Over the Line?

Dick Durbin says then what ought to be said now:

Centrist Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) signed a letter to President Obama Monday calling on him not to allow another Syrian refugee into the country unless federal authorities can guarantee with 100-percent assurance they are not connected to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Other Democrats have rejected freezing Obama’s plan to resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the current fiscal year.

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said halting the program “is a simplistic reaction to a very complicated challenge.”

“Background checks need to be redoubled in terms of refugees but if we’re talking about threats to the United States, let’s put this in perspective,” he said.

Durbin noted that each year 70,000 refugees from around the world are resettled in the United States after two years of vetting while millions of foreign visitors enter the United States as visitors.

“Let us not just single out the refugees as the potential source of danger in the United States,” he said.

Measured, thoughtful and IMO correct. If, however, you respond to an oversimplification with another oversimplification, e.g. Trump = Ebola x Hitler, then you lose your ability to credibly criticize oversimplification.

Given the widespread and vitriolic reaction to the temporary freeze, I’m trying to figure out if I missed something. Maybe this is one of those times when Trump really crossed the line, and I’m just not willing to admit it? That’s certainly possible and I did a fair amount of digging to persuade myself that I’m wrong, but I’m still not persuaded.

If you agree that:

  • Borders should not be open (and there are certainly reasonable arguments that they should);
  • That would-be entrants ought to be vetted;
  • That one of the things they ought to be vetted for is their willingness to abide by liberal norms and play by our rules; and
  • That vetting should reasonably incorporate context, including the reliability of local information and other probabilistic indicators of the applicant’s willingness to abide by liberal norms and play by our rules;

Then it’s hard to be truly offended by the EO. You can disagree with its breadth and its lack of precision. You can disagree with the innumerate fear of terror relative to the risk. You can argue that explicitly focusing on probabilistic indicators that even partially align with religion (no matter if they’re valid) are symbolically harmful and counterproductive. You can object to the total freeze (although it permits exceptions), as opposed to simply raising the bar. These are all objections, however, regarding the details of the EO, and not the principle. If, as a practical matter, the flow of migrants from war torn countries with a predilection for overt hostility to liberal norms temporarily ground to a halt, you might say “we ought to do more,” but outrage?

I think that in order to be truly offended by the EO one has to interpret it as a Muslim Ban, which it obviously isn’t. At best, the EO signals dislike or suspicion of Muslims–and there is certainly some truth to that, especially given Bannon’s prior remarks on the Judeo-Christian culture war with the Muslim world (among others). Likewise, the explicit reference to persecuted minorities, implies that Muslims will face more scrutiny than others from the exact same places.

But again, Egypt is not on this list. Malasia is not on this list. Morocco is not on this list. [Note: I’m not convinced they took the list from Obama, but if not that, something like it. This unpersuasive Politifact “Mostly False” rating, however, makes Trump’s claim seem more persuasive.] Moreover, the bad guys and gals in these places on the list are Muslim and it’s their rigid Muslimness that–in their own view of the world–distinguishes them from other people. Similarly, given the relative instability of these places, it is easier for the most motivated bad guys and gals to congregate and thrive. Put it this way: if you understand why a man and his boyfriend are unwilling to hold hands in Mogadishu (or go there in the first place), then you understand the EO.


I think the deeper objection comes not to the EO or its policy on refugees specifically, but to its broader “We’re Not Europe” symbolism. To be clear, some Progressives view that stance in the same light as a Muslim ban, like the Remainers who chalked up Brexit to xenophobia. A more uniquely American iteration of that view is the “We’re a nation of immigrants” refrain, popular in the libertarian/Silicon Valley crowd.

In my view, it’s a mistake to reduce “We’re not Europe” to a dislike of Muslims or immigrants. I think it reflects a sense of fairness and the perceived absence of quid pro quo. Immigrants (including Muslims) can come and avail themselves of superior cultural and legal norms and institutions to make a better life for themselves. Indeed, what makes Western cultural and legal norms and institutions superior is that anyone–regardless of race, color or creed–can win, if they play by the rules. That means, however, that there are rights and obligations. You can come, but it’s incumbent upon you to learn our ways. Grandma’s house, Grandma’s rules. The perception is that that exchange has broken down.

