Europe: The Problem and the Prospects

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The flow of history sometimes looks so obvious in hindsight.

In 2004 the European Commission issued a formal warning to Greece, having found that it had falsified budget deficit data in advance of joining the Eurozone. That’s right, Greece had not just failed to meet the budget requirements for joining the new currency — lots of countries did that — but it had lied about it for the privilege of swapping drachmae for euros.

Over the next few years the Greek government's modest attempts to reform the coddled Greek labor market, particularly the obese public sector, met with massive protests, many of them violent.

In the late spring of 2009 I sat across from an old law school friend, drinking wine on the terrace of a Parisian bistro near the Bastille. It was a mild early evening with hours of sunlight left, yet as usual my friend was already in his cups. But then, this guy (call him “Jay”), was smarter drunk than I am sober.

As I drained my glass of Beaujolais Cru, just a few years after Greece had joined the Euro, the Greek debt crisis was in full cry. Bailout negotiations between the EU and Greece had begun. Jay is a prominent international finance lawyer, and he represented the EU on the legal side of the negotiations. So I ordered another drink and got an inside view of the proceedings.

Jay and I debated the virtues, vices, and prospects of a bailout. It was all very speculative and academic, reminding me of so many college rap sessions in which my friends and I handily remade the world to no good (or ill) effect. The curious difference here, decades later, was that Jay really was involved in remaking the world.

As an aside, think of Professor Obama noodling over, say, the constitutionality of a federal mandate that everyone buy health insurance, the kind of seemingly harmless brain game that is played all day, every day in our universities and law schools. Most of the highly accomplished students who, like Obama, attended the top schools become convinced that they know what’s good for you. And some of them attain the power to give it to you. A student’s collectivist or paternalist nonsense is harmless. But with the stroke of a pen wielded by the nerd who used to sit next to you in Social Studies, governments convulse huge sectors of the economy. The difference is that the harmless nerd, the student Obama, for example, has become the hand of power.

At that early stage of the Greek debt crisis (which became the Italian, Irish, and Portuguese debt crisis, which became the euro crisis, which became the Europe crisis, which is becoming the second dip of the Great Recession, and which may doom the European Union to diminishment or dissolution and trash the feeble recovery in the US), it was hard for me to see the historical context of the problem. Jay went straight to it, talking about the German fear of inflation and profligacy, at odds with the German fear of the consequences of a divided Europe.

With the stroke of a pen wielded by the nerd who used to sit next to you in Social Studies, governments convulse huge sectors of the economy.

I know this is remedial history, but just in case: Germany suffered three great traumas in the 20th century, and two great boons. The three traumas were the first war of Europe divided, WWI; the second war of Europe divided, WWII; and between them the hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic, which probably resulted in German National Socialism. The two boons were first, Germany’s long, vigorous period of growth and prosperity, which persisted and accelerated in conjunction with the economic, monetary, and political integration of Europe; and second, German reunification, which came with the collapse of Soviet communism.

France, the other dominant player in the current crisis, has learned much different lessons from history. Of course it fears Germany as Germany fears itself, but it trusts government in a way that Germany does not. The French ruling class favors European unity, not just because it wants to restrain Germany but also because it thinks it can harness the Germans. This has made France the serial instigator of Euro-government activism.

At the center of France’s vision of European peace and unity is an organ grinder with an elephant instead of a monkey, but the elephant does not collect peanuts and coins; it distributes them. France is the organ grinder. Germany is the elephant. The rest of Europe stands around applauding, and collecting peanuts and coins.

Later in 2009, Greece lost its credit rating. Much bad news, “reforms,” and bailouts followed in a parade of horrors that continues now more than 2.5 years later, like shit hitting a fan in super slow motion. Greece, the EU, France, and Germany made and broke a series of promises about Greek debt. Greece was solvent. There would be no second (or third) bailout. Greece would never default. Greece would reform. Etc.

More of the same, until something really breaks, is a good prediction. Sarkozy the organ grinder will play furiously. Like an Indian mahout, he will even bring out the “ankus,” the goad. At the sharp end of the ankus are reminders of Germany’s behavior in World War II. The elephant will give out more coins and peanuts in greater quantities but with greater reluctance, and greater resentment for the crowd of client states that surround the center of Europe. In exchange, the crowd, and even France, will give up freedom, sovereignty, and independence. France does not like loss of sovereignty but believes it will always call the tune. The UK will congratulate itself for staying out of the euro and will refuse to sacrifice its own sovereignty to save the newish currency.

By helping us see how people in nation states see themselves, history helps us guess what they will do. But it does not tell us the results of their choices, which they themselves always fail to predict. After all, none of the EU, France, Germany, or Greece intended the Greek crisis or predicted it early enough to do anything to avoid it. How did that happen?

Descriptions of economic crises past reveal the historian’s perspective, bias, and even philosophy. The Great Depression makes a good example, over which commentators continue to fight. Was it caused or worsened by too much trade protection, too little Keynesian stimulus, a shrinking money supply, the bursting of the credit bubble that preceded it?

Soon there will be as many descriptions of the euro crisis.

I see that crisis and America’s subprime mortgage debacle as symptoms of the same contradiction, one that has strained most of the developed economies for decades and seems to be reaching some kind of limit now. The contradiction is between the love of state largesse and the limits of governments’ ability to raise revenue. That is not a very original observation, but in diverse countries and regions, the fallout from this strain takes surprisingly diverse and original forms.

The form of the fallout seems to depend on the particular weaknesses of a country’s institutions. In Greece, they overborrowed, overspent, cheated, lied to their creditors, and chronically failed to collect taxes due. In Germany they turned a blind eye, because European profligacy spurred Germany’s exports, and exporters had the ear of the German government.

