Category Archives: Political Animals

Juan Reinaldo Sanchez with Axel Gyldén – The Double Life of Fidel Castro: My 17 Years as Personal Bodyguard to El Lider Maximo

Juan Reinaldo Sanchez with Axel Gyldén – The Double Life of Fidel Castro: My 17 Years as Personal Bodyguard to El Lider Maximo

Sanchez was Castro’s bodyguard for 26 years, and is now living out his old age in Florida. He saw a lot of things. The book contains plenty of juicy gossip, though from a well-placed source. But Sanchez also makes serious points about how power corrupts people, and the effect the Cuban Revolution has had on Cuba’s fortunes. He also gives insights into how the Cuban government works, what life is like for the elites versus commoners, how dissidents are treated, how the military is trained, and more. That is his real contribution, and it is a valuable one.

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Republican Study Committee Releases 2020 Budget Proposal

Congress is supposed to pass an annual spending budget, though it rarely gets around to it. Instead, the government is usually funded through a mashup of individual appropriations bills, omnibus appropriations bills, and continuing resolutions. This makes government spending less transparent and less accountable. It also leaves the federal government vulnerable to shutdowns during political fights, which happened in January of this year.

Fortunately, the Republican Study Committee (RSC) has just issued a proposed budget. It is likely the only budget that will be introduced in Congress this year, though unlikely to pass a Democratic House. As with any issue-spanning document, one can quibble with its contents regardless of political persuasion. Still, the RSC deserves a great deal of credit for at least putting something out there.

Other parts of the GOP should also issue their own proposed budgets; unlike The Highlander, there can be more than one. Across the aisle, a Democratic budget(s) would face similar obstacles in a Republican Senate and White House. They still should release their own budgets to make their policy priorities more concrete.

The whole RSC FY 2020 Budget is here. The document cites CEI sources on a variety of issues:

  • Regulatory Reform. The budget gives an entire chapter to regulatory reform, beginning on page 17, and cites Wayne Crews’s Ten Thousand Commandments annual report—the 2019 edition of which will be released soon.
  • Energy and Environment. The budget’s recommendations for increasing North American energy production draw on the energy and environment chapter in CEI’s Agenda for the 116th Congress.
  • Export-Import Bank. On page 25, the budget would abolish the Export-Import Bank, citing my paper “Ten Reasons to Abolish the Export-Import Bank.” Ex-Im’s charter expires this September 30, and will close if Congress declines to reauthorize it.

Kudos to the RSC for putting out a tangible document that should serve as a starting point for debating federal priorities for the next fiscal year—and for attempting to fix a broken budget process. They also have excellent taste in finding sources for many of their ideas; interested readers can find more in CEI’s Free to Prosper: A Pro-Growth Agenda for the 116th Congress.

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.

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.