Hard to be human again

Why so many rightwing wunderkinds shrink in the spotlight

Yikes. © 2018 Tyler Cowen under a Creative Commons license


Every once in a while my attention is dragged back to some writer whose awfulness I first noticed years earlier, and nine times out of ten I marvel at how far that person has come up in life. A good recent example is Mark Judge, aka Mark Gauvreau Judge, known mainly to me for years of ridicule-worthy articles in Acculturated, the Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere, who turned out to be a running buddy of Supreme Court Justice Boof Kavanaugh. And of course let us not forget Megan McArdle, the grand duchess of Failing Up.

Today Atrios reminded me of another one, Tyler Cowen, by calling attention to this insanely dunkworthy Cream of Libertarian tweet:

Now, as a rule libertarians smell, but while the guys at Reason and elsewhere constantly reveal themselves to be antisocial dorks who don’t see why fire departments shouldn’t let house burn down if their inhabitants don’t pay, I thought Cowen had mainly stayed in his Marginal Revolution Randroid sandbox playing patty-cakes with the other such fantasists. I’d mentioned him a few times at alicublog — once for telling the jobless to go north and seek a ‘six-figure income’ in the long-distance trucking industry, which he portrayed as pretty easy to get because hey, free market rules OK? (Spoiler: It’s hard as hell to make a million dollars as a trucker.)

Well, apparently without my noticing Cowen has become a Bloomberg columnist! This is the headline on his latest column:

Ivanka as President of the World Bank? Don’t Laugh

Cowen is sort of kidding, in the sense that libertarians don’t really mean it when they say inferior littlebrains are only fit to serve as their slaves; he just wants to make a point. The point is (initially) that statist institutions like the Bank suck so they deserve Ivanka Trump:

You might argue that Ivanka is not qualified to run the World Bank, and I might agree with you. (She would not be my personal pick; how about Carly Fiorina, Kristin J. Forbes or Arthur Brooks?)

Tying the anti-savior of Hewlett Packard around the neck of the Bank would be a real Bond-villain way to take it out. The outgoing Bank president, Jim Yong Kim, was despite his credentials a bad leader, “creating chaos and bad morale,” notes Cowen, so “if Ivanka took over the reins of the bank, she probably would be an improvement.” This is of course the sort of thinking we heard from Trump supporters in 2016 — them funny-boys in Warshington shore made a mess o’ things! We oughta give the job to a man o’ the people like this TV star! Deepening the resemblance in thought patterns, Cowen even gives us a “what have you got to lose” argument (“she could be gone before she could have much of an impact... the bank has a large and well-trained staff, the institution is difficult to control or steer, and the processes for loans and projects stretch for many years”).

But then Cowen reveals he wasn’t even fully joking in the first place, and actually tries to make a positive case for the Mme Trump-Kushner:

Remember that Ivanka already has played a role in the World Bank. In 2017 she was a leading force behind setting up a $1 billion fund, supported by Saudi Arabia, for the bank to encourage entrepreneurship by women.

You may remember stories about this — “Ivanka Trump praises Saudi Arabia on women's rights after country donates $100 million to her cause” — back in those golden pre-Khashoggi days before most of us paid much attention to the murderous and BTW-not-particularly-helpful-to-women regime with which Ivanka’s father has massive unsavory ties. It remains unclear what talents the heiress employed in securing the payment, apart from standing in visible places where the Trump-Saudi collaboration could be noticed. MBS can afford to pay top dollar for PR.

Well, everyone writes a bum column now and then, what else has Cowen done for Bloomberg lately?

Making Room for Second Chances in the #MeToo Era

Second or even third chances are essential in life, but questions of forgiveness are never easy.

For the most part this column is only ordinarily terrible — that is, you’ve no doubt read lots of other similar columns already about how yes, sexual harassment [super-quietly: andflashing, andbeatingoffinfrontofwomen] is bad, but whither humanity and isn’t the SJW mob the real problem? Cowen even manages to pimp a fellow libertarian along the way:

In her book “The Up Side of Down,” Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle stresses how many features of American life, including bankruptcy law and startup culture, depend on second, third or even more chances.

