Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, October 13, 2015
They Said It:
In the second century of the Christian era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period (A.D. 98-180) of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and afterwards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth.
Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Introduction, Chapter 1, Volume I, 1776.
THE COUNTRY CLASS INSURGENCY AND THE DEEP STATE LEVIATHAN.
We want to begin this week by noting that we were right and the mainstream media was wrong about the Tea Party movement. It was not, as the mainstream press insisted over and over again, a bunch of rednecks unhappy about being governed by a black man. It was, rather, the catalyst that began the war against the ruling class that is dominating the ongoing race for the White House today and thus the entire domestic news front.
As we have been saying for literally decades now, the old political paradigms – hawks vs. doves; labor vs. capital; rich vs. poor; small government vs. big government; high taxes vs. low taxes, etc. – began to fall apart at about the same time as the Soviet Union. And while it took a few years for a new paradigm to fill the void, it has arrived and it has defined itself. We put it this way more than two-and-a-half years ago in a piece titled “At Long Last: The New Political Paradigm!”
When all is said and done, then, we are left with a political paradigm that pits those who believe that Plato’s Republic is a how-to manual intended to provide a guide to constructing the Kallipolis (the “good” city) against those who agree with the smarter figures in Western Civilization that Plato’s effort was intended to be esoteric or representational, which is to say those who believe in natural law, in inalienable rights, and in the inherent dignity of the individual.
In a column/blog post last week for the Daily Beast/Newsweek, the eminently sensible Megan McArdle varied from the usual analogy (and the one we use above and have used countless times before), and compared the American ruling class not to the Platonic Guardians, but rather to Mandarins of Imperial China:
I think that we are looking at something even deeper than that: the Mandarinization of America. The Chinese imperial bureaucracy was immensely powerful. Entrance was theoretically open to anyone, from any walk of society — as long as they could pass a very tough examination. The number of passes was tightly restricted to keep the bureaucracy at optimal size.
Passing the tests and becoming a “scholar official” was a ticket to a very good, very secure life. And there is something to like about a system like this . . . especially if you happen to be good at exams. Of course, once you gave the imperial bureaucracy a lot of power, and made entrance into said bureaucracy conditional on passing a tough exam, what you have is . . . a country run by people who think that being good at exams is the most important thing on earth.
Sound familiar? . . .
Why, yes. It does sound familiar. Say . . . how is Imperial China doing these days? Still chugging along, is it? . . . .
Consider: over the past four years, four of the most critical and upsetting years in several decades, the man who was in charge of the Treasury, the institution responsible for managing both federal finances and the currency, was a hack who couldn’t even do his own taxes properly. Yet he was properly connected, having attended Dartmouth and, more to the point, having enjoyed the tutelage of Democratic finance icon Robert Rubin at Treasury. Worse yet, he is to be replaced this week, at another critical juncture for the country, by a man who is even less capable, who couldn’t tell his interlocutors in the Senate how his pay on Wall Street was calculated or what, exactly, he did to earn it, but who is also properly plugged-in, having gone to Harvard and – again, more to the point – having learned the ropes of finance from Bob Rubin, this time at Citi.
Does it surprise anyone – anyone at all – that Jack Lew’s employment contract at Citi “gave him,” as the inimitable Michael Barone put it yesterday, “favorable stock option treatment if he left his job for a high federal government post but not for another governmental or nonprofit job?” Could the ruling-class ethos possibly be more brazenly and haughtily flaunted?
The bottom line here is that the American ruling class, which prides itself so on its intellect and education, is really nothing more than a group of people who are well connected and/or who take exams well. This too bodes ill with respect to long-run creativity and problem-solving ability.
