Streetwise Professor

December 26, 2020

Lee & Jackson Come Down: It’s More About the Future Than the Past

Filed under: Civil War,History,Politics — cpirrong @ 4:40 pm

Among other things, annus horribilis 2020 will evidently mark the final eclipse of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson as Virginia icons. Lee-Jackson Day (commemorated under various names since 1889) was eliminated as a state holiday. The statue of Lee was removed from the U.S. Capitol, and his statue on Memorial Avenue in Richmond was defaced by massive graffiti during the George Floyd protests, and Virginia’s governor ordered its removal a month later: its fate now hangs by a thin legal thread. This month, Jackson’s statue was removed from the Virginia Military Institute, where he taught before achieving fame in the Civil War.

Even more than erecting them, the removal of monuments is a statement of political power. Thus, the monument controversy is a testament to political realignment. The controversies have been particularly intense in Virginia because the realignment has been so pronounced. This is directly attributable to the vast expansion of the Federal government since the 1960s, which has resulted in the dramatic growth of the northern Virginia suburbs, with the burgeoning population consisting disproportionately of non-Virginians, most of whom have direct or indirect ties to the national government, and hence have an antipathy towards, or at most an indifference to the most renowned rebels against that government. Similar things are happening in other Southern states with burgeoning urban populations, e.g., Georgia. In many respects, the Yankee invasion of the Sunbelt that started in earnest in the 1970s is doing what Yankee Reconstruction in the 1870s could not.

As I have written many times in the past four years or so, this iconoclasm disturbs me. It disturbs me in part because I dislike the naked assertion of political power and the marking of political territory. Waving the bloody shirt 155 years after the fact seems particularly unseemly. It is largely presentist bigotry which refuses to countenance context. And as I discuss in the closing, it will have baleful political effects.

Moreover, I dislike the erasing of history. We need to understand our past better–including understanding how previous generations understood their past. ISIS wants to destroy everything that predated Mohammed. The topplers of monuments in Richmond or Portland or Madison (and I could go on) what to destroy everything American that predates The Woke. What they have in common is a deep antipathy of anything that angers their gods.

The removal of the Jackson statue is particularly ridiculous. VMI is, after all, a military school. It trains officers. Jackson, although an indifferent teacher at VMI, was a living embodiment of many military virtues, and a general of some genius. For those reasons, he is a good example for cadets to contemplate. And as for the cause in which he employed that genius and virtues, cadets are also better off understanding it and what brought it into existence than having it extirpated from memory. The statue’s removal will also remove a reminder to strive for such an understanding.

There is also an element of cheap virtue signaling, and in fact cowardice, in removing Jackson’s monument. Truth be told, if Jackson’s legacy is a blot on Virginia that must be removed, so is VMI itself. Twenty-one of its graduates served as Confederate generals: many more as colonels (including George Patton’s grandfather) or in lower ranks: approximately 1,800 VMI graduates served in the Civil War–all but 19 for the Confederacy. The Corps of Cadets delivered a decisive charge at the Battle of New Market on 15 May, 1864.

VMI is therefore inextricably linked to the Civil War, and on the “wrong” side. If such historical bonds require removal from public space, intellectual consistency would require VMI to be burned more thoroughly than David Hunter’s Union troops did on 12 June, 1864. Getting rid of Jackson’s statue is a cheap and cowardly way of reckoning with the past.

We are now entering a period in which the subject of relations between states, and the relations between the states and the Federal government is being questioned as it has not been since 1865. The topic of secession has been broached, especially in the aftermath of the fiasco that is the 2020 presidential election. There is greater distrust and alienation between different regions of the US today than there has been since the era of Reconstruction, and by a large margin. What was universally considered settled is no longer so.

