Explaining the US Debt Crisis — To My Teenagers

 | 

Hey kids, pause American Idol for a moment and let me "lay some wisdom on you," as your generation likes to say.

It's about the US debt and what it means to you. If you pretend convincingly that you're fascinated by what I have to say, we'll go out for pizza, OK? Great.

Now, it’s hard to wrap our heads around billions and trillions of dollars, so let’s bring these numbers down to a human level so we can get some perspective. Let's scale it down to the size of a family budget. We'll divide the actual numbers by one billion, and talk about months instead of years.

So let's pretend that we are a family of criminals [the US government] living in a pretty rough neighborhood [the world].

Our family takes in a lot of money [government revenues] by picking pockets, mugging, and running shakedowns and con games. Heck, we even do some counterfeiting. And we spend it all as soon as we get it [government expenditures]. But every month we need $1,500 more than we take in. So every month I borrow that shortfall [the deficit] from the neighborhood loan shark, and we spend it.

The funny thing is, I already owe him $14,000 so far [the debt]. But he’s been pretty patient, for a convicted homicidal maniac [the Chinese government]. I guess he’s been cleaning up his image.

What’s worse, I’ve been running a pyramid scheme that's gotten a little out of control, and people are beginning to catch on. I've already promised about $100,000 [total unfunded liabilities], spread out over the next few months, to pretty much everyone in our extended family [voters with entitlement programs]. Some are well-off and won't miss their share, but some are desperate and could really use the money I scammed. Either way, they’re all going to sue me when they find out — but too bad, I already blew the money long ago.

Anyhoo, I sat down with Mom to figure a way out of this mess. I [a Republican] bravely proposed spending $100 less this month, but she [a Democrat] screamed, “What about the children!” and said it would be an unacceptable cut in our standard of living. She said we should open more credit cards in your names [borrowing], mug more people [taxation], and try some more counterfeiting [“quantitative easing”].

Finally we agreed that things will work out somehow. We just need to spend $30 less this month [the 2011 budget deal].

So I called up the loan shark and explained that he’ll eventually get all his money back —  we crossed our hearts and promised on our kids' lives  —  if we can just borrow another $1,470 this month, while we figure things out.

I figure we can always just give him counterfeit money, so we're good!

By the way, he said to say "Hi" and that he's really, really, looking forward to meeting you kids soon.

So that's what the debt crisis is basically all about. Now, who's up for pizza?

What? Whaddya mean you're not hungry?




Share This


French Intellectuals: Telling Stories

 | 

There is a French intellectual class. It's better defined — around the figure of the public intellectual — than it is in other countries that I know. French men and women from a handful (that's one handful) of schools dominate public discourse in France to an extent difficult to imagine in this country.

Here is an illustration: One evening, I found my septuagenarian mother transfixed before her television with the pious look on her face she reserved for moments when she thought she was listening to elevating material. She was following an exposition about Claude Lévi-Strauss' “Structuralism.” My mother only had a high-school education (but she did read quite a bit). Of course, no one understands Lévi-Strauss' scholarly work. I am not referring to his young man's slim travelogue, Tristes tropiques. That is a charming and intelligent book. I refer to the impenetrable Le cru et le cuit, for example. And no, dear former colleagues, the translation is not to blame; the original French is rather worse! In fact, Professor Lévi-Strauss himself once famously confessed that there was little chance that anyone who had not taken his seminar would understand any of his writings. It's difficult to imagine an American author combining so much opacity with so much public favor, the latter entirely on the basis of trust. I mean, the trust the general public places in other intellectuals who declared Lévi-Strauss great and essential.

I am not arguing that American scholars and American journalists don't try to become public intellectuals in the French model but that they meet with little success. Different historical conditions, different outcomes. Nevertheless, the French intellectual class is well worth studying because it seems to offer a ready, constant, and tempting model to many in this country, mostly on the liberal end of the spectrum.

In my experience, Americans with higher degrees who are also politically of the Left are almost to a man and woman ardent Francophiles. Of course, I am well aware that my personal encounters may not add up to a representative sample. Or maybe they do, or maybe they are representative enough to allow for a fair degree of generalization. (We worry about samples only because we want to be able to generalize, from “pismire to parliament,” so to speak.) In any case, I suspect that American liberals' Francophilia does not spring from admiration for French cuisine, an admiration that would be amply justified, or from aesthetic appreciation of the beautiful, civilized French countryside, or from their thorough assessment of French culture in general.

The latter explanation is especially unlikely to be correct because American Francophiles — except some language teachers — seldom know the French language well enough to listen to it or to read it with ease. A small remark about the last assertion: American journalists, scholarly authors, and novelists often spice up their narrative with a few words of French, or with a single word. Their batting average in getting both the usage and the spelling right at the same time hovers just above zero, in my experience. In this case, I operate from a reasonably good quantitative basis: I read in English one newspaper a day, one newsweekly, three magazines a month, around fifty books of all kinds a year. About half the books are fiction. I have been doing this for 40 years. Until six years ago, I read a little less fiction, but I perused a medley of scholarly journals every month. And yes, I also know that a large sample is not always representative. See the disclaimer above about samples in general.

Lévi-Strauss himself once famously confessed that there was little chance that anyone who had not taken his seminar would understand any of his writings.

So, by a process of reasonable elimination strengthened by numerous concrete examples, I speculate that many left-leaning American intellectuals admire France because that countryseems to give pride of place to its intellectuals, and recognition, and honor, and often, considerable financial rewards. They wish America would become more like France, in part so they will have a better crack at becoming public intellectuals themselves, with all the attendant material advantages, or even for the glory alone.

I think the French model is poisonous but ultimately not fatal. More credentials are needed here, since I present a strong opinion unsupported by systematic data: I lived in France until I was 21. French is my native language. I read in French all the time. I have published a couple of things in that language. My proficiency in the language, I am confident, is superior to that of most well-educated people living in France. That is true, although I flunked out of French high-school. (This is a confession, not bragging. It's needed because the issue of sour grapes is sure to surface below.) I follow the French media on the internet and through cable television. (I subscribe to TV 5, the French language international television channel. I watch it nearly every day.) I go to France and to other French-speaking countries often enough to make me confident that I have not lost touch with my culture of origin. More importantly, I spy daily on my French nieces and nephews through Facebook. I have a doctorate in sociology from a good American university. I believe it helps me gaze detachedly at the society in which I grew up. I taught — in disciplines other than French — in American universities for about 30 years. Below, I use several tiny anecdotes and three more substantial true stories to try to show why the French model of the public intellectual is poisonous. Those are just anecdotes and stories, of course; they don't prove anything, of course. I just think they might give pause and feed faculty-club conversations, even if only on a modest scale.

