Between Two (Or More) Minds

A book with an accountant as a real hero and a reference to Sitting on the Dock of the Bay has a real chance at being the first eleven on our scale of zero to ten.  There are, as you are surely wondering, seven tens so far out of 110 books on our book spreadsheet that we starting keeping a few years ago.

Jim Geraghty’s new book, Between Two Scorpions: A Dangerous Clique Novel (BTS) is a tough review for us.  Thrillers, meaning save the world or at least the USA, are not our favorite genre although we read a few.  The ensemble cast is a challenge.  And we loved Jim’s earlier book, The Weed Agency.  We finished it before we started the spreadsheet so it doesn’t have a rating.  We loved parts of BTS but there were a few meh parts as well.  Another way to describe our reaction to BTS is that it didn’t register on the envy meter.  Alan Furst, VDH, and Herman Melville, to name a few, make us envious because we couldn’t even imagine doing what they do.  We think, and we are almost surely overconfident, that we could write something like BTS.

Let’s start with what Jim does well in BTS.  Well, there are lots of good parts so let’s limit ourselves to three categories.  First, there are lots of pop connections and inside jokes.  There is Sitting on the Dock of the Bay (cited above) from our generation, then some things we vaguely remember, and some stuff we are not sure if it is made up.  Our favorite inside joke is the National Reconnaissance Organization.  Alec says, “NRO is the best.”  Alec is right.

Our second positive is even more fun, this time with God.  On page 290: “Brigitte Bardot posed in a bikini [in Cyprus], and if ever there was compelling evidence of God’s love for man and for his desire for his creations to be happy, it was the sight of Bardot [yes, you deserve some pictures] in a bikini.” A few pages before, 278-9, Alec has a great conversation with God. Jim has a light touch with God but at the same time he is bringing up the notion that God might be taking sides in human events.  We find it really intriguing.

Our third positive is that Jim has a great eye for organizational evaluation.  The Clique (Raquel, Alec, Katrina, Dee, and Ward) can be effective because it is small and agile.  The Clique is also problematic because its agility means that there isn’t much oversight.  Do we really want American citizens on American soil killed by unauthorized missile launches?  Jim does a great job of reminding us that there are real difficulties fighting the War on Terror.

Well, if it is so good then why did it only get an eight of ten?  Part of the reason is that we grade on a tough scale.  Eight is a good grade.  Another reason is that we don’t read much crap so it is a tough comparison.  What Jim and BTS needs is another gift.

Sidebar One: We were disappointed not to learn more about Alec’s accounting background.  We may not have many fellow travelers in our desire to know more about his accounting history.  End Sidebar One.

There are many choices for additional gifts but two obvious ones are painting the scene and patience related to tension.  It could be painting the scene but that isn’t our first preference although we love when Alan Furst (cited above) does it.  We have a hard time remembering if cerulean is a shade of blue or the chop sticks they used on Red Dwarf so painting the scene isn’t our first choice.

Sidebar Two: We looked it up and we were wildly wrong about one of those word choices.  End Sidebar Two.

We like that Jim is a matter-of-fact story teller.  He could, however, ratchet up the tension by sometimes showing a little patience.  It is not that Jim never goes into detail on some arcane point or wanders off when somebody is in danger but he could do it more often.

We recommend Between Two Scorpions.  It is a really good book but it is not a great book but it is a fun and interesting read.  You should buy BTS so Jim can write his great book.  It is in him.



The Joy And Dangers Of Procrastination

We blog for the joy of it.  We don’t have an editor or deadlines.  We don’t have any financial skin in the game so with have nothing to try to maximize.  Thus we can say what we want when we want.  Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley’s attempts to set themselves up for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024 are of great interest to us.  We are not fans of either senator.

The dangers of procrastination include that you won’t get to it or somebody else will get to it first.  The joy is that somebody will do it so well that you just need to say here is the link.  In this case, Kevin D. Williamson is on duty at the NRO Corner.  Of course you should read the whole thing.  Reading it twice would be better.

Sidebar: Jim Geraghty’s new book is great fun.  The fact that one of the heroes is an accountant with a heart as big as Connecticut has us all in.  He (the accountant) says, “NRO is the best.” It is on page 161 in case you missed it.  Of course, he is right but he happens to be talking about the National Reconnaissance Office rather than where Kevin is writing.  End Sidebar.

