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Kim Jong-un Hedges His Bets. How Will Trump Respond?

One underlying problem is that Kim cannot be certain even about the identity of the U.S. president after January 20, 2021. Therefore, the durability of any agreements reached with the Trump administration in the coming year is open to question. That risk is even greater given the hostility that leading Democrats have exhibited toward Trump’s pursuit of a rapprochement with Pyongyang.

If those problems were not enough to make worthwhile negotiations in 2020 difficult, Washington’s overall negotiating strategy is unrealistic. The core demand of the Trump administration, as was the case with its predecessors since the early 1990s, is that North Korea must agree to complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization, or CVID. Given how the United States has treated non-nuclear adversaries such as Serbia, Iraq, Libya, and Syria over the past quarter-century, there is almost no chance that Pyongyang will relinquish its small nuclear arsenal or its pursuit of a reliable ballistic missile delivery system.  In the view of North Korean leaders, possession of such a deterrent may be the only thing that prevents Washington from pursuing a forcible regime-change strategy, as it did against those other countries

Insisting that North Korea return to nuclear virginity, therefore, is a nonstarter. A more realistic and attainable U.S. policy would be to accept Pyongyang having a small nuclear deterrent, combined with efforts to fully normalize diplomatic and economic relations with that government, despite its odious qualities. Normalization would mean, among other steps, establishing formal diplomatic relations (including the exchange of ambassadors), signing a treaty bringing an official end to the Korean War, the withdrawal of most North Korean as well as U.S. and South Korean troops from areas near the Demilitarized Zone, and the gradual lifting of most U.S. and UN economic sanctions on North Korea.

Unfortunately, there will be fierce opposition in America’s political and policy communities to an accord that leaves Pyongyang in possession of any nuclear weapons. Such opposition is misplaced. As various experts have shown, nuclear weapons may be the ultimate deterrent, but they are not very useful either for intimidation or warfighting—unless a country’s political leadership is willing to commit national and personal suicide. Despite the popular mythology in the West that Kim and the rest of the DPRK’s leadership is “crazy,” there is no credible evidence for that conclusion. North Korean leaders certainly are brutal and ruthless, but their actions are not irrational, much less suicidal.

Kim’s address was hardly an example of cordial diplomacy, but neither was it a fire-breathing, threat-filled diatribe. It epitomized a cautious, hedging strategy, and that’s the best we’re likely to get in the foreseeable future. Washington’s response should consist of steps to revitalize a process of bilateral détente based on more realistic objectives.

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Samantha Power in Bosnia: A Poster Child for Toxic Advocacy Journalism

She showed noticeable tenacity in seeking an opportunity to go to Bosnia to cover the burgeoning armed conflict there. As Power relates in her 2019 memoirThe Education of an Idealist, she was merely an intern at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who lacked press credentials from the organization’s flagship publication, Foreign Policy, or any other recognized news organization. She describes how she solved that problem. “I waited until the Foreign Policy editorial staff had headed home and the cleaners had completed their nighttime rounds on the floor. Once the suite was completely deserted, I walked into the office of Charles William Maynes, the journal’s editor, picked up several sheets of his stationery and then hurried back to my desk. Hands shaking, I began typing a letter impersonating the unwitting Maynes.” Then “determined to get to Bosnia, I went ahead and wrote to the head of the UN Press Office, asking that the UN provide Samantha Power, Foreign Policy’s ‘Balkan correspondent,’ with ‘all necessary access.’”

Such conduct said volumes about her obsession to cover the Bosnian war–and about her ethics. Her overwhelming bias about the Bosnia conflict also was evident, and she remains surprisingly candid about it. “I had never been without opinions, but my certitude previously had to do with seemingly trivial issues like an umpire’s bad call in a baseball game. Now, as I researched and reflected on real-world events, I seemed unable to contain my emotions or modulate my judgments. If the subject of Bosnia came up and someone innocently described the conflict as a civil war, I would erupt: It is genocide!”