More of the same, until something really breaks, is a good prediction.

In the United States we accepted war as an excuse for big deficits, and when the electorate showed resistance to faster growth of the welfare state, Congress contrived to finance it “off balance sheet” through Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. And now the Great Recession gives us a reason to bail out financial institutions and automobile manufacturers and to print money (“monetary easing”).

In all these cases, the severity of the crises will partly depend on how and how thoroughly a state and its people fool themselves. The exact nature and severity of the crises are hard to predict. There may be cause for real fear.

I am afraid. For the first time in years, I feel financially insecure. I thought that, through work, good fortune, and saving, I had acquired financial security. Now I don’t know. Will quantitative easing cause high inflation? Will the markets where I store my wealth behave bearishly for long enough to beggar me before I die? Will the European crisis grow so deep and severe as to badly infect the world economy? Is Greece in effect a domino? I don’t know, but it’s falling. There will be no soft landing.




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Tim Tebow's Secret Handshake

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This weekend, the Denver Broncos face off against the heavily-favored New England Patriots in the second round of the NFL championship playoffs. The game is worthy of note because it means another week of pop culture fixation on Denver quarterback Tim Tebow.

Even if you don’t follow professional football, you’ve probably heard of Tebow. The former University of Florida star has crossed over into mainstream culture reference. Some of the popular interest focuses on his unconventional mechanics and style of play; most of it focuses on his devout — and conspicuously proclaimed — Christian faith. His practice of kneeling in prayer before and after games has been copied (and mocked) widely.

As long as he keeps any jihadi impulses to himself, I care little about another man’s religious beliefs. Nor do I share the contempt that some atheists have for the faithful. Generally, I agree with the spirit of Pascal’s Wager: lacking conclusive data, I would be arrogant to assert or deny the existence of an omnipotent diety.

Musing on the metaphysical qualities of God isn’t the point of this reflection, though. The strong reaction to one football player’s public shows of piety renders my diffidence . . . insufficient.

Tebow doesn’t mind proselytizing. In fact, he — like many of his coreligionists — believes that promoting God is essential to serving God. His logic goes something like this: God gave Tebow athletic talent and charisma not because He cares who wins a given game but because fame on the football field creates a bigger platform for Tebow’s message of devotion. So, Tebow believes he is obligated to use his media access to reach out to others more effectively than conventional preachers can. Doing so, he plays into the biases and neuroses of the statist Left . . . and neither side seems to mind.

The establishment Left has had many cultural victories; one of these is the effective blurring of people’s personal and political lives. This blurring is a major reason that Tebow shoulders more political connotation than any other sports celebrity in recent years. But “the personal is political” trivializes and cheapens political discourse. It reducesto stale cliché debates that should be vibrant and essential.

Tebow courts this clichéd response. While still a college player, he filmed a television ad for an anti-abortion advocacy group. The ad was sophisticated and avoided strident words or tone. The already-famous athlete and his mother talked about health troubles she’d experienced while expecting him; she implied that another woman might have chosen to have an abortion. And they ended by making a pitch for choosing life.

The usual gang of idiots in the popular media — the execrable Bill Maher, the fey Jon Stewart, the undeservedly self-impressed Rachel Maddow — rose to the bait and have taken turns pillorying Tebow. But all of this is a kind of Kabuki ritual. The outrage is canned, the excess seems calculated. The TV people make cheap points with their core audiences; the Christian athlete gets a red badge of courage with his.

I’ve long been interested in the “secret handshake” that some public figures signal — perhaps instinctively — to the public. Whether that public is adoring or loathing. To me, Bill Clinton remains the master signaler of our times; he conveyed loyalty to the statist Left, even though his actions sometimes betrayed their faith. The pop singer Madonna does it, too; she conveys much more than she actually delivers on stage.

The current president has some of this — but seems more passive and less masterful than Slick Willie or the Material Girl.

Tebow is very good at this signaling. His recent success on the football field is, as he says, only part of a more-ambitious agenda. His opposite number on the Patriots — future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady — may be better at his job. But Tebow’s playing a bigger game.




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Hurting the Poor, Helping the Rich

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Coming from Randian roots, I have a deep appreciation for the virtues of business, and of wealth that has been earned. I do not consider myself to be a liberal-tarian. I usually agree with the Right and disagree with the Left. But the more I look around, the more I see that socialism is really a tool by means of which millionaire elites keep the poor masses from rising up. Libertarianism or “classical liberalism,” on the other hand, can accurately be described as the friend of the poor and the enemy of the rich. I have already written in Liberty (January 2010) about how capitalism helps the poor. What I want to focus on in this Reflection is how statism helps the rich, especially the old money aristocracy, the metaphorical James Taggarts of the United States.

The evidence is overwhelming. Look at education. Rich people send their own children to expensive private schools, which put them on track for Ivy League universities and white collar jobs; meanwhile the political establishment makes sure that the only choice available to poor children is a horrible public school system that teaches nothing and trains students only for low-income jobs. The public schools are controlled by teachers' unions that oppose merit-based pay and favor a seniority system, which is a terrible model for achieving high educational excellence. The modern liberal reply is to say that the system is broken but could be fixed by raising taxes to give more funding to public schools. The real solution is to use school vouchers so that poor children can attend the rich children’s schools — a prospect that few wealthy parents care to consider.