In such a febrile environment, a better understanding of how sectional distrust and alienation (North-South then, Red-Blue today) can lead to disastrous rupture is imperative. “No more Munichs” informed post-War US foreign policy: this was an attempt to learn from past mistakes in order to avoid their repetition. “No more Civil Wars” is equally important, if not more so, and we should think seriously and deeply about the period 1820-1860, in order to learn from the mistakes of that era–mistakes that culminated in a bloody war and bitter Reconstruction.

Sadly, erasing visible traces of this era does not encourage such consideration: it prevents it. Much the worse, the intensely partisan and triumphalist way it is being done actually widens the fissures in American political and social life that are becoming more apparent by the day. Again, it is an assertion of political power by one faction that is deliberately intended to demonstrate to other factions who is in charge, and that they don’t matter. That will only intensify the already manifest centrifugal forces at work in the United States. That is the last thing we want to do now, for reasons that a better understanding of the Civil War Era should make more than plain.

December 19, 2020

Sacrifice More Virgins!

Filed under: CoronaCrisis,Economics,Politics — cpirrong @ 9:25 pm

Once upon a time, a tribe dwelled on the slopes of a volcano that towered over their tropical isle. When the volcano began to smoke and rumble, and lava started to flow down its slopes, the natives ran to their shaman. “Oh wise one, what shall we do to appease the volcano god?” they beseeched the wizened old man. “Sacrifice 10 virgins to the volcano god, and he will be appeased!”

Encouraged by the hope of sparing the multitude by dispatching a few, the tribesmen seized 10 virgins, and duly sacrificed them with great solemnity.

Yet rather than quieting, the volcano became more violent then ever. Massive rivers of lava were now flowing, and great plumes of ash were erupting from its crater.

So the natives again ran to the shaman. “Oh wise one, we did as you said, and sacrificed 10 virgins to the volcano god. But look–he is not appeased! He seems angrier than before! What shall we do?”

“Sacrifice more virgins, of course!” replied the shaman, who was angry at the natives’ temerity in questioning his awesome knowledge of matters supernatural.

This is a silly story, and fictional, of course. But it echoes a story the world is living out today, which is not at all silly, but is instead deadly serious. Namely, the responses of government shamans to the Covid-19 virus.

The world has experienced waves of lockdowns of varying intensity since March, lockdowns imposed by government authorities claiming to be acting on the basis of science and unquestionable expertise. The lockdowns are intensifying over the Christmas season, descending with particular ferocity in Europe, where the UK, Italy, and Germany have or will soon impose restrictions as draconian, or more so, than they did during the previous peaks in the outbreak.

Prior to 2020, lockdowns were NEVER the recommended response to a pandemic. Indeed, the WHO and other public health bodies recommended against them. Further, the evidence gained to date on these extraordinary interventions indicates that they have had no effect on the course of the pandemic, or at best a minor effect dwarfed by their adverse economic, social, and health (physical and mental) consequences. The course of the virus proceeds independent of the futile interventions of authorities and experts.

The studies claiming to demonstrate the beneficial impacts of lockdowns disproportionately rely on comparing model forecasts to outcomes. But the model forecasts have been proven wrong again and again. These studies are therefore just another indictment of the models, rather than an endorsement of lockdowns.

The current Cancel Christmas hysteria follows hard on the heels of the Cancel Thanksgiving panic, accompanied by dire warnings of a post-Thanksgiving spike due to the failure of people to sacrifice their family gatherings to appease the virus. This spike has not occurred. Indeed, in many states (e.g., the upper Midwest) infections and deaths have been on a downward trajectory since before Thanksgiving, and that trajectory has continued post-holiday.

Yet experience be damned. Sacrifice more holidays!

The economic, psychological, spiritual, and health havoc wreaked by the lockdowns is large, and clearly evident. Yet rather than recalibrate, let alone admit error, our supposed betters who pompously declare their fealty to Science!, ignore these costs, ignore the utter inefficacy of their past ukases, and issue more diktats instructing us to sacrifice yet again. And again. And again. They are indistinguishable from the shaman of the parable.