Incidentally, and in spite of the acidic tone of this introduction, I do not despise all French intellectual workers who are also public intellectuals, or who aim to be. I have nothing but admiration for the social philosopher Raymond Aron (1905–1983), for political commentator Jean-François Revel (1924–2006), and for my high-school buddy, the sociologist Jean-Loup Amselle. Those are individuals who have escaped the general curse, for reasons I don't quite grasp. It might just be character. And of course, if Frédéric Bastiat (1801–1850) did not exist, one would have to invent him. The French may just be reinventing him right now incidentally, because they have to, after ignoring or reviling him for more than 160 years.

First, what I am not talking about: I do not refer here to the general pokeyness of much contemporary French culture that manages to come through small, haphaphazardly selected cultural imports into the US. I mean some movies and a very few singers. (Translator's note: “Pokey” would be a 55-year-old divorced accountant who has his ear pierced for a big gold ring although he does not even own a motorcycle.) Pokeyness and the poisonous nature of the French intellectual model are probably related, but the discussion of such a relationship would take me too far onto thin ice.

Many left-leaning American intellectuals wish America would become more like France, in part so they will have a better crack at becoming public intellectuals themselves.

The general idea I am promoting is that to switch to French is to enter a world of uninformation, of disinformation, and of involuntary poetry. I recall fondly an hour and half I spent driving through the admirable Loire Valley, intrigued by an animated discussion of the damage being inflicted on Cuban society by the “American blockade” (le blocus). No, the year was not 1962 when the US imposed a partial blockade for a couple of weeks. I was listening to that discussion nearly 40 years later. The correct descriptive term, “embargo,” is the same in French as in English. So, here again, don't blame translation. The discussion took place on a specialized radio channel called France-Culture. Would anyone make this up?

That was the aperitif. By way of appetizers, here are three pearls I collected from TV5’s Le Journal (“The News”) in a span of two weeks (February-March 2011). I admit, they were all gleaned from the same news anchor:

“The Rosenbergs, a couple who were executed because they were Communists. . . .” The speaker was announcing that the soldier accused of leaking military secrets to Wikileaks theoretically risks the death penalty. He added, gratuitously and of his own accord, that Wikileaks’ Julian Assange “knows what to expect if he is extradited to the US.”

To switch to French is to enter a world of uninformation, of disinformation, and of involuntary poetry.

Reminder: at the time of this report, no authority, civilian or military, had called for the soldier to face capital punishment. Assange was facing extradition from the UK to Sweden to respond there to accusations of sex crimes. The US has not asked for his extradition here, something that would be easy to expedite with the UK. Whatever penalty, if any, Assange would face in the US, the editor of the New York Times would face the same. There is solid legal opinion that the dissemination of illegally obtained information breaks no federal law.

Only a few days later, the announcement comes on the same Le Journal that the “North American cougar is officially extinct.” (Translator's note: “cougar” is another name for “mountain lion” and “puma.”) The same perverse announcer makes his melancholy comment while standing before an old Western poster.

This time, I am stunned instead of merely annoyed. Mountain lions, cougars, are stealing pets and carrying goats across eight-foot fences five miles from my house. Oversize alley cats are not committing the misdeeds, I am sure. I’ve even written a story in French about the animal's ubiquity in California. (“Les pumas de Bécons-les-Bruyères.” It's on my blog at factsmatter.wordpress.com.) I am so astonished that I take the trouble to follow through online, where I find a big title in an environmentalist magazine (Planète, March 4, 2011):

“Les cougars ont officiellement disparu.”

But the text beneath the title does not say that at all. The real news, three paragraphs down, is about as newsworthy as “Madagascar dodo officially extinct.” The announcement is of the official extinction of the eastern “sub-species” of the cougar that no one had seen for a century anyway. It matters not; there are dozens of readers' comments about how the demise of the mountain lion is just another horrible case of humans raping the earth.

I know, it's just one zealous announcer blindly following one misleading title. But the news anchor is not a nobody, and he is not a kid. He has an important job, one much prized. I was unable track him down, but I would bet good money that he is a graduate from one of the elite Paris schools. You don't get his kind of position of influence and power without the right credentials.

Finally, here are the main stories, the several main dishes, if you will.

It's 2005. I am living in Morocco for a little while, pretending to gather material for a scholarly book on ethnic identities I never wrote. I go to the central railroad station news kiosk to pick up several Moroccan weeklies in French, because it's convenient. A delivery man dumps a pack of newspapers practically on my feet. I look at them, of course. It's a bundle of Le Monde, fresh from Paris. Le Monde is the French sociological equivalent of the New York Times, except more so. It's resolutely highbrow and unashamedly elitist. Working for Le Monde in any capacity elevates one's social standing. Often, being employed by Le Monde is the only thing that stands between a person and precipitous downward mobility. Le Monde is not exactly the informational equivalent of the NYT, however. It's thin in content, although it's an evening paper. Maybe it's because it defines itself strictly as a political periodical. (No entertaining “Life Style” pages.) For years, it has been run as a kind of “collective” with the unavoidable consequence that its journalists are co-opted from the same small circle. Invited guests play a minimal role, in part because they also come from the same small circle.

The host enjoys a good rapport with the general French television audience because of his fluency in the childish, empty, mindless slang that is the ordinary French language of the mainstream today.

By that day, in Morocco, I have already forsworn reading Le Monde for several years. It annoys me without enlightening me so, why bother, I say? But the unexpected appearance of the French paper in my field of vision induces an involuntary reflex to glance at the front page. A big title catches my eye. It's on the revival of the Baghdad theater. The subject is right down my alley. It's about Iraq and it’s about a performance art. I like Arab culture and I am endlessly curious about it. My guard is also down because the French often do that kind of reporting well. My fugitive favorable prejudice is multiplied in an instant by the realization that a French reporter in an Arab country is about five times more likely to be accompanied by an actual Arabic speaker than is an American reporter. (Hundreds of thousands of French people speak Arabic as their native tongue.)

Favor for Le Monde suddenly returns to my addled heart. I pay for the paper and read the first few lines of the article, standing in the train station.

The story is by a woman who seems young. (Don't ask me how I know; I know, and that's another story.) Here is her opening sentence, remembered, I think, word for word, except possibly for the relevant month (it's not important):

“It's early April 2003; Iraqis are dragging armchairs from the National Theater into the street outside, encouraged by an American G.I.”

Stop right there!, I think. I was not in Baghdad, but I would bet thousands (again) that there was no such encouragement. The US military was under orders not to interfere with looters. That's what it did, not because it's perfect but because Americans under military discipline don't encourage looting by others. They don't, period. (Some members of the American military may engage in looting themselves when the occasion arises. That's another story entirely; greed differs from vandalism by proxy.) And there was no motivation for any single one of them to proffer such encouragement. There was no “encouragement,” I am sure.

