Power & Market
Murray Rothbard once stunned me by saying that he thought the greatest economist in history was Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk. The reason he gave, to the best of my recollection, was: “Böhm-Bawerk created a mighty system of economic theory and then successfully defended it against all comers.” Noticing that I was startled, he asked who I thought was the greatest economist. I replied, “Ludwig von Mises,” Rothbard’s revered mentor, whom I thought would have been his choice. Rothbard acknowledged that an excellent case could also be made for Mises.
It was only many years later that I came to understand why Rothbard gave Böhm-Bawerk an edge over Mises. Böhm-Bawerk’s magnum opus, The Positive Theory of Capital, published in 1889, almost immediately began to elicit comments and critiques from the greatest economists of his age throughout Europe and the United States. The stream of commentary on his work continued unabated for twenty-five years until his death in 1914. During this controversy, Böhm-Bawerk defended and further developed his theoretical system with acute insight and superb dialectical and expositional skills that far outclassed those of all but a few of his critics. In contrast, Mises was never able to engage the greatest economic minds of his age. His brilliant magnum opus, Human Action, published in 1949, barely caused a ripple of acknowledgement in the increasingly positivistic postwar economics profession, which was rushing headlong into macroeconomics, econometrics, and mathematical economics.
Whether or not one agrees with Rothbard about the ranking of Mises and his mentor, Böhm-Bawerk certainly merits a place in the pantheon of the greatest economic theorists.
Could the COVID-19 panic lead to a generational shift in culture comparable to those resulting from the Great Depression or the advent of the personal computer?
The new era we are entering could set up a new generation of people ready to obey orders. After all, “stay at home,” “shelter in place,” and “social distance” sound to many like commands that ought to succeed. Therefore, governors and mayors, even the president, as well as heads of state around the globe, have issued them under the misguided assumption that free people will not avoid contact during a pandemic without the application of force. Nevermind that voluntary isolation and the use of masks began trending as early as January 2020 among certain communities as knowledge increased, i.e., voluntary precautions preceded their mandates. Taking advantage of, and feeding, the panic, politicians have promulgated executive orders with the force of law. No public input, nor any cognition of the constitutional balance of powers, mitigated the rapid development of such decrees from the exalted ones. Any denizen can be fined, arrested, imprisoned, or manhandled for violations of these novel controls. Technocrats operating under the orders of both elected and nonelected officials demanding immediate results lack the time, expertise, or, frankly, the interest to research the consequences of their actions. With all deliberate hubris, they simply love adopting the guise of “savior” and its attendant popularity. Contrary to their claims, hastily cobbled together rules lead to interminable deprivations for individuals, families, and entire communities. Aside from the oft-considered effects on the food chain, the financial well-being of the citizenry, the threats against the survival of businesses, and pervasive bankruptcies likely to come, these effects extend into areas of mental health. Discussions have appeared regarding depression and suicide.
The ill-conceived new rules subject people to unacknowledged hazards. Imprisonment or assault by the obsessed constabulary in response to the coronavirus panic, could, through irrational rules, inflict enormous suffering on innocent citizens. Police departments from several municipalities have been observed, and photographed, issuing tickets to persons sheltering in their cars at drive-in church services and at sunsets. Persons sheltering in their cars are, by definition, isolated. In terms of effective quarantine, the shield provided by one’s automobile amounts to as effective a seclusion as would find in one’s house. Besides, in this era of price inflation in housing, the vehicle may be the only home for a growing cadre of victims. They meet the physical requirements for stopping or slowing the spread of the disease. Other instances have shown folks who were socially distant (at least six feet) attacked or manhandled by officers in blue. Such assaults result from nonsensical, vague, and contradictory restrictions imposed inconsistently and with inadequate notice, but with the force of law.
The misapplication of force is predicable, for law enforcement hopes to cash in and collect more lucre to fill the state's coffers while claiming to keep people safe and projecting themselves as tough on crime. Many of the victims of this oppression are poor people who cannot afford to pay fines. These represent a jackpot for the government because it can then issue follow up levies and collect interest on unpaid penalties for months or years to come.
