Big Business

A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero

[Amazon Link]

Another likely candidate for whenever next I do a "Ten Best" list for books. Tyler Cowen attempts to earn respect for an institution that gets way too little admiration and respect in modern America. Case in point:

So Liz and her fans would be a great target audience for this. Unfortunately, I'm not sure how realistic it would be to expect that to happen.

In my case, however, Tyler's pushing on an already-open door. But I found it still worth reading, because of his contrarian takes, useful statistics, and unexpected insights. (He's a polymath, and it shows.) He's not a Pollyanna about corporations; he points to attitudes and trends that that should change. But on the realistic whole: big business is a massive plus for the USA.

He conveniently takes up, analyzes, and (mostly) refutes common criticisms, one chapter devoted to each:

  • Are businesses more fraudulent than the rest of us? Tyler lists some biggies right up front: Volkswagen, Theranos, Wells Fargo. Bad actors, no doubt. But a good question to ask in reply is: Compared to what?

  • Are CEOs paid too much? Most of such criticism is based on envy and resentment. There's also commonly bad faith involved: the critics are simply using the argument to bolster their own goals, typically political. (Tyler doesn't make this argument much, but I will.)

    But Tyler notes that good CEOs are expensive; you can't just promote a middle-management schlub and expect him to have the necessary skill set. Supply of CEO-grade execs is limited. And the value of an excellent CEO is extreme.

  • Is work fun? This one's easy: no matter how we complain about our jobs, people without jobs are, on average, undeniably worse off. And the psychology is pretty unequivocal: a job done well, no matter how menial, is rewarding to the doer, even over and above his take-home pay.

  • How monopolistic is American big business? Outside of a few limited areas (health care, cable TV, cellular providers) there's not a lot to worry about here. Whatever the theoretical market dominance in an area might be, prices stay low, service remains fine; that's what really matters.

  • Are the big tech companies evil? They're not great, but evil is a stretch.

  • What is Wall Street good for, anyway? The preeminence of American financial service companies is too little appreciated. And it's little known (at least I didn't know it) how America is a tax and banking haven for the rest of the world.

    People demonize Wall Street largely because they don't understand finance. (I don't demonize Wall Street, even though I don't understand finance; I'm just happy with the performance of my retirement and non-retirement funds.)

  • Crony capitalism: How much does big business control the American government? This one was a little eye-opening, because crony capitalism has been a big bugaboo for me. Tyler agrees with the problem, but simply convinces me that it's not a huge problem, because the magnitude in comparison with the total economy is small.

  • If business is so good, why is it so disliked? Or: what is Elizabeth Warren's deal anyway? Tyler's answer revolves around the idea of "corporate personhood"; even the people who deny corporate personhood in one context can act as if it were a real thing in another. (Business doesn't help when it markets itself in anthropomorphic terms: "Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there." "If you can't afford your medication, AstraZeneca may be able to help.)

You really need to read the book to get the full weight of Tyler's arguments, and if you're at all interested (you read down to here, anyway) I strongly recommend you check it out.

The Phony Campaign

2019-09-01 Update

[Amazon Link]

Welcome to September 2019; we have 163 days to go before the New Hampshire Primary.

No major changes in our table this week. Same lineup. Yes, Kirsten dropped out of the race, but Betfair bettors gave her effectively zero chance long ago.

Speaking of Betfair, they (again) judged the odds of President Elizabeth Warren to be slightly better this week than last. Bernie improved a bit, too. Wheezy Joe Biden was the largest probability loser. And Mayor Pete continues to hover just above our elimination threshold.

Joe also (understandably) had the biggest increase in phony hits this week; see below.

Candidate WinProb Change
Since
8/25
Phony
Results
Change
Since
8/25
Donald Trump 44.3% -0.1% 1,540,000 -120,000
Bernie Sanders 7.7% +1.3% 826,000 -194,000
Pete Buttigieg 2.6% unch 708,000 -209,000
Joe Biden 12.8% -1.7% 452,000 +45,000
Elizabeth Warren 16.4% +1.7% 216,000 -12,000
Kamala Harris 4.8% -0.3% 107,000 -14,000
Andrew Yang 3.3% +0.5% 36,700 +7,400

"WinProb" calculation described here. Google result counts are bogus.

  • At the Federalist, Alex Castellanos offered The Pundit's Guide To Handicapping The Democratic Nomination. He has a lot to say about all the major candidates, and minor ones too. Here's part of his take on Kamala;

    Candidates with depth don’t attack an opponent for holding the same position they do on busing, as Harris did. Serious candidates don’t attack the same Medicare for All bill they have sponsored, although Harris did that as well. More importantly, Harris has tied herself into a knot running away from her prosecutorial record in California.

    Instead of owning it and demonstrating strength, e.g., “Darn right, I was a tough prosecutor. If you commit a crime, if you victimize the weakest among us, and especially if you target disadvantaged African-American victims, I’m going to come after you, regardless of whether you are black, white, or purple.”