With her opening sentence, the French reporter was accomplishing two things. First, she was setting the scene, as any good narrator does: we are in Baghdad. It's shortly after the US invasion. Disorder reigns. It looks like the Iraqi theater is irreversibly damaged. Second, she was establishing her credentials with her crowd at Le Monde and with the general Le Monde readership: I am one of you. That Americans are barbaric, uncouth bullies is a given. Whatever I am about to tell you about my visit to the Baghdad theater circles under American occupation; please remember that I am as anti-American as the next guy or gal. Nothing can change this basic fact. I am me. “Me” is sophisticated and therefore expects nothing but stupidity and gross behavior from Americans.

You must be thinking what I was thinking at the time, because the generous American habit of fairness is difficult to break: this is just one reporter, probably a young, inexperienced one. She has not had time to think things through. Besides, her anti-Americanism at this point, in Iraq, is no greater than that felt by many Americans, including leftists and quite a few libertarians. Hers is primitive anti-Americanism.

Reel forward 9 years.

I am watching something wonderful on TV5 that has no equivalent in the US media. It's the show “On n'est pas couché” (“We Are Not Asleep”). It's the kind of show I mark on my calendar to make sure I don't miss it, although it lasts for two or even three hours. It's frankly an intellectual show but not uniformly highbrow. And it's not mincing, if you know what I mean. I like its format and I like its content. The format is original: there is a general host who acts as an MC and also as a referee or a judge in an American court. He is an affable man, a comedian of no great intellectual weight but endowed with an excellent sense of à propos. (This expression is spelled right and used right here; take note!) He enjoys a good rapport with the general French television audience because of his fluency in the childish, empty, mindless slang that is the ordinary French language of the mainstream today.

The show is shot before a live audience; in France, it's also broadcast live. It presents authors of newly published books, small and big, low and high, film directors and stage directors, and often, film and stage actors, singers, dancers, some athletes, and pantomime artists. There was even a clown once, though one with a famous circus family name. Sometimes, the show bags a national-level politician for a no-holds barred interview.

Two reasonably well-groomed professional intellectuals who know how to act on television are at the heart of the show. They preview the films and the stage shows, and above all, they really read the books whose authors will sit on their hot seat. They actually give the books, deserving or not, a thorough reading. The authors, directors, and actors are grilled about their work and their lives, but all in a non-scandalous way. There is no attempt to find out who bedded whom, except 20 years or more in the past, where the answer may have historical interest. The interviewing is cordial for young actresses, but it is fierce grilling for famous people. The jury of two suspects many of them of using their celebrity to palm off mediocre works (memoirs in particular) on a busy and possibly naïve public. The jurors show no indulgence toward the powerful. One recently told a popular television personality that his autobiography was “nulle” (“hopelessly void”). Then he asked the author why he had written the book at all. The author did not cry but I would have, in his place.

I am guessing, only guessing, that one could even make Zemmour admit that American might is the last rampart against the violent jihadism he openly fears.

It's to the great honor of the show that the same juror was himself called “nul” a week later by a popular soap-opera director whose work he had criticized, perhaps on the wrong grounds. The lady director, a beautiful Muslim woman with striking black hair, and her two main actresses, also attractive Muslim women originating in North Africa, came close to lynching the critic right in the studio. (I know the tension was not staged because I have watched the Jerry Springer trash-show dozens of times, which makes me an expert on rigged fights.) In the end, the argument over a television soap generated so much heat that the irate director called the critic out. What I heard sounded ambiguous precisely because there was so much heat. It was not completely clear in the end whether she was offering to beat him to a pulp outside the studio or if she was threatening to have her way with his body.

This juror who was thus placed under bodily threat is called Eric Zemmour. He is a man I would have for dinner any day, and I would also be glad to drink either coffee or beer with him any time. I might even share my oldest Calvados with him, because I like him so much. He is a journalist and also the author of ten books. He is refined, immensely cultured yet humble, and devastatingly witty. Zemmour often demonstrates a solidly conservative temperament in his comments about others people's work. One of his own best books is about the feminization of society, which he deplores, of course. Another book was the initial public signal in France that multiculturalism had taken stupid and self-destructive forms. Zemmour's is one of the few public voices in the country to undermine the ambient misérabilisme by pointing out that the French welfare net is quite adequate. (“Misérabilisme” is a word that does not exist in English but should, in my estimation. It refers to the emotional and intellectual propensity to feast on the misery, real or imagined, of others in one's society or, often, in the world. It's one of the emotional foundations of leftism.)

Zemmour is quite able to say good things about American movies and about the American cinema in general. It's obvious he has read American authors. No primitive anti-Americanism for him. Yet, very often, and most often when confronted with any manifestation of American power at all, he displays reactions of intense dislike and dismissal. In such circumstances, he seems to become a little stupid. He sounds as if his IQ had dropped 30 points. Maybe “stupid” is too strong a word. He is still an intelligent man at those times, but just intelligent in an ordinary way, not brilliant. I mean by this that his comments do not differ in such moments from what you might hear in any caféclose enough to the Sorbonne.

Zemmour is Jewish. He and his parents are from Algeria. Had it not been for the massive exercise of American power in North Africa in November 1942, there is a fair chance the Vichy regime would have completed the job already started of turning over its Jews to the Nazis for disposal. Later, his family moved to France. This man is also old enough to know that, absent American power, the Soviet Union would have eaten Western Europe alive, as it did Eastern Europe. It's impossible to believe that he does not know that the US threatened the Soviet Union into staying put and that the threat was credible thanks to America's obvious and abundantly displayed power. And there is no doubt that he knows and recognizes that there was no critical show like his under any Communist regime. And he knows full well that to the extent that there were public intellectuals in Communist-ruled countries, their place was most often in prison or in the gulag. I am sure he has signed several letters in support of jailed Cuban intellectuals. I am guessing, only guessing, that one could even make Zemmour admit that American might is the last rampart against the violent jihadism he openly fears.

So, here we have it: this intelligent, cultured man, endowed with a superior critical sense, this man who daily demonstrates his independence of mind in his newspaper columns, often in his books, and weekly on television, cannot put two and two together: American power created and continues to create a sphere of freedom where the likes of him can perform their good work. There might be an alternative to American power, but there is not. There has not been one ever since he was born.

Zemmour appears to suffer from self-inflicted blindness, a kind of hysterical reaction to his macro-environment. The French intellectual context is so mindlessly leftist and anti-US that there are few people with enough resources of mind and character to confront it head on. We are social beings. When enveloped in a warm blanket of homogeneity, most of us will succumb, unless we are trained not to. We all need rocky seas, every so often, just to calibrate our compasses.

Some French people are well enough aware of the political dimension of intellectual homogeneity that there is a French expression for it: “la pensée unique.” There are exceptions to the rule of French intellectuals yielding to the attraction of homogeneity but they don't last. The philosopher Bernard Henry-Lévy, originally a little prince of the French Left, broke publicly with leftism and with the anti-Americanism of his milieu in the 80s. Then he became a publicity hound and a bad writer. I recommend warmly that you don't buy his 2005 tour of the US, In the Footsteps of De Tocqueville, where he grandiosely claimed to follow in De Tocqueville's intellectual footsteps, but definitely did not. French intellectuals who throw off the warm blanket of homogeneity just seem to get lost.

