I don’t really believe in God, but I TGIF on an almost weekly basis.
By way of introduction, I’m Nick Gillespie, an editor-at-large at Reason, where I’ve also served over the years as editor-in-chief of the print magazine, the website, and our video platform, too. According to The New York Times—a sketchy source, to be sure—I am “to libertarianism what Lou Reed is to rock ‘n’ roll, the quintessence of its outlaw spirit.” Also, like Lou with Metal Machine Music, I apologize for nothing, and I am an outstanding candidate for electroshock treatment.
Before I run down the biggest stories of the week, here’s what went down at Common Sense: Louise Perry made a convincing case that the sexual revolution sold millennial women a bill of goods. Bari gave an update on this whole operation, and Marty Makary eulogized the career of one Anthony Fauci. Bill Barr sat down for an in-depth interview on Honestly—you can read a transcript of the conversation here—and got frank about Russiagate, the Mueller report, January 6, the raid on Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s “extortion” of the GOP, and more.
Here’s what else happened:
→ Student Loan Forgiveness, Including for Many, Many Wealthy People: I’ll give President Joe Biden this much credit: He knows how to get people to stop talking about inflation, at least for a few minutes.
Between the Mar-a-Lago raid by the F.B.I., which honestly seems like it happened a decade ago, and this latest gambit, generalized price hikes seem about as pressing right now as Hunter Biden’s body dysmorphia. However constitutionally iffy, Biden’s student-loan forgiveness plan may be in the first place (in July, Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted the president does not have “the power for debt forgiveness”), the actual nuts and bolts of it are terrible all on their own.
The plan’s top-line takeaway is that borrowers making up to $125,000—almost twice the median household income—will be eligible to wipe out $10,000 in debt, with poorer borrowers able to walk away from twice as much. The total price tag could be around $330 billion over the next 10 years, or the equivalent of more than $2,000 per taxpayer.
The impetus to forgive student loans stems from the notion that it saddles relatively young, relatively poor people with so much debt that they can’t get on with adulting–you know, borrowing money to buy a car or a home, or to bring the next generation of taxpayers into this wretched world. But virtually all—about 90 percent—of student loan borrowers are paying back their loans on time, which suggests that the individual amounts aren’t too much for them to handle (about $300 per month, according to the website Student Loan Hero, but that amount can vary wildly based on type of institution, type of degree, age of the borrower, and more). And it’s fair that the borrowers pay, since they get most of the benefits (about $900,000 in extra median lifetime earnings for men and $630,000 more for women). Canceling the debt merely shifts it onto other taxpayers—including people who already paid their student debt or didn’t go to college at all.
I approach this topic as someone who debt-financed my undergraduate years. Student loans made it possible for me to attend a four-year residential college, and I would have loved to have been relieved of 10 years’ worth of about $250 monthly payments. I remain a fan of debt in general—it’s really one of the greatest inventions in human history when used wisely. But something has gone terribly wrong when people who voluntarily sign up for money and can afford to pay it back get to skip out on the check. Last year, I participated in an IntelligenceSquared U.S. debate on this very matter, which you can check out here:
In the meantime, get ready for discussions of student-loan forgiveness not simply as the most naked ploy to, you know, buy votes from people making six figures, but also as being “about loan relief as racial justice—a form of reparations.” Such high-minded characterizations are thankfully being challenged not simply by Biden’s opponents but by Democratic figures such as Harvard economist Jason Furman, who served as chair of Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.
For a few, brief, shining moments, we didn’t think about inflation, until, alas, there it is again, partly because the president’s plan is obviously inflationary: It sends a huge amount of new money into the economy.
→ Divided We’ll Stand: We’re only a few months away from the midterm elections, which are traditionally a bloodbath for the party of a first-term president. That’s especially true when a president is as deeply unpopular as Biden is: He currently has a 42 percent approval rating, according to RealClearPolitics, a figure even lower than Trump’s was at the same point in his presidency.
How bad can the midterms get for the Dems? Real bad, if you look at the recent historical record.
In 1994, almost two years into what was shaping up as “the incredible shrinking” presidency of Bill Clinton, the Democrats lost 52 seats in the House and eight in the Senate, flipping full control of Congress to the Republicans for the first time in 40 years. In 2010, after Barack Obama crushed John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, the Democrats lost 63 House seats and six Senate seats. Two years into Donald Trump’s presidency in 2018, the Republicans coughed up 40 House seats while gaining two Senate seats. The only president since FDR to avoid a first midterm wipeout was George W. Bush, whose Republican Party picked up eight House seats and two Senate seats in 2002, a reversal easily explained by the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath.