    No, Harris tried to pretend she had been something she was not, while her record mysteriously disappeared from the government of California’s website. As I’ve said of Harris, when you’ve locked up more black Americans than George Wallace, it’s hard to be the greatest civil rights advocate in American history. And when you float around like a butterfly on issues and process your record through a blender, you raise doubts you can lead the nation.

    In her favor, she's the best-looking of the Democratic candidates not named Tulsi.


  • In his Morning Jolt column at National Review, Jim Geraghty takes issue with a WaPo writer who made a wildly off-target characterization of an earlier piece about President Trump. Jim clarifies, and I quote because it's a pretty good approximation to my own:

    I never liked Trump’s character or how he sees the job on the presidency — talk-radio-caller-in-chief, don’t-bother-him-with-policy-details, demagogue-when-convenient — but I like some of the policies. I like almost all of the judicial nominations. I like tax cuts. I like rolling back federal regulations. I’m glad ISIS has been beaten to a pulp, if not completely eliminated. I like Right to Try for those facing terminal illnesses. I like the majority of the criminal-justice-reform legislation, particularly the anti-recidivism programs in federal prisons. I like getting rid of the individual mandate to purchase health insurance. I like keeping foreign aid money from paying for abortions. I want a secure border and concur with the Customs and Border Patrol that additional miles of barriers, or “bollard fence,” or whatever you prefer to call it is part of the solution (but not the entire solution). I like that the United States is now the world’s largest oil producer and a net natural-gas exporter, while our carbon emissions are declining slightly. I like blowing up Syrian air bases when Assad uses chemical weapons. I like NATO allies spending more on defense.

    I also think that Trump only says variations of about six thingsI am the greatest, that good thing that happened was because of me, it’s not my fault, my critics are terrible people, here’s a version of history that I just made up in my head, and look at that woman’s appearance. He’s got no business lecturing anybody else about loyalty, and he’s easily fooled by sycophantic idiots; his attacks on critics cross the line into racism; he has indeed stoked xenophobic attitudes in this country, in part because he’s never contradicted his supporters’ belief that citizenship is conditional; he has the impulse control of a sugar-filled toddler; he constantly blames others for his own bad decisions; and he seems wildly naïve in his dealings with Kim Jong-un and certain other dictators.

    I have an often-irritating president who gives me some of what I want — or who will at least sign some of what I want into law — up against a variety of options who pledge to give me almost nothing I want, and who are promising to repeal the things I like. I don’t particularly like this status quo, but I prefer it to a Bolshevik Revolution or turning our already-too-divided society into an endless status competition of woker-than-thou.

    I could have written that. If I were a ten times better writer.


  • Nick Gillespie of Reason also has a "balanced" view of Trump. And he recently noted If You Freak Out Over This Trump Fan Video, You’re Playing Into His Hands. For the record, I did not freak out; see how you do:

    Observant Nick notes, in case you missed it, the testicular oscillations on the bull illustrating the DJIA rise. More:

    What should be shocking to people are the ways in which Trump deviates from worn-out GOP positions and embraces some Democratic policies too. He's been good on criminal-justice reform, for instance, has spoken out against military adventurism, and was better than Hillary Clinton on ending marijuana prohibition. He has been more forward on school choice than any president and he embraces paid family leave too. These are not all good things, in my view, and his negatives, especially on immigration and trade, are disturbing as hell. But especially from a libertarian perspective, he's a mixed bag, as are all presidents.

    Put slightly differently, he is mostly an abomination, but that merely makes him the most recent president, not history's greatest monster.

    Um, good point there. Things could be worse. Odds are, they will be.


  • At NR, Kat Timpf notices something you may not have: Beto O’Rourke Wants to Be an Instagram Model.

    Think about it: Beto O’Rourke has become (in)famous for insisting on posting videos of himself doing everyday things. Like getting his haircut. Or changing a tire. Or visiting the dentist. Truly, he actually seems to be clinically unable to prevent himself from doing so. In fact, even after a relaunch of his campaign on August 15 gave him the chance to set a different tone, he simply could not resist posting a video of himself struggling to make the world’s saddest cheeseburger just a matter of weeks later.

    The bad news for you, Beto, is that approximately no one wants to see a politician doing this. The good news? There is another (sort of) profession that not only accepts, but also actually requires this kind of content. Yes — I am talking about the Instagram model.

    Given that Beto! has Betfair odds way worse than Hillary Clinton's, Kat's strategy has literally no downside.


  • Still at NR, Mairead McArdle reports on the latest about Mayor Pete: Buttigieg denounces 'Hypocrisy' of Vice President, Other Christian Politicians.

    Asked by Religion News whether he would call “sinful” those Christian politicians who supported the Trump administration’s since-scrapped policy of separating families arrested after crossing the southern border illegally, Buttigieg declined to go that far.

    “I’ll be careful to use that word to kind of point out a speck in my brother’s eye,” the South Bend, Ind. mayor replied. “What I would say is that it’s clear that some naked sins are being at best condoned by people who then summon religious arguments. That rings more and more hollow.”