The question this article asks is whether the current panic, administrative overreach, and personal isolation represents a generation-defining event? Will children ages six months (or younger) to approximately twelve years (or older), have a sense of foreboding permanently imprinted on their personalities like those who grew up during the Great Depression? This in no way intends to disparage today’s youngsters, but examines a potential unintended and unrecognized consequence of state-imposed stay-at-home orders. The Silent Generation of the 1930s, which also fought during World War II, had a lot going for it, as illustrated by Time magazine description of them as having an optimistic outlook. Members of this time regiment must be credited both metaphorically and literally for bringing recovery to societies the world over after the devastation and ashes wrought by a decade and a half, or more, of economic deprivation and military conflict. So, the generation is not to be denigrated. Although tense times spawned fear that nuclear Armageddon could occur imminently and introduced MAD (mutual assured destruction) as the default foreign policy, this age group led civilization out of the upheaval intact and avoided annihilation by World War III.
As a result of the pervasive fear foisted on all by politicians, could Gen Alpha and the latter part of iGen now become the Covid Gen? If so, the state fearmongering described above might lead this generation to bear some similarities to the Silent Generation. Defining common traits of this cohort would include obsessive cleanliness, only feeling comfortable outdoors when wearing a mask, looking askance at anyone not wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), a rapport-crushing desire to keep distant from others, avoidance of intimacy, and a strong desire to stay at home and only communicate electronically. Should, as is likely, a new serious inflationary depression start, hoarding and frugality would constitute more common traits. Although admitting that no two generations have identical traits, certain of these qualities resemble those of the Silents.
The obsessive cleanliness would stem from the repeated exhortations, even lectures, to wash hands frequently for fear of contracting a deadly disease. Think of the effect of pervasive societal paranoia on a young mind: “Wash your hands or DIE.” Surfaces must be kept immaculate and smell of chlorine. Face and extremities must remain chapped from the effects of soap and must reek of alcohol. The obsessive fear of germs, or more properly virions, would lead to a discomfort when away from home that would only be poorly assuaged by wearing face coverings. For the rest of their lives, persons with this anxiety could be expected to look askance at strangers not wearing PPE. To recognize the potential similarities to the Silent Generation, consider the latter’s ideals for housekeeping and decorating. In those days, a sort of zenlike image was valued: clean, straight lines, narrow neckties, straight A-line or pencil skirts, and long, low jetlike automobiles. Idyllic Spic and Span was iconic. Rogers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song, especially the songs “I Enjoy Being and Girl” and “Sunday” typified the image in the art of the times. For further evidence of artistic simplicity, ponder the 1953 unnamed painting of Clyfford Still: an almost solid canvass of blue with only the barest of accents.
More characteristics would include the irresistible desire to keep distant from others and avoid intimacy. Again, this is suggestive, at least superficially, of the antiseptic environment revered in the 1950s. Diverging from that cohort's traits could be expected the aforementioned urge to stay at home and communicate electronically. However, should a new serious inflation and depression start, hoarding and frugality would constitute other common traits shared with the Silents. Although the 1950s may appear to the casual observer as an epoch of conspicuous consumption, emblematic of that supposed acquisitiveness were small, modest houses; low-end Fords, Chevys, and hot rods; spare furnishings; low-cost simple performances, movies, and television; and drive-up hamburger stands replacing sit-in diners. (It was not until the 1960s of the Baby Boomers that wealth and debt-based consumption returned. Only in the 1960s were folks rich enough to take time for protest marches and sit-ins.) The Silent Generation was too busy rebuilding the world.
Are today’s politicians setting civilization up for a new era of nose-to-the-grindstone silence, unquestioned obedience, and submissiveness to authority? Will a second Great “Recession,” deeper and more tenacious than the last one, a mere decade ago, require twenty years of hard work for recovery? Only time will tell, but the overlords certainly relish the idea of exercising their power and taking credit for “saving the world.”
According to multiple ship-tracking data services such as Llyod's List and Tanker Trackers, there are between 40 and 50 million barrels (bbl) of Saudi Arabian crude en route to the US at the moment. As such, US crude imports are set to surge in May. Although this level of imports seems unfathomable amid the current rout in US crude prices, it may actually be a welcome development for both US crude producers and oil refiners.