Individuals with that mentality are not news reporters. At best, they are editorialists or opinion columnists; at worst, they crude propagandists. Power and too many of her media colleagues in Bosnia belonged in the last category.

She exhibited no shyness about engaging in blatant advocacy journalism. Convinced that “the only way President Clinton would intervene to break the siege of Sarajevo [Bosnia’s Muslim-held capital] was if he felt domestic pressure to do so,” Power concluded that as a journalist “I believed that I had a critical role to play.” Many Western journalists in Bosnia “brought a similar focus to their work,” she contends. They wanted “our governments’ actions to change.” Power acknowledged that “this aspiration was more reminiscent of an editorial writer’s ambitions than that of a traditional reporter, whose job it was to document what she saw.”

Indeed, she was frustrated that the advocacy journalism of the Western press corps based in Sarajevo was slow to have a meaningful impact on U.S. policy. Until the summer of 1995, she recalled, “I had believed that if my colleagues and I conveyed the suffering around us to decision-makers in Washington, our journalism might move President Clinton to stage a rescue mission. This had not happened. The words, the photographs, the videos, nothing had changed the President’s mind. While Sarajevans had once thought of Western journalists as messengers on their behalf, they now began to see us as ambassadors of idle nations.” Such language indicated that Power had relinquished any semblance of journalistic detachment and identified entirely with one faction in the internecine conflict that she was covering. 

Her frustration with Western policy was rising sharply in the spring and summer of 1995. “No matter how many massacres we covered, Western governments seemed determined to steer clear of the conflict,” she railed. Power’s analysis of the Bosnia conflict displayed much of the overwrought perspective that would characterize her later positions on the Libyan and Syrian civil wars. Her mood became utterly celebratory when NATO launched air strikes on Bosnian Serb forces in the autumn of 1995 and imposed the Dayton Peace Accords later that year.

Too many Western journalists in Bosnia (and later in Kosovo), such as CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, exuded similar pervasive bias in their coverage. They acted as though the Serbs were almost alone in practicing ethnic cleansing. Power even explicitly claimed that in the early 1990s Bosnian Serb paramilitaries “had first introduced the chilling term ‘ethnic cleansing’ in places like Banja Luka to describe how they sought to ‘purify’ the land they controlled of its Muslim and Croat residents.” Her statement is factually wrong. Seth Ackerman, a media analyst for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), and veteran investigative journalist Jim Naureckas, note that Albanian nationalists in Kosovo had used the same term and similar rhetoric as early as 1982 to describe their goal of driving out the Serb minority and making that province “ethnically pure.” Moreover, “all of the half-dozen references in Nexis to ‘ethnically clean’ or ‘ethnic cleansing’ over the next seven years [after 1982] attribute the term to Albanian nationalists.” Yet, “despite being easily available on Nexis, virtually none of that material found its way into contemporary U.S. coverage” of either the Bosnia or Kosovo conflicts.

Like other practitioners of advocacy journalism in Bosnia, Power seemed blissfully unaware of (or indifferent to) the danger that she was presenting oversimplified and brazenly unfair, one-sided accounts. One subtle but important indicator of her bias, even in her memoir a quarter century later, was that she typically uses “Bosnians” as a synonym for the country’s Muslim population. Power implicitly treated Serbs and Croats as foreign interlopers, even though they lived in Bosnia and in most instances their families had done so for generations.

Unfortunately, the approach that Power adopted would epitomize the media’s performance in later conflicts, with the same underlying goal of prodding the United States and its NATO allies to launch or intensify “humanitarian” military interventions. Media accounts of the Syrian government’s siege of rebel-held Aleppo was typical. Boston Globe columnist Stephen Kinzer excoriated the behavior of such journalists, noting that, “much of the American press is reporting the opposite of what is actually happening. Many news reports suggest that Aleppo has been a ‘liberated zone’ for three years but is now being pulled back into misery” by a Syrian government offensive. He noted that Washington-based reporters used sanitized terminology that “attempted to portray even the staunchly Islamist faction, Jabhat al-Nusra, as being composed “of ‘rebels’ or ‘moderates,’ not that it was the local al-Qaeda franchise.” Georgetown University senior fellow Paul R. Pillar likewise was critical of much of the Aleppo coverage, finding it excessively emotional and one-sided.