But here is my third and last story. It's so outlandish that I wouldn’t dare tell it if I were not reasonably sure there were archives that could back it up if necessary.

I am guilty of many sins but failing to make myself comfortable is not one of them. Everywhere I am, I nearly always manage to begin the day in the same way — a cup of coffee in one hand and a newspaper in the other. This comforting habit sometimes has to be reduced all the way down to instant coffee and reading up on the exploits of a local high-school basketball team in a language I can barely decipher, but the form, the ritual, at least, is respected.

The French intellectual context is so mindlessly leftist and anti-US that there are few people with enough resources of mind and character to confront it head on.

So, it's late June 1998. I am in Brittany to write something on the largely phony origins of Breton Celticism. (No merit there; I am just following in the footsteps of the English historian Trevor-Roper in his iconoclastic The Invention of Scotland.) I am beginning the day sitting outside a good caféin a pleasant coastal town. There is a cool breeze from the sea. A grand crème warms my hand. (There is no such thing as café-au-lait in French cafés. It's another case of phony Frenchism, among many others.) This is before I rejected Le Monde as a morning sacrament. So, I am unfolding yesterday night's issue.

A front page item immediately claims my attention. It's a long report on India's nuclear policy by Le Monde's “envoyé spécial” in New Delhi.

It's been a little over a month since India detonated nuclear devices with obvious weaponization potential. I start reading with unwavering attention. After about two or three minutes, a small warning bell starts tinkling in my brain. Something is wrong in what I am reading. Now, I don't know about other people's warning bells, but mine is not sophisticated. It does not have special timbres for “lies,” “inaccuracies,” or “involuntary misinformation.” It just says, “Something is wrong here.” So, I go back to the head of the article and I realize with stupor that I have been reading all along that India's national policy regarding nuclear weapons had been until then one of “nuclear disappointment."

The words did not describe a collective feeling among Indians or anything close to such an emotion, as you might be tempted to guess. The envoyé spécial clearlycoupled the word “déception” to the word for “nuclear” in connection with an official policy, a series of connected statements designed to guide state action. The juxtaposition of those two words makes absolutely no sense, of course. A brief explanation is in order (and, by the way, this was one of those times when it is useful to know English in order to understand French).

The French word déception means “disappointment.” The distinguished French journalist sent especially to India at significant expense to investigate momentous events went on and on for thousands of words developing the thesis that India's policy regarding the touchy topic of nuclear weapons was guided by disappointment! There was no trace in the article of the fact that the French correspondent had almost certainly been briefed by Indian colleagues. I can guess what they had told him, in English — for years, India's informational strategy regarding nuclear weapons was one of “deception”: “We have them; we don't have them; we may have more than you think; keep wondering.” Finally, with its public explosions, India had come out of the era of nuclear deception.

I bought Le Monde faithfully for three weeks afterwards and examined it carefully, expecting an author's self-correction or a Letter to the Editor denouncing the non-sense. Nothing, absolutely nothing!

The least interesting observation about this informational debacle is that the correspondent did not know English, although he was judged competent enough by his editors to be put in charge of an important investigation that would have to take place in English. Periodically, I find the same kind of impairment of perceptiveness about language proficiency in American newspapers. In fact, I could name names if I were as mean as I sometimes hope I am. There is a permanent Paris correspondent for several respected American periodicals who, I am certain, does not know much more than high-school French. I mean, enough to shop and to travel by the Metro but definitely not enough to read Le Monde, to take an example at random. I think she often sounds credible merely because she has developed good French sources. Occasionally, not often, her analyses appear both larded with clichés and way off the mark, as if she had tried to go it alone for once.

The main implication of the Indian story is that a highbrow French intellectual from Le Monde spouted utter nonsense for two long pages and never caught on to the evidence that he was spouting non-sense. Worse, in the vast, distinguished readership of Le Monde, there was no one to notice, or to be motivated enough to ask for a correction — or else the management of the paper received corrective communications and decided to bury them, because they knew could get away with it.

Here is the inescapable conclusion, it seems to me: the French intellectual class, and those who follow it, have been listening to abstruse, absurd logic for so long that they assume there are parallel philosophical universes. In those parallel universes, words can be linked together any which way, logic is variable, upside may be downside, and black is as likely to be green, or even white, as black. And above all, clarity of expression is vulgar.

This can only happen when a group prizes collective peace above all, when dissent about ideas is so severely punished that otherwise intelligent people practice unconscious self-censorship. I refer to unconscious self-censorship because France is undeniably a democratic country with no government censorship of any kind. In fact, French intellectuals sometimes point with glee to government censorship in this country. (They refer to lThis juror who was thus placed under bodily threat is called Eric Zemmour. He is a man I would have for dinner any day, and I would also be glad to drink either coffee or beer with him any time. I might even share my oldest Calvados with him, because I like him so much. He is a journalist and also the author of ten books. He is refined, immensely cultured yet humble, and devastatingly witty. Zemmour often demonstrates a solidly conservative temperament in his comments about others peopleocal censorship in matters of sexual display, guided by the vague-sounding doctrine of “community standards.”)

The French example proves that intellectuals don't matter much as far as quality of life, or much of anything else, is concerned.

The unavoidable logical consequence of the French state of affairs for envious American intellectuals seems to me inescapable. France is a fairly well-run society where people don't normally die in the street. It maintains high standards of civility most of the time, in spite of the fact that a normal weekend sees several hundred cars burned by vandals. The French quality of life is high. In many respects it compares favorably to the American quality of life. And the demonstrated superior longevity of Frenchmen may just be due to their ancestral habit of drinking a little wine with each meal. The French system is fine but it's not sustainable, as we, I, used to say. After the 2008 US-originated financial, then economic, meltdown, it's more difficult to maintain the same view without grimacing, at least inwardly.

Similarly, there is much to object to in French foreign policy, but it's no more hypocritical, mendacious, supine, or irrational than the policies of its neighbors. Terrorists never won French elections and they never redirected national foreign policy as al Qaeda did in Spain in 2004. The French army is alongside US forces in Afghanistan, where it's more likely to be doing actual fighting than its German counterparts, for example. France is not as reliable an ally as the United Kingdom or Australia, but it acquits itself better than many others.

So, we see in France a reasonably good society, and a society that does not act especially erratically or shamefully on the international stage but whose cherished intellectuals are often blind and sometimes collectively insane, as my stories show. The inescapable conclusion: The French example proves that intellectuals don't matter much as far as quality of life, or much of anything else, is concerned.