Kevin is writing about his disagreements with Oren Cass and uses the examples of Marco and Elizabeth Warren.  We think Josh fits in nicely with Marco and Elizabeth.  We agree with Kevin’s summary of what he wants and doesn’t want:

The question is not whether we shall have policy in our . . . public policy . . . but what our policies are to be. I advocate generally applicable rules oriented toward the security of property rights and freedom to work and to trade in a stable and predictable policy environment, as opposed to special-pleading advocacy for this or that politically influential business interest (steel, corn, sugar, “green energy,” AIG, subprime-mortgage lenders, take your pick) based on a model of discretion that empowers politicians, giving them a whip hand over the lives and livings of workers and firms. I do not believe that the best alternative to a left-wing Elizabeth Warren is a right-wing Elizabeth Warren.

Wow! We are glad we waited.   Now there are challenges to creating these generally applicable rules.  For example, would Kevin support a modest carbon tax or not?  But this would give us a framework to debate such issues.

We agree with Kevin that there is a connection among The Donald, Marco, and Josh.  The latter two are trying to find a method of expanding the coalition of the former.  We are not in agreement with Kevin that this problem can be laid at The Donald’s doorstep.  Beyond the judges that Kevin mentions, part of The Donald’s appeal for us was the promise of reduction of corporate taxes and regulation that is very much consistent with the quoted paragraph.  Corporate taxes have been reduced substantially.  Unfortunately they have not been eliminated but beyond MWG and Kevin there is a very small group that supports that.  The Donald has had some success with deregulation.   Yes, the net effect might only be a slowing of regulation but slowing is better than anything we can expect from Elizabeth, Josh, or Marco.

For the Capitalistic Orphans like Kevin and MWG, The Donald has been a mixed blessing but surely a big improvement over his immediate predecessor or the alternative in the general election.  We will vote for him again because he has kept some of the promises that were important to us.  On the other hand, we are considering joining Never-Josh-or-Marco club for 2024 because they have offered us nothing.  Just like Elizabeth.

Considering Never

We are not a fan of Never-The-Donald and the folks of that ilk.  Recent events have led us to a better understanding of them even though we still support The Donald.  Jim Geraghty was trying to explain it at NRO.  We are sure there are folks that support The Donald that meet his description:

And then one day in 2015, this outlandish celebrity came along who seems to agree with you most of the time. He’s a bit of a jerk, but you kind of like that; he treats everybody who disagrees with him with contempt, the same way the other side treats you with contempt. As time goes by, you realize he’s perhaps more than a bit of a jerk, he’s a raging narcissist and maybe a maniac, but you still like the way he responds to everyone you don’t like — the mainstream media, Democratic politicians — with this constantly erupting volcano of scorn. You feel like you’ve been mistreated for decades; now turnabout is fair play.

It is not us.  We suspect there are fewer folks like us than like the ones Jim describes but we are not sure.  We think it is a reasonably accurate description of The Donald but it is not why we support him.  We supported him because he dominated his opponent in 2016.  The things that we didn’t like about The Donald like tariffs and bad behavior but those were points of agreement between Herself and The Donald.  The Donald had no philosophy and, as Jim points out, he acts like a Democrat but he promised to do things like reduce taxes and regulation and nominate serious judges that were at odds with his opponent.  By and large he has kept his promises and the next Democrat nominee seems unlikely to be much of an improvement over Herself so we plan to support The Donald in 2020.

On the other hand, the two senators making noises for 2024 GOP nomination fill us with dread for 2024.  If Marco or Josh is nominated we will need to consider joining the never folks.  Why?  We will explain more in the coming weeks but it may take some time with Thanksgiving and all the family birthdays coming up.  A summary is that The Donald is an ad hoc guy.  We buy many of the things on his list with no serious unifying theme or philosophy.  Marco and Josh claim to have a philosophy.  We don’t buy it.  Thus, we can’t agree with them and don’t trust them.  We don’t know if we can get to never on either one because the opponent is part of our decision process.  Marco and Josh help us understand Never-The-Donald folks because we can see choosing to lose to the left rather than have either one of those as president.