Samantha Power’s performance regarding the Bosnian war was a textbook example of especially toxic advocacy journalism in international affairs. That type of coverage not only is a disgrace to ethical journalism, it has helped foment disastrous, destabilizing Western military interventions in multiple countries.

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When Anti-Semitism Doesn’t Matter | RealClearPolitics

In October 2018, during Sabbath morning services, a white supremacist attacked the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, murdering 11 people and wounding another six. In April 2019, in the middle of Passover, a white supremacist attacked the Chabad of Poway synagogue, murdering one person and seriously wounding another three. Both incidents started absolutely necessary conversations about the prevalence and nature of the white supremacist threat to Jews across the country.

Four people were murdered at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City by self-described Black Hebrew Israelites just weeks ago; five people were stabbed at a Hanukkah celebration in Monsey, New York; this week alone, New York police are investigating at least nine anti-Semitic attacks. The upsurge of violence against Jews in New York in particular has finally prompted commentary from Democratic politicians ranging from New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, who just weeks ago expressed shock at anti-Semitism reaching “the doorstep of New York City”; to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who expressed puzzlement at the attacks, noting broadly: “This is an intolerant time in our country. We see anger; we see hatred exploding.”

This isn’t new. Back in 2018, The New York Times admitted there was a massive spike in anti-Semitic attacks in the city — and even acknowledged that the newspaper of record had failed to cover that surging anti-Semitism because “it refuses to conform to an easy narrative with a single ideological enemy.” But that has always been true of anti-Semitism. It’s possible, as The Times should recognize, to walk and chew gum at the same time in covering anti-Semitism.

But it’s not mere lack of focus and time preventing the media from taking anti-Semitism in New York seriously. It’s the identity of the attackers. Armin Rosen wrote for Tablet Magazine back in July 2019 about the Jew hatred in New York and correctly noted “that the victims are most often outwardly identifiable, i.e., religious rather than secularized Jews, and the perpetrators who have been recorded on CCTV cameras are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic.” This throws the media — and many left-leaning Jewish organizations — into spasms of confusion, since it cuts directly against the supposed alliance of intersectionality so beloved by the political left. White supremacists attacking left-leaning Jews fits a desired narrative. Black teenagers beating up Hasidic Jews in Williamsburg doesn’t.

And so the left ignores the wrong type of anti-Semitism.

The same media that will ask whether President Donald Trump’s executive orders designed to protect Jews on campus are ackshually anti-Semitic will ignore the fact that former President Barack Obama sat in Jeremiah Wright’s church for 20 years — the same Jeremiah Wright who railed against Jews and Israel routinely during those years; who said Jews kept Obama from talking with him after the election; and who avers that “Jesus was a Palestinian.” Democratic candidates who suggest that Trump has emboldened anti-Semites will make pilgrimage to Rev. Al Sharpton, who was instrumental in not one but two anti-Semitic riots. The same commentators who will police Republican references to George Soros for hints of anti-Semitism completely excuse open anti-Semitism when it comes from Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. It’s deemed completely vital by our intelligentsia to survey white Americans for signs of white supremacy and, by extension, signs of anti-Semitism. Those same intelligentsia will patently ignore the fact that anti-Semitic attitudes among black Americans far outweigh similar attitudes among other racial groups, according to repeated polling by the Anti-Defamation League.