Of course, the Mandarin bureaucracy eventually fell. As Wikipedia, the poor man’s encyclopedia put it, “corruption set in, rebels tested government legitimacy, and ruling elites did not change their mindsets in the face of changes in the world system.” That hasn’t happened yet in the good old US of A, but the rebels have won numerous early skirmishes. This month the Tea Party claimed the scalp of the current Speaker of the House John Boehner, who recently announced his resignation. And it is worth remembering that before it took down the Speaker, the Tea Party took down the House Majority Leader, former Congressman Eric Cantor, making him the first majority leader in a century or more to lose a primary election. Additionally, that formidable group and its allies have taken out the presumed successor to Boehner, that being the current House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. All of which is to say that the Tea Party insurgency is real, ongoing, and gathering force.
And even better, it should be noted that the Tea Party is not the only player on the country class side of the New Paradigm. As strange as it may sound, the Wharton-educated billionaire real estate mogul, the Yale-educated neurosurgeon, the Stanford-educated former Fortune 500 CEO, and the University of Chicago-educated twenty-five year Washington veteran – all of whom are running for president – are also on the side of the country class, at least for the time-being and at least in the current iteration of the paradigm. Between the Tea Party, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and the rest, official Washington has been roiled in a way that it hasn’t been for years, decades maybe . . . heck . . . maybe even more than a century, if the erstwhile public-opinion poll analyst and current political strategist Jay Cost can be believed:
The Beltway class is watching the voters back home with self-righteous bemusement, wondering: Why are all these once-quiescent voters suddenly having such a fit? They used to be so well behaved, and we took good care of them to boot.
Those hoping for the storm to blow over must be disappointed by now. Our system of government was deliberately designed to make it difficult to effect change. Fads in public opinion usually peter out before our system ever acts on them. So when discontent is wide and deep enough to cashier a speaker of the House, it is past time to pay serious attention to the public mood.
According to the polls, people have been unhappy with the course of government policy for over a decade. In just one federal election of the last five (2012) have they voted for the president’s party. Instead, voters regularly direct their fury at whichever party has the misfortune of being in charge. We have not seen such sustained dissatisfaction since public opinion polling began. In fact, we’d have to travel back to the 1890s to discover so prolonged a bout of electoral distemper.
All of this is good. All of this is acceptable. Indeed, all of this was and is necessary. The American body politic has grown old, sedentary, perverted. It needs desperately to be reborn through crisis, conflict, and a healthy dose of rebellion. And while we may not agree with the Tea Party on all matters at all times, we are eternally grateful for its presence. And the same, believe it or not, can be said about Bernie Sanders. We may not have much use for socialists, even of the American variety, but his challenge to the Clinton political machine is both necessary and welcome. A healthy republic does not hold coronations. And certainly, it does not coronate the otherwise undistinguished spouse of a former leader.
That said, we are not especially confident about the course of the republic in the near term. We know that many conservatives are hopeful, and we’re also well aware of what they see as the ideal scenario for the post-Obama world: A conservative Republican will get elected and he or she will immediately cut taxes, streamline the tax code, drastically reduce the regulatory burden on business, unleash domestic energy producers, close inefficient and cumbersome government agencies, cut the funding of others, etc., etc., etc. And happy days will be here again.
Color us skeptical. It’s not that we don’t trust the country class to do the right things. But the Augean Stables were child’s play compared to the mess that the reformers will face if they do gain power. Keep in mind, that while Barack Obama has been badly outclassed by Vladimir Putin, he has been more than a match for his Republican opponents for seven years now. In fact, he has beat them bloody on virtually every field of battle. And how has he managed this, you ask? By being smart, aggressive, a master politician? No. He did it by playing a lot of golf and watching CNN. You see, it wasn’t Obama that beat them, it was the system, or to be more direct, the same “sh**” that made the Augean Stables so offensive.
The mess that is our political system these days reminds us of the old joke that we’ve used at least a few times in these pages before (and which is one of Mark’s old favorites): It’s the one about the player-manager of a baseball team who gets fed up with his shortstop. Finally, he pulls him from the game and goes in himself, telling the guy that he will demonstrate how the position should be played. On the first pitch, the batter hits a hard line drive to the player-manager. The ball tips off his glove and hits him smack dab on the forehead, knocking him unconscious. The players all run onto the field and gather round their fallen skipper. Finally, after a few uncomfortable minutes, the manager opens his eyes, looks up, sees, among the players looking down at him, the shortstop he pulled from the game, and says to him, “You’ve got this position so screwed up no one can play it.”