Of course, there are some downsides to this blindness and insanity although they don't add up to poison. One is the propensity to invent madcap intellectual adventures under a serious mien, such as “déconstructionisme." Another is to produce with huge government support movies that no one understands and in which the action is too slow to be worth following. Yet another consequence is awarding the highest decoration in the land to Jerry Lewis. But it all amounts to nothing tragic.

P.S. There is little in this essay to disincline anyone, even intellectuals, from spending enjoyable time in France. You just need to be aware that if you are a rational person, the more French you know, the less restful, the less enjoyable your stay will be. My travel advice: See the sights; read guidebooks in English; don't listen to the radio; don't watch television; and, for Pete's sake, don't talk to anyone who is not working in a restaurant.




Share This


War and Peace

 | 

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: good movies begin with good stories. By that criterion, Incendies is not just a good movie, it is a great movie. Set within a backdrop of bitter hatred and torturous war, it is nevertheless a brilliant film about love for family and finding a personal peace.

The story begins with the classic Romeo and Juliet conflict: Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal), a young Christian Arab woman, is in love with a young Palestinian man, and her family disapproves. What happens next — retribution, abandonment, shunning, and revenge — sets the stage for an alternate story line, 35 years in the future, after the woman has died. In her will she asks her young adult children, Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette), fraternal twins, to find the brother they did not knew existed and the father they thought was dead. This will require them to leave their home in Canada and return to the land of their ancestors in the Middle East.

As Jeanne heads to Lebanon to begin the search for her father in her mother’s hometown, the film flashes back to the young Nawal and her lover, Wahad. The film continues to switch between the two stories as the brother and sister follow the cold dark trail of the mother they only thought they knew. These alternating points of view allow the audience to know Nawal’s story more intimately and completely than the young siblings do, enhancing our compassion for the protagonist and our growing sense of horror as the two slowly discover the truth.

As war breaks out, young Nawal tries to escape the fighting while searching orphanages for the son her grandmother forced her to give up. Along the way she observes the bitterness and retaliation of both religion-based factions. Two scenes stand out as representative of the senselessness and atrocity of this kind of conflict. In the first, Nawal quickly removes the cross from around her neck and rearranges her scarf to cover her, so she can avoid the wrath of Muslims. In the next scene, she quickly doffs the scarf and pulls out her cross to show rebel guerillas that she is a Christian. But she is still the same person, inside and out; only the label has changed. Changing the label saves her life — but the death and destruction she observes destroy her soul.

Incendies is a thrilling mystery about a family’s quest to reunite itself. But it also has a powerful symbolic message, revealing the bitterness that comes from assigning divisive political and religious labels. What does it mean to be a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew? Beneath the labels, all in the Middle East claim the same ancestry. Arabs (Christian or Muslim) may hate Jews because Ishmael is their ancestor; Jews may hate Arabs because Isaac is their ancestor. But trace their roots back just one more generation, and all honor Abraham as their father. All are cousins under the labels. All are of the same lineage and family.

Incendies is the most engrossing film I have seen since last year's The Secret in their Eyes (also a foreign film). Yes, you will have to read the subtitles at the bottom of the screen — unless you speak French, Arabic, and another dialect I didn’t recognize. But it will be well worth the effort. Don’t miss this outstanding film if it comes to your town.


Editor's Note: Review of "Incendies," directed by Denis Villeneuve. Sony Pictures Classics, 2010, 130 minutes.



Share This


Taxing the Ether

 | 

Here’s the instinctive mindset of the Democratic Party: “If it moves, tax it. If it doesn’t, tax it even more.” If you need proof, consider the frantic attempts by desperate Democrat governors in high-tax states to tax commerce conducted on the internet.

One story about this comes out of California, notoriously one of the most economically ignorant and fiscally incontinent states in the nation. It appears in a Los Angeles Times editorial lauding the efforts of Democrats in the state legislature to try to apply California’s outrageously high sales taxes — nearly 11%, counting state and localities together — to purchases on the internet, targeting especially the dominant internet retail giant Amazon.com. The LAT (always an affirming voice for redistributionist tax-and-spend government) argues that the state is “owed” millions in tax dollars for sales over the net. The paper, natch, supports a bill by Berkeley Dem Nancy Skinner to require internet retailers to collect sales taxes.

The LATviews this as fair — what is the difference, it asks, between buying your shoes at the local store and purchasing them at a store based in Nevada? And, the rag pompously avers, this is the law.

It cites the 1992 Supreme Court ruling (Quill Corp. v. North Dakota) that held that out-of-state mail-order companies (and presumably, by inference, internet retailers) with no physical presence (i.e., no actual stores or warehouses) in a state could not be compelled to collect sales taxes from customers in that state — although the court allowed states to try to collect taxes from such customers directly. So this is the law.

According to the LA Times, people who buy over the internet are both legally and morally (morally?) obligated to pay sales taxes on their purchases. It argues that Amazon and other online stories deliberately encourage consumers to evade their legal and moral obligation by failing to inform them of that obligation on their websites. Not only must the internet help to suck in taxes; it must also lecture people about their ethics.

In an effort to grab more taxes — as opposed to cutting spending — Gov. Quinn cost his state jobs.

The LAT not only endorses legislation that would require any internet company to collect sales taxes from purchases by Californian customers if that company has any affiliates (suppliers) in the state; it also recommends a national bill that would explicitly require all internet companies to collect sales taxes on half of all states that want their citizens’ purchases taxed—and which of them wouldn’t? The LATconcedes that so long as the Republicans have a check in Congress, such a bill won’t ever be passed, but the grand vision is of every vendor of five-dollar trinkets to become an IRS agency, assiduously divvying up its surplus value in accordance with the 50 tax codes of the 50 states, plus Puerto Rico, Guam, and the District of Columbia.

At the time the LAT piece was published, rumors were circulating out of Sacramento that the state Board of Equalization — the agency responsible for collecting California state taxes — would be hiring computer geeks to find out ways of looking at internet traffic to discover which criminal Californians are daring to buy on the web. This, needless to say, caused considerable consternation—not to mention considerable concern about the morals of internet aficionados who would thus be involved in killing the internet.

But the LAT’s case is patently defective. Why the devil should a business like Amazon, which uses none of California’s police or fire services (since it has no bricks-and-mortar locations in the state), much less its educational enterprises, have to pay the state a nickel? And why should Amazon customers within the state have to pay any more than they do right now? They already support the schools with their property taxes. Their sales taxes, collected at the stores that actually exist within the state, support the police, the fire department, and the other agencies that protect those stores. Where does one’s moral and legal obligation stop?

And the consequences from trying to tax the internet are likely to be counterproductive to the states that do it, as a piece in the Wall Street Journal reports. The WSJ — which understands economics approximately a thousand times better than the LAT understands it — points out the obvious: if a state (like California) tries to saddle (say) Amazon with collecting sales taxes for that state because Amazon has affiliates within it, then Amazon will just drop those affiliates.

