Category Archives: Political Animals

Amity Shlaes – Coolidge

Amity Shlaes – Coolidge

Presidents are often unremarkable people. They also often make for uninteresting biographies–Robert Caro’s series on Lyndon Johnson being a notable exception. Biographers also tend to glorify presidents who are in office during wars or economic disasters; most presidential rankings reliably improve when reversed. The best presidents are the ones who do little, and thus do little harm. They help quiet and stable times stay that way. They are also often forgotten—as, frankly, presidents should be. The executive branch has long been too powerful and too glorified.

That is precisely why Coolidge makes an interesting subject, and Shlaes does a good job with the material. Lyndon Johnson had a president’s typical bad qualities almost to the point of caricature; Coolidge’s quiet and calm make him come across as the anti-LBJ.  He almost comes across as though he did not want to be there. Yet he still willingly climbed the ladder: Massachusetts State Representative, Mayor, State Senator (and President of the State Senate), Lieutenant Governor, Governor, Vice President, and President. Pretensions to the contrary, he was a career politician. Part of his reputation comes from the fact that he first became President accidentally, when President Warren G. Harding died unexpectedly in 1923. Coolidge ran for and won his own full term on purpose, though he declined to run for a second.

That contradiction–that “I don’t want to be here, but I made it my life’s work to be here”–is a source of unresolved tension. Coolidge is a bit of a sphinx, and not necessarily in the Silent Cal way he was remembered. Shlaes’ biography focuses more on politics than personality, which suits her subject’s personality. But it would have benefited from more analysis of this part of Coolidge’s character.

Coolidge was also surprisingly tech-savvy. Shlaes notes that not only was Coolidge the first president to give a public address on radio, it was not a one-time experiment. He gave more than 500 radio speeches during his presidency, or roughly two per week, which is quite loquacious for a man nicknamed Silent Cal.

Coolidge was also not the free-market hero some libertarians have made him out to be in recent years. Shlaes is quite plain about this, yet has been accused of writing a free-market hagiography. This made me reluctant to pick up her book, and I’m glad I was not ultimately dissuaded. Coolidge, despite his penny-pinching reputation, did not shrink the federal government. It merely grew more slowly under his watch than under Woodrow Wilson or Herbert Hoover’s. If Coolidge was laissez-faire, it was in comparative terms, not absolute terms. He was also no free trader. He used powers granted him under the 1922 Fordney-McCumber tariff bill, which passed when he was vice president, to raise trade barriers. In proportional terms, Fordney-McCumber was an even larger tariff increase than the more famous 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariff.

To Coolidge’s credit, he was progressive on racial issues by the standard of his time, intentionally declining to nominate known Ku Klux Klan members to any position in his government. Though Coolidge was not particularly vocal on racial issues, that was seen as a deliberate statement at the time.

Coolidge also gave his activist Commerce Secretary, Herbert Hoover, a long enough leash to enact a host of interventionist measures. These presaged Hoover’s doubling of real federal spending, one-third money supply contraction (and accompanying rapid deflation), and Smoot-Hawley that would follow when Hoover succeeded Coolidge.

Outside of politics, Coolidge seems to have been a decent man. This is also rare among presidents. He was a loyal husband, and did not mix very well with the philandering Harding. He was also a caring father, and he lost a son, age 11, while in office. The boy cut himself while playing outside on the White House grounds and the resulting infection, easily curable today with penicillin, was mortal. Coolidge mourned deeply, well beyond what the stoic standards of the time allowed. He never seemed quite the same after the loss. The happiest moment of his presidency seems to have been a family vacation he took out West, far removed from day-to-day affairs. His retirement was similarly slow-paced, though rather lucrative, with several board memberships and a weekly column paying for an upscale home. He would live there until his 1933 death, four years after leaving office.

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Unintended Consequences of Voting

From p. 92 of Randall Holcombe’s 2018 book Political Capitalism: How Political Influence Is Made and Maintained:

Voting is the best way, from the elite’s standpoint, for the masses to participate, because each individual vote has essentially no impact on the outcome of an election, so voters are provided with the illusion that their participation determines the election outcome, which reinforces the perceived legitimacy of government.

Voting has practically no impact on policy outcomes. Even small local elections rarely have one-vote margins where a given person’s vote would be decisive. It’s so rare that it makes the news when it does happen. Voting’s instrumental value requires many decimal places to accurately express. But voting does have significant expressive value.