Consider, if you will, the aforementioned case of the Speaker of the House. By forcing John Boehner out, the Tea Party – or the Country Class Insurgency, if you prefer – won a major victory. It eliminated a significant impediment – or at least a significant perceived impediment – to its plan to remake the republic. Unfortunately, that impediment was to be replaced by another. And they forced him out of the running as well, which was another perceived victory, but left them with . . . well . . . nothing. Currently John Boehner remains Speaker. And he has hinted that he might stay for a while. But even if he doesn’t, there’s no guarantee that the insurgents will get to pick their guy to be his replacement, largely because they don’t really have a guy. In any case, even if they do get their guy, even if they get the most talented, charismatic, and rebellious rebel ever there was, that won’t change the House of Representatives too terribly much. It’s the system, brother.
A generation ago, you may recall, a very talented, a very charismatic, and a very rebellious rebel leader took the Speaker’s gavel and promised radical change. Unfortunately, in his tenure as Speaker, the waste-cutting rebel leader Newt Gingrich managed to close the House Barbershop . . . and nothing else, before he was chased out of town by another group of rebels, led, ironically enough, by John Boehner.
This is not to say that Newt broke his promises or lied or became enamored by power and lost interest in reforming government. Rather, Newt was simply unprepared for the size and scope of the Leviathan he would face. He thought that he could take over the majority and immediately begin cutting the state. What he didn’t realize, what he didn’t expect was that the “state” as we understand it, is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Beyond the official state lies the “deep state,” which, as it turns out, is the bigger problem.
Now, if you Google the phrase “deep state,” you will find a little bit of useful information floating in a sea of crazy. You see, “deep state” is, quite often, a term used by conspiracy mongers and other mixed nuts. It’s the subject of endless wild speculation and the villain in espionage books and movies. It’s a term that originated in Turkey, involving speculation about a small handful of anti-democratic power brokers who control the nation, and which has been applied elsewhere in the West by many of the same people who fear the “New World Order.”
For our purposes, though, the “deep state” is nothing inherently sinister or nefarious. It is merely the state-beneath-the-state, the apparatus that supports government and is supported by government. It is, essentially, the ruling class plus the bureaucracy, its minions, and most importantly, the vast number of citizens and corporations that feed at the public teat. It is, as Newt found out and the Tea Party insurgency is finding out, a formidable adversary.
It is, we think, important to remember here what the IRS “scandal” was and is all about. Note that we put the word scandal in scare quotes not because we deny the scandalousness of the IRS’s behavior, but because we conservatives seem to be the only people who take the whole thing seriously. Everyone else – which is to say the White House, the media, the party establishments – have all moved on, figuring that everyone will just forget about it eventually. And maybe they’re right.
In the meantime, though, we remind you that the scandal’s roots involve using the power of the IRS to target, harass, and deny government sanction to certain groups whose ideology and purpose is out of sync with the beliefs of the IRS as an institution. These groups, mostly Tea-Party related, were seeking nothing more than the same tax-exempt status granted without question or hesitation to other, similar organizations whose views just happened to be more in line with what the IRS and its top bureaucrats believe.
We also remind you that the scandal is ongoing, largely because the IRS – a bureaucratic apparatus staffed exclusively by unelected officials, created by Congress for the express purpose of serving the people – refuses to submit to Congressional oversight. Just last week, the dean of conservative columnists, George Will, made the case against the IRS and against its smug, condescending, and “deep state” director, a loathsome toad of a man named John Koskinen. To wit:
[Lois] Lerner favors suppressing certain mind-sets. At the Internal Revenue Service, she participated in delaying for up to five years — effectively denying — tax-exempt status for, and hence restricting political activity by, groups with conservative mind-sets. She retired after refusing to testify to congressional committees, invoking Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. . . .