Or look at business. Statism helps wealthy corporations in many ways — not by giving them tax breaks as the modern liberals complain, but by giving them rentseeking handouts such as farm subsidies and defense contracts. Ending all subsidies and all pork barrel spending would be a huge loss for rich people with political connections, yet the modern liberals have bamboozled the poor into thinking that statism actually helps the poor and hurts the rich. On Wall Street, the SEC’s maze of rules makes legal compliance so difficult that it is virtually impossible for newcomers to compete with the old established investment banks. Established businessmen use taxes and regulations to stifle competition from start-up entrepreneurs and up-and-coming small businessmen who can’t afford to hire compliance lawyers and tax consultants, as their old money rivals can. Yet small business is precisely the engine of opportunity for hard-working ambitious people from poor backgrounds.

Now look at the professions. Affluent professionals in the medical and legal fields enjoy salaries that are artificially increased because the AMA and the ABA maintain systems of doctor licensing and lawyer licensing that restrict the supply of new doctors and lawyers. I predict that if ObamaCare does lead to a socialist single-payer national healthcare system, that system will be run by AMA-approved bureaucrats whose inefficiency and nepotism will drive up the price of healthcare, allowing doctors favored by the state to make more money than they would have in a free market. In the ObamaCare nightmare the rich will probably be able to afford to obtain treatment from high-quality doctors, but the poor will be faced with no alternative to the low-quality healthcare that the system is certain to produce. ObamaCare will be a disaster for the working poor.

In every situation mentioned, above socialist measures help the rich and hurt the poor, creating a caste system in which vast fortunes can be inherited but cannot be built up from scratch. The instances described above have all been justified on the ground that they benefit society as a whole or protect the whole public from the dangers of free markets — in itself a distinctly socialist justification. But a logical person would expect socialism to favor the wealthy, because it vests tremendous economic power in the class of bureaucrats and government officials, and one would expect the upper class to have the means to exploit that power. The rich are the ones most likely to be able to afford to run for office and to purchase influence among politicians by means of campaign contributions and special interest lobbying.

Socialism favors the wealthy because it vests tremendous economic power in the class of bureaucrats and government officials, and it is the upper class that has the means to exploit that power.

What I am offering is not an empirical claim but a deductive argument: the wealthy are inherently better positioned than the poor to exploit the state’s power; therefore, the more powerful the state becomes, the more advantage the rich have over the poor in terms of the opportunity to make money. Ayn Rand hinted at this idea when she contrasted “the aristocracy of money,” that of people who earn wealth, with “the aristocracy of pull,” that of people who exploit the state to obtain wealth. But in the end I think Rand loved the rich so much that she failed to see how socialism may actually be a plot by the rich against the poor.

My criticism is directed mainly at wealthy members of the socialist or extreme-leftist wing of the Democratic Party. It is no coincidence that many of the most famous Democratic politicians who preach that they are the champions of the poor graduated from Ivy League universities that most poor people could never get into because they could not afford to attend the most prestigious private high schools. Many of these millionaires could not possibly imagine what it is like not to have enough money to pay your bills or to have to work two shifts to make ends meet.

Consider Democratic presidential candidates, past and present. President Obama comes from Harvard Law. John Kerry has the Heinz fortune. Bill and Hillary Clinton were products of Yale Law. And the members of Joe Kennedy’s clan have vast amounts of wealth and several Ivy League degrees behind them. Looking farther back, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the champion of the socialist New Deal, was a man of wealth and privilege; the Rockefeller family inherited an enormous fortune, yet produced many left-leaning politicians, one of them a presidential candidate. People like the ones just mentioned have no right to say that they speak for the poor and underprivileged. Such people are merely exploiting leftism to maximize their already substantial influence.

It is true that the higher taxes championed by modern liberals would hurt the rich. But the bottom line is that in the American capitalism-socialism hybrid, the leftist rich retain the ability to own their vast fortunes while also exploiting the advantages of socialism to prevent ambitious poor people from competing with them. While socialist interference in the economy drives up prices and eliminates jobs, the rich retain their connections, their ability to land good jobs, and their ability to pay for what they want to buy. By contrast, the poor have no choice other than to accept whatever goods and services the government-ruined markets have to offer, and they must desperately seek jobs in a market crippled by taxes and regulations.

The socialist wing of the Democratic Party thinks that decades of the welfare state have made the American poor so lazy and dependent upon government charity that they can be controlled like dogs and trained to bark at capitalism whenever the leftists blow the whistle. This twisted scheme has worked to some extent: common sense and conventional wisdom now hold that lower-class economic interests are aligned with the welfare state.

Libertarians would be well served to focus our ideological energy on fighting this myth. The working poor in the United States have enough trouble to worry about as it is, and it’s not fair to them to tolerate a political system that hurts the poor and favors the rich.




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Restoring a Lost Art

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Most contemporary filmgoers do not well understand — much less appreciate — that early, unique cinematic art form known as the silent movie or silent film. The silent era in cinema lasted roughly from the mid-1890s to the early 1930s. It created thousands of films. It created the film industry, both in America and worldwide. That era is the focus of a fine little art flick called The Artist,playing now at selected locations.

Silent films were made, not because filmmakers didn’t want to incorporate sound (dialogue, music, and sound effects) into their productions, but simply because of the formidable technological challenge of coordinating (“synchronizing”) the sound to the rapidly moving frames. So while the first primitive moving pictures appeared in the late 1870s, and the first narrative film in 1888, and movies were popular throughout the industrialized world from the late 1890s on, sound took a generation more to develop.

The first attempt to create sound pictures began at the Edison Company in 1896, but really viable film-sound technology only emerged during the period from 1921 to 1929. (To be precise, there were a number of competing sound technologies during this time.) The Jazz Singer (1927) was the first movie that included sound and was a commercial success, but most movies in 1928 and 1929 were still silent. Only in the early 1930s did silent films essentially disappear. A few movies were specifically made as silent films by the artistic choice of the producers. Especially notable was the choice of Charlie Chaplin to make City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) as silent flicks.