People who object to the current state of affairs in Europe see only rights for immigrants, but no obligations. Even worse, they perceive a political and cultural apparatus that elevates the stature of “indigenous” norms and institutions (i.e. the ones left behind) and diminishes the stature of Western norms and institutions (i.e. the ones immigrants now seek to utilize). They see that people keep coming, but those people refuse to admit that there’s anything superior about their new home. They see self-serving constituencies redirecting public resources to new-comers and insisting that the hosts are the ones who ought to fit in, even though the hosts are the ones who made that public surplus possible in the first place. They further see cultural and political elite insisting on tolerance and inclusion, while turning a blind eye to the demonstrably less tolerant and inclusive new-comers.

In short, they perceive reverse colonialism. Immigrants motivated only to exploit the relative openness and prosperity of the West, while contributing as little as possible to that openness and prosperity. Indeed, far from coming West and playing by Western rules, they see immigrants as coming West and imposing Eastern rules . . . which makes little sense if it’s Eastern rules that motivated immigrants to go West in the first place. “If your shit’s so great, then why the hell did you come here for, other than to take our stuff?” The objection isn’t even so much to the immigrants, but the . . . wait for it . . . elites who champion their cause (and the public resources that follow).

In my view, there is a lot of truth to that criticism, although it’s more complicated than that:

First, there is in fact parochialism, as well as unfair barriers to entry, that put the lie to “play by our rules and anyone can win.” I think those barriers are wildly overstated, but they are surely there, and it’s hard enough to start with nothing, so there’s no reason to make it any harder. Further, mitigating those barriers is not the same thing as turning a blind eye to the parochialism of the new-comers. Most importantly, there is, in fact, lots to learn from immigrants (and not just the engineers) and total assimilation would be a tragedy–recognizing that assimilation should be a mutually enriching experience (or a positive sum game), is not the same as diminishing the stature of the status quo. Immigration is a positive sum game; that’s why it’s generally good. [Note: The worst barriers are surely the dense thicket of regulations that exclude outsiders and raise the cost of entry for the benefit of “consumers” [regulators+competitors] and “labor” [electeds+special interests]. Similarly, efforts to alleviate the “plight” of immigrants likely knocks them off the first rung of the economic ladder more than anything else, but I digress.]

Second, immigrants are like anyone else insofar as they will try to get the most bang for their buck. If there is little incentive to assimilate, they won’t, or at least not very quickly, because assimilating is hard. That doesn’t make them bad or “exploitative.” If there are readily available public goods and services, as well as politicians, activists and civil servants eager for the opportunity to provide goods and services, then immigrants are not going to say “thanks, but no thanks, we’ll do it the really hard way.” Likewise, if there are politicians, activists and civil servants willing to say “No really, it’s we that need to learn from you–we didn’t earn any of this and we treat you so unfairly” then who’s going to disagree?

That being said, I think opponents of the “Not Europe” stand miss the mark as well:

  • For the new school of identitarian Progressives, they very much prefer the one-way street of all take, no give, (Justice is served) so they rightly perceive any push back on that model as a threat (which they call “racism” or something along those lines). In other words, they haven’t missed the mark, they just understand all too well.
  • For older school “Liberal” lefties, they are less sensitive to political economy (and would likely disagree with the Progressive model, if it were fully spelled out), but their instinct is to join the fight against perceived discrimination, if that’s what lefty institutions (now dominated by the identitarians) tell them to do. Old habits and institutional affiliations die hard.
  • For the “we’re a nation of immigrants” crowd (which also includes the old school lefties), they seem to ignore the fact that the political and cultural climate that awaits immigrants now, is not the same as it was in the early 20th Century. Immigrants then were expected to scrape tooth and nail to demonstrate that they could in fact play by the rules. To make it in the big leagues, outsiders had to prove they belonged. For a variety of reasons, that simply isn’t true anymore (rightly or wrongly), but without the extra motivation to assimilate, assimilation has become much more challenging. Indeed, identitarian Progressives actively try to prevent assimilation in its tracks. The result is that the cultural, social and fiscal cost of new entrants is much higher than it used to be, and if the conditions are different, it’s unreasonable to assume the outcome will be the same. New problems arise. Then isn’t now. More simply, “my grandfather came with nothing and worked in a sweatshop until he could afford his own store, etc.” is less likely to happen now because we don’t let it happen.