Lloyd's List Intelligence projects that US imports of Saudi Arabian crude will rise to nearly 1.2 million barrels per day (bpd) in May as a flotilla of laden very large crude carriers (VLCCs) arrives on US shores. If realized, according to US Energy Information Association (EIA) data, this would put US imports of Saudi crude at their highest since February 2017. For reference, the EIA's most recent monthly data, for the month of January, show US imports of Saudi crude at just 401,000 bpd. Last May, the US imported just 452,000 bpd of Saudi crude.
Although on the surface it seems absurd that imports of Saudi crude would spike even as the US crude benchmark sinks into negative territory amid oversupply, this development may be welcomed by both US producers and refiners. For producers, empty VLCCs are the key to ramping up export volumes. VLCCs are largely the only vessel used to ship US crude to Asia, and with high freight rates a VLCC arriving in the US Gulf Coast is unlikely to leave and travel back to the Arab Gulf empty.
The ships arriving to offload Saudi crude will then either be used as floating storage for US crude or as a means to get US crude to places such as South Korea, Japan, China, and Singapore. Either way, they will serve as an outlet for volumes that will no longer need to find a home in onshore storage.
As for US refiners, the buyers of the soon-to-be-delivered crude certainly saw multiple reasons to book these deliveries. First, refiners were likely persuaded by Saudi Aramco’s slashing of their official selling price (OSP) for April. Aramco cut the April OSP of its Arab Light crude to the US to a discount of $3.75 per bbl versus the Argus Sour Crude Index, down $7 per bbl from March.
Secondly, with diesel refining margins far stronger than those of gasoline, US refiners will benefit from running a heavier barrel of crude, which yields higher volumes of diesel. Arab Light Saudi crude, with an American Petroleum Institute (API) gravity of 34, is heavier and far more sulfur rich compared to the majority of the West Texas shale production, which has an API gravity of around 42 (the higher the rating, the lighter the crude).
On net, this development could counterintuitively mean lower crude stock builds than would have otherwise been possible as ships are refilled with US grades and since US refiners have a greater incentive to refine crude when margins are higher. Given that US market participants booked the cargoes knowing their desired refining slate and available onshore storage capacity, efforts by policymakers to prevent these imports from coming onshore could not only eliminate a needed export outlet for US crude, but could also weigh on refinery run rates in the US, exacerbating builds in crude storage. Market prices continue to be the best coordinator of the oil supply chain and efforts to intervene in this supply chain are likely to cause greater harm than good.
From California to New Jersey, Americans are protesting in the streets. They are demanding an end to house arrest orders given by government officials over a virus outbreak that even according to the latest US government numbers will claim fewer lives than the seasonal flu outbreak of 2017–18.
Across the US, millions of businesses have been shut down by “executive order” and the unemployment rate has skyrocketed to levels not seen since the Great Depression. Americans, who have seen their real wages decline thanks to Federal Reserve monetary malpractice, are finding themselves thrust into poverty and standing in breadlines. It is like a horror movie, but it’s real.
Last week the UN secretary general warned that a global recession resulting from the worldwide coronavirus lockdown could cause “hundreds of thousands of additional child deaths per year.” As of this writing, less than 170,000 have been reported to have died from the coronavirus worldwide.
Many Americans have also died this past month, because they were not able to get the medical care they needed. Cancer treatments have been indefinitely postponed. Life-saving surgeries have been put off to make room for coronavirus cases. Meanwhile hospitals are laying off thousands, because the expected coronavirus cases have not come and the hospitals are partially empty.
What if the “cure” is worse than the disease?
Countries like Sweden that did not lock down their economy and place the population under house arrest are faring no worse than countries that did. Sweden’s deaths per million from coronavirus is lower than that of many lockdown countries.
Likewise, US states that did not arrest citizens for merely walking on the beach are not doing worse than those that did. South Dakota governor Kristi Noem said last week, “we've been able to keep our businesses open and allow people to take on some personal responsibility." South Dakota has recorded a total of seven coronavirus deaths.
Kentucky, a strict lockdown state, is five times more populated than South Dakota, yet it has some twenty times more coronavirus deaths. If lockdown and house arrest are the answer, shouldn’t those numbers be reversed, with South Dakota seeing mass death while Kentucky dodges the coronavirus bullet?
