It's the Population, Stupid

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The Kyoto Protocol is an international treaty designed to lower global temperature by having industrialized countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. That the United States, the largest energy consumer, has not ratified the treaty frustrates climate control advocates. They do not understand our failure to embrace such a climate change hat trick: empower globalism (i.e., increase the power of the United Nations), augment environmentalism (i.e., enrich environmentalists), and, of course, regulate capitalism (i.e., punish free enterprise). It’s a win-win-win proposition, except for one problem. The scheme won’t work. World population guarantees stark failure.

This is not to say that we are on the verge of a Malthusian collapse. But no matter how zealously the apostles of climate control push their questionable emissions reduction schemes, there is no doubt that anthropogenic demography will trump anthropogenic temperature. Any emissions reduction goals that may possibly be achieved will be negated so readily and predictably that only colossal incompetence and irresponsibility can explain why global warming scientists proposed them in the first place.

To quantify this folly, let’s take a look at how Kyoto would play out with full US participation. Don’t be alarmed by the math. Remember, mathematics is the language of science (although the verdict is out on whether the global warming variety is actually scientific). In any case, this is only middle school algebra, and all the terms and numbers are from UN sources.

Annual global energy consumption (GEC) can be estimated by

         GEC = n1*c1 + n2*c2

where n1 is the population of the industrialized world (North America, Europe and Oceana) and c1 is its per capita energy consumption; and n2 and c2 are the corresponding parameters for the developing world (Asia, Africa and Latin America). According to 2010 UN population figures, n1 = 1.12 billion and n2 = 5.79 billion. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), c1 = 4720 and c2 = 976, where these values are measured in kilograms of oil equivalent (KGOE). Thus, without Kyoto, the current GEC would be

         GEC = 1.12*4720 + 5.79*976 = 10,937 billion KGOEs.

Let r be the emissions reduction rate for industrialized countries. Since developing countries are not required to reduce emissions, annual GEC under the Kyoto scheme would be given by

         GEC = (1 — r)* n1*c1 + n2*c2.

Initially, a 5.2% emissions reduction below 1990 energy consumption levels was set for industrialized countries. But for this illustrative analysis, let’s assume a 10% reduction from 2010 levels. Then, with US participation, the current GEC would be

         GEC = (1 — 0.1)* 1.12*4720 + 5.79*976

          = 10,409 billion KGOEs.

Thus, if the US joined other industrialized countries in reducing emissions by 10%, a GEC of 10,409 billion KGOEs would be achieved — a level that would eventually reduce global temperature by a degree or so, the proponents hope. That is, we must continue at this level until the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tells us that environmental catastrophe has been averted — at least until 2050. However, in 2050, n1 = 1.19 billion and n2 = 7.96 billion. Then, GEC will be

         GEC = (1 — 0.1)* 1.19*4720 + 7.96*976

          = 12,824 billion KGOEs.

Oops! That’s a 2,415 billion increase over the planet-saving 10,409 level. Scientists at the IPCC apparently forgot to take into account the 37% population increase in developing countries. No problem. The emissions reduction rate required for industrialized countries to bring world GEC back into alignment can be easily found by solving for r:

         r = (GEC — n2*c2)/n1*c1

          = (10,409 - 7.96*976)/1.19*4720 = 0.47.

Oops, again! And, this time, it’s a very inconvenient oops. At 47%, we’ll have to try 4.7 times harder than before. If you have turned your thermostat down three degrees to save Mother Earth today (e.g., from 75 degrees to the Obama-recommended 72 degrees), plan on turning it down over 14 degrees by 2050. At 47%, the Prius of 2050 might be the ten-speed bicycle; the Energy Star clothes dryer, the clothesline.

It gets worse — much worse. With their cheap labor and emissions reduction exemptions, developing countries will become the manufacturers of the most energy-intensive products used by developed countries. Among other products, they will, no doubt, produce all of our windmills and solar panels. Their factories will use more energy and their, now wealthier, employees will increase purchases of products (electrical appliances, automobiles, etc.) that consume more energy. Therefore, assume, quite reasonably, that developing countries increase per capita energy consumption to, say, 1300 KGOEs — a 33% increase, but still a small fraction of what people in developed countries consume. In this case, the 2050 GEC would be

         GEC = (1 — 0.47)* 1.19*4720 + 7.96*1300

          = 13,325 billion KGOEs.

Oops, again! And, this time, it’s a fatal oops. Even with the industrialized world complying at a 47% emissions reduction rate, a slight 324 KGOE increase in developing world energy consumption results in a 2916 billion increase over the 10,409 level needed to save the planet.

Luckily, solving the above equation for a new planet-saving emissions rate is unnecessary. Noting that 7.96*1300 = 10,348, energy consumption by developing countries alone effectively breaks the planet-saving energy budget of 10,409. That is, under UN-projected population growth and a reasonable estimate of energy consumption growth in developing countries, the emissions reduction rate for industrialized countries required to make the Kyoto scheme work is 100%.

The Kyoto Protocol is a parasitic scheme in which the population of developing countries acts as an inherent flaw, bounding the effectiveness of the scheme to a level well below that required for its success. Proponents would have us believe that emissions reduction by industrialized countries is the solution. But, as shown above, the Kyoto goal is unachievable even in the 100% reduction case. It is the population growth of developing countries that bounds Kyoto’s success. Ignoring it ensures Kyoto’s failure. Under Kyoto-style schemes, global temperature will be as unconstrained as the delusions of climate control advocates.