People genuinely feel good about participating in democracy, and get value from signaling their participation to others. Some people also get value from shaming people who do not vote. There is nothing wrong with most of that. But most people would benefit from a more accurate understanding of how much a person’s vote impacts election and policy outcomes. As Holcombe points out, this would make people less easily mollified by reform agendas that end at lip service.

Robert A. Caro – The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

Robert A. Caro – The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

Robert Moses played a large role in developing New York’s parks, highways, and major buildings for more than 40 years. He also displaced more than a quarter of a million people to make room for his development projects.

Caro’s primary research interest is power, and Moses is an excellent case study in that regard. He knew how to acquire it, and he knew how to use it. Caro tries his best to be evenhanded, but as with Lyndon Johnson, Caro’s other great subject, some people are just plain unlikable. Moses was a serial liar about finances dating back to his college days at Yale, when he proposed deceiving a donor to his swim team. In his professional life his obfuscations would cost taxpayers billions of dollars. He also enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, including a taxpayer-provided Cadillac limousine with three full-time chauffeurs.

The depths of his racism surprised people even back in the pre-Civil Rights days, to the point of requiring African-Americans to get permits to visit beaches, then often denying the permits on specious grounds. His development projects deliberately either ignored or paved over minority-heavy neighborhoods. Even his personal life showed a lack of character, with him writing his brother out of their mother’s will and estranging him from the rest of the family, and having several affairs and marrying a woman 28 years his junior roughly a month after his wife died.

Moses was a public hero for most of his career, but when the press and public turned on him in the 1960s, they turned hard.

Bob Woodward – Fear: Trump in the White House

Bob Woodward – Fear: Trump in the White House

I usually avoid books about politicians, or at least ones current enough where partisan emotions still run hot. I made an exception for this one because two of Trump’s most active issues—trade and regulation—are my research specialties.

Containing the damage he is doing on trade, immigration, deficit spending, and foreign policy is an important priority for both parties. At the same time, leveraging his various personality tics on issues where he has been a net force for good, such as regulation, is also important.

Aides describe “Groundhog Day” meetings where they have to explain over and over again, often with colorful, simple visual aids, and non-controversial basic facts  the president either ignores or does not understand. When an aide once asked Trump why he holds his eccentric trade views, for example, the President simply explained that he had held them for a long time.

He did not cite any sort of principle or argument, just that he had felt that way for a long time. In this way, Trump is a modern-day Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Trump’s hiring choices compound the problem. Trade advisor Peter Navarro, for example, self-describes his job not as offering sound economic advice, but as supporting and confirming whatever intuitions the President already holds. President Trump’s intellectual and managerial qualities will no doubt make the next two to six years highly entertaining.

Alexis de Tocqueville – Democracy in America

Alexis de Tocqueville – Democracy in America

Tocqueville, a Frenchman, visited America for a period of nine months around 1830 and published this two-volume work after returning home. Tocqueville is incredibly insightful, which is why his book is often cited and occasionally read today, nearly two centuries later. He has a mostly sunny disposition and a generally liberal outlook (in the correct, classical sense of the word), but this book is not quite the love letter to America many make it out to be.

James C. Scott – Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

James C. Scott – Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

How did governments emerge? The usual answer is economist Mancur Olson’s stationary bandit theory. Scott describes this theory in the final chapter, but seems not to have heard of Olson. Scott instead emphasizes an anthropological, biological, and environmental history of government’s origin.

Lots of good material here on domestication, disease, war and slavery, and how sedentarism affected environmental quality. Many ruins became that way due to epidemics, lack of sanitation, and deteriorating soil quality.

As importantly, Scott doesn’t view states as a black-and-white concept. There are shades of gray on a spectrum, with difference facets of government such as organized militaries, monarchs, and written records emerging at different times in different places, and to varying degrees. This shows itself in how written versions of the Gilgamesh epic evolved over time.

The emergence of centralized states was, ironically, a spontaneous order, same as the non-state market processes that economists study—though again, Scott doesn’t stroll very far down that avenue. Scott’s story is incomplete, but well worth studying.

Peter Schweizer – Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends

Peter Schweizer – Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends

Everyone knows that many politicians are corrupt. Schweizer and his Government Accountability Institute colleagues go one step further by doing the digging and naming names.

His latest book spares neither party and proposes reforming a relatively new form of corruption: rather than direct bribes like in the old days, many favors and payments now go to politicians’ family and friends. This is both a domestic and an international problem; the Chinese and Russian governments come off especially poorly, though Schweizer is more than a little hyperbolic about security risks.