Long story short: I’ve given it a lot more thought and I still think the EO hysteria is mostly attributable to general Trump hysteria. Given how much Trump hysteria is out there, it’s a reasonable default assumption in any case, but it seems to hold up on the merits.

Vetting the Vetters

1. It’s not a “Muslim Ban.” For the folks complaining about Fake News and Lies, calling the EO a “Muslim Ban” should provoke outrage. There are far more Muslim countries not on the list than on the list, and no that has nothing to do with Trump’s business dealings. The countries were quite obviously selected for their relative stability, i.e. a weak security apparatus makes the front-end process of screening “refugees” that much less reliable. The exception is, of course, Iran, which is an overtly hostile regime. [Note: query why a ban on 7 Muslim countries is a “Muslim Ban,” but a boycott on the one Jewish State is obviously not, no way, no how, a “Jewish Boycott.”]

I find the “religious discrimination” objections vis a vis Christian refugees especially specious. If one is genuinely concerned about persecuted minorities, then one should celebrate Trump’s emphasis on Christians (and other minorities) who have been persecuted in ways the West hasn’t witnessed since the 19th Century. If the only difference is that PoC are doing the persecuting, that suggests that the commitment to persecuted minorities is not entirely genuine. Democrats didn’t seem to mind all that much when Obama suddenly ended the wet-foot-dry-foot policy . . . maybe because Cubans vote Republican? Perish the thought.

2. As for the EO itself, there are parts not to love. Providing a haven for refugees (in our nation of immigrants) is a vital feature of our cultural ethos. It’s not just a “because Auschwitz” thing either (as Steve Sailer has suggested), although that might be reason enough because, well, Auschwitz was really bad (although VERY different from the Syrian civil war). It’s a moral high ground thing–we’re the good guys who show up in the last scene of the movie to save the women and children. That’s patriotism too. #MAGA.

In Trump’s defense, he did say “I have tremendous feeling for the people involved in this horrific humanitarian crisis in Syria . . . My first priority will always be to protect and serve our country, but as president, I will find ways to help all those who are suffering.” Further the order is temporary subject to a review of the vetting procedures, and it does explicitly mention persecuted minorities. Trump also raised the possibility of safe zones in Syria, which (if practicable) make an awful lot of sense. Better that the refugees stay closer to home, right? That will make it easier for them to return home when it’s safe (assuming that’s what this is about–more on that below). Finally, without knowing more about the current vetting process (and everyone agrees there should be some vetting), it’s hard to say whether Trump is right/wrong about the need for more vetting.

All that being said, Trump could have done something like, announce asylum for some number of refugees, to make that point more explicit. Then again, Trump could announce the cure for cancer and it would spark protest and outrage as discrimination against AIDS patients.

3. Another valid criticism regards process. The EO apparently bypassed the internal bureaucracy, e.g. DOJ and OLC review. It also sewed “confusion” particularly as regards to people with valid Green Cards. Trump explained that the process was motivated by a need for secrecy:


That actually makes a lot of sense to me. If you announce the doors are closing, people will make a run for the doors (like they did when Obama planned amnesty). If you thought sorting through a random sample of hundreds of thousands was disruptive, imagine sorting through an adverse sample–in all likelihood, even more people would be improperly detained and otherwise inconvenienced as a result. Trump also disputed the extent of the “confusion,” pointing out that only 109 people were detained and that Delta had a systems problem over the weekend. I find this claim harder to evaluate, but I’m sympathetic insofar as “confusion” is a malleable term. An error rate is inevitable–remember healthcare.gov–and whether it’s high or low depends on a reliable baseline. Further, an increased error rate may be a justified cost of secrecy (which may have decreased the overall error rate).