It’s one thing to propose a stupid plan. Sometimes, even a stupid plan has a chance of eventual success. But it’s quite another to propose a plan that defies middle school algebra.

Congratulations! If you made it this far, you are smarter than a global warming scientist.




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Missing the Economic Boat

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The Company Men is a highly relevant film about the financial meltdown of 2008, when hundreds of thousands of workers suddenly lost their jobs to downsizing and company closings. As a work of entertainment, it's overly didactic and preachy, but as a social commentary it provides many insights and offers great fodder for conversation and debate about the economy and how to fix it.

The film begins with a montage of the homes and toys of the super-rich. The camera pans through wealthy neighborhoods of elegant mansions with their gleaming kitchens, high-priced antiques, luxury cars, fancy swimming pools, and garages full of tony sports equipment. These are people who know how to enjoy their incomes. In the background we hear a voiceover of news reports about the financial meltdown, when, for example, 53,000 Citigroup workers lost their jobs in a single day.

The film highlights three mid- to high-level employees of a fictional conglomerate who lose their jobs in the blink of an eye. Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) is a local boy who worked his way through college to earn an MBA and a well-paying job as a sales representative. Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) is the head of a division that was once his own shipbuilding company, now owned by the conglomerate. Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) is a 30-year veteran of the company who started as a welder in the factory and worked his way up to management.

All three lose their jobs to downsizing. One minute they're high-fiving each other about their golf scores; the next minute they're packing their boxes and heading out the door with twelve weeks' severance pay and the address of the Outplacement Center. There they sit in cubicles much like the ones where they worked in the company, only now what they're selling is themselves as they hunt for jobs that are increasingly scarce. As the weeks wear on, they become more discouraged, resentful, and scared. As Bobby complains, "I'm 37. How can I compete against MBAs fresh out of college who are willing to work for half what I was earning?"

What a swell guy! Wouldn't it be nice if everyone could work permanently for nothing?

The men's wives also become discouraged and resentful. At first, they all appear to be snippy housewives whose lives revolve around shopping and decorating, but each reacts differently to the news of her husband's layoff. One gets busy tightening the family budget and going back to work as a nurse. Another refuses to let anyone know, insisting that her husband continue leaving the house every morning, carrying a briefcase, and not letting him return until evening. A third marriage breaks up. In many ways, losing a job is as stressful as experiencing a death, and the reactions are as profound and as varied. Strong marriages become stronger; weak ones fall apart.

Writer-director John Wells has a definite point of view, and it is decidedly not in favor of people who make money by buying and selling. Borrowing a page from Marx's attitude toward money, he sees salesmen as useless middlemen who produce nothing and use nothing; they just handle the money. By contrast, Wells presents Bobby's blue-collar brother-in-law Jack (Kevin Costner) as the film’s true hero. Even Jack's modest home, where everyone drinks beer instead of wine and plays football in the backyard, is presented as being more fun than Bobby's fancy home.

Jack is a homebuilder by trade, and he hires people to help him. Unlike the corporate CEOs, who earn their bonuses no matter how poorly the company has performed and then fire employees to reduce costs, Jack actually underbids a job that will barely break even for him, just so he can keep his workers employed. What a swell guy! Wouldn't it be nice if everyone could work permanently for nothing? The film’s economic assumptions are hardly plausible, especially its Pollyanna ending (which I won't reveal here). And it conveniently overlooks the fact that the construction industry has taken a hard hit in the recession as well.

As I watched this film I thought about the plight of the people with which it is most concerned, the upper-middle class who in 2008 were working hard and following a path laid out for them by the preceding generation. They are people caught in the middle — they aren't important enough to have golden parachutes, like the CEOs, but they aren't poor enough to be able to maintain their lifestyles through unemployment checks, Section 8 housing, and government welfare. They don't qualify for Medicaid or food stamps, but they can't afford to pay their mortgages, make their car payments, or keep up with tuition and insurance when they lose their jobs. People who build their dreams on debt and long-term contracts just can't cut back when times get hard. They have no way to weather a storm.

The government’s intervention has created an artificial imbalance in the marketplace. It's time for government employees and union workers to start feeling the pinch as well.

Another thought that came to mind is that private businesses have borne the brunt of this recession. They are the ones making the difficult decisions to cut back or close down. A select few corporations have been bailed out by the government, but at the expense of others that are forced to contribute to their own demise through onerous taxation that funds the privileges awarded to their competitors. The government’s intervention has created an artificial imbalance in the marketplace. It's time for government employees and union workers to start feeling the pinch as well.

The Company Men makes some excellent points about how hard it is to deal with long-term unemployment. Affleck, Jones, and Cooper play their parts with a dignity, pathos, and poignancy befitting the characters they play in this film and typical of their own talented careers. But Wells is woefully underqualified to offer solutions to the economic problems we continue to face.

 


Editor's Note: Review of "The Company Men," directed by John Wells. Weinstein Productions, 2010, 104 minutes.



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Rousing the Rubes

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Sarah Palin interested me during the 2008 U.S. presidential election, for two reasons.

First, she occasionally seemed to embody the “West coast” style of libertarian political philosophy, based more on practical life experience than on academic training.

Second, her flashes of libertarianism seemed in tension with her claims of evangelical religious faith.

Either of these matters could have made her a compelling public figure. I hoped that she’d bring the first into mainstream political consciousness and offer some resolution to the second. But things didn’t work out that way. Quickly, Palin’s public figure had more to do with persona than philosophy.

