down with markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings.” That sounds silly when Trump says it about himself, but it is dead right about the S&P, which has had a whole lot of feelings recently. But ultimately its value comes from its claim on earnings, and the S&P price/earnings ratio is about 19.6. Just for laughs, put that multiple on Trump’s $300-million-ish of income and you get an organization worth about $6 billion.
Second, most of these comparisons assume that the alternative to being Donald Trump is investing 100% of your assets in a stock market index on a single date. But market timing is a thing – a really hard thing, harder (in fact) than making money in real estate.
[S]aying that you should buy and hold index funds is very different from saying that you should build your wealth via private real estate entrepreneurship and then, at the start of a bull market, cash out and put all of your money in an index fund. Market timing is a skill. Comparing actual Donald Trump versus perfect-market-timer Donald Trump sets him up to lose, but it sets everyone up to lose. Trump’s 1999 net worth was $1.6 billion. If he had cashed out in December and put that money in the S&P, he’d be worth about $2.7 billion now, again without eating. He’s worth more. So you can roughly say that Trump outperformed the S&P from 1974 through 1987, underperformed from 1988 through 1999, and slightly outperformed since.
Not to mention that any sensible portfolio allocation would include bonds and real assets along with stocks. But the most significant problem with the comparison is philosophical:
Not literally everyone can index! . . . [T]hose funds necessarily free-ride off of the capital allocation decisions made by investors, and ultimately off of the business decisions made by entrepreneurs. Dopes like me can grow our wealth by investing indiscriminately in all the companies in the index, but we can only do that because other people — many of them with Wharton degrees and inherited wealth — made the positive, risky decisions to build those companies.
I carry no water for Trump in any capacity, not as a businessperson and certainly not as a political candidate. But I’m as baffled by the conviction of political journalists that they could do investing better than the professionals as I am by the conviction of so many businesspeople and Wall Street types – Trump, for example – that compared to what they do, politics must be beanbag.
Meanwhile, if you want to annoy Trump, ask him why he’s underperformed Richard Branson – or Richard Lefrak – over the course of his career.
Before writing this post, I took a scroll down my Facebook feed, to see what news stories my friends are linking to. Here are the first four stories I spotted:
- Taylor Swift’s version of Africa is scandalously empty of black people
- A bank in Norway has printed anti-Semitic caricatures on credit cards
- Ted Cruz accuses Black Lives Matter activists of fomenting attacks on police
- Dan Savage assails the Kentucky clerk for her venal hypocrisy
The essence of each story is the same: someone said/depicted something that you should be outraged by. Some are first-order outrage stories: we are supposed to be outraged by Taylor Swift’s clueless racism, and Norway’s clueless or malicious anti-Semitism. Others are second-order outrage: the Kentucky clerk is outraged by the Supreme Court’s ruling, and Dan Savage is outraged by her outrage. Yet others are third-order outrage: Black Lives Matter activists are outraged by police brutality, Ted Cruz is outraged by their outrage, and we are supposed to be outraged by Ted Cruz. Alan Jacobs has a brief piece up today about the Kentucky clerk in which he expresses his outrage at the outrage of those who have savaged said clerk.
Not all of these kinds of pieces are genuinely furious; some are more ironic or humorous. And these aren’t the only kinds of news stories out there. My feed has plenty of substantive stories about the Iran deal, or the Canadian elections, or off-Broadway theater openings (well, it is my feed, so, you know). But however inflected, outrage porn clearly a very popular genre – and that popularity ensures that it will continue to proliferate.
All of which just makes me . . . tired.
Does the stuff work on me? Sure it does, sometimes. Was I outraged by this Jezebel piece about college move-in day? Yes! Am I outraged by this piece from Time about the sisters in Uttar Pradesh sentenced to be gang-raped for their brother’s transgression against caste lines? Yes! But my outrage is entirely impotent. I don’t, after reading such stories, find my consciousness raised. I just find myself exhausted.
If I step back, I can formulate non-exhausting questions. I wondered how prevalent those college banners actually are – if highly prevalent, they would seem to me to be a prima facie decent case for a hostile environment harassment suit, against either the fraternities or the universities in question. I’m curious whether such a suit has ever been contemplated, and if not why not. The story out of India made me think about the limited reach of the modern state, and the ructions associated with modernity rubbing up against traditional society (and about how neo-traditionalists forget the extent to which traditionalism is upheld by violence, particularly sexual violence, just as modernists forget the extent to which modernity has proved no antidote to violence, particularly sexual violence). But those aren’t the kinds of thoughts that get into my Facebook feed. (And heaven knows what I’d be inundated with if I were on Twitter.)
I can remember when outrage fueled me, rather than leaving me enervated. In the wake of the attacks of 9-11, every terrifying piece of news felt like it was essential. When I was a more conventional right-winger, every outrage by the “other side” confirmed me in my convictions, and every time the “other side” got outraged it confirmed to me that their perceptions were deeply biased, their priorities deeply confused. But it’s not like that outrage fueled any, you know, action, much less any understanding. All it fueled was – a feeling.
Outrage is a kind of drug, one that gives the illusion of involvement, of caring, when really derives its power from an emotional and informational distance that the stories themselves then strive to deepen, laying the groundwork for the next piece of outrage porn to do its work. And thus proceeds an addictive cycle.
Alan Jacobs says of the Kentucky clerk story that there are “two significant stories here,” one about the clerk’s legal claims and one about the way she’s being treated in the press. But really, there are zero significant stories here. The legal questions she raises are not profound and will be handled by the duly-constituted authorities; there’s no crisis of any kind, genuinely nothing to see. And the press has been awful because unless they are awful, there’s no story. Because outrage, like sex, sells – and that is not news at all, nor likely to change.
And I don’t know what to do about that. In my own life, and my own writing, I strive to follow the line from “Wargames” – “the only way to win is not to play.” As a consequence, outrage, like cheap vodka, which once seemed to reduce my inhibitions and make me feel strong and confident, now makes me feel a bit ill, and puts me to sleep.
But without it, the job of blogging is a whole lot harder.