The Mandibles–A Review

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029 – 2047

By Lionel Shriver

Harper Collins 2016

421 pages


In September of 2016, Lionel Shriver, a novelist, gave the keynote address at the Brisbane Writers Conference. She made instant headlines when, donning a sombrero, she denounced the idea of “cultural appropriation”. For those lucky enough to be unfamiliar with the term, cultural appropriation refers to the practice of writing, acting, speaking, dressing in a voice, clothing etc. outside of one’s own ethnic, gender, racial etc. identity. The idea appears to have already gained wide currency on elite campuses among the snowflake brigades.
Lionel Shriver
Shriver argued that fear of cultural appropriation could have a chilling effect on literature; that it could pigeonhole minorities who wish to be seen as individual people rather than members of a group, and that it enforces a narrowing of vision. She is, of course, correct. Not only that, she is refreshingly direct in her approach.


When asked by a reporter from Time if she found any validity in the criticism of her speech leveled by a woman who walked out, she replied “No”. When asked if she felt that she had neglected to have empathy for the other side when writing the speech she answered: “I have no empathy with that side”. Needless to say, all this has prompted the neo-Marxist race, class, and gender crowd to reach for the smelling salts.


Not bad for a day’s work.


Shriver, until that point, was most famous for the novel We Need to Talk about Kevin, which she published in 2003. In June of 2016 she penned a near-future dystopian novel titled The Mandibles—A Family, 2029—2047 in which she excoriates conventional progressivism. It is a wickedly entertaining book. And it is easy to see why progressives are a bit taken aback by it, and by her. The book is unmerciful in its mockery of the pseudo intellectuals who mouth the vacuous pieties of the faith. Worse yet, in the book it is a precoscious 14 year old who is forever pointing out errors in the reasoning of a narcisistic Georgetown economics professor.


The book grabs you by the lapels from the first page. It is bitingly ironic, with a keen eye for the inanities of academic fads and pop culture. Stylistically, Shriver combines the irony of Tom Wolfe with George Orwell’s admonitions about the use and abuse of language. She does this in a way that is immensely entertaining and with a clear-headed libertarian bent, but without a hint of Randian hyperbole.


The plot centers around “The Renunciation” which refers to the day in 2029 when the U.S. defaulted on its debt in response to foreign powers refusing to accept payment in dollars for U.S. debt service (or eventually anything for that matter). In response to the American government’s reliance on the printing press for money, primarily to finance entitlement spending, foreign powers, including erstwhile allies, form a new currency. The new currency is called “bancorps” and U.S. creditors demand to be paid in it. The U.S. refuses and simply defaults on its debt. Amusingly enough, the U.S. Fed Chairman printing all the U.S. dollars that are quickly becoming worthless is named Krugman.


The U.S. government along with the default forbids any of its citizens from holding bancorps. And it isn’t too long before the government begins to confiscate the citizenry’s  gold holdings including jewelry. Needless to say, inflation skyrockets, barter takes over and the U.S. is on the road travelled recently by Venezuela. Anarchy rules as mobs take over the streets.


The Mandibles is powerful, well written, funny in a black-comedy sort of way, and immensely entertaining. Most of all, it is not a book about economics as the word is commonly understood. It is about people, incentives, and systems.


Economics is commonly thought of as the study of money and business. But that is a narrow understanding of the field. Economics started off as Political Economy. The first economist, Adam Smith, was a Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow where he wrote his Theory of Moral Sentiments.


Economics is better understood as the study of the way we make choices. For this, economists have as Schumpeter put it, a set of theories (like the relationships of supply and demand to prices) and a toolbox (statistics). Most importantly, the underlying theory is that man is a rational self-seeking being capable of making his own choices in furtherance of what he subjectively believes to be his own self-interest. That self-interest extends beyond mere monetary gain.

Notably, free choices and free trade tend to maximize social utility. Conversely, systems relying on top down command and control fail to achieve citizen satisfaction, and in the end,  tend to fail disastrously.