Then, in fairly short order, her ticket came in second in the presidential election, she resigned as governor of Alaska halfway through her first term, and she signed a contract with the Fox News Channel to appear regularly as a commentator. She also released two books and starred in a short-lived “reality” television show.

In the coming presidential election cycle, I expect that Jon Huntsman — who’s recently resigned his position as U.S. Ambassador to China and taken the initial steps toward candidacy — will be the person who might raise the issues I’d hoped that Palin would.

Meanwhile, Palin remains on the scene. Her cult of personality is still strong. And her cult of animosity may be even stronger.

I’m not the first to note how closely she resembles the character Emmanuel Goldstein in Orwell’s 1984 — in respect to oppositional politics, if not to intellectual power. Establishment Left groups use her name or image to incite passionate response in readers, donors, and other constituents. We’d need someone like Freud to explain the reasons why Palin resonates so strongly with the Left. But there’s little doubt that she’s marketing gold — a lip-rouged bogeyman who drives clicks to leftwing websites and sells magazines and books.

There we might leave the discussion. And yet . . . the intensity of Palin-hate that small minds on the Left feel is worth considering in some detail. It’s instructive of the state of political discourse.

In late January, the New York Times ran an opinion column by one if its lesser agitators. The piece was highly critical of Rep. Michele Bachmann, who’d recently delivered a semi-official Tea Party response to the president’s state of the union speech. The agitator mocked Bachmann’s manners and makeup but, more than anything else, she presented Bachmann and Palin (by ham-fisted logic since, to that point, Palin had said little publicly about Obama’s speech) for Two Minutes of Hate.

There’s little doubt that Palin is marketing gold — a lip-rouged bogeyman who drives clicks to leftwing websites and sells magazines and books.

And hate the Times readers did. It’s easy to ignore, or forget, how childish and emotional some Americans are about politics. The internet is great for illuminating things like this. Here are some excerpts from the scores of comments that appeared afterward on the newspaper’s website.

“Michelle Bachmann is as ridiculous a political figure as Sarah Palin. The question, however, is why we are covering either one of them. Both Palin and Bachmann know virtually nothing about the important political issues facing our nation, are not qualified to serve in any sort of high level political office, and do little more than degrade the level of political discourse in our nation.”

“The GOP is ignorant about history. The GOP is ignorant about Europe (Paul Krugman’s piece yesterday). The GOP combines that ignorance with an agenda to misinform the public in such a way that voters, against their own economic interests, support policies that benefit a wealthy elite that is getting richer by the day. . . . If only Obama had been the people’s leader we thought we were getting.”

“When I think of Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin I always think of mud wrestling. Even Michelle’s description of the lovely outfit she was wearing years ago . . . doesn’t dislodge the frame by frame fixation I have of her and the former half-governor from Alaska in a mud pit, pulling each other’s hair, calling each other names, slipping and sliding in the sticky brown goo.”

Such keen insights are hard to top, but here are two more:

“I just don’t get it as to why do so many people respond favorably to people like Palin and Bachmann? And add to them Glen [sic] Beck and Limbaugh fueling their fire along with others trailing in their wake like Ryan and Boehner. They mock and are sarcastic with religious fervor. To me they are so off the wall and ridiculous that whatever they say is total nonsense. . . . I tremble. I want a brainy President like Obama and brainy people around him.”

She serves as a scapegoat, in the original sense of that term: she carries off the failings that her haters fear in themselves.

“Bachman and Palin are the bullies in the kindergarden [sic] of Republican politics and no other kid in their class will stand up to them. Could their behavior be a portent of the approaching death of the party of the rich old white well educated ruling elite and the emergence of a new party of servants of the rich — probably labeled the New Stupids, but just as much in the pockets of the monied [sic] class . . .”

Bear in mind that all of this was posted, in a public forum, just a few weeks after the “brainy” Barack Obama had called for more civilized rhetoric in the nation’s political debate.

I’m no Freud, but even I can see the psychological themes in the Palin-hate. It’s projection. And she serves as a scapegoat, in the original sense of that term: she carries off the failings that her haters fear in themselves. Ignorant, ridiculous, stupid, bullying, mocking, sarcastic, a stupid servant of others, of elite political forces,and . . . ridiculous. Clearly, her haters don’t feel very good about themselves.

And they worry — a lot — that they’re ridiculous.

Perhaps with good reason. “JF” from Wisconsin believes that the GOP’s wide-ranging ignorance empowers it to bamboozle the nation’s voters. And consider the political order, as interpreted by “Annie” from Rhode Island: in her view, three pundits and a junior congresswoman dictate the political agenda to the Speaker of the House. And there are thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of these mail-order Aristotles out there — all desperate to show that they are so very much smarter than Sarah Palin.

I have no idea whether Palin will run for president in 2012 — though I doubt she will go very far if she does. But I’m glad she’s still on the scene. The response she evokes in the rubes is rich.




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A Gargantuan Gift to the Unions

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After his decisive defeat in the recent congressional elections, President Obama is now trying to portray himself as a born-again centrist, verbalizing vague sympathies for small business and lighter regulation, not to mention capitulating to the Republicans’ demands to renew the Bush tax cuts for two more years. He is even feigning admiration for President Reagan.

But Obama is one of the most artful deceivers in the history of an office well known for attracting deceivers. As I have urged before (“Obamalaise,” Liberty, May 2010), you have to look at what he does, not merely at what he says. And what he is actually doing is continuing to advance his leftist agenda.

