Breaking Out of the Box

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It is a priori unlikely that a movie would enlighten viewers on subjects as different as autism and animal welfare, but there is such a film — a fine bioflick that aired on HBO last year and is now available on DVD. It’s the moving story of Professor Temple Grandin, its eponymous heroine.

Even today, autism is not well understood. It is a neurodevelopmental disorder that usually manifests itself in the first two to three years of a child’s life. It is typically characterized by severe difficulty in communication and social interaction, and by limited, repetitive behavior (such as endlessly eating the same kind of food or watching the same TV show). While the cause is still unknown, it appears to be a genetic defect afflicting about 1 or 2 children per thousand. While most autistic children are never able to live independently as adults, some — often called “high functioning” — are.

Temple Grandin is arguably the most famous high-functioning autistic person in the world. She was born in 1947, and was diagnosed with autism when she was three. With the help of speech therapists, she was able to learn to talk, and with the help of her extremely high intelligence, she went to an elite boarding school, where a gifted teacher mentored her.

She went on to get a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire, a master’s degree from Arizona State University, and a doctoral degree from the University of Illinois in the field of animal science. She is now a professor at Colorado State University.

The focus of her work has been on the means by which animals, especially cattle, perceive and communicate, through the sounds they make and the way they move. Her autism seems to give her a distinct advantage here, because (as she explains it) she thinks the way cattle do, visually and concretely rather than verbally and abstractly, like ordinary people.

Her career has focused on the design of cattle lots, storage pens, and slaughterhouses that make them far more humane than in times past. Over half the slaughterhouses in America now incorporate her designs. The movie conveys her work beautifully. In one scene, we see her figuring out what is spooking cattle, as they move through a passageway, by getting down on all fours and walking the passageway herself, trying to capture visually exactly what is frightening them.

The movie also effectively conveys her view of our obligations towards animals, one that could be summarized as “Respect what you eat!” In her words, “I think that using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but we’ve got to do it right. We’ve got to give those animals a decent life and we’ve got to give them a painless death. We owe the animals respect!”

The movie also deftly expresses certain aspects of Grandin’s autistic personality, such as her repetitive eating habits (she loves Jell-O) and her indifference to movies about emotional relationships (such as love!). In one charming scene, she is channel surfing and happens on the famous kiss-on-the-beach scene from the movie From Here to Eternity. She grimaces and quickly moves on to an action flick.

Temple Grandin is superbly done. Mick Jackson’s direction is sure and steady. He elicits perfectly pitched performances from the actors, performances that are emotionally true without being sentimental. And despite the serious nature of the story, the film is infused with humor. Julia Ormond is marvelous as Grandin’s mother Eustacia, evincing a combination of vulnerability and resilient strength. Catherine O’Hara is solid as Grandin’s Aunt Ann, whose ranch Grandin often visited. Another fine supporting actor is David Strathairn as Professor Carlock, a key mentor to Grandin in developing her understanding of science.

Especially wonderful is Claire Danes as Grandin. She shows us in sometimes painful detail what autism entails, and the suffering it brings, but she also shows us Grandin’s unique genius. Danes apparently studied her subject intensely, and it shows in her performance. She well deserved her Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress.

The film was a clear success with both the critics and the audience. It was nominated for 15 Emmys, winning seven; besides Danes’ award for Outstanding Lead Actress, they included an Emmy for Outstanding Made for Television Movie.

This is a treat that should not be missed.


Editor's Note: Review of "Temple Grandin," directed by Mick Jackson. HBO Films, 2010, 103 minutes.



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Getting Your Way

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One of the most useful concepts I know is Friedrich Hayek’s distinction between freedom and power. Freedom, he says, is the right to be left alone; power is the ability to have and to do things. Confusion on this score can be fatal. The world is full of people who believe that their nation, race, or religion can be “free” only if it has power over its neighbors. Here at home, our government is bankrupting its citizens by forcing them to pay for everyone’s alleged “freedom” to have healthcare, to have a job, and to have 15 children whether you have a job or not.

Libertarians have rightly emphasized freedom in its true definition. But power is also important, nor is it a bad thing, if it helps one to enjoy one’s freedom and master one’s own life. To get a job, maintain a home, gain money and respect, improve one’s existence materially and spiritually — these are good things; these are ways of shaping life creatively. Yet personal power can easily be squandered, passed off to others, in the sordid transactions of daily life.

This is where Sharon Presley comes in. Her book starts in this way:

“Experts and authorities can take your power away by intimidating, manipulating, abusing and bamboozling you. Examples are everywhere. Physicians tell you to leave your treatment to them because they are the experts. Bureaucrats give you the run-around. Clerks and customer service reps say it can’t be done . . . .”