Lockdowns are one example of this phenomenon. Masks are another. The evidence on the effectiveness of masks in controlling infection that was accumulated before 2020 was largely negative, and equivocal at best: masks offer little or no protection. A recent Danish study, grudgingly published after months of lingering in peer review purgatory, shows a trivial reduction in susceptibility to Covid infection by those wearing medical-quality masks, not the type that most of the world actually uses. And the recent (almost certainly seasonal) resurgence in Covid-19 prevalence refutes the efficacy of masks, since it has occurred despite near universal mask mandates, and high rates of compliance therewith.

I am at something of a loss to explain this fetishism with lockdowns and masks. The enthusiasm with which politicians embrace lockdowns, in spite of the ravages they impose and in spite of the lack of evidence of efficacy (and the existence of evidence of inefficacy) is more than a little disturbing. What explains it? I think that any explanation is unlikely to be flattering to them–or the people who enthusiastically agree with them.

The most charitable explanation is that it is a hope born of desperation: people want to believe that there is a solution that humans can devise and implement, and their desire to believe blinds them to evidence that contradicts their beliefs. Failure actually feeds the desperation, which leads to doubling down in the absence of any ready alternative.

Less charitably, perhaps it is opportunism in the political class. The pandemic has presented politicians with an opportunity to exercise plenary powers this Christmas that they could not have even imagined last Christmas, even after overindulging at the annual holiday party. Power is an addictive drug to politicians. Once hooked, they will not give it up.

The most ominous examples of this are those who push the Great Reset or massive social transformations similar thereto. Many of these (e.g., Justin Trudeau, Klaus Schwab, Bill Gates) have been quite open in expressing their belief that Covid-19 presents a great opportunity to reorganize society on leftist utopian lines. Because those efforts have always worked out so well, right?

We are ruled by fools, knaves, and devils. And we are fools as long as we consent to let them rule us. We would be far better off pitching our shamans into the volcano, rather than following their commands to sacrifice ourselves.

December 17, 2020

Water, Water Everywhere–and Don’t Let the UN Anywhere Near It

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 2:04 pm

For a perfect illustration of why the UN (and most NGOs and most of those talking about Great Resets and the like) represent a grave threat to the lives, health, and livelihoods of those whom they claim to want to help, consider this ignorant drivel on the introduction of water futures on the CME from  Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, the UN’s “special rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation.” (Hey! He’s not just an everyday run of the mill rapporteur! He’s a special rapporteur!).

According to Bloomberg, water futures “risks a price run-up for a resource that ‘belongs to everyone’ and is a vital tool in combating the Covid-19 pandemic.” Further:

“The news that water is to be traded on Wall Street futures market shows that the value of water, as a basic human right, is now under threat,” Arrojo-Agudo said in a statement. “It is closely tied to all of our lives and livelihoods, and is an essential component to public health.”

Beyond the fact that the reference to “Wall Street futures market” is ignorant (and an offense to Chicagoans!), this short statement is packed with more substantive economic ignorance.

Oh, the blather sounds good: water is “a human right” that “belongs to everyone.” Yay! But it’s exactly this kind of crypto-socialist blather that wreaks great harm when put into actual policy.

For one thing, something that “belongs to everyone” ends up belonging to no one. Or more precisely winds up being grossly misallocated or misused or wasted. Those who don’t own have no incentive to utilize wisely. They have too little incentive to avoid polluting. They have little incentive to increase availability or quality. Indeed, I warrant that many–and arguably the lion’s share–of the problems that Mr. Arrojo-Agudo is rapporteuring about (or whatever it is that rapporteurs do) are directly attributable to the lack of property rights in water, or grossly suboptimal rights. Relatedly, they are directly attributable to the lack of market mechanisms built on property rights to allocate a scarce resource–clean water–and the reliance on political mechanisms plagued by rent seeking and corruption to do so.

It’s not easy to design and enforce property rights for water, for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons inhere in the nature for water. For example, designing and enforcing rights to an aquifer are challenging. But many of the problems are political, and public choice in nature. Look at the conflicts over water in the American West for myriad illustrations.