Shriver has a good grasp of this and conveys it well in her story telling. As the economy, the culture and civil society break down after “The Renunciation” people still have to make choices, but now their choices face far more difficult constraints than before. So the questions explored are how do they cope, how does it affect their beliefs (if at all), how do they adapt, who is best suited to adapt and why, how do they define moral quandaries in their decision making? Lurking underneath it all, Shriver makes clear that rational self-interest prevails in decision making, no matter changing circumstances.


Shriver ties the economic collapse to a fundamental problem of collectivism, which is necessarily dependent on command and control. The Renunciation occurred because the country could not pay its debts. Those unsustainable debts are the inevitable result of the welfare state. Entitlement spending just went on and on until the collapse—and continued on with money from the printing press. The argument for enforced altruism over rational self-interest failed as manifest by the failure of the State, because it is contrary to human nature.


The result of an attempt to reconstruct a society contrary to human nature is a collapse of civil society, and a return of man to a Hobbesian state of nature. Sometimes it makes a pit stop with authoritarianism along the way, but inevitably human nature prevails over attempts to recreate a “new man” as various utopians have tried—all with such disastrous results. The Mandibles, in its amusingly smart-alecky way strongly hints at this. And it also suggests, sort of, a way to redemption and rebirth.


All in all, The Mandibles is an excellent read. It is highly amusing, witty and provocative, just as the author clearly meant it to be.







Review: The Intimidation Game by Kimberly Strassel

Scientists ask questions. They form hypotheses around those questions and then collect and analyze data to see if and how well their hypotheses hold up when subjected to testing. They report the results of their work (often in peer reviewed journals) and other scientists see if they can replicate the results. To the extent the results are replicable (or not) by other scientists, the research gains (or loses) credence, and the knowledge base expands.


So science is always tentative. Its advancement crucially depends on hypothesis testing, methodological challenges, data collection, replication, and review. At its core, science is a search for truth. And without free and open discussion about all its aspects—from data, to methods, to results and conclusions—science, as we know it, cannot exist. Neither can a free society.


Which is why we should be alarmed by the ongoing progressive campaign to stifle progress by using the power of the State to crush even a hint of dissent from orthodoxy. Even as this is being written, 19 Democratic Senators have taken to the Senate floor to quash the voices not only of those who disagree with the received wisdom about climate change—but incredibly, also those who agree there is a problem, but are insufficiently hysterical about it, including the libertarian Reason Foundation.


So we should be grateful to the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberly Strassel, who recently authored “The Intimidation Game: How the Left is Silencing Free Speech”. Ms. Strassel has ripped the façade away from progressive calls for disclosure of funding sources in public policy debates. The real aim, she shows, is to get access to donor lists of conservative and libertarian organizations so that the donors can be intimidated into silence. And the Koch Brothers are Public Enemy # 1.


Ms. Strassel does an artful job of telling the story, which begins on January 21, 2010, the day the Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case. In that case the Supremes, by a 5-4 majority, ruled that the First Amendment means exactly what it says. Issue advocacy is protected speech under the First Amendment, and effective speech takes money. While Congress can restrict the amount of money a citizen can donate to a politician running for office, it has no right to restrict the amount of money a person may spend to advocate for an idea, provided that advocacy is not coordinated with a campaign.


Libertarians celebrated the decision, as did most conservatives. But progressives were apoplectic. After all, progressives had used campaign finance laws for years to hamstring funding efforts of conservative election campaigns. Progressives had labor union manpower they could rely on, and outside of talk radio, most of the mainstream media was in their back pocket. And truth be told, Republicans didn’t exactly have clean hands. They have used election laws to try and restrict left-leaning groups. And George W. Bush signed McCain-Feingold after initially indicating his opposition.


But Democrats were in a bind after Citizens United. They were facing particularly rough mid-terms with the unpopularity of Obamacare, and they feared a wipeout. So, as Strassel shows, they decided to bottle up conservatives by using the government to deny them funding, thereby blunting their political firepower. The genesis of the plan actually came about in 2008, during the Democratic Presidential primary contest compliments of a political operative named Bob Bauer.


Bob Bauer, an expert in campaign finance law, was working for the Obama campaign. His tactic of choice was to deny funding to his opponent. So in 2008 Bauer selected an outfit named the American Leadership Project (ALP) as his test case. ALP was actually a pro-Clinton 527 group that ran issue ads. Bauer wanted those ads to go away so he charged that the ALP’s issue ads were the functional equivalent of an endorsement of Clinton and therefore illegal.