Identifying McArdle as the author of The Up Side of Down is rather like identifying Ben Shapiro as a writer of short stories. Eventually we get to the you-liberals-are-hypocrites bit:

There is relatively little outrage at John Lennon, for example, even though he was a confessed woman-beater and wrote the Beatles song “Run for Your Life,” which coldly presents violence against women and perhaps glorifies it. The song is still played regularly on satellite radio, even though it is not a particularly distinguished piece of music. Yet “Baby It’s Cold Outside” became a national controversy. Maybe it is easier to attack a stodgy song from the 1940s. Or maybe it’s that Lennon and the Beatles have long had massive “street cred” with the American left.

There are so many places we could go with this — for one, the lack of a logical connection between “outrage at John Lennon” and “outrage at Frank Loesser” (it’s not as if people are boycotting Where’s Charley and Guys and Dolls); for another, does “played regularly on satellite radio” mean “comes up in ordinary rotation on the Beatles Channel”; for another, Lennon no longer has “‘street cred’ with the American left” because we rescinded it and gave it all to Woody Guthrie and Gritty. And then:

Spotify stopped promoting the music of R. Kelly, but plenty of misogynistic and violent songs remain in rap music and other genres. Racial slurs, not always used ironically, are common. It is difficult to outline a coherent principle for differentiating what is targeted for boycott or reprobation and what is not.

Maybe Cowen doesn’t know that Kelly’s getting the hook, not because of bad words in his songs, but because he is credibly accused of having sex with minors. But surely a Bloomberg editor had some idea?

There is a moral to this story. Back when I was originally aware of him, Cowen had a reputation among conservatives and libertarians (but I repeat myself) as some sort of an intellectual force. But the stuff he churns out now (oh, do look in on “One of America’s Most Valuable Exports: Business Consultants”) could have been written by any rightwing hack, discounting a few eccentricities of thought and expression.

I don’t think it’s because Cowen knew that if normal people realized what nutty ideas he endorsed they’d run him off like a rabid possum, and so worked on purpose to make himself look more moderate; I think, perhaps over-generously, that the reason is less cynical than that; I take it rather as a sign of something like shame, or at least social anxiety.

It’s as if, whenever one of these guys gets elevated to a “mainstream” post, suddenly he finds himself talking, not just to his fellow nuts, but also and indeed mainly to normies — people who don’t understand that firemen should let houses burn just because that’s what the Invisible Hand decrees. He finds himself obliged to explain his beliefs to people who are educated, even intelligent, but who don’t have the same intellectual tics as his friends have. He’s met people like that before and, when they (as often) scoffed at his ideas, he dismissed them as littlebrains who just couldn’t understand his advanced thinking. But now they’re his audience, and his editors won’t let him blow them off — in fact they expect him to take them seriously. It’s like they’re his Mom nudging him to talk to his female cousins at a party. Only, unlike his Mom, the editors have to be obeyed.

Abashed and a little freaked out, the conservatarian attempts to speak the language of the normies — but it comes out garbled, a mix of badly-misapprehended cultural tropes and impersonations of popular rightwing goons like Rush Limbaugh. That’s how he winds up talking about the “street cred” of John Lennon, or rib-nudging Hey, you think Ivanka Trump is bad? Well, what about those dummies who run the World Bank! Those fuzzy-thinking one-worlders want to make the world a better place!

I see it in most of them — in Ross Douthat, in Megan McArdle, and especially in recent Tucker Carlson; it may be the best and most compact explanation of why Carlson has abandoned his straight racist Fox News yak for a White Working Class Whisperer routine (boy, Salena Zito must be pissed!). The calculations of Carlson, I can believe, are massively cynical, but in the clumsiness with which he expresses them I detect the same terror and querulousness I detect in Cowen and the rest of them. The poignant fact is, what looks like a sellout to cynics is in their case just an attempt by poor frightened nerds to look normal.