Needless to say, Biden and the Democrats are in big trouble, which helps explain the student-loan debt-forgiveness plan (Hey kids, free money!). FiveThirtyEight is giving the Dems a slight edge to keep the Senate while expecting the GOP to take back the House. (According to RealClearPolitics, the Senate is more of a toss-up, with nine seats up for grabs.)
The main thing holding the GOP back from a complete takeover? The Daily Beast’s Matt Lewis is surely onto something when he notes that the Party of Lincoln, in its Trumpified version, has a fondness for nominating “idiots” to run for office.
Indeed, as Nellie noted only last week, there isn’t enough cocaine in the world to keep Mitch McConnell and voters everywhere from recognizing that “candidate quality” is a real problem for Republicans. They tend to nominate people with absolutely zero experience even running for office, much less holding it. The results aren’t just Dr. Oz alienating Pennsylvania voters by suggesting that John Fetterman brought about his own stroke, but Georgia’s favorite son, Herschel Walker, yammering on about too many trees while being unable to accurately count his own children.
Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance managed to win his primary in Ohio with just 32 percent of the vote but rarely goes a week without some sort of gaffe, such as suggesting that women should stay in violent marriages. He now finds himself mired in a surprisingly tight general election against undistinguished Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, whose main strategy is calling Vance, who’s worked for billionaire Peter Thiel, a plutocratic carpetbagger and repeating the word China over and over again to Rust Belt audiences. Then there’s another Thiel-backed political virgin, Arizona’s Blake Masters, who just this week flipped his position on abortion from being “100% pro-life” and supporting a federal personhood law to suggesting he’s only against late-term and partial-birth abortion. These aren’t even rookie mistakes.
→ Three Cheers for Free Speech: When Salman Rushdie was attacked on stage on August 12 by a knife-wielding maniac, we were reminded that however awful our partisan politics can be, there’s something much, much worse out there in the world.
If anything good can come out of the completely unprovoked and indefensible attack on the 75-year-old novelist, it’s that it seems to have galvanized intellectual opinion more in favor of free expression. A week after the attack, PEN America—the organization that rightly gave an award to the staff of Charlie Hebdo in 2015 after a dozen of its employees were murdered (and 11 injured) by Islamic terrorists—staged a rally for Rushdie on the steps of the main branch of the New York Public Library. Actor Aasif Mandvi read this passage from Rushdie’s forthcoming novel, Victory City, to a crowd of hundreds: "I myself am nothing now. All that remains is the city of words. Words are the only victors."
NPR ran an interview with Iranian-American writer Azar Nafisi, who wrote about teaching banned literature in the theocracy whose leader sentenced Rusdhie to death. She tells the dark, strange story of the chief censor for theater in Iran, who was literally blind: “He would sit in on rehearsals, and somebody would sit beside him and tell him what the actors are doing, and he would censor them.” Nafisi tells NPR’s audience, “both on the far left and far right, there is this danger of becoming like a blind censor.”
→ Speaking of the Murderous Iranian Regime: Next week, we can expect news of a revived nuclear deal. Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid blasted the proposal. “In our eyes, it does not meet the standards set by President Biden himself: preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear state.” Such are the dangers of a White House convinced that the future of the world depends on the Americans pretending the mullahs of Tehran are not funders of terrorists or implacable foes of western-democratic values, like free expression. (See above.)
→Facebook Reduced the Reach of the Hunter Biden Laptop Story after F.B.I. Warning: Watch this clip of Mark Zuckerberg on Joe Rogan’s podcast, in which the Meta CEO says Facebook reduced the reach of the New York Post’s pre-election bombshell about Hunter Biden’s laptop because the F.B.I. reached out to warn of a pending dump of Russian misinformation.
Give Jack Dorsey, the former Twitter CEO, credit for saying that his platform’s decision to block the story was a ““total mistake.” In contrast, Zuckerberg dances around the seriousness of the action and the reliability of the F.B.I. as a credible broker of information, then or now. Over the past 50 years, the United States has been moving from a high-trust society to a low-trust society, a trend with really bad effects on social cohesion. The federal government’s actions are a major cause of that decline. So is the behavior of big businesses.
→ New York Times to Latinos, Blacks: Cut It Out With This American Dream Stuff Already: You know what might be a really nice addition to a culture of free speech? The New York Times standing down from policing the ways minorities, at least if they are Republican, talk about their experiences in the good old U.S. of A. This headline and subhead really say it all:
Is there a more shopworn pivot in politics than to invoke the American Dream and then fret it is fading fast? Where was the Times when, say, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat from Massachusetts, warned darkly in 2014 that “the American Dream is slipping out of reach”?