But grasping the nettle of these challenges, and even doing it imperfectly, is distinctly preferable to the policies that arise from an “it belongs to everyone” attitude. That is a recipe for dissipation, waste, and pollution. Water socialism works just as badly as all the other kinds.

As for the “speculative bubble” fears, such creatures are far more common in the fevered imaginations of the likes of UN rapporteurs, NGO nudniks, etc., than in the wild. They hysteria over an oil price bubble in 2007-2008 is an example. This is something that even Paul Krugman and I agree on. Show me a commodity price bubble, and I have a high degree of confidence that it can be explained by fundamental factors. Indeed, interventions intended to combat these bubbles almost always lead to less efficient resource utilization than the alleged bubbles themselves. Price “bubbles” in commodities are usually simply the bearers of bad fundamental tidings.

That is, attempting to suppress “price run-ups” makes things worse, not better.

I’ve already opined that I consider it unlikely that the CME/Nasdaq water futures will register much trading volume, for relatively technical reasons. The same reasons apply to other possible water futures contracts. So Mr. Arrojo-Agudo should direct his nervous energy to other subjects.

But the anti-property, anti-market mindset that the UN rapporteur embodies is a grave threat to prosperity and health. This mindset makes people poorer and more miserable wherever it rules policy. Which is why the UN, NGOs, Great Resetters, and the like pose a far greater danger than all the speculative bubbles ever stacked one atop the other.

December 9, 2020

Martin Takes Another Tilt at Milton, and Face Plants Yet Again

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 6:28 pm

Martin Wolf has waddled into the lists again to take another tilt at Milton Friedman. Since Milton is alas not with us to accept the challenge (luckily for Martin) I will again try to serve as his trusty second and defend his honor.

I will start at the end:

There are many arguments to be had over how corporations should change. But the biggest issue by far is how to create good rules of the game on competition, labour, the environment, taxation and so forth. Friedman assumed either that none of this mattered or that a working democracy would survive prolonged attack by people who thought as he did. Neither assumption proved correct. The challenge is to create good rules of the game, via politics. Today, we cannot.

This is a lie and a slander–in particular the italicized part. To start with. Friedman’s social responsibility piece was an oped, not a weighty tome or even an academic journal article. (I snorted when some idiot in Bloomberg referred to it as Friedman’s magnus opus. Er, no, that would be A Monetary History of the United States or A Theory of the Consumption Function. But this illustrates the level of intellect of those challenging Friedman’s article.). As a result, it was not a comprehensive analysis. It focused on a basic premise and argued that premise within the constraints of the form, which are severe. So many of the criticisms are bashing straw men–issues that Friedman could not address except tersely, if at all.

With regards to the lie and the slander, this relates to my criticism of one of Wolf’s earlier sorties. Specifically, Friedman “assumed” nothing of the sort. If you look at his broader body of work–something that Wolf betrays absolutely no sign of doing–you will know that his main objection to government, big government in particular, and government regulation is that legislatures, the executive, and regulators would be influenced and corrupted by the regulated, and by corporations in particular. This is why he argued vociferously against big government and against most government regulation: the power thus accrued would be manipulated by private interests, most notably corporations.

Friedman’s solution was to reduce the stakes in the game by reducing the power of government and relying on competition in the marketplace. Again, Friedman was an advocate of free markets, not of corporations, and he opposed regulation primarily because it allowed corporations to undermine markets.

One particular illustration of this relates to an issue that Wolf raises: market power. Along with Stigler, Friedman argued that government regulation was frequently, and indeed overwhelmingly, antithetical to competition and supported market power.

With respect to creating “good rules of the game,” Friedman also argued that giving government more power was inimical to the creation of good rules.

