The Johnstown Flood

Pennsylvania borrowed more money to build infrastructure supporting canals than any other state to take advantage of the trade opportunities of the Erie Canal. Construction started on the South Fork Dam in 1838 with scheduled completion within a year, but by the time it was finished in 1852 the railroads had made it obsolete. The state wrote it off and it eventually provided a fishing lake for Pittsburgh’s elite. When it burst in 1889, causing the Johnstown flood, the total loss in life and property was probably 100 times the initial construction cost. Pennsylvania, having long since declared bankruptcy in 1841, blamed the rich.

Most every year the Congress metaphorically dances on top of the earthen South Fork Dam looming over Johnstown with the water lapping at their feet. Their solution is always the same: Let’s throw some more dirt on top this year. We’ll drain it when we drain the swamp, after we eliminate the air pollution in Johnstown, the price paid for the industrial revolution raising American living standards in the late 1800s.

The primary issue facing America during the post WW II era was whether its consumerist economy could continue to produce rising living standards for all, the cornerstone of political legitimacy. The leader of America’s competitor Nikita Khrushchev in the Soviet Union put the issue crudely six decades ago: “we will bury you” with a savings and investment rate several multiples of yours. America’s intelligence community and economic elite were shocked by the sudden collapse of the Soviet economy – like a dam bursting – less than three decades later.

Khrushchev, like most of America’s development economists, understood the role of saving and investment but not how important the private capital markets were to the allocation of capital to its highest and best use, politically directed credit being the main cause of their collapse. In Johnstown everyone knew that the valves to lower the water level in the lake had been removed during the last amateurish reconstruction, but fixing or removing it was opposed by rich land owners. The debt ceiling has similarly proven an ineffective mechanism to control America’s flood of debt, with the central bank standing ready to buy it all to the benefit of the wealthy. American politicians, feeling unbound by constitutional constraints, are addicted to issuing debt, the birthing person’s milk of politics. The Biden Build Back Better Plan promises to strengthen the dam, but like the amateurish repairs to the South Fork will weaken the dam’s foundation while causing water levels to rise, possibly to a critical level.

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Looking Back on the Biden Ten Year Plan

(An Ode to Lionel Shriver)

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Back in 2021 President Biden reiterated that his proposals, unprecedented in scope and expense, represented an investment in the future with extraordinary returns that could only be evaluated over the longer, e.g., ten- to fifty-year time horizon. This perspective coincidentally facilitated claims it was paid for without new taxes, while postponing an evaluation of actual returns beyond his term in office, even if he should run and win a second term in 2024 at 82 years old.

Saving American Democracy

But it’s now a decade later and Biden is still in office. Well, not exactly in office, as he had been replaced by a hologram in late 2021, addressing the American people from his estate in McLean Virginia, purchased for $50 million cash (before GSA improvements). Following FDR’s precedent people were told that changing leaders in the midst of a crisis, and these continued to accumulate over the decade, was dangerous.

Besides, he had run virtually unopposed in the 2024 election after all those registered Republicans within a half mile of the Capitol on January 6,th 2021 had been arrested, tried, convicted and jailed for “terrorism and crimes against the State,” after which Republican voter registration plummeted.

The expanded Supreme Court, 29 Justices to accommodate race, ethnicity, gender, etc., had finally ruled on the legal concept of “disparate impact,” concluding that everything from global warming and COVID 19 to voter identification, rent collection, college admission requirements and even law enforcement represented illegal racial discrimination. The expanded Court then called an indefinite recess during the construction of a new edifice to house it.

There was really no point in holding a faux election in 2028 in any event. The progressive campaigns to eliminate the electoral college and voter ID laws to prevent “voter suppression” had both been successful, and the ongoing COVID lockdown still allowed mail-in ballots under the rules in place in 2020, so there was no need to go through the motions. The New York Times and the Washington Post, the only remaining Party sanctioned newspapers, simply announced “the will of the people.” By now, 2031, most people have long since forgotten the promises of that Biden Ten Year Plan.