The earnings of the top silent films show how popular they could be, despite their limitations. My figures may be a little off — I had to convert early-20th-century dollar earnings into 2011 dollars — but the top ten American silent films earned big dollars. The top grossing silent movie was The Birth of a Nation (1915)at $217 million, followed by $81 million for The Big Parade (1925), $70 million for Ben-Hur (1925), $58 million for Way Down East (1920), $54 million for The Gold Rush (1925), $49 million for The Covered Wagon (1923), $48 million for The Circus (1928), $45 million for The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), $45 million for The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), and $44 million for The Ten Commandments (1923).

Playing chase sequences, for example, at higher rates of speed seemed to enhance the suspense.

These are very impressive gross earnings, especially when you remember that the nation had a much smaller population back then — about 100 million in 1915 and maybe 120 million in 1928, which is only about 30% to 40% of our present population. The nation was also much poorer. The average household had dramatically less money for entertainment than today’s household. Finally, the distribution channel was much smaller, with many rural communities not having any theaters at all.

Despite the accomplishments, artistic as well as commercial, of the silent era, it is difficult for modern audiences to appreciate them. The reasons arise from the nature of the medium.

Begin with acting. Obviously, silent movies had to convey their stories by pantomime. True, the pantomime was aided by “title cards” (also called “intertitles,” key lines of dialogue or commentary about the action, printed out on screen) and typically a musical score. The score was played on piano, organ, or (in larger setttings) a pit orchestra. At the peak of their popularity, silent film theaters were the largest source of employment for instrumental musicians.

But music — while a vital tool in conveying tone and enhancing emotion — can’t supply much if any narrative detail. Indeed, to try to do so — as did some early scores, by, say, using an ascending scale to mirror a movie character's ascending a stair — is apt to create a cartoonish effect. And the title cards were inherently limited. If producers had tried to put any appreciable amount of dialog text on screen, the audience would have spent most of the evening reading.

So pantomime bore the brunt of conveying the narrative. And in many cases (early on, at least), directors encouraged actors to accentuate their gestures, facial expressions, and other body language in the hope of amplifying communication. Unfortunately, this led to a kind of acting that strikes modern viewers as “mugging,” and at best a kind of campy comedy. There was a gem of a TV comedy series that played in 1963–64 that exploited the hamminess of some of the silent films: Fractured Flickers, produced by Jay Scott and hosted by Hans Conried. The series would take classic silent films and do funny voiceovers.

But it is fair to observe that the movie-going public in the silent era increasingly preferred more naturalistic acting, and major actors such as Greta Garbo, Lillian Gish, Sessue Hayakawa, and Mary Pickford accommodated their work to a more restrained style. Still, silent film acting does take some time to get used to.

Another problem is that during the silent era, film shooting and projection speeds were not standardized. Projection speed became so only early in the sound era. Silent films were shot at speeds (“frame rates”) ranging from 12 to 26 frames per second (fps), depending on the country or even studio of origin. Complicating things even further is the practice of some directors who consciously intended their films to be projected at variable speeds and gave instructions to projectionists accordingly. (They did this because playing chase sequences, for example, at higher rates of speed seemed to enhance the suspense.) Also, projecting cellulose nitrate film (the standard medium of the silent era) too slowly dramatically increased the risk of fire.

As a consequence, when early TV showed silent movies, they were often played at incorrect speeds. Add to this the fact that the films were by then often severely deteriorated, and the unintended consequence was to make audiences simply dismiss as inferior an artistic medium that was in fact quite powerful.

Film directors, critics, and historians long have tried to combat that sorry consequence. Many university film departments worldwide have worked to preserve and restore silent films, and the Turner Classic Movie channel shows some of the best of them.

Moreover, directors throughout the sound era have occasionally produced homages to the silent era. Need I mention the great film Sunset Boulevard, in which actual silent era movie star Gloria Swanson plays fictional movie star Norma Desmond, a woman unable to come to grips with her eclipse by talking pictures? Or perhaps the greatest of musicals, Singin’ in the Rain, which was based on the transition of cinema from the silent to the sound era?

It is in light of all these factors that we should consider the film under review. The Artist is a joint French-American production, and it is a well-written comedy-drama. It is mainly silent, though sound enters toward the end. It is therefore reminiscent of some 1940s films — such as The Moon and Sixpence and The Picture of Dorian Gray — that were shot in black and white, but shifted to color to accentuate an effect; and the 1939 classic, The Wizard of Oz, in which the scenes that take place in presumably dull, real-life rural Kansas are done in black and white, while the scenes that happen in the magical, imaginary world of Oz are shot in color.

Some silent film stars were disdainful of the talkies’ new technology, thinking it inherently less aesthetically powerful than the old.

The protagonist of The Artist is George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a popular “leading man” in silent films. We see clips of his (fictional) movies, in which he comes across as a combination of Rudolf Valentino (hence his name) and a Douglas Fairbanks type of screen action hero. While he is meeting the press after the screening of his new movie, a very beautiful young admirer, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) literally bumps into him. She is photographed with him and winds up on the front page of Variety with the headline, “Who’s That Girl?”

A short time later, George runs into Peppy on the lot as she stands in line for an audition to be part of a chorus line in a musical. He pushes the studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman) to give her a minor part in his new film.

This sets up the story's central dynamic. Peppy’s career rapidly rises, but two years later, when talkies take over the industry, George's plummets. He can’t make the transition — for reasons initially unclear — and takes to drink, hitting bottom when he sets fire to his own home.

