Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Grievance-Mongers Should Leave Thanksgiving Alone

My new article at Intellectual Takout:

When you scoop that spoonful of mashed potatoes into your mouth this Thanksgiving, just think of all of the Indians that had to die so that you could enjoy turkey and dressing with your family. 
Or at least that's how some would have it.   
It wasn't too long ago that Thanksgiving was considered a time to celebrate the things we had in common. But in recent years the holiday has been given over, like so many other things in our culture, to the politics of grievance. Everything, including holidays, must be sacrificed to the gods of resentment. 
Read the rest here.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Saving the Quid Pro Quos from Bribery and Extortion

You just can't say that Latin isn't relevant anymore.

On "This Week" with George Stephanopolous, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney tried to defend the Democrats rhetorical strategy last week of shifting their terminology. After focus groups showed that the Latin expression "quid pro quo" didn't elicit the negative feelings that terms such as "extortion" and "bribery" did, these latter two terms went to head to head in the finals and bribery won.

That's why you don't hear Democrats using the Latin expression anymore.

Of course, there are some non-Latin speaking Americans who wish the whole impeachment debate was being conducted in Latin so that they could think of something more important (and less political).

Maloney said this: "Quid pro quo is Latin for bribery." Now the fact that Maloney said this is interesting, but not only because it's completely inaccurate. I've discussed this expression elsewhere, but I'll underscore again that quid pro quo means "something for something." It refers to any action in which something is exchanged for something else of similar value. That would include virtually any economic exchange involving money or barter.

The Latin word for bribery is conruptela, a completely different Latin word. Bribery is one very specific kind of quid pro quo or economic exchangenamely one in which subornation is involved. Subornation happens when someone convinces someone else to do something unethical or illegal.

Bribery = quid pro quo + subornation

What would it mean to say that President Trump's quid pro quo with Zalensky (if there really was one, which wouldn't surprise me) constituted bribery? The literal application of saying that the President's action was bribery is saying that the President was offering something to Ukraine President Zelensky in order to get Zelensky to do something illegal or unethical. It is that President Trump was offering something in order to get that person to do something illegalto suborn an illegal action. But what Trump was trying to get Zalensky to do was not illegal at all: He was trying to get him in investigate whether someone committed a corrupt act. 

Since when is that illegal?

It actually would have been more accurate to have settled on the term "extortion," since that involves trying to get something from someone by force or threats. But it just didn't appeal to the Democrats' focus groupsyou know the ones I'm talking about: the ones who are now guiding the impeachment process.

But, of course, the extortion argument has its problems too. As I said last week, if withholding aid from a country in order to get them to do what you want them to do (and cutting it when they don't) was a crime, then it is one that administrations commit on a routine basis, and the question then becomes, if you think Trump's so called "extortion" was illegal, where have you been all these years?

The Democrats are shifting their terminology in order to gain a more pronounced political effect while claiming that they're not actually saying anything different. That's why they are saying that quid pro quo means the same thing as bribery when, in fact, it doesn't. 

But it has another benefit. Surely they figured out, after a little thinking about this, that staking their case on the mere charge that there was a quid pro quo in a foreign aid context was not going to do. In addition to bribery sounding more sinister than a quid pro quo, there is no law that prohibits quid pro quos, while there are laws that prohibit bribery and extortion.

The bad thing about it for the Democrats is that it raises the bar in terms of what they have to prove. Now, if they find that there was a quid pro quo, the question is whether it involves bribery, which only a very limited, specific kind of quid pro quo.

And by the way, does it bother anyone that the Democrats are using focus groups to determine what crime they are charging the President with?

Almost literally, this is what happened here: Instead of consulting the law or the Constitution, or some official enactment of our Glorious Republic in order to determine what crime the President may have committed, the Democrats hired consultants, gathered together some accountants, a banker or two, some construction workers and a grocery store clerk and asked them which words they thought sounded the most scary.

It's so ... Hamiltonian (referring to the musical not the actual person).

Meanwhile President Trumpmore a danger to himself than to otherssquandered some of his good will this week (whatever is left out there) tweeting against the former Ukraine secretary whom the Democrats had brought before the committee for the very purpose of trying to show how mean Trump had been to her. 

Of course, this had nothing to do with whether Trump committed any crime, much less any impeachable one. But still, the Democrats whole partisan point was to embarrass him as much as possible. It's a measure of Trump's carelessness that he facilitated the accomplishment of this goal in the very act of trying to prevent them from doing it.

And imagine being a Republican on the committee trying to defend the President and having to sit there while the President undermines you in the very act of defending him.

If you think it's hard being Trump's enemy, you should try being his friend some time. 

But all of this is consistent with what I have been saying all along: that the Democrats Impeachment strategy is a campaign strategy and not a legal or Constitutional strategy. These impeachment hearings are not designed to turn Trump out of office. That's not going to happen and the Democrats know it. The Democratic House can vote articles of impeachment to their heart's content, but the Republican Senate is not going to convict him.