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, says the IRS has “lied to Congress ” and “destroyed documents under subpoena.” He accuses Koskinen of “lies, obfuscation and deceit”: “He assured us he would comply with a congressional subpoena seeking Lois Lerner’s emails. Not only did he fail to keep that promise, we later learned he did not look in earnest for the information.”
After Koskinen complained about the high cost in time and money involved in the search, employees at a West Virginia data center told a Treasury Department official that no one asked for backup tapes of Lerner’s e-mails. Subpoenaed documents, including 422 tapes potentially containing 24,000 Lerner e-mails, were destroyed. For four months, Koskinen kept from Congress information about Lerner’s elusive e-mails. He testified under oath that he had “confirmed” that none of the tapes could be recovered.
Lerner conducted government business using private e-mail, and when she was told that the IRS’s instant messaging system was not archived, she replied: “Perfect.” Koskinen’s obfuscating testimonies have impeded investigation of unsavory practices, including the IRS’s sharing, potentially in violation of tax privacy laws, up to 1.25 million pages of confidential tax documents. Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch, which has forced the IRS to disgorge documents, says some “prove that the agency used donor lists to audit supporters of organizations engaged in First Amendment-protected lawful political speech.”
In July testimony, Koskinen consistently mischaracterized the Government Accountability Office report on IRS practices pertaining to IRS audits of tax-exempt status to groups. He wrongly testified that the report found “no examples of anyone who was improperly selected for an audit.” He mischaracterized the report’s criticism of IRS procedures for selecting exempt organizations for audits.
Contrary to his testimony, the report did not find that “individuals” were “automatically” selected for audit. The report did not investigate audits of individual taxpayers; it reviewed selection practices for audits of exempt organizations. The report noted, and Koskinen neglected to mention, that the IRS tracks information about high-net-worth individuals. Congress should investigate whether that tracking includes contributions to political committees and issue groups and whether the IRS then initiates audits of donors.
As you may well know, this scandal initially received a fair amount of attention from the media which at least feigned shock. After it became clear that the White House did not instruct the IRS to target anyone, though, everyone moved on, deciding that there was nothing of interest in some “minor” bureaucratic malfeasance. You may also recall that we took exactly the opposite position:
Contemporary bureaucracy is, in many ways, precisely as von Mises described it: a Leftist entity dedicated to the expansion of the state. It is populated by Leftists who believe in the value and the necessity of big government. These ideologue-cogs need no instruction to expand government power as much as possible. To this end, we think it is telling that, among other things, the IRS tagged for further scrutiny any group that described itself as dedicated to “smaller government.” The idea that anyone would be surprised by this is silly. Of course, the IRS is leery of groups that want smaller government. Smaller government means smaller bureaucracies, including the IRS. What’s to know? . . .
The real scandal is that in 2013, IRS bureaucrats don’t need to be told to carry out the Leftist President’s wishes, that they know them already and share his objectives. The nature of the bureaucracy in the administrative state is noxious. Moreover, it is parasitical. As Pournelle’s law suggests – and as Lowi, Niskanen and countless others confirm – bureaucracy now exists in large part to expand the power of the bureaucracy, which is to say the power of the state. The type of political harassment experienced by right-leaning (and Jewish) groups at the hands of IRS bureaucrats probably occurs far more frequently than we know. It is also likely far more pervasive than we could possibly imagine, transpiring in every federal, state, and local agency in the country. Such is life in the bureaucratic state.
Go back to the George Will above and take a look at the Congressman mentioned in the second paragraph, i.e. the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, a man name Josh Chaffetz. Chaffetz is the guy in charge of keeping the bureaucracy in line, of holding this portion of the state, the “deep state,” accountable. If his name sounds familiar to you, that’s likely for one of a couple reasons. It may be because last week, after Kevin McCarthy’s bid started to falter, Chaffetz suggested that he would be more than happy to run for Speaker of the House and try to succeed where Newt and Boehner before him failed. Or it may be because a couple of weeks ago, Chaffetz found himself at the center of another bureaucratic scandal. It turns out that the good Congressman – whose job it is to “oversee” the federal bureaucracy – did a little too much overseeing and thus became a marked man. The Washington Post provides the gory details:
An assistant director of the Secret Service urged that unflattering information the agency had in its files about a congressman critical of the service should be made public, according to a government watchdog report released Wednesday.