She continues in that vein, because such conflicts are everywhere; and although many of them are unimportant in themselves, they are always discouraging. Remember the last time something went wrong with your computer. How many hours did you spend trying to interpret the “advice” you got when you resorted to the “help” button? How many hours did you then waste on the phone, fuming while an “expert” treated you like a child, suggesting to you that your machine might not be plugged in, putting you on hold, interrupting your attempts to explain, mystifying you with terminology ten times more opaque than even the insultingly unhelpful “help” pages?

If you’re like me, your day was ruined. You lost your cool, yelled at the “expert,” yelled again at his supervisor and his supervisor’s supervisor, felt helpless and guilty, and finally found yourself searching the phonebook for a fixit company that would charge you a hundred dollars an hour to repeat the process.

That’s not power, and that’s not life. But these conflicts are inevitable, and some of them are much more serious than that glitch in your downloads. Just consider what may happen on one of those awful, though possibly “routine,” visits to your doctor’s office. I well remember the horrors of dealing with the office staff of my former “primary healthcare provider” — people who put me off, wouldn’t listen when I talked, said they’d return phone calls but didn’t, communicated lab results long after they should have been available, and offered me no help at all when, facing a possible diagnosis of cancer, I was unable to get an appointment with a relevant specialist without waiting three months for it. Finally I located a hospital ombudsman (actually a woman) who was concerned about my plight and in a few days got me a quick appointment with a specialist — a magnificent doctor, who immediately found the cancer and removed it. Never once did my “primary healthcare provider” or his office check back with me.

Libertarians are often taught to value themselves on behavior that is “right,” though self-destructive — or even right because it is self-destructive.

At my next routine physical, which required months to arrange, I sat in the doctor’s waiting room for almost an hour after the scheduled time, wondering why medical doctors are the only people who keep you waiting like that. Then a fat nurse or para-nurse (all these people are fat) opened the door, boomed out “Cox” as if she were calling hogs, and led me into an examining room, where I sat for another half hour. At that point, I went crazy. When the doctor asked me how I was, I said, “Angry! I’m angry! I’m sick of being your patient and seeing myself and all your other patients being treated like cattle!” Then I recited what I’ve written above, except that by now I was shouting loud enough, I hoped, for the poor slaves in the waiting room to hear what I said.

What surprised me was the expression on the doctor’s face. It was obvious that he had never been talked to like that in his life. He wanted to object, but he didn’t know how, because he obviously had no idea of how his office operated, from anything like the patient’s end of things. I almost felt sorry for him — almost.

The next time I came back to that office, the situation had changed. I was now “Mr. Cox,” and there were more or less appropriate displays of civility. Later, I found that if I persisted to a moderate degree, I could actually get my calls put through to someone who knew something, without waiting weeks to obtain the information I required. This improvement may have had some relation to the fit I threw.

Was it worth it? I suppose it was. But perhaps I could have handled it better. I don’t want to live in a world in which people — even people like me — are always screaming at each other. I want things to work right, without my having to scream. I want the power to get things done, without throwing a fit.

Sharon Presley knows all about such situations, and she has excellent practical advice about how to deal with them. It’s not about the supposed delights of naked “self-assertion” (i.e., yelling). It’s about ways of gaining people’s attention and getting them to do what needs to be done for you, in the way that’s most likely to be successful and least likely to deplete your own energy. It’s not about sermons on self-esteem; it’s about gaining self-esteem by increasing your practical power. And of course a lot of it is about thinking through what authority figures, whether doctors or teachers or technical experts, have to say, to make sure that you possess enough information to take power over your own decisions. In short, a lot of it is about exercising your power of rational analysis.

Presley doesn’t want her readers to get locked into hopeless conflicts with The Man. She wants them — all of us — to succeed.

Presley’s practical advice is divided into sensible categories: dealing with doctors, lawyers, teachers, bosses, merchants, and so on. The subheading of one of her chapters reveals her primary concern: “Dealing with Bosses without Getting Fired.” A book of psycho-babble would focus on “taking back your power” by “communicating your feelings” and expressing your “true identity.” Presley isn’t opposed to such goals, but she doesn’t want you to lose your job, either. You don’t have much power if you don’t have a job. Presley wants you to be yourself and keep your paycheck, too — in other words, to have your cake and eat it. Sounds good to me.

One excellent feature of this book is the fact that Presley bases her advice on the experience of hundreds of real people; there are no made-up characters. Another is that she seems to have consulted every book, article, and website in the field of “critical thinking,” personal power relations, and just plain good advice for the contemporary world.  She tells you which texts she thinks are useful, and why. That’s a big gain.

I want to compliment Presley for her constant and persuasive suggestion that adults should act like adults. What she wants is for her readers to get their way, satisfy their legitimate demands, and achieve success and happiness. Dissident minorities, such as libertarians, are often taught to value themselves on behavior that is “right,” though self-destructive — or even right because it is self-destructive, as in the familiar zest for martyrdom. Presley will have none of this. She doesn’t want her readers to get locked into hopeless conflicts with The Man. She wants them — all of us — to succeed. She doesn’t mind getting down to basics:

“Develop a skill that you can succeed at. If you already have a skill, keep that in mind when you feel as if you can’t do things right. Perhaps there was a time when you were able to stand up to an authority figure. You lived through it, didn’t you? Remember your successes, not your failures.”