The Democrats use of the impeachment process is not a serious constitutional endeavor; it is a campaign tactic for 2020, and there are a lot of Americans who realize this.

The Democrats are using a function of government for partisan gain. And isn't that what they are claiming the President was doing?

Saturday, November 16, 2019

The New New Criterion: A College that Still Thinks Beauty (and Truth and Goodness) Matter

I don't know why I received it so late and why I received two copies, but the November issue of The New Criterion is out and, as usual, contains some interesting things, including Roger Kimball's always excellent "News & Comments," in which, this month, he talks about Hillsdale College's new Christ Cathedral, which he rightly calls a "signal event at an important academic institution."

The Chapel, he says, is "the largest classical chapel built in America in seventy years. It must also be the most beautiful."
... [T]he cheek—the audacity—of a liberal arts college circa 2019 choosing to build and give such prominence to an explicitly Christian chapel. It even features a cross on the roof above its main entrance. Talk about transgressive! In a brochure about the chapel, we read that Hillsdale College since its founding “has been dedicated to the immemorial teachings and practices of the Christian faith. It is dedicated as well to high learning, moral formation, and the perpetuation of civil and religious liberty.”
I was at Hillsdale last year when the chapel was still under construction and saw only the exterior--and that still mostly shrouded in all the trappings of construction. Still you could tell that the building meant something and meant it very resolutely.

Kimball goes on to contrast Hillsdale's resoluteness with the flacid and equivocal, if not toxic moral posturing of so many other institutions of higher learning (even, we should point out, the ostensibly Christian ones):
Most older colleges and universities were founded to promulgate such “immemorial teachings and practices.” How many would dream of acknowledging them today? Stone by stone they have dismantled that foundation. New-age nostrums such as radical environmentalism, racial grievance-mongering, or sex-in-the-head gender mania are pursued with a fervor that seems almost religious in its intensity, but they offer sparse support for the teetering edifice they have excavated.
Read it here.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Questionable Major Premise in the Case Against Trump

Whether you think that Trump acted unethically, or criminally, or impeachably (is that a word?), what exactly is the argument? I have often said that, when you are trying to analyze an argument in real life, the first thing to do is to figure out the major premise of your opponent's argument.

All arguments have one big, universal premise. In the argument, 

All men are mortal
Socrates is a man
Therefore, Socrates is a mortal

The big, universal premise is the first one, "All men are mortal." It is called the "Major Premise." In formal logic, it is always stated first. But when we argue in real life, we generally omit it altogether--usually because everyone is assuming it. Usually it involves the common believe of those on both sides of the argument. But  many times, it goes unstated because the person making the argument knows it is questionable and he doesn't really want to draw attention to it. 

Let's take the major premise at the stasis of the current argument over impeachment: that there was a "quid pro quo" in aid to Ukraine. Here is the argument as it is commonly stated, missing the major premise:

The Trump administration's aid to Ukraine involved a quid pro quo
Therefore, the Trump Administration's aid to Ukraine was an impeachable crime.

What is the missing, major premise? "Any action involving a quid pro quo is an impeachable crime." Here's the complete argument, with the major premise highlighted:

Any action involving a quid pro quo is an impeachable crime
The Trump administration's aid to Ukraine involved a quid pro quo
Therefore, the Trump Administration's aid to Ukraine was an impeachable crime.

And here is where the defense of the President (a defense originating with him) has gone down precisely the wrong path. The administration and his defenders in Congress have implicitly accepted this major premise, when what they should have done is question it from the beginning.

This is where Trump's defense is terribly, horribly mistaken and it will cripple his defense until the process plays itself out. This was part of the point in a recent article in Human Events

The response they should have given to the charge that there was a quid pro quo is "So what." There are a lot of governmental actions that involve a quid pro quo, and none more obviously than foreign aid. Foreign aid not only can, but always involves an implicit or explicit quid pro quo. With the possible exception of humanitarian aid, we don't give taxpayer money away to foreign countries unless we expect something back. And there is the implicit understanding that if a country is receiving foreign aid, then it can be taken away the moment it displeases us.

And not only do we implicitly consent to the quid pro quo behind all foreign aid, we expect it. Foreign aid has never been purely charitable, and has always been a tool of foreign policy. Of course this what precisely Mick Mulvaney's point in his controversial remarks at a White House press conference. The problem with Mulvaney's remarks was not that they were incorrect, but that they went against the official narrative.

Now let me anticipate an objection here. An anti-Trumper could say, "But it is not just the fact that it is a quid pro quo; it's that the quid pro quo is one that helps him personally and politically. Once again, let's look at the major premise. The argument is stated publicly without it:

The President's Ukraine action is one that helps him politically
Therefore the President's action is an impeachable crime

Missing premise?