A particularly disgusting illustration is his recent decision, almost completely ignored in the mainstream media, to allow TSA employees (the airport screeners) to unionize.

When the TSA was set up, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the TSA administrator was given the authority to choose whether to give the employees the right to collective bargaining. Until now, the TSA has not done so. But Obama’s choice to head the TSA, John Pistole, changed that policy. Now the TSA’s 40,000 airport screeners — those paragons of efficiency and decorum, so eager to guard our privacy rights — join the ranks of public employees who are already in unions. The TSA employees will vote in March between representation by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and the National Treasury Employees Union.

John Gage, president of the AFGE, crowed, “Today marks the recognition of a fundamental human right for 40,000 patriotic federal employees who have been disenfranchised since the inception of the agency.” Well he might crow, since these events will add 40,000 new employees to the public employee unions, which saw a drop of about 250,000 members in 2010. They will thus add an enormous amount to union dues, which will be spent on (among other things) electing Democrats in the next election cycle. In line to get the lion’s share of those union dues will be Pistole’s boss, Obama. It is very convenient.

Pistole says that the TSA workers won’t have the right to strike or engage in work slowdowns — as if we could tell whether these people are staging a slowdown or not. He also says that the workers won’t have a say in any matter that concerns airport security.

The devil is in the details.

In any case, if Obama is reelected, you can bet that these presumed restrictions will be loosened or eliminated. In the meantime, after the TSA workers unionize, we can expect their wages and benefits to skyrocket, adding significantly to our national deficit. Worse, disciplining lazy or inefficient workers will soon become incredibly difficult, rather like trying to fire incompetent tenured teachers, with the obvious effects on our collective security.

Let us now praise moderate men.




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Blow Hot, Blow Cold

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The Rural Electrification Act of 1936, one of the New Deal’s proudest accomplishments, is often cited as an example of government’s ability to do good and generate progress. In 1910, nearly 50 million rural residents (over half the country) lived without electricity. By 1950, 45 million of those formerly "unhooked" were "on the grid," thanks to the REA. Or so the story goes.

Commercial electric utilities, with low voltage transmission lines and facing huge infrastructure investments for universal service, were loath to extend power to far-flung homesteads. Additionally, these were regulated monopolies with prices fixed by the government. But Charles Kettering, developer of the electric starter for automobiles, sensed an opportunity.

After selling his company, Delco, to General Motors, Kettering introduced the Delco-Light Farm Electric Plant in 1916. The small gas-powered engine coupled to a 32v DC generator and a set of batteries came with an entire line of optional peripherals: lights, appliances, well pumps, and electric motors. It was an instant hit. By 1936, nearly 150 companies were selling farm electric plants and more than 600,000 rural homes and businesses were generating their own power.

Meanwhile, according to Craig Toepfer’s just-released The Hybrid Electric Home (Schiffer, 2010), a bunch of radio enthusiasts in Ohio were giving birth to the renewable-energy industry.Fine Homebuilding, a respected journal of the building trades, reports that the first wind generators were made by Great Plains farmers whose living-room radios were hooked up to car batteries that they got tired of lugging into town to be recharged so the farmers could listen to “the Clicquot Club Eskimos, the Ipana Troubadours, or WLS’s National Barn Dance.” So they mounted homemade propellers onto car generators, stuck them on a pole, and wired them to their radio batteries.

Other entrepreneurs sensed more opportunities. In 1930, the Jacobs Wind Electric Company opened its first factory in Minneapolis. Eventually, more than 20 companies were making wind generators. Ever frugal farmers, faced with scarcer funds, soon hooked up the wind generators to their oil-based farm electric plants to save fuel, creating the first hybrid generators.

But then Congress passed the first Rural Electrification Act in 1936, effectively killing the nascent off-the-grid power generating industry. As Toepfer argues, “In a monumental act of irrationality, justifiable only by a lack of knowledge or understanding, the federal government decided to do what no investor-owned utility would even begin to consider doing, extending the central station wires from the major urban centers to every rural and remote part of the nation.”

According to the stipulations of the Rural Electrification Administration, hookups performed under its aegis required the removal or destruction of wind and oil-based farm electric systems. The rationale for this misguided policy was that the only way to increase profitability for regulated monopolies with government-fixed prices was to increase demand, and this was most expedient method of reducing REA subsidies to electric utilities.

The REA doubtless improved the lives of millions of Americans. But Toepfer argues that for the $210 million that the government spent under the REA act, it could have provided every electricity-deprived homestead with a farm electric plant and a wind generator, and still not have spent all its money. Although there is no question that the REA supplied a much greater amount of power than the basic, self-reliant technology that was just getting off the ground, Fine Homebuilding opines that “we put all our eggs in one energy basket, committing the country to an inefficient electric grid, sanctioning tremendous environmental damage in the process, and squelching what could have been an enormous start for alternative energy."

Instead, 90 years later, the federal government’s industrial and energy policies see fit to reverse course and channel taxpayer funds into the same industries that it once saw fit to destroy. Go figure.




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Cronies Forever — Dude!

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In a recent reflection, I noted a number of instances of what is fairly clearly corruption on the part of this Administration. (I was actually adding to a list of instances first given by the Washington Examiner columnist Tim Carrey).

But — such is my declining memory in my declining years — I missed a particularly egregious example of Obama’s Chicago School of Economics (which is definitely not to be confused with the Chicago School of Friedman and his co-workers).