Isn’t that good advice? Wouldn’t we all be happier if we followed it? It’s a matter of perspective. Rather than banging the computer keys and screaming at that poor “technical consultant” in India, have some coffee, think about the good things you’ve done in your life, and turn to the chapter where Presley suggests how to deal with the immediate problem.


Editor's Note: Review of "Standing Up to Experts and Authorities: How to Avoid Being Intimidated, Manipulated, and Abused," by Sharon Presley. Solomon Press, 2010, 389 pages.



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A New Record of Folly

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A new report that hasn’t gotten much play in the afterglow of President Obama’s state of the union address was the Congressional Budget Office estimate for the budget deficit this year. The CBO estimates that the deficit will hit a new record of $1.5 trillion. And it projects that the 2012 deficit will be $1.1 trillion. Even though this will be the third year of trillion-buck-plus deficits, and it will top last year’s record-setting deficit of $1.4 trillion, no doubt Obama will continue to blame Bush (whose largest deficit was a little over $400 billion in 2008). But that rhetorical trope is working less and less well for Obama.

Obama seems now to be aware that the populace is becoming increasingly alarmed at these unprecedented budget deficits. His speech proposed a meager deficit reduction — about $400 billion over ten years.

The big question is how much stomach the Republicans have to push for steeper cuts. The public is now aware of the problem but is still fiscally incontinent: it favors cutting the budget generally but opposes cutting specific popular programs. Even Tea Party members typically support the major entitlement programs (Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security) that are metastasizing most rapidly.

There are slight signs that the Republicans may strap on some stones and step up to the plate. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) has once again proposed a balanced budget amendment, stronger than the amendment that failed by one vote in the Senate 14 years ago. Hatch’s version would require a two-thirds majority for Congress to raise taxes. But while a dozen Republican senators have signed on, no Democrats have, indicating that this has little chance of passing.

Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) has raised the deficit issue in a different way. He has asked the administration to provide actual figures on the drop in offshore drilling revenue collected by the federal government. That information would show us just how much the Obama slowdown of offshore drilling has and will cost the government in revenues, and hence added to the deficit. One calculation puts the amount of lost revenue due to lower production in the Gulf at about $3.7 million a day.

But most interesting is the legislation introduced by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) that would cut the deficit by $2.5 trillion over ten years. Some of the savings would come from the elimination of a number of programs and agencies, such as the US Agency for International Development (savings: $1.39 billion a year) and from cutting the subsidies of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting ($445 million a year), Amtrak ($1.5 billion a year), and high-speed rail ($2.5 billion a year). But most of the savings would come from rolling back all non-defense discretionary spending to 2006 levels across the board, and keeping it there until 2021.

It is unlikely that this proposal will even come to a vote in the Senate, much less be signed into law by Obama. Even if it did, as exemplary as it is, it would not address the real threat, which is the “Entitlement Explosion” — the ballooning costs of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, costs that are going to drive the country’s economy to the wall as the Baby Boomers quite predictably age, retire, and sicken. In fact, the CBO just reported that this year Social Security will run a deficit of $45 billion (or $130 billion, if the cut in payroll taxes is included), and will continue to run deficits until the bogus “trust fund” is exhausted in 2037. As late as last year, please note, Social Security was projected to run surpluses until 2016.

The entitlement programs are what really endanger the country (and I haven’t even mentioned the state employee pension fund liabilities). The American people haven’t yet reached what I call the public-choice tipping point, the point at which a problem becomes so large that it is no longer rational for the average citizen to be ignorant of it. So the Republicans may do a little by way of deficit reduction, but I wouldn’t hold out hope that they will do a lot — the public isn’t there quite yet.

Give it a few more years, and a bout of high inflation . . . and that may finally do the trick. By then, of course, the economy will be in ruins. Rational ignorance is such a bitch, isn’t it?




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Shot — Countershot

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Four years ago, a Chicago real estate agent by the name of John Maloof discovered a large collection of candid “street” photographs taken in the 1950s and 1960s by a Chicago nanny named Vivian Maier. Helped by the internet and a carefully calculated public release, Maier’s work is now attracting tremendous popular interest, catching the eyes of both scholars and photographers.

I first encountered Maier’s work while searching the web for articles on photography and photographic equipment, as is my habit. Upon finding a blog with Maier’s work and self-portraits prominently displayed, my first thought was, “These photos look like they were taken by the world-famous Diane Arbus."