When Anthony Fauci first warned that 2 million would die, there was a race among federal, state, and local officials to see who could rip up the Constitution fastest. Then Fauci told us if we did what he said only a quarter of a million would die. They locked America down even harder. Then, with little more than a shrug of the shoulders, they announced that a maximum of sixty thousand would die, but maybe less. That is certainly terrible, but it’s just a high-average flu season.
Imagine if we had used even a fraction of the resources spent to lock down the entire population and focused on providing assistance and protection to the most vulnerable—the elderly and those with serious medical conditions. We could have protected these people and still had an economy to go back to when the virus had run its course. And it wouldn’t have cost us $6 trillion dollars either.
Governments have no right or authority to tell us what business or other activity is “essential.” Only in totalitarian states does the government claim this authority. We should encourage all those who are standing up peacefully and demanding an accounting from their elected leaders. They should not be able to get away with this.
Which state has the courage to become the Sweden of the US, and take a different (read: better, freer) approach to coronavirus?
As of yesterday, five US states remain at least reasonably "open" in terms of their implemented measures to fight the pandemic. Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota have no state orders in place closing businesses and forcing residents to stay home, while Iowa and North Dakota shut down "nonessential" businesses but have not issued stay-at-home orders.
Three states, Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Utah, have partial lockdowns in place.
The other forty-two states have varying orders in place, and some regions such as the San Francisco Bay area have issued their own stricter shutdown policies. Population-wise, nearly 95 percent of all Americans today live under some kind of restrictions on movement and business, decreed either statewide or by counties and cities.
There is a tremendous opportunity here for state and local politicians to distinguish themselves. South Dakota governor Kristi Noem in particular has been steadfast in resisting political pressure to order a statewide lockdown, and surely most Americans readily understand how sparsely populated Western states might approach a pandemic very differently than big urban cities.
What should that approach look like? Here are some broad brushstrokes:
- First, one brave governor (or county supervisor, mayor, etc.) gets the ball rolling by forming an impromptu coalition of states interested in staying open or reopening. Political pressure to go along with other states is strong, and the federal government has a long and sordid history of bullying states into compliance with national edicts using the carrot and the stick. The Trump administration thus far has been surprisingly reluctant to issue a nationwide shutdown, and governors looking for daylight should seize on this. They will need each other to stand against the tide—see, e.g., this broadside, against Noem.
- Hold a press conference to announce the coalition, pick a marketable name for the effort (something like "South Dakota—Open for Business!"), and hold weekly calls open to media. Discuss conditions, options, and ideas, but make it clear that each state is wholly independent and that decisions are necessarily localized—this is not an interstate compact.
- Announce guidelines, not orders, to citizens along these lines: people over seventy are strongly encouraged to self-quarantine in a strict manner. Those over fifty who have existing medical vulnerabilities to the virus are encouraged to do the same. Healthy people under fifty are welcome to return to daily activities but are strongly encouraged to wear masks (proven to be effective in several Asian countries). Of course many residents will self-quarantine regardless, and some businesses will choose to shut down regardless, per their individual choices.
- Reopen government courts, and set a deadline of sixty or ninety days hence for resumption of contract enforcement (including evictions). Ask the state bar association to set up statewide centers for landlords and tenants to meet and renegotiate—using realistic numbers—rental agreements. Hard-line landlords can go to court, and hard-line tenants can refuse payment, but evictions benefit neither party in the immediate term.
- In stages, reopen public schools and universities based on local conditions. Hold parental votes online to determine whether each school district will continue online classes or revert to physical attendance.
- Announce that restaurants, bars, and retail outlets are open as usual, with the strong caveat that provable cases of virus transmittal will be heard in state courts under a broad doctrine of premises liability. This will encourage the kind of measures by owners that have been seen in Taiwan and Singapore, ranging from using digital thermometers at store entrances to relentless scrubbing of surfaces in restaurants.