Bauer of course knew that this was nonsense. But he combined his claim that ALP’s behavior was illegal with a demand for a Justice Department criminal inquiry into ALP and its donors. “Whether at the [Federal Elections Commission] or in a broader criminal inquiry, those donors will be asked questions” he reportedly said. The inquiry never got off the ground, but the mission was accomplished. The donors panicked and ALP’s funding began to dry up.


Fast forward to 2010. With the midterms threatening a wipeout and Obama’s re-election prospects for 2012 looking increasingly dim, a variation of the Bauer plan was launched. Lois Lerner, formerly a Democratic Party operative and then an IRS employee, would begin to target and delay applications of Tea Party organizations for non-profit status. And over time the scandal would include a multitude of government agencies including, the FEC, the SEC, Justice, state prosecutors, and various progressive interest groups.


Every time the demand was for donor information in the name of getting “secretive dark money” out of politics under the guise of fighting corruption. So various agencies of government would present conservative organizations with demands for financial information as well as their donor lists. Not surprisingly it was only a question of time before names on the lists were leaked, the IRS and other agency audits began, and left-wing shakedown artists began their vilification campaigns.


And of course, for opposition groups seeking to exercise their First Amendment rights, funding dried up.



Strassel goes through case after case showing how the Obama Administration and its allies used government power to harass and intimidate political opponents, including small local organizations, in order to shut them down or otherwise render them ineffectual. She does a masterful job of connecting the dots between what might otherwise look like a series of random examples of the usual bureaucratic incompetence instead of the concerted effort it was—and still is.


She recounts Lois Lerner’s past disgraceful behavior at the FEC; the mystery of how all those IRS disk drives all managed to crash right around the time the outline of the scandal began to come to light. She shows how the SEC under Mary Jo White was muscled; that the lead investigator into the Lois Lerner case was an Obama donor. She tells how Dick Durbin (D, IL) used his office to try to shut down the American Legislative Exchange Counsel (ALEC). She quotes Mary Boyle of Common Cause, a Durbin ally in the fight against ALEC, as saying that the killing of Trayvon Martin was “a gift” in that it would help their cause.


The examples of routine cynicism are almost never ending. What is important is that these are not isolated events. They were (and are) part of a much larger coordinated campaign designed to intimidate citizens and deny them their rights. And it is certainly reasonable to infer that the campaign was and still is indirectly orchestrated by the White House.


Intriguingly, Strassel tells the story of how the Obama Administration announced a criminal inquiry into the Lois Lerner / IRS affair which gave them a pretext for refusing to hand over documents to Congress lest it interfere with their investigation. Despite Congressional inquiries the Director of the FBI refused to give Congress any information about the progress of the investigation, or to brief Congress. The FBI Director: Jim Comey.


In 2015, the FBI announced that the IRS “mishandled” Tea Party applications but did not break any law, clearing both the IRS and Lois Lerner in the process. Sound familiar? It ought to. It is essentially the same playbook they used for Hillary Clinton in the e-mail case.


Strassel’s book makes it clear that this is not simply bureaucratic ineptitude. The permanent government took its cue from the top and acted in the political interest of its masters, unconstrained by either the letter or the spirit of the law.   It is especially disturbing that this should happen now. Neither of the presumed Presidential nominees has shown the slightest interest in self-restraint when it comes to the exercise of power—lawful or otherwise. All indications are that we should expect to see more exercise of unbridled executive power over the next four years with little pushback from a supine Congress.


And so Strassel’s book is a must read in this hyper political year. Because it shows how the bureaucracy really works; how political power is exercised over supposedly independent agencies; how deep and pervasive the bureaucratic lawlessness is, and how unaccountable the government really is. It is an especially sobering read considering that Citizen’s United was decided 5-4, and that Hillary Clinton has promised, if elected, to appoint a justice to the Court who will vote to overturn the decision. Most of all it should be read by anyone who cares about the First Amendment and the preservation of liberty in American society. Unfortunately, at the moment that seems to be a dwindling number.