Granted, I'm no expert on Arbus’ photography, but I've heard things about it that always return to the words “surreal” and “weird” as a way of describing its peculiar quality. Beyond simply the strange appearance of many of her subjects, I guess it's a kind of instantaneousness in her photos that makes them appealing, something about how life can start to look strangely discordant when chopped into little temporal slices by the click of a shutter. That weirdness is certainly there in Maier's work, too. Often, Maier’s style — resulting from her close proximity to her subjects and the “avant-garde” timing and framing of her shots — seems nearly identical to that of Arbus.

It takes a kind of brusqueness and self-driven ability to get past strangers’ personal barriers and produce this kind of photo, an attitude somewhere between the “interested observer” and the “invader of privacy.” It's a psychological barrier that I struggle with, as do many other photographers. In my copy of “The Honeywell Pentax Way” (a 1966 guidebook intended for amateur users of Pentax 35mm single-lens-reflex cameras), the author advises photographers not to wait until a scene is devoid of human content, but to shoot pictures of people “without hesitation . . . [I]f they object, tip your hat and smile.”

The only times I've been able to break that barrier are when I’ve been shooting photographs of political protests or street scenes in foreign countries. In both cases, the barrier is easy to cross. Usually, no one cares about what you’re shooting (or even notices that you’re doing it). As for photographs taken in foreign parts, a practitioner of “subaltern” theory would say that tourists are simply practicing the “hegemony of the foreigner” when they snap a picture. Take the theory for what it’s worth; I’ve never paused long enough behind the camera to ask myself, “Am I being hegemonic?” Whether that question ever crossed Arbus’ or Maier’s mind, we may never know. If it did, it wouldn’t have helped them break any barriers, personal or artistic.

Whenever I think about their kind of photography, I remember an incident that took place when I happened to be on the other side of the camera, the subject side. My family and I were taking a trip to Death Valley and Las Vegas on one of those quirky tours run by a Chinese travel agency, and tailored specifically for Chinese wallets and efficiency — that is, we were given only 15 minutes per scenic vista, were housed in cheap hotels that reeked of equally cheap cigarettes, ate third-rate buffets for almost every meal, and were herded on and off the bus like cattle.

At one buffet stop — and these were all Chinese buffets — we were turned out of the bus in some Nevada country town, approximately in the middle of nowhere. We were waiting outside while the guide went in to secure tables, when a scrawny, dark-haired teenager with inverted baseball cap suddenly glided up to us on his skateboard. He produced a Pentax 35mm film camera with a 50mm lens, of the type ordinarily used by high school photo students and starving artists. He started to take pictures of us, moving down the line of tourists, all of whom gawked back at him. Watching him snap away, I realized that if I were in his position, and didn’t have the embarrassment I usually have about photographing strangers, I might have taken the same pictures. And it was a real Diane Arbus moment — a bunch of Asian tourists waiting outside a run-down buffet, in an equally run-down strip mall with an otherwise deserted parking lot.Weirdness and discord!

In this case, however, the subjects resisted — at least some of them. When the teenager skated up to my family and started to photograph us from close range, my dad bristled. “Don't give that punk the benefit of a smile,” he said in Chinese. We all scowled at the kid — but he didn't let up. He just snapped and grinned maniacally at us (I suppose that’s what Arbus looked like, when she was working) until he skated away. I imagine that somewhere, in some art gallery, there is now hanging a beautiful black and white print of us, an angry-looking family of Chinese tourists waiting impatiently outside a country town buffet. The photograph is probably entitled “Untitled No. 4,” or “The Visitors,” and the teenager has made a lot of money out of it. One might say that he, Arbus, and Maier were all cut from the same cloth — or perhaps printed from the same negative.

But were they? I think not. As photographers and persons known or unknown, they were all individuals in their own right, for better or for worse. After all, there is “human content” on both sides of the lens.




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The Return of Moktada

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On January 5th, radical Shia cleric Moktada al-Sadr returned to Iraq from more than three years of self-imposed exile in Iran. He brought with him the specter of renewed violence in that war-torn country.

For those readers who have done their best to forget America’s Iraq misadventure, here’s a bit of background. Al-Sadr is the son of a revered Shia imam who was murdered by Saddam Hussein in 1999. He became prominent by leading Shia opposition to the American occupation after 2003. In 2004 his militia, the Mahdi Army, twice battled U.S. troops. Though not victorious, the Sadrists lived to fight another day. Al-Sadr also avoided arrest by U.S. forces on a warrant issued against him for the murder of another cleric. America thus failed to nip in the bud the young cleric’s militant movement.

During the civil war of 2006-07, the Sadrists carried out brutal sectarian cleansings in Baghdad and elsewhere. Even the onset of the American surge of ground troops in early 2007 failed to slow the pace of the carnage. At the same time, the Mahdi Army began to slip out of al-Sadr’s control; by the summer of 2007 the frenzy of violence caused even many Shia to turn against the Sadrists. Then the weight of American power began to have an effect; many Sadrist cadres were killed or captured by US troops. At the end of August al-Sadr declared a unilateral ceasefire and took himself off to the Iranian holy city of Qom, where he sought safety and the opportunity to polish the rather rough edges he had displayed as a political and religious leader.