Indeed, as the WSJ piece recounts, this is just what happened recently in Illinois (a state in even worse fiscal shape than California, if that be possible). The tax-happy Democratic Governor Pat Quinn signed a law applying the state sales tax to internet purchases in Illinois, and it took Amazon only a few hours to announce that it was immediately halting purchases from and affiliation with the 9,000 small Illinois businesses with which it had been doing business — business profitable for Illinois as well as for Amazon.

So, in an effort to grab more taxes — as opposed to cutting spending — Quinn cost his state jobs. Either a discontinued affiliate will stay in Illinois and see its sales plummet (which will then necessitate cutting its workforce), or it will — as some are already doing — move to an adjacent state (such as Indiana) that manifests less tax madness.

Rhode Island, which like Illinois and a few other states (Colorado, New York, and North Carolina), had earlier passed an “Amazon tax bill,” has collected only peanuts in extra sales tax revenues. A study by the Tax Foundation shows that when you factor in the lost jobs from affiliates cutting back, closing down, or moving away, the state probably lost revenue.

The LAT editorial suggested that to prevent internet companies from dumping affiliates in a state that imposes an Amazon tax, what we need is a federal law forcing all internet companies, wherever located, to collect taxes from all customers, wherever located, and remit those funds to the customers’ respective states.

That insipid argument is based on the absurd premise that if we pass a national Amazon tax, Amazon couldn’t drop all of its national affiliates. But it sure as hell could, and just move its central operations to (say) Mexico and all its affiliations to businesses in other countries. That would be yet another example of government greed, triumphant.




Share This


Poverty and Crime

 | 

If you’re like me, you have been instructed, from your youth on up, that crime is caused by “conditions” — meaning economic conditions, meaning poverty. You’ve also been told that crime can be reduced, or even eliminated, by the abolition of poverty — which, of course, can come only by means of massive government action.

These were some of the ruling theses of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, which continues in its thousand institutional forms unto this day, more than four decades after he declared it.

The theses were always vulnerable, on their face. What do you mean by “crime”? Do you mean a Hollywood producer’s rape of a female staffer, who is too afraid to report the crime? Do you mean a party in West LA, where rich people snort a barrel of coke, and are never caught? Or do you mean a guy who’s pushing weed in Fresno, or a girl who’s arrested for prostitution on the streets of Grand Rapids? Do you mean crime that’s successfully prosecuted, or do you include crime that never gets recorded?

And the thesis has long been vulnerable to the evidence. Johnson’s War on Poverty immediately preceded an enormous wave of crime. The hundreds of billions of dollars that American communities spend on welfare has not demonstrably reduced the incidence of crime, however you want to define that term. Most serious analysts believe those dollars have increased it, by fostering a culture in which principles of individual responsibility are no longer considered necessary.

But wait a minute: what is “poverty,” anyhow? What’s the standard? What’s the definition? Was “poverty” the welfareless condition of virtually all Americans in the 1920s? If so, was it the lack of government welfare that induced millions of people to violate the Prohibition laws, and some thousands of them to kill and maim their fellow-citizens in pursuit of profits from that violation? In a larger sense: isn’t poverty relative? The poor of the 1950s were much richer in absolute terms than the poor of the 1920s, yet fewer people were sent to prison in the 1950s. The poor of the 1980s and 1990s were richer still; yet a much larger proportion of the populace went up the river in the 1980s and 1990s than in the 1950s.

Now comes the following announcement from a website in my town (voiceofsandiego.org), about the FBI’s new report on crime in America during 2010, the year of a great depression, especially here in far southern California:

“In San Diego, the number of violent crimes — murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — dropped 5.3% from the previous year and the number of property crimes — burglary, theft and vehicle theft — dropped 4.6%. (Nationwide, violent crime dropped 5.5% and property crimes were down 2.8%.)”

The author adds a reference to the prevailing wisdom:

“Nationwide crime declines in recent years have continued to puzzle criminologists, who expected worsening economic conditions to lead to more crime.”

Experts might be puzzled, but no one with any sense, or historical perspective, would suffer their fate. Officially recorded crime went down during the 1930s — the time of the Great Depression. Why shouldn’t it go down in 2010?

We can’t quantify the sources of crime, but we should know this: crime, and the definition of crime, has less to do with “economic conditions” than with community mores, individual opportunities, and (in a reverse sense) government action. When the government declares alcohol or drugs to be illegal, “crime” automatically results. But when individuals and communities hunker down in order to get through a period of relative poverty, crime may well diminish. Only God knows the exact linkages, but it’s not puzzling that people whose families are making less money than before may respond by doing something legitimately and dependably profitable rather than something criminal.

Indeed, as William Blake commented two centuries ago, the idea that poverty causes crime is a slander on poor people. It ought to be resisted by every person of generous mind, and especially by all of us — and there are many, many of us — who have struggled to come out on the other side of bad “economic conditions.”




Share This


Keeping an Eye on the Iceberg

 | 

I have often reflected on the looming fiscal disasters that are Social Security and Medicare. As several recent articles suggest, our economy is still heading toward the financial iceberg.

The first report comes from the trustees of these two Ponzi programs. It shows that the financial outlook of both has worsened dramatically over just the last year. It confesses that the so-called Medicare trust fund will be empty by 2024, five years earlier than predicted by the trustees just a year ago. Assuming current revenues, and no unusual increases in the costs of medical care (a dubious assumption indeed), Medicare will only be able to pay 90% of its promised benefits after its trust fund is depleted.

Social Security is also in deep trouble. Last year, it started running a deficit between taxes paid in and benefits paid out. The trustees’ report indicates that from here on out, this deficit will be permanent, and will rapidly increase in magnitude. As another report notes, Social Security will exhaust its “trust fund” by 2036 — one year earlier than last year’s estimate — at which point it will have to slash its benefits by 23%.

This second report confirms a prior reflection of mine that the separate trust fund for the Social Security Disability Insurance program will actually be gone by 2018, if not sooner.

Yet another recent piece sheds light on why SSDI is going off the cliff so quickly: at least some of the 1,500 judges who administer the program just hand out “disability” awards without any real scrutiny of the merits of the claims being made.

This fascinating story centers on Judge David B. Daugherty, who routinely rubber-stamps all requests for disability that come before him. Last year, of the 1,284 cases he saw, 1,280 were greeted with benefits. This year, he is being even more generous with our money, awarding benefits in all 729 cases received. Judge Daugherty has often listened to 20 cases a day, spaced 15 minutes apart, and many from one local lawyer to whom he appears to be particularly sympathetic. His near-100% record awards contrasts with the average of 60% for the system as a whole.

Daugherty is just a particularly egregious example of an entitlement system run amok. Many of the SSDI judges award taxpayer money to claimants without any hearing at all, or merely by looking at the medical evidence submitted by claimants’ attorneys. The SSDI paid out an amazing $124 billion in benefits last year — and the sum will only balloon, making it the first of the entitlement programs to go bust (in a technical sense: naturally the taxpayers will be forced to pick up the tab).

