The Things I Read Today — January 21, 2021
We must end this uncivil war that pits red versus blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal.
Afternoon Prayer: Ephesians 5:15–33
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy: In today’s chapter Anna Mikhaylovna fights with everyone to secure Pierre’s inheritance for him. Works out well for her too because she’ll be claiming a finders fee for her efforts for sure. Works out even better for Pierre though because he becomes one of Russia’s richest men. Reminds me of that great Adam Smith passage: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”
The Fortune of the Rougons by Emile Zola: If The Fortune of the Rougons is the origin story of Les Rougon-Macquart, then the chapter I read today, the fifth chapter of the novel, is the origin of the origin because it tells the story of Miette and Silvère, the two young lovers who open the novel. All I’ll say here is that Les Rougons-Macquart is a story of modernity so, naturally, it is also a tragedy. If you want to read more of my thoughts join the Les Rougon-Macquart subreddit. We’re reading the whole thing. All twenty-novels. We just started.
The Life and Times of Emile Zola by FW J Hemmings: I only got a few pages deep into this today. Despite the paucity of reading, however, I was able to read this gem: “The era of prosperity ushered in by the upsurge of economic activity in the 1850s meant that the average French family had more money to spend on leisure pursuits and marginally more spare time to devote to them.”
Commercial culture and economic growth for the win!
Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard by Clare Carlisle: I’ve decided to start listening to audiobooks on my walks. I take long walks. I’m not sure I like audiobooks though. I’m definitely not retaining as much as I do with print books. It’s my opinion that a book is not truly read if it’s not written in. Can’t write in an audiobook. I don’t know. Maybe I just need to learn to listen better. I’m thinking, for me anyway, that I should use audiobooks for genre fiction.
News, Opinion and Policy Analysis
Fire Without Fury: Will Joe Biden’s Fiscal Stimulus Overheat the American Economy? (The Economist): As if there wasn’t enough to worry about right now the chances of a snap inflation bout isn’t out of the question. We do know, for instance, that demand for inflation-protected securities has been rising since December. The threat is there.
A sudden, sharp increase in asset prices will not mix well into an already combustible political scene. The economic uncertainty and dislocation brought on by the pandemic is already too much. And people certainly won’t be happy if debt servicing starts squeezing out social insurance programs from state and federal budgets. More worryingly, many consider the stock market to be a proxy for economic health so if the Fed responds to a spike in inflation by raising interest rates and this results in a drop in the value of equities as investors chase yield then we might see an increase in demand for a populist in office again. We can’t have that.
The risk of over-stimulus is a valid concern right now.
Stock Futures Rise as Tech Leads Charge (The Wall Street Journal): The Journal’s futures report this morning showed strong earnings, bets on big tech and optimism over a fresh stimulus foreshadowing an increase in equity prices. It turns out, as we’ll see below, that the futures markets got it right. Nice job futures markets!
Still Can’t Breathe: How NYPD Officers Continue to Use Chokeholds on Civilians (The City): This drives me crazy and it’s one of the reasons I’m in favor of police reform in this country. The chokehold is dangerous and prohibited. Yet, it’s still used on a fairly regular basis. It probably will be until police officers are held accountable for their misbehavior. We don’t need to abolish the police. We just need to change the incentives in policing. The abolition of qualified immunity coupled with professional insurance requirements will probably go a long way to curbing bad police behavior.
Biden’s Inaugural Address — Unity and Truth (Brookings Institution): I agree with a lot of what is in this blog post and I share the hope that the national unity and commitment to truth addressed in Biden’s inaugural will come to pass. I particularly liked this:
In the months to come, Biden’s Oval Office should welcome leaders of both parties, and a wide swath of America. Only then will Biden be able to make good on his hopes to end this “uncivil war” that for too long has pitted us against one another.
In order to foster this unity, however, the Republican Party must repudiate Trumpism and apologize to the American people for Stop the Steal and for lying to them about the existence of widespread election fraud.
Espresso (The Economist): Espresso is The Economist’s morning briefing. It consists of short pieces of the day’s major stories in global business and politics. What caught my eye this morning is the story about Britain’s refusal to give full diplomatic status to the European Union’s ambassador in London. Why?
I won’t link to all the Espresso stories because I can’t. It looks like readers are only offered one per day for desktop viewing. Get the app. It’s worth it.
Joe Biden Sworn in as 46th US President (Financial Times): I’m happy Biden won. Would I prefer a conservative liberal? Yes, of course. Will I, however, take a left-leaning or even progressive liberal over a fascist? Also yes, and every time.
Donald Trump Says His Movement ‘Just Beginning’ in Farewell Remarks (Financial Times): The only thing I hope is beginning for this cretin is a relentless maximum pressure assault against him legally, socially and politically. A flourishing, liberal democratic market economy is too fragile and precious a thing to hand over to a reckless autocrat. Never again.