Anti-Semitism grows when the victims become secondary and the perpetrators become primary. If you’re only concerned about anti-Semitism from white supremacists but utterly blithe about Jews being beaten in the streets of one of the nation’s largest cities by suspects who clearly are not white supremacists, you’re part of the problem. And that goes for those who govern New York, from De Blasio to Cuomo.


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The Phantom Momentum of Bernie Sanders

A late-December flurry of articles on a revival of Bernie Sanders’ prospects points to a cardinal rule of political journalism: The story must change. Whether the story has actually changed matters not.

Thus, we had a headline in The New York Times reading, “Why Bernie Sanders Is Tough to Beat,” and one in Politico that said, “Democratic Insiders: Bernie Could Win the Nomination.” The polls, however, have barely budged.

In a humorous tweet saying, “ThE PriMaRy HaS BeEn A CrAzY UnPrEDiCtAbLe RoLLer CoAsTer RiDe,” statistical analyst Nate Silver compared recent RealClearPolitics averages for Joe Biden and Sanders to those of a year ago. On Dec. 19, 2018, Biden was at 27.5 percent and Sanders at 19 percent. Exactly a year later, Biden was at 27.8 percent and Sanders at 19.3 percent.

The first poll after the December debate, Silver tweeted, showed “not a heck of a lot going on.” Andrew Yang, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg each gained a point. Bernie and Michael Bloomberg lost one.

A FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll asked likely Democratic primary voters who won the face-off. Biden got the most votes. Sanders came in second.

Nevertheless, Politico quotes Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager, saying that political insiders and pundits are finding it harder and harder to ignore Bernie because “he’s rising in every average you see.” That would seem at odds with reality, but one must concede that 19.3 percent is better than 19.0 percent.

It’s true that Sanders wasn’t getting a lot of attention in recent months but for two plausible reasons. One is the rise of Elizabeth Warren. The other is his heart attack.

Warren’s numbers slipped after other candidates went after her. Sanders, if anything, benefited from being left alone.

Sanders loyalists seem to be ignoring that their candidate suffered a heart attack only three months ago. That Bernie is back campaigning is a tribute to his resolve. And we’re pleased to see letters from cardiologists reporting that he is recovering well. But it does not cancel out the seriousness of what happened.

About 1 in 5 people who suffer a heart attack are readmitted to a hospital for a second one within five years, according to the American Heart Association. And a heart attack elevates the risk of a stroke. Sanders is 78.

The Vermont senator’s people insist that Biden’s lead in the polls will narrow or vanish once backers of Warren come over to their man. It is not clear whether they would in large numbers.

Sanders, not unlike President Donald Trump, has a cultlike following, which means few leave him but also few join up. And while Sanders conceivably could take hard-left support from Warren, Biden could take moderates from Buttigieg, Bloomberg, Klobuchar, Yang and Cory Booker.

Referring to Biden, Sanders recently told The Los Angeles Times that Trump will “eat his lunch.” Biden retorted that he will invite Bernie for “dessert” at the White House. Biden does know how to return a punch.

I’d wager that the spate of Bernie-can-win analyses reflects some news sources’ sensitivity to complaints that the “corporate media” is slighting Bernie. That and the need for a new political angle every week.

In a replay of 2016, Sanders and his surrogates are portraying the “Democratic establishment” as the great enemy. They need reminding that other Democrats have a right to an opinion. Also, not all Democrats love Bernie’s bashing of the leadership or how he slips in and out of the party, reenlisting when an election approaches.

The latest Economist/YouGov poll, meanwhile, shows Biden ahead of Warren by 11 points and ahead of Sanders by 13. As they say, the more things change …

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The 2010s Have Been Amazing

Global life expectancy increased by more than three years in the past 10 years, mostly thanks to prevention of childhood deaths. According to the U.N., the global mortality rate for children under 5 declined from 5.6% in 2008 to 3.9% in 2018. A longer perspective shows how far we’ve come. Since 1950, Chad has reduced the child mortality rate by 56%, and it’s the worst-performing country in the world. South Korea reduced it by 98%.