In his absence the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, given a breathing space by the apparent success of the Surge, was able to consolidate its hold on power. In early 2008 Iraqi government forces, backed by US and British logistical, intelligence, and air support, defeated the Sadrists first in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, and then (though less decisively) in Baghdad itself. The Sadrist movement had reached its low point. Even so, however, it had once again survived. “We may have wasted an opportunity . . . to kill those that needed to be killed,” an anonymous US official stated at the time. Today that official looks more and more like a prophet.

After the Basra and Baghdad defeats the Sadrists eschewed the gun in favor of the ballot. They scored surprising successes in local elections in 2009. Then, in national elections this past March, they emerged as the second largest Shia bloc, barely trailing al-Maliki’s party. As a result, al-Sadr became a kingmaker; Maliki’s reappointment as prime minister in late 2010 was possible only because the Sadrists supported him. In return they received ministerial posts and at least one provincial governorship. They are in the enviable position of having power without true responsibility: if the government succeeds, they will share in the credit; if it fails, they will blame al-Maliki and bring the government down. The Sadrists have made it clear that al-Maliki has only so much time to restore services, revive the economy, and end what’s left of the American occupation.

An anonymous US official stated that “We may have wasted an opportunity . . . to kill those that needed to be killed.”

The question of a continued American presence is a vexing one for all concerned — except the Sadrists. There are less than 50,000 US troops left in the country. Under an agreement negotiated by the Bush administration, all US forces are supposed to leave by the end of 2011. The Obama administration has stated that it would consider an extension of the US military presence only if Iraq requests it. Al-Maliki would very much like to see some US troops remain, as would the Kurds and most of the Sunnis. But al-Maliki risks looking like an American puppet if he asks for an extended troop presence. The Sadrists, on the other hand, are unequivocally opposed to any US troops remaining after the Dec. 31, 2011 deadline. Their attitude is not merely designed to appeal to Iraqi nationalist feeling. At some point in the future the Sadrists could decide to seize power. They probably would have a good chance of succeeding, provided US troops are not available to stop them.

The US State Department is supposed to take over the American role in Iraq’s security after 2011. Its active arm will be thousands of contractors (that is, mercenaries) whom it has been hiring and trying to put in place before the last uniformed Americans depart. While the Wikileaks revelations have shown that US diplomats are an intelligent and dedicated group of professionals, the idea of putting diplomats in charge of security in a place like Iraq seems a dicey proposition indeed. The employment of contractors will undoubtedly lead to incidents in which Iraqi civilians are killed. The reaction of the Iraqi populace, and specifically the remaining militias, is all too easy to predict. Recall the burned bodies of American contractors hanging from a bridge in 2003.

The Sunni insurgency, despite heavy blows inflicted by US and Iraqi forces, remains able to carry out widespread and damaging attacks. It may in fact be on the brink of a resurgence, for many Sunnis who joined the pro-US, pro-government Awakening movement have grown disaffected with a Shia-dominated government that has cut back on cash payments and jobs for Sunnis.

We have then the makings of a new explosion in Iraq, with no prospect of an American “Surge II” should the worst occur. Into this maelstrom steps Moktada, the prophet and redeemer of the Shia masses and of the armed fanatics who thirst to avenge past beatings received at the hands of the Americans and al-Maliki. One is reminded of the situation in St. Petersburg in 1917, with al-Maliki in the role of Kerensky and al-Sadr as the “plague bacillus,” Lenin. Admittedly the two men are, for the present, partners, which Kerensky and Lenin never were. But one cannot help but feel that, given the past, their paths must diverge. It may be one, or two, or four years before the situation plays out. But I can’t help but think that one or the other of these men is going to wind up dead.

 

 




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Being Green Is Not a Sign of Health

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There are two new reports in the Wall Street Journal about flops in the green energy movement — further illustrations of how much hype there is in it.

The first (Jan. 19) reveals that the vaunted new “amazingly energy efficient,” compact fluorescent light bulbs aren’t so energy efficient after all.

Pushing the hapless consumer to replace incandescent bulbs with CFLs (compact fluorescent lamps) has been the received wisdom among lawmakers for years, and no more so than in California, the ever-green state. California’s utilities alone spent $548 million over the past seven years in CFL subsidies. In fact, California utilities have subsidized over 100 million CFLs since 2006. And on the first of this year, the state started phasing out incandescent bulb sales.

Of course, when I say that the California utilities have been subsidizing the CFLs, I really should say that the aforementioned hapless consumers have been doing so, because all the subsidy money — about $2.70 out of the actual $4.00 cost of the CFL, i.e., more than two thirds of the actual cost — is paid by the consumer in the form of higher utility rates.