The signature bill for which Obama will be remembered (or cursed) is his healthcare act, the eponymous Obamacare. One of the provisions of this monstrosity is the requirement that all healthcare plans must raise their annual limits to at least $750,000. (In 2012, that minimum allowable limit rises to $1.25 million; it then rises to $2 million in 2013.) Naturally, this requirement forces companies whose employee insurance has lower limits to raise them and thus pay higher premiums, or to cancel their employee health plans. The only way not to obey it is to go hat in hand to the Department of Health and Human Services — run by the Obama regime, remember — and get a waiver, which the HHS Department will grant or deny, as it sees fit.

The number of these waivers has been rising rapidly, with well over 700 companies and unions now having obtained them. And, behold! An amazing pattern is emerging about who gets the coveted waivers: disproportionately, they seem to be going to the regime’s supporters.

To be precise, as David Freddoso documents, 40% of the workers affected are in union plans. (In fact, of the 14.6 million unionized workers in this country, nearly a million are now conveniently exempt from the provisions.) But do I have to add that these unions are all huge donors to Democratic campaign coffers in general and Obama’s coffers in particular?

And I’m willing to bet that of the companies that got exemptions, a large percentage have also contributed to Democratic political campaigns.

That’s Obama’s Chicago School of Economics, or what I call neo-socialism. The regime doesn’t actually own all major businesses, but it controls them tightly and exacts tribute from them. More succinctly, it’s “play for pay, the Chicago way”!




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Media, Heal Thyself

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In January the nation survived one of its periodic linguistic disasters — Jared Loughner’s alleged murder of six people and his attempted murder of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tuscon, Arizona.

I’m not calling this a linguistic disaster because I am unsympathetic about the suffering and death that Loughner caused. The death and suffering are real, and talking won’t do anything to help the victims or their friends. Only human concern, the concern shown by individuals for individuals, can possibly do that.

But death, even the death of many people at the same time, is not unusual. During January 2011, hundreds of thousands of people died in the United States. Innocent people were gunned down by criminals. Whole families died in traffic accidents. Lunatics killed many more people than Jared Loughner dreamed of killing. Logically, there was no reason for speeches to be made about the Loughner affair, for Congress to report itself so distressed that it could not do its work, for Fox News, of all things, to run 24-hour coverage of what quickly became the non-news from Tucson, or for anyone else to expend sentences and paragraphs speculating about what it all meant, or should mean, to the republic.

This is not a heartless statement; it is the simple truth.

A few years ago, a guy tried to mug me while I was walking toward a store in my neighborhood. I fought him off. I suppose he could have killed me. But there was a logic to his attack. He wanted my money. “Give me your money,” he said.

You have to respect that. Perhaps you might also want to think about possible means of reducing the number of robberies. But debating the meaning of Jared Loughner? Why?

Some of the commentary on Loughner’s deed resulted from honest concern about whether there is any means of identifying people like him before they can do grave damage. But most of the debate was patently dishonest. Anyone who tries to make a political cause out of Loughner’s behavior is acting worse, in a way, than he did — because he didn’t know what he was doing. The people who immediately exploited his deed to argue for more gun control and more speech control and more media control — they know what they’re doing, and for that reason they are more dangerous than a thousand Loughners.

If you think otherwise, you are under the influence of words, not things, because that is all that the crisis of January 2011 consisted of. It was a crisis of nothing but words, words used to magnify and distort a private, virtually random mental disturbance and turn it into a national and political catastrophe.

The people who immediately exploited his deed to argue for more gun control and more speech control and more media control — they know what they’re doing, and for that reason they are more dangerous than a thousand Loughners.

As you know, within minutes of this sad event, modern-liberal newspaper columnists, and nearly everyone on television was proclaiming it a national tragedy, a troubling indication of the American mentality, a probable indication of the malign influence of political polarization, an undoubted indication of Things that Should Worry Every American, a possible subject for legislation and presidential decree, and, above all, a hopeful occasion for national “healing.” The idea was that Americans are so “fragile” that they are easily “unsettled” and even “wounded” by such events as occurred in Tucson. This is a slander on the American people — a cheap and obvious slander — and a revelation of a shocking lack of perspective on the part of America’s political and media class.

Let’s consider some preceding events.

1. On July 11, 1804, Aaron Burr, Vice President of the United States and President of its Senate, fatally wounded the statesman Alexander Hamilton, in a duel fought over the question of whether Burr was “despicable.”

2. On Feb. 24, 1838, William Graves, a congressman from Kentucky, killed a congressman from Maine, Jonathan Cilley, in a duel prompted by accusations of bribery by the latter about the former. The House considered censuring the victor but never did so.

3. On May 22, 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina, assisted by another representative from that state, Laurence Keitt, assaulted Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the floor of the Senate, beating him brutally. The House censured Keitt, and Brooks resigned from the House.

4. On March 1, 1954, Puerto Rican nationalists stood in the gallery of the House of Representatives and used automatic pistols on the 240 congressmen in the room below, hitting five of them.

5. On June 5, 1968, Robert Kennedy, Senator from New York, was assassinated by a Palestinian who was annoyed by Kennedy’s support for Israel.

6. On Nov. 18, 1978, in the country of Guyana, Leo Ryan, a California member of the House of Representatives, was slain by followers of the “revolutionary communist” Jim Jones, whose purportedly religious activities the congressman had been investigating.

