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Friday, April 08, 2011

The Goldberg File - The Joys of Counter-Gloating

The following is reprinted for archival purposes. Its original form is a mass e-mail newsletter from National Review Online. That is why the links will not open with any internet connection slower than high speed internet.

The Goldberg File
By Jonah Goldberg

April 8, 2011
Dear Reader (and those of you who "prefer to watch"),

Don't miss the announcements below, but let's jump right in, shall we?

Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic calls our attention to Lyndon Johnson's remarks when he signed Medicare into law:

"No longer will older Americans be denied the healing miracle of modern medicine," Johnson said at the signing ceremony. "No longer will illness crush and destroy the savings that they have so carefully put away over a lifetime so that they might enjoy dignity in their later years."

"Read those quotes carefully," Cohn advises us, "because they spell out the covenant that Johnson made with the American people on that day: A promise that the elderly and (certain groups) of the poor would get comprehensive medical insurance, no matter what."

If the suits would pay for the technology, I would have had you read all of that with stirring music in the background and images of fireworks unfolding before you, and then maybe footage of, say, WWII vets or Boy Scouts saluting the flag. Because apparently Lyndon Johnson's "covenant" with the American people trumps the U.S. Constitution.

Bear with me.

I don't know what Cohn himself believes about the U.S. Constitution, but his magazine has been churning out highbrow bilge for decades about the "living constitution," specifically the need for the Constitution to constantly grow, change, adapt, and evolve with the changing times and the new realities that come every generation. To deny this view of the Constitution is to declare yourself a right wing crank of some sort. After all, "everyone knows" the Constitution is a "living document," and "everyone knows" that times change.

In other words, according to liberal logic, the U.S. Constitution, the fundamental charter of this nation, to which every soldier and statesmen is required to pledge unwavering allegiance: that's so much clay to be remolded and shaped to fit the contours of whatever form liberal conventional wisdom takes this year.

But LBJ's "covenant" with the American people? Dude, that is written in stone. His self-serving hot air is the unchanging, unyielding, inalterable Koran of secular liberalism.

For the record, no president forges unbreakable intergenerational "covenants" with the American people. That's not what presidents are for. Presidents are not gods and their press conferences are not holy pronouncements (in particular, LBJ's crapper was not the burning bush from which he dispensed divine instructions to his apostles Jack Valenti and Bill Moyers either).

The Founding Fathers weren't gods either. But they were a far sight wiser and more deserving of reverence and respect than LBJ. And, more important, the U.S. Constitution is a good deal more august a document than an actuarially unworkable scheme of transfer payments conceived of when the young and productive mightily outnumbered the elderly and unproductive.

Reverse Causes Severe Tire Damage
I don't mean to single out Cohn, who has always struck me as one of the least obnoxious of the progressive wonks out there. He just articulates the liberal objection to reform so perfectly. The truth is this junk is all over the place. E. J. Dionne, Harold Meyerson, and countless others talk of our adamantine "social contract" and "covenant" with the American people as if it would be unthinkable, unconscionable, metaphysically catastrophic to "undo" any of the progressive "gains" of the past.

In Liberal Fascism (
now out in paperback!), I wrote at length about how the early progressives were ensorcelled by the Hegelian notion of the God-State. The State, Hegel declared in The Philosophy of History, "is the actually existing, realized moral life . . . the divine idea as it exists on earth." He proclaimed that "all worth which the human being possesses -- all spiritual reality, he possesses only through the State."

I sincerely doubt that any of the policy munchkins tweeting their outrage over Paul Ryan's plan or the hippies promising to "Koch Block" [sic] union reform in Wisconsin are too up on their Hegel. But I do believe that liberalism still operates on a pseudo-religious conviction that capital-H History is their friend, master, or slave. This is why the very language of politics is so suffused with progressive bias. When conservative politicians successfully reform our system by introducing market mechanisms or by removing idiotic regulations, "objective" reporters talk about how Washington "turned back the clock," "reversed" gains, "removed" protections, etc. And whenever liberal politicians succeed in creating new sweeping regulations or state controls, the language is all about how Washington took a giant step "forward," about how "progress" was made on this or that issue.

This is why the same people who look at the U.S. Constitution as either an infinitely malleable writ of social transformation or an outmoded impediment to social progress can simultaneously speak reverentially about intergenerational "covenants" and "contracts."

The Constitution, when out of sync with the progressive agenda, is a bygone relic of the "horse and buggy era" -- to use FDR's phrase. But the ever-expanding progressive "promise" of American life envisioned by Herbert Croly (
and Barack Obama)? That is sacrosanct, holy, metaphysically undeniable. To suggest that it can be reversed is not only an attempt to "repeal the 20th century" (Harold Meyerson's phrase), it is sacrilegious and villainous. Because "progressive" gains once pocketed must never be returned. The Wheel of History does not do reverse.

Fact-Checking Is for Republicans
Whatever you thought about the relative accuracy of the term "death panel," one thing was certain: You rarely heard the phrase in the "objective" media without its being followed up by a very heavy-handed case for why it wasn't accurate. The MSM has strict policies about all sorts of words and phrases it considers loaded. Reuters won't even use "terrorist." Partial-birth abortion is always "so-called partial birth abortion."