He is rescued in the short term by his exceptional dog, and in the long term by Peppy’s exceptional love. She not only saves him — she works to save his career.

Now, it is historically true that some silent film stars wouldn’t or couldn’t make the transition to sound flicks. There were a variety of reasons. Some actors (especially those who directed their own films) were disdainful of the new technology, thinking it inherently less aesthetically powerful than the old. Some had pronounced foreign accents, which audiences didn’t expect, at a time — like our own — when anti-immigrant feelings were running high among the general public. Others, especially actors without extensive stage experience, had diction and grammar problems. And some had weak or — in the case of a few male action leads — effeminate voices.

When George finally does speak at the end of the film, we get a clue as to why he had problems making the transition. I won't spoil the film by telling you what it is.

How is the acting in this film about actors? It's outstanding, with strong performances by Dujardin as George and Bejo as Peppy. Bejo is particularly appealing. To me, she is very reminiscent of the marvelous French actress and dancer Leslie Caron, and that's saying a lot.

Absolutely delightful in support — doing silent acting as if it were their first careers — are veteran American actors John Goodman as studio head Zimmer, and James Cromwell as Clifton, George’s faithful chauffeur and valet. And I simply must mention Uggie, who plays Dog, George’s dog. I can’t recall a better performance by a, yes, again, dog in any recent film.

Michel Hazanavicius has done a marvelous job of directing, eliciting robust but still restrained performances from actors none of whom — including the canine! — had ever done a silent film. He also wrote the script, aiming to fulfill a long-standing desire to create a contemporary silent film. (He is also married to the beautiful Bejo.) It's a risky and exciting enterprise, and Hazanavicius succeeded. He clearly spent a good deal of time studying silent film, and profiting from his studies. He performs with panache the difficult task of writing melodrama with comedic touches — and using few title cards.

The film has already won Dujardin a Best Actor award at Cannes, Hazanavicius a nomination for a Palme d’Or, and Uggie a Palm Dog award. The New York Film Critics Circle just awarded Hazanavicius the Best Director award, and gave the film the Best Picture.award. I have no doubt that many more awards are in store.

I recommend seeing this picture with young people if possible. I brought my daughter and her two friends, all young women in their twenties. None had ever seen a silent film before. All of them were entranced by this film, and had no trouble following the action or keeping their interest.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Artist," directed by Michel Hazanavicius. La Petite Reine-La Classe Americaine, 2011, 100 minutes.



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The Bureaucrat and the Cellphone Ban

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About a month ago, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chairman, Deborah A.P. Hersman, called for a “first-ever nationwide ban” on “the non-emergency use of portable electronic devices,” including hands-free cellphones, while driving. In a prepared statement introducing the proposed ban, Hersman told the story of a fatal multi-vehicle accident that had recently occurred in rural Missouri, set in motion by a pickup truck driver who’d been using a cellphone while driving:

“And it was over just like that. It happened so quickly. And, that’s what happened at Gray Summit. Two lives lost in the blink of an eye. And, it’s what happened to more than 3,000 people last year. Lives lost. In the blink of an eye. In the typing of a text. In the push of a send button.”

Quickly, critics of the Obama administration raised questions about that “3,000 lives lost” statistic. While some of these criticisms had a peevish tone, their basic point was valid. The 3,000 number was an exaggeration, based on an imprecise use of more defensible fatality numbers.

A few days later, the Washington Post published an opinion column under Hersman’s name that justified the NTSB’s proposal. (The Post’s opinion pages serve as a sort of free press-release service for columns supposedly written by high-level bureaucrats.) The column used most of the same language from Hersman’s earlier statement — but avoided specific figures:

“Washington residents remember well the 2009 Metro crash on the Red Line in which nine people were killed. The number of fatalities from distractions on U.S. roadways is the equivalent of one Metro crash every day of the year. . . . At the NTSB, our charge is to investigate accidents, learn from them and recommend changes. In Gray Summit and on highways across the United States, thousands of people were killed last year in the blink of an eye. In the typing of a text. In the push of a send button.”

There was still plenty of mendacious rhetoric at work in the column. It went on to imply that fatal accidents caused by cellphone use are a growing risk. It stated that cellphones and personal digital assistants have become “ubiquitous”; and it cited a study suggesting that 21% of drivers in the Washington, D.C., area have admitted to texting while driving.

Taken together, these emotionally fraught passages clearly implied that some 3,000 people a year are killed in motor-vehicle accidents caused by sending or receiving cellphone text messages. But that’s not true. The “3,000 lives lost” number comes from an NTSB study of “distracted driving” in general. Based on data from that study, the NTSB estimated that fewer than a third of those deaths could be connected to cellphone use. To repeat for emphasis, even that number is an estimate. (Of course, bureaucratic fiefdoms like the NTSB often issue regulatory decrees based on slight justification and without regard to practicality, effectiveness or cost.)

So, Hersman exaggerated the risk of cellphone use while driving by a factor of at least three — and repeated the exaggeration with carefully calibrated verbiage. And, most important, she used the exaggerations and imprecise rhetoric to support an invasive regulatory action.

She may have figured the mendacity was needed because the general trend has been toward greater safety on American highways. In 1990, about 44,600 people died in car crashes in the U.S.; in 2010, that number had dropped to less than 32,900. This drop is even more striking when you consider that the total number of licensed drivers in the U.S. rose significantly over the same period. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there were 1.71 deaths per 100 million vehicle-miles driven in 1994 but only 1.09 in 2010. That’s a major improvement — though you’d never know it from Nanny Hersman.