7. On Jan. 8, 2011, Congresswoman Giffords was wounded in an attempt on her life by Jared Loughner, a maniac who thought that his junior college was committing “genocide” on him.

Ask yourself:

Which of these events was of national importance? On the face of it, nos. 1, 4, and 5; and once you understand the context of no. 3, which was the run-up to the Civil War, that one too.

Now ask yourself:

Which of them was a crisis? Here the answer is equally obvious: only no. 5 is a possibility, and only if it is considered from the perspective of the Democratic Party, whose nomination Kennedy was seeking (but almost undoubtedly could not have achieved). The death of Hamilton was a severe misfortune for his party, but not a crisis. The Puerto Rican nationalists were an organized group with a political platform, but they weren’t important enough to create a crisis, even if they had killed all the congressmen they hit. The beating of Sumner was a disgusting symptom of sectional division, not the crisis of division itself.

Ask yourself a third question:

Which of these episodes demanded a “healing of the nation”? Only the beating of Sumner. That was the only one in which deep and truly national emotions were at stake. Compare the approaching Civil War with whatever political causes Jared Loughner might, according to the wildest imagination, possibly be regarded as representing, and you’ll see how ludicrous it is to talk about “healing” the nation from the “rifts” and "wounds" that such causes have purportedly produced. In other words, compare the crisis of the Civil War with the current “crisis of civility.” What a laugh.

On Jan. 17, a popular Southern Californian radio personality, John Kobylt of the “John and Ken Show,” agreed with me in part when he identified Loughner’s act as that of a mentally diseased person, of no political importance. That’s true. But John called the response to this act “mass hysteria,” and that’s not true. It wasn’t mass hysteria. It was media hysteria.

The idea was that Americans are so “fragile” that they are easily “unsettled” and even “wounded” by such events as occurred in Tucson. This is a slander on the American people.

A week after the shootings, I was getting a haircut in the large, middle-American barber shop where I always go for that ritual. One of the barbers has a loud voice, and he introduced the topic of “you know, that thing that happened over in Arizona.” At first, nobody seemed to recognize what he was talking about. Even when he explained what he meant, it elicited, unlike sports talk, no special interest. Even the guy who brought it up couldn’t remember exactly what had happened, or whether anybody had been killed. One customer asked whether there was some kind of congressman involved, but nobody was willing to pronounce on that point. I could have, and probably some of the other 20 guys in the place could have, too. But nobody bothered. Nobody felt impelled to Set the Record Straight. That’s how important the whole thing was to that middle-American crew.

Another datum. During the weeks since the Arizona incident occurred, no one has brought it up to me. No one. I’ve mentioned it to a few people, and they’ve responded in due course. But nobody except me has thought it important enough to start a conversation about. I’ve asked my friends whether any of their acquaintances have brought it up, either. “Oh no,” they say, as if they were considering the proposition that water might run uphill.

This was not what anybody would call a major national event — not for the American people, at any rate. It was a media event. It was an instance of media hysteria, of word hysteria.

It was also an instance of the lack of scale that appears to be built into the media’s approach to human life. A long time ago, the media threw away all measuring devices. During the 1970s, the nation was constantly told that Watergate was “the greatest crisis since the Civil War.” The deterioration of the economy that occurred during the same decade, and that seems today its most important event, received no such dramatic amplification. Today we are taught that our current economic distress is “the worst since the Great Depression.” Yes, it’s bad; and we will see something worse when the bills finally come due for the past decades of profligacy, but I doubt that what we are suffering today is worse than the economic weirdness that followed World War II, or the gas rationing, price controls, and stagflation of the 1970s.

It’s easy to lose your sense of scale when you’re pushing an ideology. You want to lose it, and suddenly, it’s gone! That goes for all those Watergate comments, for the cooked statistics about “homelessness” that were designed to make President Reagan look bad, for the constant blather about the dangers of “handguns,” for the scare tactics used to inspire “respect for the environment,” for the . . . . . But no, I could expand the list indefinitely, and so could you. But there’s something else going on, something that’s hard to explain except by reference to ignorance, stupidity, and the desire to punch up any story for which video is available.

Compare the approaching Civil War with whatever political causes Jared Loughner might possibly be regarded as representing, and you’ll see how ludicrous it is to talk about “healing” the nation.

Here’s what I mean. If they’re watching American TV on Mars right now, they think that fees in community colleges are $100,000 a year, because all they see is suffering students bewailing the fact that “fees keep going up.”Nobody tells them that the fees are practically zero, compared to other costs of living. In addition, the Martians probably believe that Americans do nothing but lose children, then try to relocate them — not realizing, because nobody ever mentions it, how unusual lost children, truly lost children, really are. And I’m sure the Martians believe that every year, America’s landmass is swept by gargantuan fires, because the news folk keep saying, “And in California right now, wildfires have consumed over 1000 acres, with no containment in sight.

Please. Doesn’t anyone have a hand calculator? The Southern California county in which I live contains 2,896,640 acres, the great majority of them uninhabited. In brush country, you can expect a fire on any given acre at least once every 30 years. And the fires always get contained. They don’t keep burning till they reach Cleveland. But even as I write these words, Fox News is showing me a grass fire, somewhere in these great United States, that is actually “burning two structures!” Oh really? In 2009, the last year for which comprehensive statistics are available, fire departments in the United States dealt with almost 400,000 home fires. The fires killed more than 2,500 people. Maybe good video wasn’t available on those.