The one interesting point in the story comes when the reporter mentions the phrase was popularized by a 1931 bestselling book called The Epic of America, in which the author defined it as the “dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone.” How do you define “the American Dream?” And do you think it’s holding up or fading fast? Answer in the comments.
→ Historian Attacked for Suggesting Historians Study History. Speaking of history, the president of the American Historical Association, James H. Sweet, really stuck his foot in it when, in his most recent column for the group’s newsletter, he suggested that academics should encourage grad students seeking PhDs to study older periods, especially those before 1800.
Sweet, an expert on the African diaspora and New World slavery, also had the temerity to criticize The 1619 Project as motivated more by present-day politics than an abiding interest in what really happened in the past.
“Too many Americans have become accustomed to the idea of history as an evidentiary grab bag to articulate their political positions,” lamented Sweet, a complaint which rings true to my ears as a journalist with a Ph.D. in American literature (where we often discuss finding a “usable past” specifically to authorize current ideas or trends). One major difference between history and activism is that the former seeks to explicate the past in all its murkiness and ambivalence. The latter seeks to find the one moment or phrase that advances whatever argument you’re making right now.
You can guess the response to Sweet’s thoughtful and edifying essay by knowing he quickly posted a note to the top of the column in which he takes “full responsibility that it did not convey what I intended and for the harm that it has caused.” Since it’s Friday—thank god it’s Friday!—and the bar has recently fallen so low, I’m choosing to be happy the piece was written at all and that, at least as we went to press, it hasn’t yet been taken down.
→ California Dreaming . . . of Crime-Free Restaurants? Remember when California used to define the American Dream (that term again, sorry!)? It’s been the most populous state since 1962, when it pushed past New York and never looked back. But the past few years haven’t been kind to the Golden State, whose exquisitely groomed governor, Gavin Newsom, has been likened to the murderous title character in the movie American Psycho even by those right-wing reactionaries at Saturday Night Live.
California actually lost some population in 2020 and has coughed up a congressional seat, too, for the first time since entering the Union. Three stories, two from San Francisco and one from Los Angeles, help drive home why California is struggling to keep people. In LA, a town I’ve been proud to call home on two different occasions, the City Council unanimously voted to include on the March 2024 ballot a measure that would “require hotels to accept the placement of homeless persons in vacant rooms.” At least they’re not insisting that paying customers share their rooms. Yet.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, which is rapidly approaching the caricature of it as a lawless hellhole in the old Dirty Harry movies, the owner of Jade Chocolates Teahouse and Café is training its employees in kung fu in response to thefts and assaults. Such a report casts a darker light on the opening of a fully robotic restaurant in the city’s Mission Bay district. Mezli will serve up personalized Mediterranean-style bowls from a next-gen vending machine, no human staff required. What might have been a fun tech story instead seems like a way of minimizing one more possible crime scene.
→ A Monkeypox on Both Their Houses: If California is losing its luster, monkeypox is losing its fear factor. Josh Barro, whose reporting on the disease has been exemplary in cutting through bullshit (such as the unwillingness of public health officials to admit publicly that it overwhelmingly strikes gay men and to target eradication efforts to that group), notes that daily new cases are down in New York City and Los Angeles, two of the hardest-hit areas.
Barro writes that the decline in cases is the result of vaccinations and changes in the sexual behavior of men who sleep with men. “We are still not seeing signs that there is substantial or sustained monkeypox transmission through channels other than sex between men,” he writes, a message seemingly lost on the New York Times, which ran a piece fretting over schoolkids getting the disease even as it admitted that “more than 98 percent of those infected with monkeypox are adult men who acquired the virus through intimate contact with other men,” and on New York magazine, which ran a piece about teachers freaked out over “the lack of monkeypox guidelines.” Come on, teachers (and reporters), just take a win on this one.
→ Chinese Communist Party Proving It Can Ruin Movies Just as Much as Hollywood Stars: Released at the start of July, Minions: The Rise of Gru (“the untold story of one twelve-year-old's dream to become the world's greatest supervillain”) is well on its way to generating $1 billion at the global box office. Spoiler alert: The movie ends with Gru and another character, Wild Knuckles, riding off into the sunset and evading capture by the authorities.
Viewers in mainland China, where the movie was released this month, are seeing a different version than the rest of us. There, CNN reports, “censors tacked on an addendum in which Wild Knuckles…was caught by police and served 20 years in jail.” Another screenshot says that Gru returns to his family and "his biggest accomplishment is being the father to his three girls.”