- Immediately bid out a statewide insurance claims facility for coronavirus deaths so that in worst case scenarios families will be compensated for loss of loved ones. Insist that payments are retroactive to cover deaths prior to the bid, and use the model of airlines after crashes (quick payouts, little paperwork, claims personnel with good bedside manner). Payouts of $1 million would not be impossible to insure against in low-population states, where deaths likely will remain well under five thousand. Insurers themselves can go to the reinsurance markets, and insurance companies would have every incentive to test, treat, and take measures necessary to keep citizens alive. They would become de facto partners when it comes to securing medical equipment, hospital beds, and personnel. Insurance companies also would have a strong incentive, unlike politicians, to determine what constitutes death "from" the virus as opposed to death with the virus simply present in the body. Use bond revenue (discussed below) to cover premiums.
- Immediately bid out to pharmaceutical companies for a supply of hydroxychloroquine, azithromycin, and other promising drugs. Eliminate unnecessary state restrictions on prescribing and dispensing such drugs, and consider making them available over the counter until infections subside. Distribute them widely across the state, and charge break-even (cheap) prices for generic versions.
- Issue state bonds for sale to private equity investors, hedge funds, foundations, and individuals. Take a deep breath, and secure them with real estate owned by the state—make government, rather than taxpayers, sacrifice for once! Price them aggressively, with higher than market rates of interest (but not junk bond rates). Make these bonds nontaxable by the issuing state itself, both with respect to income and capital gains. Use the funds to provide insurance, medical equipment, hospital capacity, testing centers, and protective gear as needed.
- Encourage regional airlines, or major airlines serving the state, to relocate aircraft there and resume "domestic" flights (and/or flights between "open" states).
None of these ideas is particularly difficult to implement per se, but do any governors have the political will to do so? They should if they take an honest look at the landscape of a country that is coming unglued. Every day there is less and less to lose by trying something different. In a crisis, bold usually wins. So the choice at present appears to be bold freedom or bold tyranny.
Americans are reconsidering federalism and even nullification in an era of intensely polarized anti-Trump sentiment. The Left argues for soft secession in the form of "Bluexit" from the hated red states; conservatives such as Angelo Codevilla call for strategic defiance of the feds in what he terms a "Cold Civil War." Golden State governor Gavin Newsome even recently referred to California as a "nation-state," and why not? With 40 million people, a huge economy, tourism, Hollywood and Silicon Valley, ports and coastlines, and major universities, not to mention beaches, deserts, and mountains, the state easily could be an independent nation.
We were already in uncharted territory, but the coronavirus truly laid bare the deep and intolerable political divisions wracking our country. Governor Noem and others could begin the healing process now, literally and figuratively, by showing us a way forward without DC. The virus could be the catalyst for a new map of America.
September 17, 2019 was a significant day in American economic history. On that day, the New York Federal Reserve began emergency cash infusions into the repurchasing (repo) market. This is the market banks use to make short-term loans to each other. The New York Fed acted after interest rates in the repo market rose to almost 10 percent, well above the Fed’s target rate.
The New York Fed claimed its intervention was a temporary measure, but it has not stopped pumping money into the repo market since September. Also, the Federal Reserve has been expanding its balance sheet since September. Investment advisor Michael Pento called the balance sheet expansion quantitative easing (QE) “on steroids.”
I mention these interventions to show that the Fed was taking extraordinary measures to prop up the economy months before anyone in China showed the first symptoms of coronavirus.
Now the Fed is using the historic stock market downturn and the (hopefully) temporary closure of businesses in the coronavirus panic to dramatically increase its interventions in the economy. Not only has the Fed increased the amount it is pumping into the repo market, it is purchasing unlimited amounts of Treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities. This was welcome news to Congress and the president, as it came as they were working on setting up trillions of dollars in spending in coronavirus aid/economic stimulus bills.
This month the Fed announced it would start purchasing municipal bonds, thus ensuring that the state and local government debt bubble will keep growing for a few more months.
The Fed has also created three new loan facilities to provide hundreds of billions of dollars in credit to businesses. Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell has stated that the Fed will lend out as much as it takes to revive the economy.
The Fed is also reducing interest rates to zero. We likely already have negative real interest rates because of inflation. Negative real interest rates are a tax on savings and thus lead to a lack of private funds available for investment, giving the Fed another excuse to expand its lending activities.
The Fed’s actions may appear to mitigate some of the damage of the coronavirus panic. However, by flooding the economy with new money, expanding asset purchases, and facilitating Congress and the president’s spending sprees, the Fed is exacerbating America’s long-term economic problems.