Making an end-run around the deep state is a more nuanced issue. Again, secrecy is a valid concern, and Adler (in WaPo) concludes that despite the lack of input, the EO is consistent with precedent set by Obama, even if sloppily drafted.

The status play is more troubling, however. Cutting out the deep state is, on the one hand, part of Trump’s critique of the governing guild, which in this case, would probably be reflexively hostile to the EO–the fancy lawyers in the OLC and State Department are probably not Trump’s biggest fans. On the other hand, the deep state is one of those things that make our government megalomaniac-proof (although less so in Obama’s second term). To the extent Trump is making government more efficient in that regard, I strongly disapprove. Government is dysfunctional, deliberative and sclerotic by design.

3. Stepping back from the trees, the forest of the EO seems pretty clear: we’re not turning into Europe. “Refugees” in this case is a proxy for immigrants, and not unfairly. There is no understanding that refugees will return to Syria when the conflict is over (indeed, the only refugees who can’t ever be resettled are  apparently Palestinians). Similarly, pretty much everyone in Somalia can make a credible case for asylum, which makes the asylum process a de facto immigration process.

The point is that while the EO is in a narrow sense about refugees/security (and is in that narrow sense objectionable), it’s really about immigration (and in that sense, more complicated). There are many people in that part of the world who would prefer to be in the West (for obvious reasons) and if calling yourself a refugee makes it easier to get there, then that’s what people will do. Because people in that part of the world are (like all people) smart, strategic and adaptable–they’re not just bit parts in Western morality plays. I mean, how active is the conflict in Syria now, anyway? Are there still people “fleeing” in the humanitarian sense of the word? Is there any plan for sending people back when it’s safe to return?

The Not-Europe immigration policy implicates a host of other questions, but they are not “humanitarian” questions (assuming one recognizes any daylight between immigration generally and asylum specifically, which some libertarians do not). Immigration is a topic for another day, and a good deal more complicated than “we’re a nation of immigrants,” although that’s an argument that resonates with me.

For present purposes, my point is that analyzing the EO solely from a humanitarian angle is a mistake. Indeed, the humanitarian outrage at the EO largely tracks the political economy of the immigration issue–as noted above, Progressives took no issue with keeping out Cubans and they downplay persecuted minorities, so long as registered POC are doing the persecuting (just like they downplay sexual assault, so long as POC are doing the assaulting). In other words, Progressives have discerned the gestalt of the EO as well, and even if they pretend it’s an humanitarian issue, they know it’s really a broadside to their coalition. They were able to pull a fast one using the humanitarian card on Angela Merkel (much to her chagrin), but Trump appears to be a step ahead.


Hard to Disagree . . .

The New York Times, quoting Bannon:

“You’re the opposition party,” Mr. Bannon said. “Not the Democratic Party. You’re the opposition party. The media’s the opposition party.”

Mr. Bannon mostly referred to the “elite” or “mainstream” media, but he cited The New York Times and The Washington Post by name.

“The paper of record for our beloved republic, The New York Times, should be absolutely ashamed and humiliated,” Mr. Bannon said. “They got it 100 percent wrong.”


The government charged taxpayers billions for a worthless investment!

From WaPo:

One of the Obama administration’s signature efforts in education, which pumped billions of federal dollars into overhauling the nation’s worst schools, failed to produce meaningful results, according to a federal analysis.

Test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment were no different in schools that received money through the School Improvement Grants program — the largest federal investment ever targeted to failing schools — than in schools that did not.

The Education Department published the findings on the website of its research division on Wednesday, hours before President Obama’s political appointees walked out the door.

Cue the Federal investigation! Fire up the Elizabeth Warren signal! Taxpayers robbed blind of billions of dollars paid out to special interests in exchange for false promises! Where was the oversight?! How can they act with such impunity?! Both federal and state prosecutors are expected to pursue fraud charges. According to one prosecutor, “it’s a slam dunk case for fraud–the evidence against the policy was overwhelming, but they ignored it and lied to American people and now billions of dollars later, they can’t ignore it anymore.”  Obama officials are expected to concede that their critics were right all along about central interventions: “We meant well, but it turns out it was a mistake to gamble away billions of dollars of other peoples’ money at the expense of American school children. This will never happen again. Obama himself takes full responsibility for the failure.”