Of course, the point needs to be re-emphasized that all these so-called “trust funds” are just government IOUs issued to cover the surpluses they ran while the Baby Boomers were at their peak earnings. The surplus funds were spent running the government. The “trust funds” are thus the moral equivalent of the “special purpose entities” set up by the crooks at Enron to hide its debt. Their function is to push debt onto entities that are apparently separate from the main organization, which actually owes it. Alas, since Congress exempted itself from the provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the feds can get away with this fraud (a point I have explored elsewhere).

The accelerating deficits have moved no less a luminary than Tim Geithner, our incorruptible Treasury Secretary and head of the Social Security and Medicare trustees, to tell us that the report makes clear that we need to act “sooner rather than later.” Yeah, but Geithner didn’t indicate how his call for action squares with the views of his boss Obama, who has steadfastly refused to state where he would cut entitlement programs — even as he created a huge new one in the healthcare field.

The few brave souls who have called for reforming the entitlement programs — most heroically Republican Congressman Paul Ryan — have gotten scant public or media support. (Even Newt Gingrich has attacked Ryan’s call for reform, calling it “right-wing social engineering.”)

The estimable economist Veronique de Rugy, commenting on the recent trustees’ report on the Medicare-Social Security mess, makes the point that these Ponzi schemes transfer money from the young to the elderly population. What she doesn’t note is that the reason they are still so generally supported is that the elderly vote religiously, while younger people vote only sporadically — and children, who must in the end pay for all these deficits one way or another, have no vote whatsoever.




Share This


Doomsday Update

 | 

May 21 has come and gone, and so far as I can tell, Judgment Day has not occurred. Whether that’s good or bad is a debatable question.

What is not debatable is the discrediting of one of the world’s best publicized prophecies, and one of the few prophecies specific enough to be fully disconfirmable. I refer, of course, to the Family Radio network’s prediction that the Rapture and the beginning of Judgment would occur on May 21, 2011.

Harold Camping, Family Radio’s “Bible teacher,” went down with his flag nailed to the mast. Throughout last week, he told callers on his daily call-in program that he wouldn’t even consider questions about the possibility that the Rapture wouldn’t happen on the 21st. On May 17, for instance, he remarked, “If you were talking to me three or four years ago, I would have said, well, there’s a high likelihood [of climactic events in 2011]. . . . But beginning about three years ago, God has shown us proof after proof and given us sign after sign. . . . I know absolutely, without any shadow of a doubt whatsoever, that it is going to happen on May 21. . . . It is absolutely going to be May 21. The Bible guarantees it, without any question. So we cannot countenance any other idea. It is absolutely going to happen.”

Liberty provided one of the first nationally published heads-ups and explanations about this matter in its December issue, in the article entitled "An Experiment in Apocalypse." Early this month I continued the discussion. The topic has proven surprisingly interesting to our readers, as it has to millions of other people, worldwide. I am receiving a lot of requests for updates, and I will provide them.

The really interesting thing, of course, isn’t the fact that Family Radio has been proven wrong. The interesting thing is seeing how individuals and institutions respond to the disconfirmation of ideas that they regarded as fully justified by reason and authority. Full evidence about Family Radio’s response will take a while to come in. Its offices were closed over the weekend (starting on Friday, May 20), and all or almost all programming from then till now has been prerecorded. (I write in the early evening of May 22.) The swarm of media attention simply washed over the recumbent form of Family Radio, occasionally sweeping out one or another follower who discussed his disappointment in vague, colorless terms.

But we can expect to learn more, and I have already learned some things. One interesting thing to me is the fact that throughout May 20 and 21 — even as late as 6:30 p.m. on the latter day — the station was still broadcasting invitations to call up and order “Judgment Day, May 21” pamphlets and bumper stickers — thus making itself even more ridiculous than it would have become, had it simply ceased all ads for mail-order material several days before.

Nevertheless, even the most ridiculous things in life happen because somebody decides to make them happen. Somebody — and a number of people would have to be involved — decided to keep running those ads. Somebody scheduled them. Somebody provided them to local stations. Somebody at the local stations ran them. In only one instance (at 1:25 a.m., PST, on the purported day of Rapture) did I hear evidence that an ad might have been spiked by the national network or my local station, with four minutes of music substituted. As I write, Family Radio’s website still declares in bold letters: “Judgment Day, May 21, 2011: The Bible Guarantees It!”, and its clock says there are “00 Days Left.” Yet someone at Family Radio switched Camping’s prerecorded lecture, which runs on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, from one of his constant Judgment Day diatribes to a discussion of divorce (he’s against it) that was broadcast “25 or 26 years ago,” according to the prerecorded announcement — which also says that copies of the divorce lecture will be “available this week” if you call or write for them. Divorce is exactly what would interest you, on Judgment Day or immediately afterward, right? It should be noted that on May 10, a woman called in to ask Camping about that very topic, divorce, and he told her that “it’s all academic,” because the world was ending and her husband wouldn’t have time to divorce her anyway.

Absurdity upon absurdity. But what do these absurd contradictions mean?

They may show the depth of institutional inertia, even within a relatively small, voluntary organization, an organization, mind you, that is operated by zealots, not by the pension-pursuers at the DMV. The thinking may have been, “We’ll just keep running whatever we’ve been running, whether it makes sense or not. That’s what we do” — even if it makes our own cause ridiculous. If Family Radio can achieve inertia like this, imagine what a government can do, in the face of all the evidence against its theories and programs.

The contradictions may, however, indicate something exactly opposite to inertia, but equally significant. They may indicate that dissenters within Family Radio, of whose existence there has already been a good deal of evidence, decided to assist the organization in rendering itself absurd, thus making the ousting of its current leadership more likely. These people could have halted the post-Doomsday ads for Doomsday literature; they could have snaked out some lecture that wasn’t about (of all things) divorce. But they used their individual initiative to do something more complicated.

That’s a guess. But here’s the idea, in brief: what happens within organizations and individuals is a contest between inertia and initiative, each with its own set of rewards: security, stability, and conservation of energy on the one hand; new opportunities (for power, for revenge, for simple rightness) on the other. If enough data emerge, the next stage of Family Radio’s existence will constitute a fascinating experiment in conflict, institutional and individual.

I will keep on this beat. My own prediction is that Mr. Camping will be ousted from leadership during the coming week by irresistible forces of change in the organization he founded. But this prediction is disconfirmable. Stay tuned.




Share This


The Audacity of a 1% Hope

 | 

Federal Judge Roger Vinson of the Northern District of Florida has declared Obamacare unconstitutional in a lawsuit joined by numerous states seeking to escape from the onerous burdens that the law places upon them. But when I read that his rationale is that the mandate requiring people to buy health insurance exceeds the power of Congress under the commerce clause, I became a little bit sad — sad not because Judge Vinson is just dangling the dream of a new attempt to use commerce clause jurisprudence to limit the government’s meddling in the economy, but because there is only about a one in 100 chance that the United States Supreme Court will agree with his reasoning.