Hersman exaggerated the risk of cellphone use while driving by a factor of at least three, and used the exaggerations to support an invasive regulatory action.

In significant ways, Hersman resembles other current and former Obama administration apparatchiks. Like Julius Genachowski, she is a career Beltway insider whose slavish devotion to big government overwhelms any notion of private-sector economy; like Elizabeth Warren, her background speaks more to bureaucratic credentialing than education in the classical liberal sense.

Hersman’s December decree urged state governments to prohibit text-messaging and other electronic device use while driving. (It calls, specifically, for the 50 states and the District of Columbia to ban “the non-emergency use of portable electronic devices.”) But her urgency was unnecessary: 35 states already have such rules in place.

If “distracted driving” is a problem, why are cellphones a more urgent issue than other sources of distraction — watching kids in the back seat, eating fast food, studying a GPS map, applying makeup, etc.? A cynic might say that a cellphone ban gives state agencies a broad excuse to harass citizens…and a new source of cash flow for government coffers. But statist hacks like Hersman are too earnest for that.

A more likely answer is that a ban on cellphone use in the privacy of one’s own car is a preemptive regulation. And preemptive regulations have two distinctive traits: they are often misused — and, particularly, overused — by state agencies; and they are often based on shaky logical foundations that sound good on first impression but don’t stand up well to rigorous inspection.

That second trait explains why bureaucrats like Hersman use emotional manipulations to promote pre-emptive regulations.

An important point: The feds’ own research underscored the futility of Hersman’s gesture. An NHTSA report on accidents “involving” cellphones as the cause of fatalities stated that:

“Sixteen percent of fatal crashes in 2009 involved reports of distracted driving and ... of those people killed in distracted-driving-related crashes, 995 involved reports of a cellphone as a distraction (18% of fatalities in distraction-related crashes).”

So, Nanny Hersman proposed banning cellphones in cars to reduce a risk that causes — at most — 2.9% of traffic-related deaths.

There may have been other factors affecting her thinking. A few months before Hersman’s proposal, the U.S. Senate considered a Department of Transportation spending bill that set up a $10 million grant program aimed at helping states combat “distracted driving” — and especially texting behind the wheel. According to the bill (S. 1596):

“While there is no definitive data as to how many distracted driving deaths and injuries are caused by cellphone use and texting, 20% of the drivers involved in fatal accidents in 2009 were either using or in the presence of a cellphone at the time of the crash, and there is reason to be concerned about whether the recent rise in distracted driving fatalities is linked to the increasing use of electronic devices.”

Admitting they had “no definitive data” to support their actions, the Solons would bribe states to prohibit citizens from operating a vehicle while in the “presence of a cellphone.” Maybe Hersman wanted the NTSB to administer the grants to the states.

If “distracted driving” is a problem, why are cellphones a more urgent issue than other sources of distraction — watching kids in the back seat, eating fast food, studying a GPS map, applying makeup?

The Senate bill also required $5 million to be set aside “for the development, production, and use of broadcast and print media advertising to support enforcement of State laws to prevent distracted driving.” Maybe Hersman wanted the NTSB to produce those ads . . . and its chairman to star in them.

The Obama administration has never been shy about manipulating numbers and emotions to support its various statist schemes and bureaucratic boondoggles. Specifically:

  1. According to the Census Bureau, more than 30 million Americans — one in every seven — live in poverty. And that number is growing, in part, because the Obama administration has expanded the definition of the word “poverty.” The administration has worked to delink the concepts of poverty and deprivation…and redefined poverty instead as being “about inequality.” Traditional metrics of poverty have focused on absolute purchasing power — how much food or durable goods a person can buy; the Obama administration’s metrics focus instead on comparative purchasing power — how much food or durable goods a person can buy relative to other people. This is a statistical trick designed to assure that a fixed portion of the population will always be poor.
  2. In the spring of 2011, Obama administration officials publicized the possibility that “82% of U.S. schools” could be rated as failing, according to metrics established by the No Child Left Behind program. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan repeated this statistic in numerous speeches — even though education experts called the number “unverified,” “likely exaggerated” and “meaningless to the schools that are being rated.” Even after several education policy groups challenged Duncan’s emotional rhetoric, he and other administration officials showed no inclination to make more precise statements. Some observers suggested the administration’s goal was, rather than issuing reliable numbers, to scare Congress into approving its spending goals.
  3. In the fall of 2011, a heated exchange between Rep. Connie Mack (R-FL) and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis made clear that tension between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans over the president’s efforts to bolster the clean energy economy was getting worse. Mack scoffed at administration projections that counted drivers of hybrid buses as “green jobs.” (This dispute occurred during the height of public outrage over Department of Energy loan guarantees — funded through Obama’s $825 billion stimulus plan — to bankrupt solar energy company Solyndra.) Some lawmakers argued that the Obama administration exaggerated the impact that its “green energy” policies had on improving the economy and creating jobs.
  4. In late 2011, immigration policy groups noted that the Obama Administration had inflated statistics to suggest that it had deported a “record-high number of illegal immigrants with criminal records.” In fact, the real deportation figure was closer to an historic low. In October 2011, Obama’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) director had announced that nearly 55% of the record 396,906 illegal immigrants deported in FY2011 were convicted of felonies or crimes. But the real figure was less than 15%, according to federal records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). Specifically, the average rate across the four quarters for FY 2011 was 14.9%.
  5. In October 2011, the web site FactCheck.org caught the Obama administration exaggerating the impact of a proposed additional round of “stimulus” spending. (The administration had predicted that its previous stimulus plan would “save or create” millions of jobs. Those predictions turned out to be wrong — some 1.2 million American jobs had been lost during the two years following passage of the 2009 stimulus. In 2011, Obama claimed that “independent economists” agreed that a new stimulus package would “create nearly 2 million jobs next year.” But FactCheck.org countered that the “median estimate in a survey of 34 economists showed 288,000 jobs could be saved or created over two years under the president’s plan.”