Such artistic interference is of course awful (as is the willing capitulation of executives at Universal to demands for such bowdlerization). I take heart that audiences often take away a very different message than what tyrants (or teachers!) assume they will. There’s a story that Joe Stalin showed the film version of The Grapes of Wrath all over the Soviet Union so his subjects could fully see the depredations of capitalism, especially as the Okies begin their sad exodus from the Dust Bowl to California at the end of the movie. But the takeaway by most Soviet viewers was that, in the United States, even the poor had cars!
The Minions story also reminds me of Robert Redford, whose 1984 version of Bernard Malamud’s great baseball novel The Natural reverses a deeply tragic plot to a feel-good flick devoid of any dramatic logic or meaning. As the late, great Roger Ebert wrote caustically, giving the film a thumb way, way down, “Why did The Natural have to be turned into idolatry on behalf of Robert Redford?” Because the guy calling the shots wanted it to be that way.
Redford’s narcissism of course has nothing to do with the CCP’s human rights abuses and bullying of pliant American entertainment companies and sports leagues (especially looking at you, NBA). But we should all always be critical readers of whatever is in front of us, whether it’s a presidential pardon for student loan debt (please, Joe Biden, stick to turkeys), a Supreme Court opinion, a Hollywood movie, or…
→ If Ron DeSantis Is Top Gun, Who Is Bottom? Florida’s First Lady Casey DeSantis proudly tweeted out a campaign ad for her husband this week that is a play on Top Gun, the 1986 movie featuring Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer and lots of very manly, topless, sweaty volleyball scenes, and this year’s sequel Top Gun: Maverick. Like LSD and other psychedelics, the ad is a perfect “non-specific amplifier,” meaning it increases but doesn’t alter the already-existing attitudes of the viewer. DeSantis fans are gushing and foes are shaking their damn heads.
Given the way the governor’s press secretary has been exceptionally quick to castigate opponents as “groomers” and pedophiles, it’s striking that the DeSantis campaign seems unaware of the film’s legendary status as a “queer classic” about a love that dare not speak its name between Cruise’s Maverick and Kilmer’s Iceman. Now that this week’s primaries are done, we know that DeSantis will be running against former Gov. Charlie Crist (whose metrosexuality once triggered the vaunted gaydar of MSNBC’s Joy Reid). We don’t know who will win in November, but at least the Val Kilmer role has been filled.
Some Good Reads:
→ Thesis, Antithesis, Sluthesis: Bridget Phetasy’s essay “I Regret Being a Slut,” is a can’t-miss. In it, the writer and podcaster talks about her dionysian sexual past in light of becoming a mom for the first time. Unlike many commenters on such matters, Bridget (a friend, I should note) doesn’t call for a return to an idyllic, repressive, and false era of chastity even as she challenges unbridled sexual liberation. “It’s not about waiting until you’re in love to have sex,” she says she’ll tell her daughter when the time is right. “It’s about making sure that first, you love yourself.” Bridget gets it just right: We should neither be slutty nor prudish, but empowered and intentional. That’s a message for boys as well as girls.
→The Freedom Fire Sale: At The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan stressed the need not just for laws protecting speech, but the mindsets and temperaments that allow us to actually say what we think and feel. “Ask an Oberlin student—fresh outta Shaker Heights, coming in hot, with a heart as big as all outdoors and a 3 in AP Bio—to tell you what speech is acceptable, and she’ll tell you that it’s speech that doesn’t hurt the feelings of anyone belonging to a protected class.” So many amazing lines.
→ Grover Cleveland: Tub of Goo or Man of Iron? If you know anything about Grover Cleveland, you probably know that he was our second-fattest chief executive, sandwiched between a trilogy of tallow that also includes William Howard Taft and Donald Trump. A Democrat who won the White House in 1884 and 1892, he is the subject of A Man of Iron, by Troy Senik. Cleveland’s opposition to empire and support for sound money, low tariffs, civil liberties, and minimal but effective government have long made him a favorite of libertarians. He doesn’t map easily onto contemporary politics—at the end of the 19th century, the identities of the two major parties were in flux—but he offers a fascinating alternative to our awful status quo.
→ Well-Behaved Kids Seldom Make History, But Free-Range Kids Sometimes Sustain Brain Damage: This footage of kids crashing on a metal slide at Detroit’s Belle Isle Park is a wonder to behold, a reminder of a kinder, gentler America where kids really got banged up at amusement parks. If they can survive this, student loans will be a piece of cake.
TGIF all! See you in the comments.