Finding Friends at the Orphanage

We have been feeling left out.  As Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio have been making headlines about creating a more intrusive and authoritarian right in order to match up with the left, us market oriented folks that feel a kinship with the growth fairy have felt left out.  Matthew’s and David’s critiques of Marco are reasonable but neither made us felt like we had much overlap in our Venn diagrams.

Kevin D. Williamson (all of these are at NRO) has helped us feel like less of an orphan with Marco Rubio’s Half-Baked Political Philosophy.  You should read all the links to see what is going on but do make sure to read Kevin.  Here is a  great paragraph that explains why Marco is on the wrong path:

Men such as Senator Rubio desire for themselves the power to overrule markets — to limit trade and property rights, enterprise and exchange — in the service of what Senator Rubio describes as the “common good.” The problems with that are several. For one thing, Senator Rubio does not know what the common good is and has no way of knowing. For another thing, we know quite well, from long experience, how such vague and plastic notions of the “common good” interact with the discrete good. [Emphasis added]

We agree with Kevin why it is a problem.  As Kevin kindly puts it, there are at least several reasons why any modifier to capitalism really become crony as in crony capitalism.  We also agree on the solution:

Capitalism is what happens when government respects property rights, which include the rights to trade and to work. What we need from men in government is not the quasi-metaphysical project of reinventing capitalism in the name of the “common good.” What we need from government is — government.

It is nice to be in the orphanage with Kevin.  We could be a category like Capitalistic Orphans.  We wonder if Dave Barry would like that as a band name?  The problem is that voters (or at the very least political advisors) seem to like quasi-metaphysical projects for the economy and society, e.g., MAGA.  Thus, for Capitalistic Orphans is option is not finding a majority but finding enough support to become a faction on the right.  We hope you will join us.

The Post-The Donald Sweepstakes

We know we are not politically unique.  Yet it is disappointing that the pollsters never have a category for MWG.  The closest we have come so far is being the opposite of Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Conservatives.  We got that feeling again despite the fact the guy is right on our wavelength.

The guy is Matthew Continetti at the Washington Free Beacon.  He asks: What Do Republican Voters Want?  It has the subtitle: Rising GOP Stars Play Pin The Tail On The Elephant.  Matthew is on the same wavelength as us in that:

[Marco] Rubio and [Josh] Hawley are the standard-bearers of a shift against markets among some quarters of the right. They want to integrate the lessons of 2016 into a policy agenda for the years after [The Donald] leaves office. They point to a possible direction for American conservatism.

We should note that Matthew published his connections at 5:00 AM this morning while we slept later so he can rightly claim to be first with The Donald-Marco-Josh connection.  As we said earlier, we agree with Matthew that Marco and Josh are positioning themselves for 2024 and disagree with Marco and Josh on the particulars.  Matthew gets into the polling details by dividing the GOP into four parts: Market skeptics, core conservatives (traditional Republicans), country first conservatives (isolationists?), and new era enterprisers.

Sidebar: As always these categories seem designed to exclude us.  Again, we would only defined by opposition, in this case, opposition to market skeptics.  End Sidebar.

Where we disagree with Matthew is where he goes next.  He looks at how Marco or Josh might appeal to all these groups and wonders how they will get full support in the primaries.  We disagree because as we see it each presidential candidate tries to create a path to the nomination and then the general election.  We expect the primaries in open years to continue as they have.  In 2020, an open year for the Democrats, there are lots of potential nominees and we doubt that there will be a candidate that wins a majority of the primary votes.  Thus, the path for GOP nominee in 2024 will likely have many candidates and the winner will get a plurality just like The Donald earned.  Then the nominee will need to find a path to winning the general election.  Each nominee strives to find a winning Electoral College majority by getting strong turnout from their own party, winning some of the independents, and picking off some of the other party.  Most candidates have different strategies.  His opponent helped The Donald consolidate the GOP.  Perhaps Marco and Josh are counting on that.  We are firmly opposed to either Marco or Josh in the primaries in 2024 but we don’t share Matthew’s opinion that they do not have a path to the nomination.   Subject to the Democrat nominee, Marco or Josh might present a harder choice for us in the general than The Donald did.

No Surprise

David Harsanyi at NRO is covering the senior senator from Florida who recently made a speech on Common Good Capitalism at Catholic University and the text of it showed up at NRO.  David’s review is titled, “Marco Rubio’s Bizarre Turn Against Capitalism.”