The Federal Reserve is unlikely to end these emergency measures after the government declares it safe to resume normal life. Consumers, businesses, and (especially) the federal government are so addicted to low interest rates, quantitative easing, and other Federal Reserve interventions that any effort by the Fed to allow rates to rise or to stop creating new money will cause a severe recession.
Eventually the Federal Reserve–created consumer, business, and government debt bubbles will explode, leading to a major crisis that will dwarf the current coronavirus shutdown. The silver lining is that this next crisis could finally demolish the Keynesian welfare-warfare state and the fiat money system.
The Federal Reserve’s unprecedented interventions in the marketplace make it more urgent than ever that Congress pass, and President Trump sign, the Audit the Fed bill. This would finally allow the American people to learn the truth about the Fed’s conduct of monetary policy. Audit the Fed is a step toward restoring health to our economic system by ending the fiat money pandemic that facilitates the welfare-warfare state and the unstable, debt-based economy.
Yesterday I went looking to buy hand soap—not hand sanitizer, but regular old hand soap—in 7.5 ounce pump dispensers. As you can see from the photo below, I found the shelves at my local Winn-Dixie supermarket completely bare. In lieu of the soap, I encountered a large sign that read, in part: “Please BE KIND to one another and limit yourself only to what you really need at this time.” Alas, the sign did not work and never really had a chance. For it was in direct conflict with the more powerful smaller signs advertising the prices of the different brands of hand soap for $1.29 and $1.99 per dispenser. These signs did work—to encourage people to buy and hoard large quantities of the item. Had the smaller signs displayed much higher prices, say $10.29 and $10.99 or tenfold the actual prices, there would have been enough soap on the shelves to permit me and anyone else to purchase hand soap to our heart’s content. Of course at those prices I would have been content with one or two bottles rather than the fifteen or twenty I was planning to buy and hoard. Furthermore, not only would higher prices have spared me the time and energy of going elsewhere in my search for soap, but it would also have spared me the irritation of reading that absurd sign.
In the of light of the COVID-19 pandemic almost every government in the world has (once again) denounced so-called "price gouging." Politicians both to the left and right really think that with outlawing price gouging, they can save the consumer from the greedy gougers that are willing to take advantage and exploit consumers.
Price gouging is defined as the practice of raising a products price to an "unfair" or "excessive" level during a crisis or an emergency. However, anyone can understand that the law itself is very troubling since it remains unclear how high is "too high." Of course, it ultimately depends on the arbitrary decision of the almighty bureaucrats and their own concept of how prices and markets should work.
They make the mistake of ignoring what a price really means. Price is a signal we use to understand how much do consumers really value a certain good. Value, as Ludwig Von Mises pointed out, is subjective the value of a good or service varies greatly by time and place. Again, value doesn’t exist in things themselves, but is formed in the minds of human beings. For example, a bottle of water has way bigger value for a person that is trapped in the Sahara desert rather to a person that has drinkable water from his tap in his house.
What we have here is a simple supply and demand. The demand is surging while on the other hand the supply (at least short term) is dwindling. High prices affect how the sellers and buyers act. For the consumer, they reduce the rising demand while encouraging conservation. By doing so these prices allow these products to be bought by other people that value them more and therefore are willing to pay more. Especially in a time of crisis, many people may want a specific product, but if prices don't go up, those who are most in need are unlikely to even have the option of buying what they need most. Those items will have been hoarded by others because the goods remained at such a low price.
As we can see from today’s world, this is exactly the case, with goods like hand sanitizers and toilet paper being emptied from their shelves in just a matter of minutes. The beauty of the price system is that when unhampered, it manages to allocate resources to those who truly value them more. And those who value them more are often those with the greatest need. If people are willing to pay more than they would usually pay for a product that doesn’t mean that they are exploited. In reality it means that they value more Product ‘X’ for the “Y’ money they gave up. If they didn’t then the transaction would never take place.
Many places are now restricting purchases on items like hand sanitizers to two or three per person. But these rules can easily be bypassed through multiple store visits. Rationing favors also the wealthy and people that have the proper connections in the black market. Banning price "gouging" hurts people even more. When free pricing isn't allowed, goods usually end up with people that are lucky to show up first and that's often people with the best access to transportation and free time. There is nothing moral about that in reality it hurts people even more by destroying the incentives for conservation.