Hasn’t this all come at the cost of a despoiled environment? No. At a certain point developed countries start polluting less. Death rates from air pollution declined by almost a fifth world-wide and a quarter in China between 2007 and 2017, according to the online publication Our World in Data.

Rich countries use less aluminum, nickel, copper, steel, stone, cement, sand, wood, paper, fertilizer, water, crop acreage and fossil fuel every year, as Andrew McAfee documents in “More From Less.” Consumption of 66 out of 72 resources tracked by the U.S. Geological Survey is now declining.

Global warming remains a challenge, but wealthy societies are well-positioned to develop clean technologies and to deal with the problems of a changing climate. Annual deaths from climate-related disasters declined by one-third between 2000-09 and 2010-15, to 0.35 per 100,000 people, according to the International Database of Disasters—a 95% reduction since the 1960s. That’s not because of fewer disasters, but better capabilities to deal with them.

Progress isn’t guaranteed. Look how wealthy Venezuela collapsed under the burden of crazy policies. A war between major powers, or a financial crash after a decade of easy money, could throw the world off course. So could never-ending trade wars and an unraveling of globalization.

Yet we’ve lived through a period of populist revolts and geopolitical tensions, and wherever societies have been open and markets free, scientists, innovators and businesses persisted and made greater progress than ever.

That’s the case for optimism. Tin-pot strongmen, looting politicians and punctilious bureaucrats make mischief with societies and economies. But mankind creates faster than they can squander, and repairs more than they can destroy.

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A Wealth Tax Is a Tax on Business

Rising Democratic star Pete Buttigieg says he is “all for a wealth tax,” and also wants higher taxes on corporations, incomes and capital gains. Evoking the zero-sum narrative of Warren and Sanders, Buttigieg claims “most of our economic growth goes to a smaller and smaller slice of the wealthiest Americans.”

Joe Biden—a supposed moderate in the race—also wants higher taxes on corporations, incomes, and capital gains. Biden has shied away from a wealth tax, but he is not above throwing bombs at the wealthy, arguing on his website that “this country wasn’t built by Wall Street bankers and CEOS and hedge fund managers.”

Leftist politicians can dish out rhetoric, but they seem ignorant of how wealth is created or how it is used. They seem to assume that top wealth is just expensive toys. In discussing her wealth tax plan, Warren’s website says, “Consider two people: an heir with $500 million in yachts, jewelry, and fine art, and a teacher with no savings in the bank.”

Actually, most wealth of the wealthy is business assets, not yachts and other personal assets. A recent study by Matthew Smith, Owen Zidar, and Eric Zwick detailed the assets of the top 0.1 percent of the richest Americans, who are those with net wealth above $16 million. Forty two percent of their wealth is equity in private businesses and 31 percent is equity in publicly traded businesses. Another 22 percent is bank deposits, debt, pensions, and other assets. Just 5 percent of this group’s wealth are their homes.

A rough guess is that one quarter of the deposits, debt, pensions, and other assets are holdings of government debt. That means almost 90 percent of the wealth of the top 0.1 percent of Americans consists ultimately of equity and debt in businesses, which fund capital assets that spur economic growth.

Looking just at billionaires, Wealth-X estimates that just 2 percent of their fortunes consist of homes, yachts, jewelry, cars and other personal assets. Consider the richest man in America, Jeff Bezos. His homes are worth a huge $150 million, but they account for just 0.1 percent of his total wealth of $114 billion. The great majority of Bezos’ wealth consists of his 12 percent ownership of Amazon, a company he founded in his garage in 1994.

Leftists often complain that wealth is “concentrated.” But in terms of how it is used, the wealth of the wealthy is dispersed widely across the economy in productive business assets. Bezos’ wealth reflects Amazon’s vast global operations that employ 650,000 people. Without wealth or capital supporting them, those folks would not have jobs and billions of packages would not be delivered.