    “It’s not just that we might have a different interpretation of faith, it’s that these arguments no longer stack up even on their own merits, right?” the openly gay Buttigieg continued. “For example, Mike Pence’s view of Christian sexuality is obviously a little different than mine. But even with his view, it makes no sense to condone this president and his behavior. So there’s two layers to this. There’s the fact that I subscribe to a vision of faith that leads me to a certain place politically. But it’s also just seeing the hypocrisy among people who now endorse people and practices that are offensive, not only to my values, but to their own.”

    Let me just say that Buttigieg has a point there.

    But let me also say that Matthew 7:1-5, to which Buttigieg refers, is too easily interpreted as "the only sin that matters is hypocrisy". And I think Mayor Pete makes that mistake.


  • [Amazon Link]
    And (back at Reason again) J.D. Tuccille notes that Elizabeth Warren’s ‘Economic Patriotism’ Doubles Down on Bad Policy.

    Perhaps the only person who dislikes foreigners and free trade more than the economic ignoramus who occupies the White House is another economic ignoramus who wants to occupy the White House.

    "A lot of giant companies refer to themselves as 'American,'" snipes Elizabeth Warren, Democratic presidential wannabe and U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, in a recent campaign advertisement. "But face it, they have no loyalty or allegiance to America."

    I have just finished reading Tyler Cowen's new book, Big Business (currently a steal at Amazon for a mere $11.26 as I type) which makes a directly relevant point: the people who (unfairly) jeered Mitt Romney's 2016 "Corporations are people" remark… are the same people who, like Warren, talk about corporations as if they are or should be people.

    More on Tyler's book later today on the book blog. (Link available on your right.)


  • Ah, but there are weeks when this entire feature could just be about Joe 'I’m Not Going Nuts' Biden.

    Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden told supporters in New Hampshire on Friday he was "not going nuts," when he stumbled over the location of where he spoke at an event a few hours earlier.

    "We are so close, so close to being able to do some incredible things for this country. Incredible things," Biden said. "I just spoke at Dartmouth on health care at the medical school or not—I guess I wasn't actually on the campus, but the people from the medical school—I want to be clear. I'm not going nuts and I'm not sure whether it was a medical school or where the hell I spoke, but it was on the campus."

    It's understandable. Wheezy Joe is just going where people tell him, getting on and off planes, in and out of cars… Pretty soon, it becomes a blur where you only remember small soundbites to clue you on your location, like "Dartmouth" or "medical school".

    And in that atmosphere so very removed from normal life, it's easy to confuse reality with a good story. Unfortunately, reality-based reporters will listen to you and, knowing your reputation, will fact-check your ass. Also at the Free Beacon: WaPo Investigation Finds 'Almost Every Detail' of Biden War Story False.

    A Washington Post investigation found that a war story frequently told by 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden on the campaign trail was false in nearly every detail.

    At a Friday New Hampshire rally, Biden told the crowd that as vice president he had once been asked to travel to the dangerous Kunar province in Afghanistan to pin the Silver Star on a war hero who had rappelled down a steep wall to retrieve the body of a fallen comrade. Biden said he ignored others who warned him not to go. "We can lose a vice president," he remembered saying. "We can't lose many more of these kids."

    In Biden's telling, as he pinned the medal to the hero's chest, the tearful Navy captain told Biden that he didn't deserve the medal because he hadn't saved his friend in time. "This is the God's truth," he told the audience. "My word as a Biden."

    Except it wasn't. "Almost every detail in the story appears to be incorrect," the Post reported Thursday. "Based on interviews with more than a dozen U.S. troops, their commanders and Biden campaign officials, it appears as though the former vice president has jumbled elements of at least three actual events into one story of bravery, compassion and regret that never happened."

    With reference to "We can lose a vice president, we can't lose many more of these kids.": Biden went to Afghanistan in 2008, before he was Veep. During (roughly) the Obama-Biden Administration, 2009-2016 there were 1729 US fatalities in Afghanistan.

    So maybe Joe should take Jonah Goldberg's advice: Biden's best bet is a front-porch campaign.

    Biden is crushing Donald Trump in the polls in no small part because he is a known quantity, having been on the public stage for decades, most notably as VP for eight years under Barack Obama. Biden’s lead in matchups between Trump and various Democratic candidates is his single greatest advantage in the Democratic primaries.

    The risk for Biden is that he’s not a good presidential campaigner, as his two prior attempts demonstrated. While he may be showing signs of age, the truth is that he’s always been prone to gaffes, malapropisms, exaggerations, and misstatements. Every time Biden opens his mouth in an unscripted situation, there’s a chance he’ll say something goofy that undercuts his elder-statesman status.

    So why play the game the way the others are playing it? In most sports, when you’re ahead by double digits, the smart (though boring) strategy is to play it safe and sit on your lead. Getting into arguments with political Lilliputians such as Senator Corey Booker and Andrew Yang elevates their profile while lowering Biden’s. And if Biden loses his cool and starts shouting, “And you can take those ducks to the bank!” or “My pants are made of iron!” the game is over.

    Downside: a heavily-scripted Biden is a much less entertaining Biden. And I can see certain upsides to a candidate periodically revealing himself as a blustering phony untethered from reality. He can always tell himself: Hey, this worked for Trump.