Focusing on this or that political prevarication is easy and, on a reptilian level, fun (on this topic, I commend to you Vaclav Havel’s great New Year’s Day 1990 speech on statist lies). But there’s also a bigger point raised by the meddling of bureaucratic schemers like Deborah Hersman and Barack Obama. Specifically: what burden of proof should be borne by a party who proposes a law or regulation?

The feds’ own research underscored the futility of Hersman’s gesture.

The statists who support Obama argue that the answer to that question is “none.” They argue that bureaucrats are by definition well-meaning and laws or regulations they propose should be presumed virtuous and effective. According to this peculiar logic, the burden of proof falls on those who question the proposed laws or regulations. Here’s one commenter’s defense of Nanny Hersman’s decree:

“Ms. Hersman was appointed to the NTSB in 2004. I can’t for the life of me figure out what possible political (or other nefarious) agenda she could possibly have in recommending that states ban cellphone usage while driving. I don’t see why we can’t assume that she is a conscientious officer who has looked at the question and sincerely believes that the evidence supports her recommendation. . . . I challenge you to find any study that shows that texting or mobile phone use does not impair driving ability. You won’t find any.”

So, unless citizens can prove something isn’t bad, conscientious officers can ban that thing. This is sophistry. And, in the case of Hersman’s proposed cellphone ban, it’s threadbare sophistry.

A more coherent — and liberty-friendly — approach to government regulation would be that, if a state agency proposes restricting or banning some object or action, it must first prove that:

  1. the object or action accounts directly for some demonstrable economic loss, and
  2. restricting or banning the object or action will alleviate the loss.

If the agency can’t establish both points, then its proposal would be ignored.

And even if the agency can establish both points, citizens would demand a cost-benefit analysis of the proposed regulation that establishes with some confidence that it will save more in economic losses than it will cost to enforce.

This approach would reduce the amount of statist noise generated by the present administration. And future ones, too.

Back to the point: statists claim that bureaucratic drivel like Hersman’s proposed cellphone ban should be presumed valid. And that those who question it must prove the validity of their questions.

The fruitless search for zero risk fits well into this warped thinking. Whether the particulars involve texting on cellphones, smoking cigarettes, wearing seatbelts, eating Big Macs, or anything else, statist busybodies justify their requirements, prohibitions and other petty tyrannies with good intent. And they imply that their opponents are in favor of the bad outcomes of risky behavior — or are “against safety.”

But a quick text message sent home or to work while driving on an empty country road or stopped in traffic might be as effective a safety measure as wearing a seat belt. Because text messages are time-stamped, people who care about you can know where you were at a given time; this is important, if you don’t show up as expected.

Whether the particulars involve texting on cellphones, smoking cigarettes, wearing seatbelts, eating Big Macs, or anything else, statist busybodies justify their requirements, prohibitions and other petty tyrannies with good intent.

This sort of effective communication may have something to do with the overall trend toward safer U.S. highways. (And most of the existing state laws that restrict or prohibit cellphone use while driving specifically exempt emergency use — such as calls to the highway patrol to report dangerous conditions, etc.)

As I’ve noted, Hersman’s decree was unnecessary. Most states already have laws in place restricting cellphone use by people driving cars; and all states have reckless driving laws that apply to situations in which cellphone use causes dangerous results. But, as one online commenter noted:

“Enforcing laws is so boring. Not only is it work, you get little political benefit from mundane enforcement stuff as it rarely makes the papers. And enforcement of laws may even upset people, causing political problems. But passing laws, now that’s sexy.”

Well, there’s no accounting for taste.

The most damning indictment of the proposed cellphone ban comes from a statistical study conducted by researchers at the Colorado School of Mines. They note:

“On July 1, 2008, California enacted a ban on hand-held cellphone use while driving. Using California Highway Patrol panel accident data for California freeways from January 1, 2008, to December 3, 2008, we examine whether this policy reduced the number of accidents on California highways. To control for unobserved time-varying effects that could be correlated with the ban, we use high-frequency data and a regression discontinuity design. We find no evidence that the ban on hand-held cellphone use led to a reduction in traffic accidents.”

This study is preliminary and based on limited data — but it doesn’t bode well for the cost-effectiveness of Hersman’s futile gesture.

Bureaucrats promulgate regulations. It’s their lifeblood, the air they breathe. A bureaucrat isn’t fulfilling her statist destiny unless she banning or prohibiting something.

But free citizens need to keep in mind that the United States is a country built on the philosophical premise that everything not banned is permitted instead of the tyrannical axiom that everything not permitted is banned.

It’s right there, in the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution. Nanny Hersman and her current boss should take a look.




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More Green Goblins

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The Great Green Energy Bust continues to accelerate, with new wrinkles on crony green capitalism showing up almost daily.

Let’s start with the far-from-sunny news regarding the Obama administration’s favorite industry, solar power. The Wall Street Journal reports that the whole solar industry is in trouble. The demand for solar panels is projected to be flat next year, and many of the players in the industry face plummeting stock prices or even bankruptcy.

In the last quarter of 2011, at least seven solar manufacturers hit the wall. These include the German firms Solar Millennium and Solon SE, and of course the notorious American firm Solyndra. Six of the ten biggest solar companies reported losses in the third quarter of 2011; six of the ten also showed corporate debts that exceeded their market capitalizations.