Americans, finally facing the prospect of the mano-a-mano portion of the 2020 presidential campaign, have already learned that previous complainers about the negativity, underhandedness, and attack-dog nature of politics didn’t know how good they had it.
Abetted by technologies that increase the reach and power of smear campaigns and by mechanisms that allow far more money to be spent on them, not to mention the mushrooming of “fake news,” electoral politics has became an even more intense mud pit of attacks and finger-pointing about every conceivable issue, along with “O yeah?” responses, counterattacks, and bare-knuckle brawling among partisan spinners. And that was before the general election campaign, which can double down on duplicity and deception.
The incredibly bitter, and often deplorable, invectives and the constantly generated attacks, often created out of innuendo or whole cloth, as we have observed, has in my mind elevated C.S. Lewis to the rank of the most accurate, though accidental, commentator on the current state of politics even though he wrote over a half century ago.
The Screwtape Letters is written as a series of letters of instruction from an experienced devil (Screwtape) to a junior tempter (Wormwood) on how to successfully tempt humans. In one particularly notable letter, Screwtape described how to inflame domestic hatred between a mother and son:
When two humans have lived together for many years, it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face which are almost unenduringly irritating to the other. Work on that. Bring fully into the consciousness of your patient that particular lift of his mother’s eyebrows which he learned to dislike in the nursery, and let him think how much he dislikes it. Let him assume that she knows how annoying it is and does it to annoy—if you know your job he will not notice the immense improbability of the assumption. And, of course, never let him suspect that he has tones and looks which similarly annoy her.
In civilized life domestic hatred usually expresses itself by saying things which would appear quite harmless on paper (the words are not offensive) but in such a voice, or at such a moment, that they are not far from a blow in the face. To keep this game up you…must see to it that each of these two fools has a sort of double standard. Your patient must demand that all his utterances are to be taken at their face value and judged simply on the actual words, while at the same time judging all his mother’s utterances with the fullest and most oversensitive interpretation of the tone and the context and the suspected intention. She must be encouraged to do the same to him. Hence from every quarrel they can both go away convinced, or very nearly convinced, that they are quite innocent. You know the kind of thing: “I simply ask her what time dinner will be and she flies into a temper.” Once this habit is well established you have the delightful situation of a human saying things with the express purpose of offending and yet having a grievance when offence is taken.
But with a few alterations Lewis seems to describe current American politics equally well:
When two [political candidates or parties have campaigned against one another] for many years, it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face which are almost unenduringly irritating to the other. Work on that. Bring fully into the consciousness of your [partisan] that particular lift of his [opponent’s] eyebrows which he learned to dislike…and let him think how much he dislikes it. Let him assume that [his opponent] knows how annoying it is and does it to annoy—if you know your job he will not notice the immense improbability of the assumption. And, of course, never let him suspect that he has tones and looks which similarly annoy [the other side].
In civilized [politics] hatred usually expresses itself by saying things which would appear quite harmless on paper (the words are not offensive) but in such a voice, or at such a moment, that they are not far from a blow in the face. To keep this game up you…must see to it that each of these two fools has a sort of double standard. Your [partisans] must demand that all [their] utterances are to be taken at their face value and judged simply on the actual words, while at the same time judging all [their opponents’] utterances with the fullest and most oversensitive interpretation of the tone and the context and the suspected intention. [Their opponents] must be encouraged to do the same to [them]. Hence from every quarrel they can both go away convinced, or very nearly convinced, that they are quite innocent…Once this habit is well established you have the delightful situation of [both sides] saying things with the express purpose of offending and yet having a grievance when offense is taken.
Lewis hit the current state of politics on the head. Screwtape’s strategy has increased in prominence with every recent campaign, and a virulent strain has now even spread to every crevice of day-to-day government and commentary. The consequence has been to move government and battles to control it far closer to what Lewis called the “lowerarchy” of hell. This strategy has done far more to retard than advance either integrity or the general welfare, moving our focus from James Madison’s famous statement in Federalist no. 51 that “If men were angels, no government would be necessary” to the nature of government when many participants act in a more devilish manner.