“Some information that he might find embarrassing needs to get out,” Assistant Director Edward Lowery wrote in an e-mail to a fellow director on March 31, commenting on an internal file that was being widely circulated inside the service. “Just to be fair.”
Two days later, a news Web site reported that Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, had applied to be a Secret Service agent in 2003 and been rejected. That information was part of a Chaffetz personnel file stored in a restricted Secret Service database and required by law to be kept private. . . .
The inspector general’s inquiry found that the Chaffetz information was spread to nearly every layer of the service. Staff members in the most senior headquarters offices, the president’s protective detail, the public affairs office, the office of investigations, and field offices in Sacramento, Charlotte, Dallas and elsewhere accessed Chaffetz’s file — and many acknowledged sharing it widely, according to the report. The day after the March 24 hearing, one agent who had been sent to New York for the visit of the president of Afghanistan recalled that nearly all of the 70 agents at a briefing were discussing it.
All told, 18 supervisors, including assistant directors, the deputy director and even Clancy’s chief of staff knew the information was being widely shared through agency offices, the report said.
Pretty nasty stuff, eh? Unfortunately, it gets worse. It turns out that the Director of the Secret Service knew about the information, did nothing to stop its dissemination, and then lied to the Inspector General when questioned about it. Again, the Post reports:
The director of the Secret Service has contradicted statements he made to a top government investigator examining his agency’s disclosure of unflattering information about a congressman, saying he now recalls more about the matter, according to two government officials briefed on the probe.
Director Joseph P. Clancy this week alerted investigators from the Department of Homeland Security that he was revising his account, the officials said. Clancy says he now remembers details of the incident, which involved agency personnel circulating information from its files. . . .
During a highly publicized inquiry by the DHS inspector general, Clancy told investigators that he was unaware of the information about Chaffetz until being informed April 1 that The Washington Post planned to publish an article about the matter, according to the report by Inspector General John Roth. Clancy also told investigators that he had been unaware that his staff was circulating the information internally, in violation of federal privacy law. . . .
Clancy now says he knew that the unflattering information was being shared inside his agency and was told about it by a top deputy before it was leaked to the news media, officials said.
Way back in 2013, when the IRS scandal first broke, we predicted that the mess would “almost certainly cause several people to lose their jobs.” We were wrong. No one lost his or her job. Indeed, Lois Lerner, the mastermind of the targeting operation who was found in contempt of Congress, obstructed a federal investigation, and then took the 5th, was allowed to resign and to thereby to keep her more than $130,000 in retention bonuses, awarded as she was harassing conservatives, and her full federal pension.
We suspect that no one, not even the truth-challenged Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy, will lose his job in the Chaffetz scandal either. And you know who else won’t lose his job? The guy (or gal, we suppose) at the Department of Homeland Security, who logged into Wikipedia from work and tried to smear the would-speaker of the House last week. Didn’t hear about that one? Well, fortunately, Washington Free Beacon reporter Lachlan Markay noticed and tweeted, “Umm. Someone using a DHS IP address edited Renee Ellmers’ Wikipedia page to allege an affair with McCarthy.” For the record, Renee Ellmers is a Congresswoman from North Carolina, and the “McCarthy” Markay references is the House Majority Leader and erstwhile wannabe-Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who suddenly withdrew from consideration last week. Naturally, DHS promised to investigate . . . but again, we won’t hold our breath.