That is, Wolf is arguing that we have a political problem–which was exactly Friedman’s point throughout the 1950s-1980s. You may disagree with Friedman on these issues. But you cannot–as Wolf slanderously states–say that he did not think about them seriously, or that he assumed them away. Might I suggest that Marty read, oh, Capitalism and Freedom? Or is an oped all he can handle? Maybe there’s a market for Milton Friedman for Dummies.

Now to the beginning. Wolf quotes Luigi Zingales, the Director of the Stigler Center. (George is probably spinning in his grave.)

In an excellent concluding article, Luigi Zingales, who promoted the debate, tries to give a balanced assessment. Yet, in my view, his analysis is devastating. He asks a simple question: “Under what conditions is it socially efficient for managers to focus only on maximising shareholder value?”

His answer is threefold: “First, companies should operate in a competitive environment, which I will define as firms being both price- and rule-takers. Second, there should not be externalities (or the government should be able to address perfectly these externalities through regulation and taxation). Third, contracts are complete, in the sense that we can specify in a contract all relevant contingencies at no cost.”

Needless to say, none of these conditions holds. Indeed, the existence of the corporation shows that they do not hold. 

This is nonsense on stilts, and represents a return of the hoary Nirvana Fallacy that another late, great economist, Harold Demsetz, pointed out over 50 years ago. Yes, the conditions of the First and Second Welfare Theorems don’t hold. Who knew? That says jack about what are the best arrangements for our fallen world. That requires a comprehensive comparative institutional analysis, an analysis that is conspicuously lacking in the debate over Friedman’s article.

So what does Wolf say corporations should do (or not do)? Here’s a list:

My contribution to the ebook emphasises this last point by asking what a good “game” would look like. “It is one,” I argue, “in which companies would not promote junk science on climate and the environment; it is one in which companies would not kill hundreds of thousands of people, by promoting addiction to opiates; it is one in which companies would not lobby for tax systems that let them park vast proportions of their profits in tax havens; it is one in which the financial sector would not lobby for the inadequate capitalisation that causes huge crises; it is one in which copyright would not be extended and extended and extended; it is one in which companies would not seek to neuter an effective competition policy; it is one in which companies would not lobby hard against efforts to limit the adverse social consequences of precarious work; and so on and so forth.”

Let me give a pithier version: “Be good.”

As public policy advice, this ranks right up there with Mr. Mackey:

Completely absent from Wolf’s articles on Friedman is any discussion of how to implement the incentives to “be good” (by Wolf’s lights), or how corporations will acquire the information to know how to be good.

Incentives and information are the foundational concepts of modern economics. It’s beyond bizarre that the FT’s “Chief Economics Commentator” couldn’t be bothered even to mention them.

Wolf’s article is a sermon, not an economic analysis, or even a pedestrian analysis of an economics issue. The world is fallen, and you sinners must repent, and promise never to sin again! Well, as a song I like (and no it’s not autobiographical!) says, “I used to pray every night for God to wash away my sins, but I just get up and do ’em all over again.”

You can have a serious discussion about Milton Friedman’s slender piece, especially within the context of his much broader work. But the jeremiads directed against it by Wolf and others are not serious. They are intellectually vapid, and devoid of any meaningful policy prescriptions.

Hell, maybe Stigler was wrong–at least about Martin Wolf. Maybe he can’t win an argument with Milton, even when Milton isn’t around.

December 7, 2020

Hillbilly Elegy–A (Very) Personal Perspective

Filed under: History,Politics — cpirrong @ 8:29 pm

Saturday evening I watched Hillbilly Elegy, a Netflix original. I watched because I had read the J. D. Vance book by the same title, and it resonated deeply–for reasons I will detail below. I also watched because of the hailstorm of negative reactions directed at the film (as had been directed at the book and at Vance personally)–I wanted to see what triggered these adverse reactions.

The book and film resonate because there are strong parallels between Vance’s experiences, and those of my grandfather, in place particularly, although not so much in time. My grandfather’s story occurs in southeastern Ohio in the first two decades of the 20th century (he was born 8 months before the Wright Brothers’ first flight), and Vance’s in central Ohio and Kentucky in the 1980s-2000s. But in some ways, the difference in time makes the other similarities all the more remarkable. La plus ca change.