During the past few days, I’ve watched a lot of cable coverage of the riots in Egypt. Frequently, the talking heads refer to the fact that, as they say, “the United States gives over one billion dollars in aid to Egypt!” The real figure is somewhat larger than that, but never mind. CNN and Fox News have radically different ideological outlooks; yet neither of them has any scale or measurement in its reporting. One or two billion dollars is nothing in the American scale of spending. The annual budget of the university where I teach is larger than that, and it's far from the largest university in the country, or even the state. My city plans to spend about $200 million building a new library. I don’t think it should, but that’s beside the point. If we sent the money to Egypt, it would increase America’s bribery to that country by roughly 10 percent.

Now, when was the last time you heard anything like that from the media?

By the way, CNN and Fox News have both placed heavy emphasis on the idea that you gotta understand the Egyptian revolutionaries, because the official unemployment rate in Egypt is as high as 9%! Tell me, what’s the official unemployment rate in the United States? On Feb. 4, it was reported to be 9%.




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Welcome, Oscar

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I wasn't a fan of the Motion Picture Academy's decision to expand its field of Best Picture nominees to a crowded 10. But maybe the Academy is onto something. This year it has given its membership the opportunity to recognize a range of work that includes small independent films, big-budget blockbusters, thoughtful biographies, an animated film, a comedy (of sorts), and even an old-fashioned western.

With one exception, I have reviewed all the nominees in Liberty — and I have “viewed” that exception, even though I didn't review it. I don't know which of these fine films will take home the statue, but I think I'll be satisfied this year no matter what. Here is a quick review of each of the Best Picture nominees.

Inception. The most exciting, astounding film of the year, this psychological thriller stunned audiences with its mindboggling cityscapes folding into themselves, how'd-they-do-that weightlessness, multiple layers of reality, and action scenes worthy of a James Bond film. Added to all that are the creative musical score by Hans Zimmer (also nominated for an Oscar); knock-out performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Marion Cotillard; and an intellectual script that challenges the viewers' perception of reality and of how beliefs are formed. Months after the film’s release, fans are still arguing about its central meaning: the action takes place inside a dream, but whose dream is it? (I know — do you?) Unaccountably, writer-director Christopher Nolan was shut out of the nominations for Best Director. Also, the film was probably too popular at the box office to take home the prize. But I'm glad to see it nominated. It’s my favorite studio film this year.

Winter's Bone. This rugged little indie film was my happiest surprise of the morning when the nominees were announced. Ree Dolley (Jennifer Lawrence, nominated for Best Actress) is the most libertarian heroine in the movies this year. When her meth-lab father puts the family farm up for collateral with a bail bondsman, then vanishes from town, Ree must track him down and bring him to court to keep from forfeiting the homestead. She is the kind of self-reliant heroine one can genuinely admire. A high school student raising her two young siblings, she briefly considers joining the Army to take advantage of the $40,000 enlistment bonus — but she does not consider turning to the government for welfare handouts. Despite her family's deep poverty, there is no evidence of social workers, child protective services, section 8 housing, or even food stamps. The film is set in the Ozarks, in a closed, insulated community where people eat off the land, or they don't eat at all; and Ree manages not only to eat but to triumph over her difficult surroundings. I'm delighted that this film will be brought back for viewing, now that it has been nominated for Best Picture.

127 Hours. If Ree Dolley is the most libertarian heroine of 2010, Aron Ralston (James Franco, nominated for Best Actor) of 127 Hours is her male counterpart. When Aron gets pinned by a large boulder after falling into a crevasse while hiking in a Utah canyon, he sets to work figuring out how to free himself – which he does in a heroic and horrifying way. This film could have been claustrophobic and gratuitously graphic, but instead it is a celebration of level-headed innovation and the drive for self-preservation. Moreover, it is a powerful metaphor for life in the new millennium. We hurtled our way through the go-go ’90s, pumped up by a soaring stock market and roaring real estate investments, only to be pinned down by boulders that were, as Aron philosophizes, “there all along, just waiting to meet me in that canyon.” Too many people waste precious time crying over their problems or waiting for “someone” (read: the government) to fix them. But as Aron Ralston’s story clearly demonstrates, the key to success is to assume that no one is coming to bail you out. Instead of worrying about the cellphoneyou don’t have, assess the tools you do have. Keep a positive spirit. Be resourceful and self-reliant. Be a problem-solver. Remember to thank the people in your life and tell them that you love them. And don’t be afraid to let go of the thing that is holding you back, even if it is as precious as an arm.

The Fighter. This film about boxing brothers Dicky Eklund and Micky Ward received its nomination largely on the strength of its cast and director (David O. Russell, also nominated). The film boasts three Best Supporting nominations, and each of them is richly deserved. Christian Bale seems to be Hollywood's go-to guy when directors need an actor to lose a ton of weight (The Machinist, Rescue Dawn), but it isn't just the weight-loss that garnered Bale the nomination. As the wide-eyed, hyped-up, drug-addled, former boxing legend Dicky Eklund, he lights up the screen with his cocaine-induced enthusiasm and gut-wrenching pathos. And Melissa Leo, who plays the family’s hard-driving, chain-smoking, no-nonsense matriarch in tight pants and high heels, is my favorite Supporting Actress of the year. Leo is over-the-top perfect in this role, from the moment she prances into the gym, clipboard in hand, to supervise Micky's training session. Alice is the ultimate stage mother: pushy, strong, manipulative, and naively confident in her ability to manage her sons’ careers. Going head-to-head with her, on Oscar night and in the film, is Amy Adams as Micky's girlfriend Charlene, who stands up ferociously to the matriarch and her seven big-haired daughters in this film. Adams is a skilled actress, at home playing charming ingénues in romantic comedies or gritty working girls in dysfunctional dramas like this one. But Leo is my Oscar choice, because of her performance in The Fighter and also because I admired her equally strong performance as the investigator in this year's weaker prison film, Conviction. Mark Wahlberg's performance as Micky is strong as well, but he wasn't nominated for an Oscar, possibly because he's the straight man in the cast, and those characters are often overlooked by the Academy. It's a shame, because Wahlberg shepherded this story for several years and is the driving force behind the film.