Any action that helps a president politically is an impeachable crime
The Trump administration's aid to Ukraine involved a quid pro quo
Therefore, the Trump Administration's aid to Ukraine was an impeachable crime.

Again, almost every act a president engages in while in office is designed to help him politically. Every policy decision, every public declaration, every presidential domestic trip helps him politically. There have even been objections to taxpayer-funded presidential junkets in the days leading up to elections in which the president is running that they are really campaign trips and shouldn't be paid for by taxpayers. But despite this, it happens all the time, and even those who protest never say that such trips are impeachable offenses.

Once again, no one can plausibly argue that acts by presidents that politically benefit them are either impeachable, or criminal, or even unethical. The major premise is just wrong.

Let's just take the most famous case of foreign aid, which is our longstanding foreign aid to Israel. Not only is there a quid pro quo (the expectation that we will receive something back from it)--that we will enjoy cooperation and support from Israel in our Mideast foreign policy, but there is a very obvious political benefit to any administration that continues our foreign aid to Israel. Every President, whatever else he may expect from aid to Israel, understands that it helps them greatly with Jewish voters. 

So neither a quid pro quo in foreign aid, nor the fact that political advantage is gained from it are either unethical, criminal, or impeachable--nor would they be so if they both involved a quid pro quo and resulted in political advantage, since two bad arguments don't make a good one.

But here is the problem: The Trump administration has mistakenly chosen what ground it will fight on, and, unfortunately for him, it is not the high ground. And to shift his position now will look like pure opportunism. He will have to admit that there was a quid pro quo, which undoubtedly there was in some form, despite the fact that he has been denying it all along. I will look like a rhetorical retreat.

And yet, I don't see another alternative. 

In either case, the President is not going to get convicted, as I have said before. But if you're going to get impeached, you might as well get it right, win or lose.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

How to Interpret an Election--And How Not To

Sometimes it seems as if the interpretation of election results has about the same objectivity as an astrological forecast. In the case of the recent state elections in Kentucky, Virginia, and Mississippi, the analyses we have are mostly the customary partisan interpretations--either that they showed that Trump was weak because of the loss of Matt Bevin in Kentucky, or that Republicans did not do well in Virginia because Trump never showed up there.

Everybody has the interpretation that makes their side look the best, although it was interesting that analysis of the New York Times "The Daily" podcast was more flattering to Trump than the one offered on Ben Shapiro's show--partly because Shapiro knew less about what was going on in the ground in Kentucky than The Daily's reporter, who actually bothered to spend some time in the state in the weeks leading up to the election.

In Kentucky, I think there are objective reasons to believe that Bevin's loss had little to do with Trump other than Trump was able to stave off a much more crushing defeat. Bevin was, after all, the least popular incumbent governor in the country. The fact that he only lost by 5,000 votes is, in light of that fact, something of a miracle.

The key observation is, of course, the fact that the down ballot Republican candidates dominated their Democratic opponents, several winning by close to 2-to-1 margins. This clearly indicates that something was happening to Bevin that was not happening to the others. Bevin was personally unpopular, particularly with teachers who, despite the fact that he led the effort to fully fund the pension system and put it on solid footing again--something that previous administrations had failed to do--blindly followed their largely Democratic-leaning liberal union leadership. But Bevin made it worse for himself by using rhetoric that teachers took personally.

Partly because of his personal unpopularity, Bevin had to run on national issues in a non-national election. The result was predictable.

In other words there are factors in the governor's race that make it a bad weather vane for either the political fortunes of Republicans in Kentucky or the fortunes of Republicans in other red states next year. A far better indicator would be the down ballot races, where Republicans swept the Democrats by large margins. 

Now there are two things that make the sweeping nature of these races significant. The first is that there is good reason to believe this was partly due to Trump visiting the state the night before the election. It is hard to believe that he did not have any effect at all. 

But perhaps more significantly, this happened in an off-year election. I don't know the history of why Kentucky's election is on a different cycle than the national election, but one thing is sure: it doesn't help Republicans in a red state like Kentucky, that benefits from a strong conservative candidate heading a national ticket. Trump's visit was meant to re-create the effect a simultaneous national race would otherwise have had. Whatever assistance Trump's appearance may have had the day before the election, it would not be able to fully duplicate the effect of a presidential election on the same day.

In other words, imagine what things would have been like had this election been fully nationalized. The fact that Republicans were able to do as well as they did in an off-year election in a red state bodes well for Republicans in legislative races in 2020 and is an indication of how well Trump will do in Kentucky in 2020.

I can't think of a good reason that won't be the case in other red states. And if you have Elizabeth Warren threatening to take away the cushy union health insurance of blue collar workers in places like Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, Trump might stand a good chance of winning again.