Naturally, the rest of the country — and, for that matter, the world — is set to follow California’s lead on CFLs. A federal law effective January 1 of next year will require a 28% step-up in efficiency for incandescent bulbs, and bans them outright by 2014. One consequence of this federal policy — unintended, perhaps, but none the less foreseeable — is that the last US plant making incandescent bulbs has been shut down, and China (which now makes all the CFLs) has seen even more of a jobs expansion, and is able to buy even more of our debt.

The UN is also pushing CFLs to help solve global warming, estimating that about 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide are caused by lighting. The World Bank has been funding the distribution of CFLs in poorer nations. Last year, for example, Bangladesh gave away five million World Bank funded CFLs in one day.

But now — surprise! — California has discovered that the actual energy savings of switching to CFLs were nowhere near what was originally estimated. Pacific Gas and Electric, which in 2006 set up the biggest subsidy fund for CFLs, found that its actual savings from the CFL program were collectively about 450 million kilowatt hours, which is only about one-fourth of the original estimate.

There are several reasons for the fact the switch to CFLs hasn’t lived up to expectations. First, not as many of the heavily subsidized CFLs were sold as originally estimated. PG & E doesn’t say why, but I will hazard a guess, based on personal experience. Many consumers dislike the light produced by CFLs, which they find dimmer or more artificial in its effect. Also, many complain that lights create static in AM radio reception. In a free market (i.e., one that, among other things, contains no subsidies), it is likely that few consumers would want to switch.

Surprise! — California has discovered that the actual energy savings of switching to compact fluorescent lamps were nowhere near what was originally estimated.

Second, the useful life of the CFLs is less than 70% of original estimates. Amazingly, the estimates were based on tests that didn’t factor in the actual frequency with which consumers turn them on and off. CFLs burn out more quickly the more often they are turned on and off than do the old incandescent bulbs.

Not mentioned in the story is the fact that CFLs contain mercury, and so are supposed to be specially disposed of (which presents an added cost to the consumer in time, money, and energy). The alternative is for the consumer to throw them out in the regular trash, making toxic waste sites out of ordinary trash dumps, with future clean-up costs of God only knows what.

The second Journal story (Jan. 18) reports that Evergreen Solar has closed its Massachusetts plant and laid off all the workers there.

This is deliciously ironic. Evergreen Solar was the darling of Massachusetts. Governor Deval Patrick, devout green and all-around Obama Mini-Me, gave Evergreen a package of $58 million in tax incentives, grants, and other handouts to open a solar panel plant there. In doing so, he simply ignored Evergreen’s lousy track record — a record of losing nearly $700 million bucks in its short life (its IPO was in 2000), despite lavish subsidies from federal and state governments.

Now Evergreen is outsourcing its operations, blaming competition with China, and whining like a bitchslapped baby about China’s subsidies of its solar energy and its lower labor costs. But Evergreen has itself sucked up ludicrously lavish subsidies, and it knew all along about China’s labor rates compared to Massachusetts’.

So Patrick winds up looking like a complete ass, and the taxpayers of Massachusetts wind up eating a massive loss.

But that’s not all. Near the end of last year, the Journal (Dec. 20) revealed still another case of American crony capitalism, of the green sort. It turns out that the wind industry — aptly dubbed “Big Wind” — copped a one-year, $3 billion extension of government support for wind power. It was part of the end-of-2010 tax deal.

Originally, this government subsidy was a feature of the infamous 2008 stimulus bill, under which taxpayers were forced to cover 30% of the costs of wind power projects. The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) begged for the subsequent bailout, because without it 20,000 wind power jobs would be lost (one-fourth of all such jobs in America). But despite the billions in subsidies, Big Wind is sucking wind; its allure is dropping like a stone. The AWEA’s own figures show a 72% decline in wind turbine installations from 2009, down to the lowest since 2006.

Besides trying to make the 30% subsidy(!) permanent, the AWEA is pushing for a national “renewable energy” mandate that will force utilities to buy a large chunk of the power they sell from renewable sources (mainly solar and wind), irrespective of the fact that the price of renewable energy is sky high. The association has gotten more than half the states to enact such mandates, with higher energy bills for consumers as the result. Not surprisingly, Big Wind is also pushing the EPA to make energy from fossil fuels vastly more costly.

According to the federal government’s own figures, wind and solar take 20 times the subsidy to produce electricity than do coal and natural gas. So you can see why Big Wind keeps blowing smoke up the public’s rear about the fabulous future of renewable energy. You can also see why Big Wind is such a big contributor to the campaign coffers of Democratic politicians. They are the only ones who keep this outrageous boondoggle awash in money.

Meanwhile, the promises of green energy look more and more hollow, every day.




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At Least Some People Get It

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The Obama administration continues to scratch its collective head over what to do about creating jobs. After the disastrous failure of the numerous mega-billion-buck bailouts intended to lower the unemployment rate, even the now happily departed lame-duck Congress refused to pass another massive pork bomb. The Obamanistas, devoted Keynesians all, have pushed through more spending more quickly than any other administration in history. The national debt, which stood at $13 trillion on June 2, 2010, closed the year at $14 trillion. So we have spent beyond the dreams of Keynes’ avarice, and the unemployment rate still hovers near 10%.