Most notably, the central character in Elegy, J.D.’s grandmother Mamaw (played by Glen Close) is eerily reminiscent of my grandfather’s mother, Laura D. Hatfield. (Mark the last name.) Both were fiery hellcats, with checkered and often tragic lives.

One scene made my jaw drop. Early in the movie, J.D.’s mother Becky is in a hurry to drive home from a family reunion in Kentucky. She yells at her mother to hurry up, and Mamaw responds by flipping her the bird and uttering a vulgar retort.

My grandfather was an avid amateur photographer, and was making home movies from nearly the time that hand-held cameras first became available. Blessedly, my uncle still has the movies, and we put them on DVD. In one clip, my grandfather impishly waited outside the outhouse at my grandmother’s farm (note that this was in the 1930s, and there was no running water). When she emerged from the privy, she saw him filming, and flipped him the bird. Just like Mamaw flipping off her daughter, right down to the same bad ass look on their faces. They even looked somewhat alike–there is an Appalachian look, you know.

Like Mamaw, my GGM had man issues and kid issues. No, she wasn’t knocked up at 13, but hers was not a romantic story. She worked as a waitress at a diner at a railroad depot (in Gloucester, Ohio, if memory serves), and was swept off her feet by a railroad man. They married–and then he promptly abandoned her.

He came back a year later for her father’s funeral. W. H. Hatfield had died from a ruptured spleen suffered at a 4th of July picnic held by his employer, the New Straitsville Coal Company, for which he cut roofing timbers. In a strength contest at the picnic, the 55 year old man successfully lifted a 6′ long green roofing timber (about as thick as a railroad tie) over his head–and then his spleen ruptured. (Try lifting a railroad tie sometime.)

In any event Laura and her husband reconnected after the funeral, my grandfather was conceived–and then Laura’s husband split again, never to return. My grandfather never even saw him until one of his cousins pointed him out on the street when my grandfather was 11 or 12. So like J.D., my grandfather was fatherless.

Single motherhood not being a thing at the time, out of desperation Laura married an older man (Bill Wilcox) who was financially secure (owning a farm and a business “shooting” oil wells with nitroglycerine)–but who was also a raging alcoholic. My grandfather suffered the fate of many stepchildren of that era–a life of beatings. (So although drugs weren’t a thing in 1910s Ohio as in 1990s Ohio, alcohol was. BTW, Bill ran moonshine in his “shooting wagon,” knowing people weren’t too anxious to go poking around a wagon full of nitro.) (J.D.’s mother also entered horrible marriages in attempts to provide a home for her children.)

My grandfather had to work both on the farm and off from a young age, including working in coal mines as early as 12 years old. To give you an idea of how tough things were, he suffered abuse at the hands of one of the miners. He complained to his uncle Frank (Laura’s brother) who was a foreman at the mine. Frank told him he had to take care of himself. Frank said he had a pick and an acetylene lamp on his helmet, didn’t he? So use them. So when next beset by his tormenter, my grandfather turned the flame on his helmet into a torch, pointed it right in the guy’s face, and while he screamed in pain, hit him in the kneecap with the pick handle.

Problem solved. But he had to solve it himself. (He told me this story years later to illustrate a point, which I will return to below.)

In another parallel with the J.D. Vance story, my grandfather escaped this dysfunctional family life by joining the military. The Navy, in my grandfather’s case, the Marines in Vance’s. He was trained as an electrician, and served on subs (back when subs were scary AF). After leaving the service he tried to work his way through Marietta College by selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door and working in a shoe store. But there were no student loans in those days, and he couldn’t make it work, so he set out first to Detroit, where he worked for Ford Motor–and hated it. He then went to Chicago, got a job with Illinois Bell, where he worked for 40 years, eventually becoming the head of North Division in Chicago (i.e., he managed Illinois Bell’s operations north of Madison Street). After retiring from Bell, he became the president of a rural telephone company (DeKalb-Ogle Telephone: he arranged the sale of the company to Continental Telephone, and eventually it was absorbed into what is now Verizon.)