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“Good Union Jobs”

Biden, and other Democrats, like to talk about “good union jobs.”  Unsurprising–what is a little surprising is how many conservative commentators have picked up on the same phraseology: for example, when talking about the impact of Biden’s pipeline shutdown, I’ve hear them talking about “union jobs lost” rather than just about “jobs lost.”

I’m not opposed to unions (private-sector unions, that is), they can serve a useful purpose. But they do add a certain rigidity to business operations and to compensation and promotion decisions. They are not for everyone, and there are a lot of people who have excellent jobs that have nothing to do with unions.

Democrats like to talk about unions, I think, partly for reasons of nostalgia but primarily due to the inherently collectivist worldview of the Dems: they would rather think in terms of categories of people than of actual individuals. The old feudal idea of “no man without a master” resonates with them, I think, although they would phrase it differently. And, of course, they view unions as excellent sources of campaign funding.

Conservatives/republicans mindlessly echoing this phraseology and implicitly the worldview that underlies it.

The Politician as Bully

Peggy Noonan, in a WSJ column which is actually worthwhile (rare for her these days, IMO) writes about aspects of Andrew Cuomo’s behavior which she says demonstrate a deep weirdness:

The culture of his office was rife with fear and intimidation. A victim: “It was extremely toxic, extremely abusive. If you got yelled at in front of everyone, it wasn’t any special day. . . . It was controlled largely by his temper, and he was surrounded by people who enabled his behavior.” Everyone feared retaliation for speaking out, so they didn’t.

But there is deep weirdness beyond that. He ordered one aide to memorize the lyrics to “Danny Boy.” She testified he “would pop out” of his office and ask her to start singing. A footnote says it was not the only time the governor asked her to sing. The aide found herself writing to a former staffer, “He just asked me to sing Bohemian Rhapsody so. We aren’t far off from a bedtime story.” He asked her to do push-ups in front of him…

I was reminded of a passage in one of the Hornblower novels in which the protagonist, as a new midshipman, finds himself on a ship with a sickly and disconnected captain and a midshipmen’s mess ruled by a bully, Simpson.

Simpson had apparently always been an ingenious tyrant, but now, embittered and humiliated by his failure to pass his examination for his commission, he was a worse tyrant, and his ingenuity had multiplied itself. He may have been weak in mathematics, but he was diabolically clever at making other people’s lives a burden to them. As senior officer in the mess he had wide official powers; as a man with a blistering tongue and a morbid sense of mischief he would have been powerful anyway, even if the Justinian had possessed an alert and masterful first lieutenant to keep him in check while Mr. Clay was neither…

Significantly, it was not his ordinary exactions which roused the greatest resentment — his levying toll upon their sea chests for clean shirts for himself, his appropriation of the best cuts of the meat served, nor even his taking their coveted issues of spirits. These things could be excused as understandable, the sort of thing they would do themselves if they had the power. But he displayed a whimsical arbitrariness which reminded Hornblower, with his classical education, of the freaks of the Roman emperors. He forced Cleveland to shave the whiskers which were his inordinate pride; he imposed upon Hether the duty of waking up Mackenzie every half hour, day and night, so that neither of them was able to sleep — and there were toadies ready to tell him if Hether ever failed in his task.

Noonan:

Here’s my thought when I finished the report. As America becomes stranger and our culture becomes stranger, our politicians become stranger. As their power increases (I can close a whole state down; I can close a country!) so do the stakes.

As politicians gain more and more power…especially arbitrary power…the kind of people who become politicians changes.  Francis Spufford, in his book Red Plenty, writes about those who sought and achieved power in the Soviet Union.  He notes that:

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Over – Under

The descent into senility on the part of the so-called President Joe Biden seems to be accelerating, or so I presume from frequent scans of that news media which has not gone completely bonkers. Honestly, about the only regular mainstream establishment news outlet I check frequently is the British Daily Mail – in spite of all it’s many sins, including apparently allowing semi-literate teenage interns to write the headlines and photo captions, an unseemly devotion to the regular goings on of flashy semi-celebs like the Kardashians and Megan “Royal-Wrecker” Markle, and having the execrable Piers Morgan on staff – they do cover US-based political stories without any particular fear or favor. In other words,

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