Meanwhile, up in the Great White North, our Canadian friends have shown the way. For the fourth year in a row, they are lowering their federal corporate tax rate. It has just been dropped to 16.5%. This is less than half the American federal rate of 35%. Amazing, considering that Canada is sometimes supposed to be the pure welfare state, while we are the pure capitalist one.

And it won’t stop there. In 2012, the Canadian federal rate will drop to 15%, bringing the combined federal and provincial rate on businesses to about 25%. Back in 2000, the combined Canadian corporate income tax rate was 42.6%, so the decline has been dramatic.

Besides cutting the corporate tax rate, the Canadian government has eliminated corporate surtaxes as well as levies on capital.

All these incentives, combined with Canada’s healthy financial sector — Canada never created crazy government agencies to encourage and then purchase bad mortgages (it apparently grasps the concept of moral hazard!) — are enticing increased business investment. Spectra Energy of Houston, for example, has decided to invest $2 billion in Canadian energy and infrastructure projects. The Citco Group, a financial firm, has decided to open its only North American bank in Canada. And the big accounting firm KMPG has moved many of its operations to Canada.

American corporate taxes remain the second highest in the industrialized world. Our competitors to the north have grasped the idea that to tax an activity is to deter it. The Canadians obviously want more business, not less. And the reason they want more is that they grasp the fact that business creates jobs.




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Escape and Transformation

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War is evil, not only because of the atrocities committed by invading armies, but also because of the atrocities that victims are sometimes forced to commit in an effort to survive.

As The Way Back begins, Janusz (Jim Sturgess) a young Polish freedom fighter, is being interrogated by the Russian police. Janusz's wife, in obvious agony from both physical torture and mental anguish, testifies against him, and he is sent to Siberia. There he meets a variety of prisoners, some incarcerated for political crimes and others for street crimes. The true criminals run the living quarters, and the guards run the work camps.

The most notorious prisons have always been guarded not by men but by nature. Devil's Island, Alcatraz, Ushuaia at the southern tip of South America were all known for harsh surroundings that made successful escape virtually impossible. Siberia, the prisoners are told, is surrounded by "five million square miles of snow." Nevertheless, Janusz and others hatch a scheme to escape the prison and make their way across the Trans-Siberian tracks to Mongolia with a motley group of friends that includes Tomasz (Alexandru Potocean), an artist; Khabarov (Mark Strong) a pastor; Smith (Ed Harris), an American; and Valka (Colin Farrell), a common street thug. When Smith warns Janusz that not everyone will make it alive, Janusz responds, "They won't all survive, but they will die free men."

Within the prison we see the free market at work as the men barter their skills for meager material goods such as cigarettes, food, and clothing. One man paints pictures; another offers protection; yet another tells stories. Each of these men harbors a secret sorrow that fills him with unspeakable regret — regret for something he has done, as a result of the war, to a friend or family member; regret that drives him forward, seeking absolution or perhaps punishment. Janusz is driven by the determination to tell his wife he forgives her and release her from the self-loathing he knows she must feel for having informed against him.

The trek across 4,000 kilometers of snow and desert leads many of the men to a soul-cleansing sacrifice. This theme is personified in the portrayal of Irena (Saoirse Ronan), a girl they meet along the way. As they cross the Mongolian Desert, one of the men weaves for her a large wreath of bent twigs to protect her from the searing sun. The hat brings to mind the crown of thorns Christ wore during his trek toward Calvary. As they march across the desert she leans heavily upon a wooden staff and falters several times, falling to her knees and then being helped up by the men. At one point, she lies on the sand and the hat falls behind her to reveal the soft blue scarf she wears beneath it. She looks up at them with the calm serenity of a Madonna and smiles a peaceful benediction at them. If more proof is needed that she is a combination Madonna and Christ figure, Irena even walks on water — well, she runs across a frozen river — and she gently washes Smith's blistered feet when they find an oasis. These are small moments in the film, but they express one of its major themes in a subtle and moving way.

The richly orchestrated original score by Burkhard von Dallwitz contributes to the emotion of the film and keeps most of the audience in its seat till the end of the credits, savoring the experience. The cinematography by Russell Boyd is also gorgeous, focusing on the grand landscapes of the desert, the Himalayas, and the starlit skies, as one would expect from a film produced by National Geographic. Some wide-angle scenes of the weary travelers are so perfectly composed that they give new meaning to the phrase "moving pictures." These are literally photographs that move. Director Peter Weir adds to this impression by presenting each scene as a separate snapshot of the journey, without narrative transition. At times one almost feels that one is turning the pages of a photo album.