What does all of this mean? Well, among other things, it means that anyone who wishes to reform the republic and return it to its constitutional principles will be fighting more than one battle. He (or she) will be fighting not just the state, but the deep state as well. He will have to battle the rest of the elected officials in Washington, those whose power and prestige is tied directly to their offices. But he will also have to battle a hostile and treacherous bureaucracy unwilling to give up any of its power and prestige and unbound any longer by any pretense of professionalism or impartiality. He will also have to battle the media, the state governments and bureaucracies, and a host of millionaires and billionaires who have invested countless years and countless dollars in a federal racket designed and augmented to create rents, kill competition, and make the very rich even richer. In short, anyone who wants to be the savior of the republic will have to be resigned to waging war against at least half of the country – and the most powerful half at that.
Can it be done? Well . . . we suppose it can be, at least in theory. But we know full well that no one on the political scene today is either willing or able to do it. Donald Trump, frankly, is more likely to expand the reach of the state and its hidden aides than he is to dismantle them. Carly Fiorina seems like a very smart and very talented woman. And yet she couldn’t tame the powerful and entrenched bureaucracy at HP. Could she really do any better against the far more massive, far more powerful, and far nastier federal Leviathan? As for that poor Ben Carson, he seems to be under the misimpression that being honest, forthright, and bold will win him the plaudits of the pundits. He’s nuts. They are already working to destroy him, even as Republican voters warm to him.
As for the folks in the House of Representatives, are you kidding? If Newt couldn’t kill the beast, why should anyone believe that Marsha Blackburn or Paul Ryan can? They’re nice enough, smart enough, and competent enough, but even they know that they can’t possibly hope to do much better than Newt. Consider carefully Newt’s recent sincere and well-meaning advice to Ryan. “I think Paul should be very cautious. He is the most prestigious member of the House on the Republican side, he has the best future, he’s still very young.”
The fact of the matter is that the Tea Party/Country Class insurgency is fighting a battle that it isn’t prepared to win. It wants to defeat this giant, massive, bloated, oozing mountain of money and power, but it doesn’t have anything even close to a plan to do so. Winning elections is a start. But then what? Like the dog who chased and caught the car, the ambitious reformer must figure out what the hell to do with it.
Reforming entitlements – like Paul Ryan has proposed – would be a nice start. But if it were easy, it would have already been done. After all, it’s not as if it’s a new idea. The same goes with the tax code. Trump’s plan makes perfect sense. But then, so did the flat tax that was put forth twenty years ago by Texas Congressman Dick Armey, a smart and energetic economics professor who was one of “engineers” of great “Republican Revolution” of 1994. Armey became House Majority Leader after the Revolution and was also the author of a book entitled The Freedom Revolution, which spelled out exactly how the GOP was going to change the world. For what it is worth, Armey was the chief sponsor of the flat tax bill, which was drafted by our old friend Steve Moore so many years ago that we referred to him in those days in these pages as the brightest “young” economist in Washington.
Don’t get us wrong. We would like very much to see Hillary taking the perp walk in an orange jump suit. We’ve been waiting almost a quarter-century for that. We also would like to see a Republican in the White House. And we look forward to what we would like to believe will be an epic battle between a revised version of Newt and Armey’s “Freedom Revolution” and the federal Leviathan. But it is worth repeating that said Leviathan is not merely a collection pointy-headed bureaucrats, wacky left-wing college professors, post-menopausal abortion advocates, poverty pimps, and the mavens of world of politically correctness. It is also the home of the largest and most powerful economic trust that the world has ever seen; that being the partnership between government, big business, and the powerful Wall Street banks and hedge funds.
For what it is worth, our guess is that much like the above mentioned Mandarins of Imperial China, this crowd will eventually be brought down from within by corruption, decadence, and stultification. Or to be more specific, it will be brought down when it runs out of money. In the meantime, the good guys need to do what they can to accelerate the process.
Copyright 2015. The Political Forum. 8563 Senedo Road, Mt. Jackson, Virginia 22842, tel. 402-261-3175, fax 402-261-3175. All rights reserved. Information contained herein is based on data obtained from recognized services, issuer reports or communications, or other sources believed to be reliable. However, such information has not been verified by us, and we do not make any representations as to its accuracy or completeness, and we are not responsible for typographical errors. Any statements nonfactual in nature constitute only current opinions which are subject to change without notice.