The Morning Dispatch: President Biden’s Mission Statement (The Dispatch): The Dispatch is a paid Substack publication that presents sober, fact-based conservative opinion journalism. I love it. You might too. Check it out. This is their morning newsletter. It gives you a sketch of the day’s big political news stories. I read it most every day.
Protesters in Portland and Seattle Shatter Windows and Light Fires (The New York Times): Antifa back on their bullshit.
Here we see, though, the difference between last summer’s riots and the Capitol insurrection.
The antifa rioters define themselves in stark opposition to the Democratic Party establishment. That’s why we see the destruction of Democratic Party property as well as strong anti-Biden rhetoric reported on in this article. The Democratic Party, in turn, condemns the rioters and distinguishes them from legitimate BLM racial justice protesters.
Contrast that with the Capitol riots and the Republican Party’s relationship with it.
The Capitol rioters waved Trump flags and chanted “fight for Trump” as they sacked the Capitol building. And they did this with the encouragement of the Republican Party establishment. The president with a majority of congressional Republicans, after all, encouraged them for months with their lies about Stop the Steal. Congressional Republicans also attempted to achieve through procedural means what the rioters did through direct action: the overturning of a legitimate democratic election.
This is the difference. It couldn’t be more clear. Under the stewardship of Donald Trump the Republican Party has become an anti-democratic revolutionary party for disaffected and riotous reactionaries. It is a vehicle for political radicalism. It is about as far from conservatism properly understood as one can get.
It must stop.
Coexistence is the Only Option (The Atlantic): Anne Applebaum argues the obvious point that the seditionist Republican Party voters aren’t going anywhere. She counsels an evidence-based approach to re-integrating them back into the American mainstream:
Here’s another idea: Drop the argument and change the subject. That’s the counterintuitive advice you will hear from people who have studied Northern Ireland before the 1998 peace deal, or Liberia, or South Africa, or Timor-Leste — countries where political opponents have seen each other as not just wrong, but evil; countries where people are genuinely frightened when the other side takes power; countries where not all arguments can be solved and not all differences can be bridged. In the years before and after the peace settlement in Northern Ireland, for example, many “peacebuilding” projects did not try to make Catholics and Protestants hold civilized debates about politics, or talk about politics at all. Instead, they built community centers, put up Christmas lights, and organized job training for young people.
This was not accidental. The literature in the fields of peacebuilding and conflict prevention overflows with words such as local and community-based and economic regeneration. It’s built on the idea that people should do something constructive — something that benefits everybody, lessens inequality, and makes people work alongside people they hate. That doesn’t mean they will then get to like one another, just that they are less likely to kill one another on the following day.
Translating this basic principle to the vast landscape of the U.S. is not easy: We don’t have UN peacebuilding funds to pay for red-blue community centers, and anyway, American political opponents are often physically separate from each other. We are not fighting over control of street corners in West Belfast. But the Biden administration, or indeed a state government, could act on this principle and, for example, reinvigorate AmeriCorps, the national-service program, offering proper salaries to young people willing to serve as cleaners or aides at overburdened hospitals, food banks, and addiction clinics; sending them deliberately to states with different politics from their own. This might not build eternal friendships, but seditionists and progressives who worked together at a vaccination center could conceivably be less likely to use pepper spray on each other at a demonstration afterward.
So, infrastructure week?
Where a Rodent Lives May Determine How Smart it Is: Country Bumpkins and City Slickers (The Economist): The city mouse is smarter than the country mouse. We knew that though.
Global Stocks Rise as Biden Gets to Work (Financial Times): Turns out the futures markets were correct this morning. New heights in equities prices reached upon the promise of extra stimulus and the termination of isolationist trade policy. Boom!
The Imperfect and Sublime ‘Gatsby’ (The New York Review of Books): I love The Great Gatsby. When my wife went into labor and they gave her an epidural she fell asleep for a few hours and while she slept I read it. So ever since, in honor of that experience, I have read it every year on my son’s birthday in the morning before he wakes up. The novel’s exuberant and buoyant lyricism is truly an achievement. My love for the novel means I’ll read pretty much anything written about it. This isn’t my favorite piece of criticism. I’m not sure at all what the author means with all her “Whiteness” critique. But that’s the way literary criticism is going these days. It’s tiresome but I endure. I did like this though:
I’ve read and loved Gatsby for a very long time, and with each new reading, my understanding of it has grown more layered and provocative. As a writer, I reckon with how a book like this was born, how its earnest author intended for us to read it, and how the novel has survived a century, defying obsolescence through its clear-eyed understanding of our wishful nature.
Kyrie Irving Does Not Have to Be Who You Want Him to Be (The Nation): Free Kyrie!
Reform the Pardon Power (National Review): The editors argue for reform or abolition of the most monarchical provision in the United States Constitution. Probably not a bad idea.