This does not distract, however, from the development of the characters and their story. When they start their journey, the men are almost like animals. They eat food that has been stomped into the earth; they lap water from muddy pools. Colin Farrell as the Russian criminal, Valka, paces like a lone wolf on the outskirts of the group. He is ruthless, unpredictable, and inhumanly willing to kill for survival. Smith only half jokingly calls Janusz's kindness a "weakness" that he plans to exploit when he needs someone to carry him. At one point the men chase a pack of wolves away from a freshly killed animal, then fall onto the carcass themselves, tearing at the raw meat and elbowing one another out of the way in their frenzied hunger.

These scenes are harrowing. But they do not dominate the movie. Even more impressive is the symbolic transition from the darkness of the Siberian forest to the bright light of the desert. The further the men journey from their physical prison, the more their sense of humanity returns, releasing them from their internal prisons. The Way Back is not just a movie about traveling back home, but about finding a way back from the darkness of war to the light of human dignity and self-respect. It is truly a wonderful film.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Way Back," directed by Peter Weir. National Geographic, 2010, 133 minutes.



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A Cigar

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In my youth, I was spoiled for a long time. No one really spoiled me. I took care to spoil myself, again and again. But the bitch Reality often intruded.

I was spending a dream summer on a small Mexican island on the Caribbean. Everyone should have at least one dream summer, I think, and no one should wait for old age. I had several dream summers myself. Anyway, my then-future-ex-wife, or TFEW (pronounced as spelled) and I were renting one of four joined concrete cubes right on the beach, on the seaward side of the island.

There was no running water in the cell but you could clear the indoor toilet with a bucket of seawater. You could also buy a bucket of nearly fresh water for a shower. There was a veranda and the doors locked. We slept in our own hammocks outside in the sea breeze most nights, although there was a cot inside. We also cooked on our butane stove on the veranda. We thought it was all cool. There was a million-dollar ocean view (probably an underestimate).

To feed ourselves, we bought pounds of local oranges and bread baked daily. Mostly, I dived for fish and spiny lobster all day. It got to the point where we grew tired of lobster. I even went to the water's edge slaughterhouse early one morning to compete for some shreds of bleeding turtle meat. Turtle meat, it turns out, looks like beef, but it tastes like old fish. Then I invented new ways of cooking lobster. The TFEW was a good soldier who liked reading. Also, her patience was frequently rewarded (but I am too much the gentleman to expand on this).

One morning, I woke up by myself near dawn and prepared my Nescafé, bent down on the small butane stove set on the tiled floor of the veranda. I looked up to the sea for a second and I was hit by a scene from the great Spanish director Luis Buñuel. Less than one hundred yards from me, bobbing up and down but stationary, was a low wooden boat packed with about 50 or 60 people just standing silently. They were not talking, they were not shouting, and they were not moving. It was like a dream, of course, but I knew I was not dreaming. Quickly, details came into focus. One detail was that one of the people in the boat wore a khaki uniform and the characteristic hat of the Cuban militia. Goddamn, I thought, this is what I have been reading and seeing on television for years! It's the real thing!

Then the practical part of my brain took over. I tried to yell at them that my rocky beach was not a good place to land. One made a gesture indicating they could not hear me because of the small breakers. Bravely, I abandoned my undrunk Nescafé and dived into the waters I knew well, because I had taken a dozen lobsters right there, under the same rocks, in front of my door. I did the short swim in a minute or two, and hanging from the side of the boat I told them how to go around a nearby point past which there was a real harbor. They thanked me in a low voice, like very tired people, in a language that was clearly Spanish but that sounded almost comical to my ears.

An hour later, I walked to the harbor where the main café also was to find out about my refugees. Naturally, I felt a little possessive of them since I had discovered them all by myself. Soon after I arrived, they started coming out of processing by the local Mexican authorities. (Incidentally, I think I witnessed there a model of humane efficiency worth mentioning.) Each walked toward the café, an envelope of Mexican pesos in hand.

A tall, skinny black Cuban spotted me, from earlier in the morning, when I was in the water. He walked briskly to me and took me in his arms. It was moving but pretty natural, since I was the first free human being he had laid eyes on in his peril-fraught path to freedom. He spoke very quickly with an accent I was not used to. What perplexed me is that he kept saying “negro,” with great emotion. After a few seconds in his embrace, I realized he was calling me, “mi negro.” I wondered for an instant how I had become a Negro's Negro. Then it came back to me, out of some long buried reading, that Cuban men sometimes call their mistress “mi negra,” irrespective of color, the overt color reference serving as a term of endearment, of tenderness.

I took my new buddy to the café to buy him breakfast. He pulled out my chair ceremoniously and took an oblong metallic object out of the breast pocket of his thin synthetic shirt. This he handed to me with tears in his eyes. Inside was a long Cuban cigar. I did not have the heart to tell him I did not like cigars. I smoked the damn thing until my stomach floated in my throat. He watched beatifically, in the lucid understanding that that little act testified to his personal victory against the barbarism of communism.




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