We agree with just about every word David wrote except for bizarre.  You should read every word.  Since David takes care of the issues, we will restrict out comments to the trends.  Marco is for sugar tariffs and industrial policy.  As we see it, folks like Marco and Josh Hawley are expanding upon The Donald’s ambiguous support for capitalism.  Why are they doing this?  Because they think it is good politics.  We hope they are wrong but fear they are right.  Why might they be right at a time when capitalism has done so much for so many people and the alternatives have done so badly for so many people?  To pick up on David’s word, it is bizarre that we are even having this discussion never mind that there is a chance of losing the vote.  Why?  The left hates capitalism.  The right doesn’t trust the left but many folks on the right don’t embrace capitalism unless it has a modifier.  Here is a story from earlier this year where the right (National Conservatism Conference) endorses industrial policy.   Thus, the way to a majority is to create something like “Common Good Capitalism.”  It is way worse than Compassionate Conservatism from earlier in the century.

The Donald is not a capitalist but in office he has done some sensible things like reduce corporate taxes and reduce regulation.  He was in the general election of 2016 and will be again in 2020 the least bad presidential choice for us capitalists.  There is every reason to be concerned that the least bad presidential choice in 2024 general election will not be as good.


Pointing Out The Obvious

Are you as bored as we are with impeaching The Donald?  Let’s get it over with and get on to serious stuff.  Speaking of serious stuff, John Phelan at the Foundation for Economic Education makes an obvious point right in his title: Entitlement Liabilities Are a Graver Threat to the Next Generation of Americans Than Climate Change.  Our only minor quibble would be to add an s to the first word and leave out liabilities because these obligations don’t rise to the level of accounting liabilities.  You should read it all.  Here is a quote from John and a quote of his we would like to discuss:

To make Social Security solvent again, the payroll tax rate would need to be hiked immediately from 12.4 percent to 15.2 percent, or Social Security benefits would need to be cut on a permanent basis by about 17 percent. According to economists Roger LeRoy Miller, Daniel K. Benjamin, and Douglass C. North:

[F]or Social Security and Medicare to stay as they are, the payroll tax rate may have to rise to 25 percent of wages over the next decade. And a payroll tax rate of 40 percent is not unlikely by the middle of the twenty-first century.

The increasing cost of fixing Social Security (SS) given in the quote help us compare the problem of Climate Change and entitlements.  Because we don’t understand climate very well trying to solve Climate Change now is extraordinarily expensive and very uncertain.  It is obvious we need to study climate and wait to make any substantial changes.  It will be cheaper to solve it later when we know more.  We still favor replacing the gas tax a modest carbon tax now but ideas as foolish as eliminating fracking have been proposed by supposedly serious people.

Medicare is less complicated than climate but a challenge because health care is a complicated system.  We should be careful about wholesale changes to Medicare because it will have an impact on the health system.  SS, on the other hand, is little more than an arithmetic problem.  It is the opposite of Climate Change in another way in that it is cheap to solve now and expensive to solve later as John’s quote of a 40 payroll tax rate points out.

The solution is, as John says, to raise taxes or cut benefits.  We think that it is critical to recognize that when considering cutting benefits that such cuts to not have to be across the board.  We favor means testing for SS benefits starting now with a phase in period.  Effective means testing has complications so we need to experiment with it starting now.  And of course, income is alway real, that is, adjusted for inflation.  So, for example, starting in 2021 retirees with income over $600,000 per year get no SS.  Retirees with incomes below $150,000 per year get 100 percent of SS.  SS will change by 10 percent when income changes by $50,000.  Over time the means testing would be adjusted to a permanent solution.

Sidebar: What about the folks who rightly complain that they pay lots of SS tax but would get little or none back?  Well, one answer is: too bad!  You have the money to retire. It is your responsibility to plan.   The second answer is that the other choice is to tax you heavily.  This is the least bad deal the rich are going to get.  End Sidebar.

We are not suggesting that the numbers above are the solution.  There are lots of decisions to make even in this easiest of the three problems (SS, Medicare, Climate Change) including how to means test and measure inflation.  For example, current Taxable Income will not be a good measure of means for a retired individual with his wealth in a Roth IRA. A good solution will means test SS, start soon, be phased in, and be adapted over time.