Warren says, “The top 0.1% of families—the richest 1 in 1,000—now have nearly the same amount of wealth as the bottom 90% of American families combined. Meanwhile, for everyone else, opportunity is slipping away.” But with his Amazon assets, Bezos is generating employment opportunities for many people while slashing prices for hundreds of millions of consumers.

Bezos’ wealth is publicly traded equity, but what about the largest part of wealth at the top—private equity? The biggest private company in America is Cargill based in Minnesota. The Cargill and MacMillan families own 90 percent of Cargill, which has annual revenues of $114 billion. By building Cargill over the decades, the families have become wealthy while creating opportunities for vast numbers of people in the food, agriculture, and transportation industries.

Leftist politicians who want higher taxes on wealth apparently assume that capital and labor, or wealth and workers, are enemies. But the capital assets on Cargill’s balance sheet of $62 billion enable the company to employ 160,000 people in a huge enterprise crucial to America’s economy.

People may point to the $150 million in homes that Bezos owns as excessive. But those personal assets are already hit by local property taxes, which are a form of wealth tax. The problem with the Warren-Sanders-Buttigieg wealth tax is that it would not just tax assets used for consumption such as homes, but also a vast amount of assets used for production.

Democratic efforts to tax wealth and capital would severely damage the ability of Amazon, Cargill, and many other businesses to provide jobs and incomes to millions of Americans. Capital and labor are complements, not enemies, and that is why such taxes would be so damaging not just to the rich but to every worker in America.

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A New Secularism Is Appearing in Islam

In Iran, the Islamic Republic has ruled for 40 years now, but it has failed in its zeal to re-Islamize society. “Instead, the opposite has happened,” the Middle East scholar Nader Hashemi has observed. “Most Iranians today aspire to live in a democratic, liberal and secular republic, not a religious state run by clerics.” Indeed, many have had enough of those clerics, and are bravely defying them in the streets.

In Turkey, my country, a softer but similar experiment has taken place in the past two decades. Under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s formerly marginalized Islamists have become the new ruling elite. This allowed them to make their faith more visible and assertive — but it is also a fig leaf for their insatiable lust for power. So, as the Turkey-born sociologist Mucahit Bilici has observed, “today Islamism in Turkey is associated in the public mind with corruption and injustice.” And many Turks detest it more than ever before.

The disillusionment is often only with Islamism as a political instrument, but it can turn against Islam, the religion, itself. In Turkey, the latter is manifested in a social trend among its youth that has become the talk of the day: the rise of “deism,” or belief in a God, but not religion. Pro-Erdogan Islamists are worried about this “big threat to Islam,” but perceive it, tragicomically, as yet another Western conspiracy, rather than their own accomplishment.

How far can this secular wave go? Only God knows, to offer a religious answer. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that this wave differs from the kind of secularism imposed on the Muslim world about a century ago, under authoritarian Westernizers like Ataturk of Turkey or Reza Shah of Iran. Theirs was a top-down revolution, imposed by the state and was widely perceived as inauthentic. This time, however, we are speaking of a bottom-up trend, coming from society, from people fed up with all the ugly things done in the name of religion.

That is why it reminds me of the beginnings of the Enlightenment, when Europeans, having seen the horrors of religious wars and persecution, developed the idea of political secularism, while also championing reason, freedom of thought, equality and tolerance.

Of course, those fine ideals can be compatible with Islam as well, as “Islamic modernists” have been arguing since the late 19th century. Moreover, Tunisia, a rare bright spot in the Arab world, suggests that there is hope in this moderate path.

But if Islamists and conservatives keep their old ways, they may face a radical version of the Enlightenment: fiercely anticlerical and decidedly antireligious, reminiscent of what turned France against a hegemonic Catholic Church.

Therefore, if Islamists and conservatives really care about the future of Islam rather than amassing power in its name, they should begin thinking about ending all the ugly things they have attached to that name — civil wars, authoritarian rule, hate-filled teaching.