Nope. People will continue to say “well we gotta try, right?” Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a “better” witch doctor.


Media Bias Anecdotes

A friend asked me whether I was concerned at all that Mar-a-Lago is apparently doubling its membership fees. The short answer is that I am not terribly concerned by what seems to be a reasonable business decision that is neither motivated by corruption, or likely to move the influence-needle in any case. If more people want to stay at Mar-a-Lago because Trump is president that’s not his fault. Just like it’s not Obama’s fault that people want to buy his book because he’s president or pay him to speak. And just like it’s not Hillary’s fault that people want to donate to the Clinton Foundation because she was Secretary of State and president-anointed (and stopped donating the moment she lost). I’m much less troubled by the transparent and generally accessible membership fees to Mar-a-Lago than the behind the scenes informal clubbishness that typically dominates the influence market.

In any event, during the course of our discussion, I googled “Clinton Foundation Closing” because I thought it was on par, if not worse, evidence of “pay to play” (that I don’t actually find that troubling) and this is what I saw:


Literally not a single progressive news site to be found. No one in the establishment media (other than Fox) thought it was newsworthy that the Clinton Foundation determined to shut its doors following Hillary’s electoral loss. No bias there . . .

A Note On Posture

I spend a lot of time defending Trump, or at least that what it looks like. If anyone were to read this blog, they might fairly conclude that I like or support Trump. To some extent that’s true: I like Trump for certain principled and symbolic reasons, both for what he is and what he decidedly is not. The very short version is that I agree with him that a governing guild exists, that it’s not nearly as smart or as righteous as it thinks it is — quite the contrary, it’s often blinkered, dictatorial and condescending –that it ought to be disrupted, and that it has a lot to learn from the unwashed and uncredentialed masses. [Update: here’s a perfect example of the teacher getting schooled and being too thick to realize.]

All that being said, I don’t really like Trump.

I just don’t think he’s uniquely flawed as politicians go, which stands in stark contrast with the daily barrage of “OHMIGOSH DID YOU SEE WHAT TRUMP DID?!!” So I’m compelled to write about Trump because I think he’s terribly misunderstood. Even worse, I think the reason he’s misunderstood is a good old fashioned process problem: Trump isn’t complicated, he’s just different. Specifically, he’s “low brow” and his success has made self-described “high brow” people angry and afraid. Again, I’ve got no problem with critical commentary (and there’s plenty to be critical about). I take issue with commentary that is single-minded and vicious in pursuit of criticism.

There’s a lot of Trump data, and not all of it confirms that he’s the monster Vox warned you about. It’s bad science, it’s illiberal and it’s mean.

Now, I understand that it is only natural to treat ‘new and different’ with at least a little fear and anger. The in-group is the in-group for a reason, and different is usually some combination of better and worse, not either/or. But at a certain point, reasonable caution gives way to outright bigotry and tribalism, which makes the in-group stupid and mean. None of this is controversial — it’s in fact the exact thing the in-group daily accuses Trump of representing. But the in-group has apparently spent so much time pointing fingers at bigotry and tribalism that it cannot even fathom looking in the mirror (other than in specific self-serving ways). [Note: there’s a deeper problem, what I call the “Brown people can be fascist too” problem, but that’s for another day.]

Trump did everything he wasn’t supposed to do and nothing of what he supposedly had to do. For the folks who wrote the old script (or the people currently following it), that stings a bit. It feels shitty to be wrong. But liberals learn and adapt. They swallow their pride, stay open minded and see alternative models as an opportunity to improve (and not as a threat).  Bigots, by contrast, dig in, stamp their feet, wave their hands and froth at the mouth. Sometimes they even grab their pitchforks and start lighting stuff and people on fire.

I spend so much time defending Trump because it concerns me when smart, conscientious people behave like stupid bigots.

The piety. It burns.