So J.D. Vance’s story and my grandfather’s stories aren’t the same, but they rhyme. Similarly, Mamaw and Laura D. lives were not identical, but bore strong parallels, as did their characters and personalities. So I have deep empathy for the characters and the stories.

But it is beyond obvious that many people don’t. In particular, our better-thans on the coasts and in particular in the media loathe the book, the movie, and J.D. Vance personally. So to my second issue: why this hatred?

I think the answer is overdetermined, but in a nutshell, it is a testament to modern American culture, and political culture in particular.

One part of the story that is deeply dangerous to our better-thans is that it is an utter refutation of the narrative du jour–white privilege. This is an organizing principle, and a fixed belief, on the left today.

Yeah. Watch Hillbilly Elegy, and you’ll just be amazed at all that white privilege. Similarly, look at my grandfather’s family’s life. Dang but whitey got it made, even in 1990s Middletown or 1910s Burr Oak! (My grandfather’s family’s farm is now many feet under the waters of Burr Oak Lake, by the way.)

Such an in-your-face refutation of a cultural “elite’s” treasured myth is a sure-fire trigger to its deepest antipathy.

Relatedly, Vance’s story–like my grandfather’s–is about how it is possible to escape hellish situations in America, and achieve a good life. J.D.’s and my grandfather’s lives were American Hells, but in the end illustrated the American Dream. In both cases, the military and crucially family–even dysfunctional ones–provided a way out. Mamaw impressed on J.D. the importance of family and helped him straighten out and escape. My great-grandmother also gave my grandfather a chance, first by marrying at great cost to herself, but then by telling my grandfather to run away and join the Navy–even accompanying him to the recruiting office to swear that he was 18 (he was barely 17). (He had no birth certificate, but that’s a story for another day. His grave marker, provided by the US government, dates his birth to 1902, not 1903, based on his service record.) And J.D. and my grandfather both repaid their debt, by helping out their families to the extent of their abilities.

Although they had help, J.D. and my grandfather also had to have the self–reliance and grit to want to escape, and put in the effort to escape. The torch and the pick handle are an extreme example: you have to look out for yourself, and never let yourself be a victim. That’s why my grandfather told me the story, although I am sure that it was deeply disturbing to him on some level, even 60 years after the fact.

The refusal to be a victim is also deeply threatening to the prevailing culture. Today, there seems to be a competition to be a victim. “I’m a victim! NOOOO! I’m a bigger victim than you!!! Uh-uh!” We live in a culture that celebrates victimhood. J.D. Vance rejected it. Hillbilly Elegy rejects it. My grandfather rejected it. These are deeply transgressive offenses against the culture.

Then there is the current political environment. The characters of Elegy–and my remaining family members in southeastern Ohio and West Virginia–and millions like them are one of the main bedrocks of Trump support. The Ohio steel industry died. The coal mines died. A hollow shell has been left. When it wasn’t ignoring it, the political elite in the US was sneering at it. Those people have pride–something that comes through in Elegy–and they resent the disdain and condescension.

Trump did not sneer at them. He did not dismiss them as bitter clingers. He embraced them, treated them as valuable individuals, and they love him for it.

And those who hate Trump therefore hate them, and everything that tries to portray them in an even moderately sympathetic light–like Hillbilly Elegy.

In sum, Hillbilly Elegy is a Rorschach Test. Show it to me, and it evokes the attributes and deep flaws and great struggles of my family–struggles that made it possible for me to have an unbelievable blessed life that has been able to grab the boundless opportunities America offers. Show it to the coastal “elite” and it triggers all they hate about America, and many who live in it.

Want to understand the deep fault lines in America today? Watch the movie, and mark the reactions. They speak volumes.

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