Islam, at its core, has many virtues to inspire humanity — such as compassion, humility, honesty and charity. But they have been eclipsed for far too long for the sake of power and the dictates of bigotry.

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Progressives, Beware of Julius Caesar’s Fate

If this story rings a bell, it’s because Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and today’s progressives are doing the same thing. They are proposing Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, free college, student-debt cancellation and an ever-expanding laundry list of “free” programs. We should all ponder what Cato the Younger and Cicero pondered: How is all of this going to be paid for? As it turned out in Caesar’s case, he relied on an aggressive “squeeze-the-rich” strategy. Does this sound familiar?

Julius Caesar was Rome’s greatest popularis, a man of the people. Appian of Alexandria described Caesar as wanting to introduce “laws to better the condition of the poor,” with the goal of the gradual equalization of the classes through a broad program of redistribution. He engaged in a legislative frenzy, pushing many bills and laws. He penned a land reform bill with the goal of — as Plutarch explained — dividing land “among the poor and the needy.” He spent exorbitant sums on public works to help ease unemployment.

He remitted a whole year of rent for poor tenants and ordered — in effect — as Suetonius reckons, the cancellation of one-fourth of all outstanding debt. He instituted rent controls and gave handouts of 100 denarii to each pleb. Furthermore, public entertainment was frequent, and it was free. After crossing the Rubicon and enduring years of war, the people deserved, according to Caesar, to be rewarded for their resilience. For example, in 46 B.C., Caesar hosted enormous festivals, parades and gladiatorial games — often lasting weeks. Showered with all of these “freebies,” the public adored Caesar.

How did this “free-for-all” strategy work out? Led by Cato, opposition to Caesar’s policies was fierce in the Roman Senate from the very beginning. The Senate managed to kill Caesar’s land bill, with Cicero calling the proposed law “a plot against liberty,” warning that Caesar’s rhetoric would lead to an “an onslaught on private property … cancellation of debts … [and] plundering the well-to-do.” Even some members of the public began to question the viability of Caesar’s giveaway schemes.

To quell the Roman public’s concerns, Caesar proclaimed: “Let none of you suspect that I shall harass any man who is rich or establish new taxes; I shall be satisfied with the present revenues.” Caesar was lying. He confiscated the wealth of overseas dependencies and fleeced the lands he conquered. But, in need of evermore cash to fuel his largess, Caesar decided to squeeze the wealthy and forced the rich to empty their pockets into the public treasury. He increased duties on luxury imports, introduced Rome’s first sales tax and enforced strict sumptuary laws. In 49 B.C., he attempted to enforce a wealth cap at 15,000 silver or gold drachmas. The masses were elated. They even went so far as to demand bounties for servants who reported their masters for avoiding Caesar’s wealth tax. And, a wealth tax it was — 100 percent — on any riches over the cap. Today’s “down-with-the-rich” fever is nothing new. Indeed, it plagued Rome over two millennia ago.

But, Caesar’s revenue-raising schemes fell short. Consequently, his treasury ran up huge debts, and the tide turned. Suetonius writes how “even the commoners began to disapprove of how things were going, and no longer hid their disgust at Caesar’s tyrannical rule but openly demanded champions to protect their ancient liberties.” By then, it was too late. Cassius Dio relates how “the populace … [found] much more fault [because Caesar] had expended countless sums on all that array. In consequence a clamour was raised against him … that he had collected most of the funds unjustly.” How did the great popularis respond to this protest? He personally grabbed three of the rioters, chopped off their heads and displayed their severed skulls near the Regia.

In the end, after Caesar’s assassination, Cicero looked at the treasury and bemoaned: “our knottiest political problem is shortage of money.” Caesar’s spending had left its mark; there is no such thing as a free lunch. All of Caesar’s “free” programs were seductive, until they weren’t. The treasury was depleted, and the Roman Republic, which had endured 500 years, crumbled as a result.