Frankly, I don't really have a problem with truth-squadding outsized rhetoric -- when called for (it is partial-birth abortion, after all). That's what the press is for, in no small part. But where is the truth-squadding for all of the "war on the elderly" nonsense we're hearing in response to Ryan's plan? If a Republican says "death panel," expect three paragraphs of scolding about the term's inaccuracy. If a Democrat says the Ryan plan is a giveaway to "big oil" and will starve children, well, that's just a legitimate perspective. (See
my column today for more on the liberal reaction to the Ryan plan).        

Wisconsin Out of Pocket
I can't tell you how much I enjoyed following the Wisconsin election news on Twitter. Okay, I guess I can tell you. I've enjoyed it more than Roman Polanski at a Hannah Montana concert, more than Helen Thomas at a Hamas rally, more than Bill Clinton at Silvio Berlusconi's house a lot.

There was just something so schadenfreudtastic about punitive right-wing counter-gloating after the Left had spent days gloating over their unalloyed victory in Wisconsin. I won't get into the tick-tock of it all (Michael Moore seemed a few shades from going full-on suicide bomber), though I threw my two cents in
here and there, noting how Kloppenberg fell behind in the count when a surge of votes from cowboy poets in Wisconsin failed to materialize. Oh, and I may have asked if you can make cheese curds out of crow and whether or not the progs were going to have tailgating at their pity party. But I was barely a participant in the really grotesquely enjoyable riot of "nyah-nyahs."

John Nolte (from over at Big Hollywood) captured the spirit of it all well when he signed off, "What does it say that I have to go to bed B4 I run out of taunts about what losers u are? Your misery is my muse, parasites."

The Price of Elections
Of course, if Kloppenberg had won (and she still may -- a recount is coming), the unions and their sympathizers would have claimed it was a monumental victory for the forces of progress and all that. We know that because that's in fact what they did for a few days, until they found those extra 7,000 net votes for Prosser and the unions started to cry like they found their Christmas pony in the wood-chipper.

But if Klop had won, it would have been by the tiniest of margins, even though the Left threw their all into the fight. And although conservatives could have consoled themselves with the fact that the fight shouldn't have been so hard for the Left to win, given that Madison is the Klingon homeworld of progressivism, it wouldn't have mattered. They would have lost and the other side would have won.

There's much to say about all of that, but what I find most interesting is the way a binary result conveys so much information. If the Dems win, that means public unions aren't doomed, the Tea Party tide is receding, etc. If the GOP wins, then a whole slew of other conclusions become defensible.

All because less than 1 percent of voters voted one way instead of the other.

That's because elections contain a vast amount information boiled down to a simple yes-or-no, X-or-Y question.

This is not a new insight, of course. We all know "elections matter."

But I wish people could have the same reverence for prices. The price of a can of tuna -- call it $3.79 -- seems like a very simple thing, but it is in fact the simple-seeming face of something so massively complicated no single person can fully grasp everything that goes into it. It's like the tiny antenna poking out of the earth in a nondescript field that is in fact the only visible protuberance of a massive subterranean city, or the inchworm that is really the tip of a leviathan's tail.

The price of a can of tuna summarizes and synthesizes oil prices, shipping prices, the cost of aluminum, and the weather off the Sea of Japan. Bond markets and the consumer tastes and preferences of a billion or more people have their impact on the price, too, as do regulations, fish stocks, and a thousand other inputs. Each of these things depends on the prices of a billion other things, and yet, harmoniously, they work it all out. Friedrich Hayek called this process "catallaxy." (Which, if you didn't see it spelled, you might think was an adjective used to describe cars that look like Cadillacs but aren't. "Man, that Lincoln Town Car is awfully cadillacsy.")

Hayek never claimed that this process worked perfectly. He simply argued that it worked a hell of a lot better than state planning. That's because people closest to ground, with a Fingerspitzengefuehl (you've been keeping up with your G-File vocab flash cards, right?) for what all the different variables are, would always be better at figuring out the right prices for things both bought and sold. Planners could never get the prices reliably right (their occasional guesses might work from time to time) because of this "knowledge problem."

What we are seeing today, in Wisconsin and in Washington, in the fights over everything from government unions to Obamacare to the Ryan plan, is a pitched battle between those who fundamentally understand and accept the knowledge problem and those who do not.

More on that later.

Announcements!
I will be at the University of Minnesota on Monday giving a talk co-sponsored by my buddies at C-Fact and the Minnesota Republic. It's open to the public, so come on down, or up, or whatever. Coffman Memorial Union, President's Room, 3rd floor, 7 p.m.
Parking in the East River Road Ramp. If tradition holds, there will be beers after.

On Wednesday I'll be at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I'm not entirely sure why they want me back to give essentially the same speech I gave two years ago, but I'm happy to do it. It's also at 7:00 p.m., in Carroll Hall, Room 111.

Finally, some of you may have seen the, er, "comedy nights" that Mark Steyn, Rob Long, and yours truly have put on at various NR events. Whether you guys enjoyed them or not, we certainly did. So we decided to start a podcast where the three of us talk. It's entirely unscripted. Not only did we not know the topics beforehand, we didn't really know them after either. The first is up over at Ricochet (alas, behind a paywall),
but you can get a preview here. Judging by the comments, it seems one of the central debates is whether I laugh like a dolphin or a goat. Check it out -- if you dare!
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