The King's Speech. Let's get serious now. While the films listed above are my personal favorites this year, The King's Speech is the film that I expect (and hope, since it is better than those listed below) to see storming the stage at the end of Oscar night. It's a film about triumph over personal and public obstacles, as the unassuming man who would become King George VI struggles to overcome his speech impediment and prepares to lead England during World War II. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are glorious as the prince and the speech therapist, sparring like equals despite their difference in social class. Helena Bonham Carter captures the tender affection and twinkling eye that would characterize Elizabeth, the Queen Mum, throughout her life. All three are nominated. Indeed, The King's Speech leads the pack for nominations, with an even dozen. It is likely to walk away with at least half of those.

The Social Network. Mark Zuckerberg isn't even 30 yet, and already he's been immortalized with a film about him. Reportedly the multibillionaire whiz kid, who changed the way people communicate with one another when he created Facebook (even I use it now!), isn't very happy about the way he is portrayed in the movie. But no matter — this film is going to be the way people remember and define Mark Zuckerberg. A fascinating look at the relationships among conception, production, and capitalization in a startup business, the film focuses on the intellectual property lawsuit brought by classmates against Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg, nominated for Best Actor) and the frenzied atmosphere that surrounded the beginning of the business. The musical score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross(also nominated) contributes to that atmosphere and is likely to win.

True Grit.Wouldn't it be fun if Jeff Bridges (nominated for Best Actor) won in this category? Then we would have two men receiving Oscars for the same role, and both for the wrong reasons. Let's face it — John Wayne was a star, not an actor.He was good in True Grit (1969), but there was nothing outstanding about his performance. It was just his turn, and everyone knew it. Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn is better in every way than Wayne's. But better than Colin Firth in The King's Speech? Or Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network? Or James Franco in 127 Hours? It's an impressive field of actors this year, and Bridges should be grateful that Crazy Heart came out last year instead (he won the Oscar for that film). Nevertheless, I could see the Academy voting for Bridges, just for the notoriety of having two men win for the same role. Cynicism aside, I have to report that this is a wonderful movie. But it's Hailee Steinfeld (nominated for Best Supporting Actress) as Mattie Ross, not Jeff Bridges, who lifts the film to greatness. Whether she's negotiating with horse traders, sparring with Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), or confronting Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father, she dominates each scene with her combination of spunk, courage, intelligence, and vulnerability. Her relationship with Rooster develops slowly and genuinely, building to the scene where he literally drives her horse into the ground as he races against time to save her. It's a thrilling film in every sense. Those Coen Brothers (nominated for Best Director) can do just about anything.

Toy Story 3.Pixar was a brand new animation company when it introduced Toy Story in1995, and the franchise has grown stronger with each installment of this clever series and its cast of beloved toys led by Woody, Buzz, Jessie, and Mr. Potato Head. Now Andy, their owner, has grown up, and as he goes off to college his mother encourages him to donate his old toys to a neighborhood preschool. Their zany adventures continue as they try to survive the rough-and-tumble children and get back home to Andy. As witty and poignant as any of the films in the series, Toy Story 3 deserves its nomination for Best Picture. Incidentally, Andy's decision to give his toys to a neighbor girl, while perhaps satisfying popular cultural values, broke this mother's heart. I want Andy to come back five years from now with a family of his own who will play with his old toys!

Black Swan is a satisfying psychological thriller that explores what it means for a performer to enter a role and become a character. Nina (Natalie Portman, nominated for Best Actress) is technically a superb ballerina, but she lacks the depth of character to reach into the dark soul of the black swan in "Swan Lake." As she prepares for the role she must deal with an overbearing mother, a lecherous director, a creepy competitor, and her own repressed sexuality. Not my favorite film of the year, but certainly a creative and visually impressive work.

The Kids Are All Right. I haven't watched this film, but I've seen it. I was flying across country two days before Christmas in one of those planes with individual movie screens in the back of each seat that allow passengers to choose their own entertainment. I was quietly minding my own business, playing Trivial Pursuit, when I suddenly received an eyeful from the screen between the seats in front of me: two naked men were simulating sex on a screen within the screen, followed by what looked like a stern talking to from a concerned Annette Bening — evidently the "son who's all right" was caught watching porn. A few moments later I glanced in that direction again and saw Bening apparently watching TV in bed. Suddenly her blankets started rumbling like an earthquake, she started smiling, and Julianne Moore emerged from under the sheets. And then the men's naked bodies were onscreen again (I guess Mom #1 needed to discuss it with Mom #2, or something). I stopped playing my game and opened a book so I wouldn't have to look in that direction anymore. I don't pretend to know what this film is about, and I don't have an opinion about whether it deserves an Oscar nomination. I just don't think a version offering unedited, unexpected nudity should have been shown on a Christmas flight full of children. Or old fogeys like me.




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