There was a time when Congress could only pass laws authorized by the specific enumerated powers of the Constitution. (This is ostensibly still true, but most congressmen don’t take it seriously.) One of those powers, indicated by the commerce clause, is the major one that Congress uses to destroy — I mean, to regulate — the economy. The commerce clause states: “Congress shall have power… to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.” In my constitutional law class final exam two years ago, I argued that the commerce clause clearly gives Congress precisely the same power to regulate economic activity within a state that it has to regulate economic activity within foreign nations, and since we obviously cannot march into France and order them to have a minimum wage or a health insurance mandate, and we can really only regulate goods from France that come across the Atlantic Ocean, the commerce clause means that Congress can only regulate goods that physically cross state lines. I got an A in the class.

However, most lawyers don’t think that way. Even back in the 1800s the commerce clause case law said that Congress could regulate anything that did not take place entirely within one state. There was a time before the New Deal when the Supreme Court still took the commerce clause seriously and tried its hardest to allow Congress only to regulate interstate commerce. But this interfered with the New Deal. So, after FDR threatened the court with his infamous court-packing scheme, the Court made a “switch in time that saved nine,” in the landmark case of NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. (1937); it began to undermine the commerce clause by permitting the commerce power to extend wherever commerce within one state had effects across state lines.

Later, US v. Darby (1941) made it clear that the commerce clause was now a joke and Congress could do anything it wanted. To throw a little paint on the feces, the Court decided Wickard v. Filburn (1942), which said that a private individual’s private behavior within one state could be “interstate commerce” under an aggregation theory that proposed the questions: “What if everybody did this? Would the aggregate cumulative effects have an impact on interstate commerce?” This meant that a person growing tomatoes in his own farm for his personal consumption could be engaged in interstate commerce, even though the tomatoes never left his farm, because he was somehow magically connected to all the other tomato farmers out there — a conclusion that is ridiculous only if one does not understand that it is a mere pretext for socialism. FDR’s supporters argued that economics had somehow fundamentally changed since America’s founding, and the law needed to change with it.

Commerce clause jurisprudence remained buried for decades, but in a shallow grave. In the 1990s, Chief Justice Rehnquist, with help from Justice Thomas and the Court’s other conservatives, tried to revive the distinction between economic and noneconomic, and national and local, in cases such as US v. Lopez (1995), which struck down a gun ban under the commerce power, and US v. Morrison (2000), which struck down an anti-gender violence law as having nothing to do with interstate commerce. Then Justice Scalia murdered Rehnquist’s commerce clause revival in Raich v. Gonzales (2005), saying that the commerce power authorized the criminalization of medical marijuana because of the necessary and proper clause: “Congress shall have power . . . to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers.” For some reason, Scalia failed to understand that the necessary and proper clause is irrelevant if Congress cannot pass a law under the commerce clause in the first place.

The fate of America’s healthcare system now turns on how the Supreme Court will interpret the commerce clause, whether the justices will hold that the aggregate effects of choosing not to buy health insurance constitute interstate commerce. I predict that the vote will go along political ideological lines, as the choice of whether to take the commerce clause seriously as a limit on Congress’s power is as much a political as a legal decision. But there is no way to tell how Justice Kennedy will vote, and it is still too early to tell how Obama’s appointees will vote. Still, I estimate that there is only a 1% chance that Obamacare will be struck down. It has been many decades since the commerce clause limitation had teeth; and the Court will be afraid of accusations that it is frustrating the will of the American voters if it strikes Obamacare down, even though it is the role of the judiciary to check the tyranny of the majority, and most Americans don’t like Obamacare, anyway.

Nonetheless, if libertarians are to make ourselves known in the legal world, then the commerce clause is one of the main weapons that will need to be in our arsenal. We can hope that one day our constitutional jurisprudence will return America to the Founding Fathers’ vision of a federal government that cannot do whatever it wants. As my constitutional law professor was fond of saying, constitutional doctrines fade away, but they can always come back, and there are libertarian legal doctrines from American history that we can revive if and when we develop the power to make our voices heard in within the legal system.




Share This


Alan Bock, R.I.P.

 | 

Alan Bock, contributing editor of this journal, died on May 18 at his home in Lake Elsinore, California, after a heroic fight against cancer. He was 67.

A fine account of his life has been written by Greg Hardesty, his colleague at the Orange County Register, where Alan worked for over 30 years as an editorial writer and columnist. A picture comes with Hardesty's article, and I think it says something about why so many people liked Alan. We at Liberty remember him as an engaging, jovial man — good company — and a writer whose contributions we always looked forward to getting.

If you'd like a sample of Alan's work, pull up our July 1999 issue in the Liberty Archive. On page 23, you'll find Alan's article, "Gateway to Oppression." Our Contents page for that issue characterizes the article in this way: "Alan Bock examines the latest scientific study of marijuana, and wonders: if marijuana kills, why hasn't anyone ever died of it?" Some of Alan's wit comes through in that blurb, but when you read the article, you'll see many other things about him: his steel-trap logic, his mastery of fact, his sympathy for the oppressed, his noble indignation against oppression. By the time he finishes, he's made the definitive analysis of his subject — and the piece is only about 800 words long.

One of the most lovable figures in the American folk imagination is the iconoclastic newspaperman — learned yet colloquial, genial yet incorruptibly just, a man who never gives up on truth and liberty. Alan demonstrated that this figure is not merely a product of the imagination. He was that figure. Everyone who knew him is saddened by his passing; everyone who learned from him remains inspired by his ideals.




Share This


Awesome, Dudes!

 | 

Recently, I drove down the Southern California coast to attend a philosophy conference in San Diego. All along the way, and when I later sat in my hotel room overlooking the harbor, I kept thinking: how can a state as beautiful and as blessed as this one be so screwed up?

But an article I read just the other day helps me see, once again, the problem with California. The problem is its deeply demented government.

The story reports that Newport Beach, a wealthy city south of LA, is paying all but one of its full-time lifeguards over $100,000 a year in salary and benefits. $100K a year! And over half of them earn over $100,000 a year in salary alone! In fact, the two highest-earning lifeguards earn well over $200,000!

Additionally, these lifeguards retire after 30 years (or as young as age 50) with a pension of 90% of their highest salary.

Now, granted, Orange County, where Newport Beach is located, is one of the wealthiest counties in the US. But even in Orange County, the median household income ($71,735) is far lower than what these dudes and dudettes earn.

This of course raises a fascinating question: if the freaking lifeguards are earning this kind of money, what is the city paying its other workers? I shudder to think what the city is paying its police and firefighters. And can you imagine what the city officials must be getting?

Here, it just gets crazier, day by day.




Share This

© Copyright 2013 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.