The solar industry as a whole experienced an average stock price drop of 57% during 2011.

Part of the problem is noted in the Journal article: a glut on the market of solar panels and other components, because China has expanded its solar manufacturing industry. Remember, China has the vast majority of known reserves of the rare earth minerals used in solar panels, and it still has relatively inexpensive labor.

But the article also notes that consumer demand for solar products has fallen off. During the last year, for example, German demand fell by 29%.

What the article doesn’t mention are the major reasons for the decline in demand, but these are important to understand.

First, more countries are cutting back on their massive subsidies for solar panels. Solar power requires much more subsidization than nuclear power, and vastly more than for fossil fuels such as natural gas.

Second, there has been a renaissance of fossil fuel energy, driven by the rapid rise of nonconventional fossil fuels — natural gas and oil extracted from shale and tar sand fields by such newer technologies as fracking and horizontal drilling. I have explored this renaissance elsewhere; suffice it to say that it has pushed natural gas in particular to such low prices that it is making green energy seem obviously stupid from any economic standpoint.

Next comes a report out of the Netherlands that the Dutch — for whom windmills have been part of the national ethos — are apparently starting to have regrets about wind as a power source.

Five years ago, in a burst of Green enthusiasm, the Dutch built three dozen huge wind turbines — each the size of a 30-story building — out in the North Sea. However, even the North Sea wind and the Dutch enthusiasm couldn’t change the fact that, like solar power, wind power is grotesquely inefficient, and so requires lavish taxpayer support. The Dutch had to pay $4.5 billion Euros last year to subsidize these windmills.

Consumer demand for solar products has fallen off. During the last year, for example, German demand fell by 29%.

The government there has just announced that it can no longer afford to pick up the tab. Naturally, it hopes to make consumers and businesses pick it up instead. In 2013, the government will start a billing scheme under which consumers will pay more for wind power, and investors will (supposedly) be lured into supporting it.

The government concedes, however, that the new arrangement will cover only about a third of the subsidy. So, as the article gently puts it, “The outlook for Dutch wind power projects seems bleak.”

The Dutch, those clever people — think of their achievements, from those enormous dikes to those quaint wooden shoes — have grasped the fact that land-based wind farms are hideous, costly, unsafe, and noisy, while offshore wind farms are even costlier and harder to maintain.

The Dutch government had planned to increase its current share of renewable energy (as a percentage of all energy used) from the current 4% to 14% by 2020. But that was just a green dream. The government now estimates that it will only be at 8% to 12% renewable energy by then. Of course, if it ended all subsidies, even the ones it passes on to hapless consumers, the industry probably wouldn’t grow at all — or even survive.

Let’s turn to another green energy boondoggle, one often overlooked because the scandals in solar and wind power have been so juicy and so damn numerous. Several recent reports show that the so-called “alternative biofuels” program is also rife with waste and corruption.

By the way, the misleading term “biofuels” refers to alcohol, diesel, or other liquid fuels created from plants. For many years, ethanol has been produced from sugar cane, and more recently from corn. Call that “standard biofuel.” Alternative or “cellulosic” biofuel is derived from other plants, such as switch grass, and plant wastes, such as corncobs. Now you know.

A WSJ article recounts the astonishing history of the whole biofuel program. It started as one of George Bush’s sillier ideas. So eager was he to show that he wasn’t the “oil boy” his critics accused him of being that he signed the Pelosi-crafted bill into law in 2007.

This abominable bill called for (shock and awe!) super subsidies for the super fuel. (Why do all these super energy schemes do that?) The bill provided a tax credit of $1.01 per gallon. Another Pelosi-Bush bill then required oil companies to blend this costly crap with their fossil fuels. The mandate started at 100 million gallons in 2010 and was supposed to hit 250 million in 2011, 500 million in 2012, and 16 billion in 2022. But already this preposterous program has stolen $1.5 billion from the taxpayers. I don’t need to tell you that Obama gave it his Chicago crony capitalist stamp of approval.

The Dutch, those clever people, have grasped the fact that land-based wind farms are hideous, costly, unsafe, and noisy, while offshore wind farms are even costlier and harder to maintain.

Would that Bush and Obama had both been oil boys, real ones. In that event we taxpayers would have been spared the billions of bucks pumped pointlessly into corn ethanol and cellulosic biofuels — not to mention the $70 billion Obama has pumped into the even stupider solar and wind programs.

As anyone could have predicted, cellulosic biofuel program has been a complete fiasco. Despite the billions in pelf that have been purloined from the citizenry to induce companies to produce the government-approved dreck, very little is being produced. The EPA (the agency with the power to revise the mandate) dropped the 2011 requirement from the original 250 million gallons to a risible 6.6 million. The EPA has just announced that it will set the level at 8.65 million gallons in 2012, significantly beneath the 500 million gallons called for, and will allow refiners to use corn ethanol to help meet the requirement. (Of course, corn ethanol is another corrupt boondoggle, as I have remarked elsewhere.)

The EPA thus acknowledges that the real production of cellulosic biofuels is infinitesimal. The feds are requiring refiners to buy a product that isn’t being produced in anywhere near the quantities necessary for them to comply with the requirement, and the EPA has been fining oil companies for not meeting the mandate.

The problem with alternative biofuels — indeed, all biofuels — is the same as that with solar and wind energy. As the National Academy of Science put it in a recent report on this so-called industry, it is cost, “the high cost of producing cellulosic biofuels compared with petroleum-based fuels, and uncertainties in future biofuel markets.” Read: uncertainty about how much longer a nearly bankrupt government will be able to fund such scams.

Scams? Yes, I said scams — “scams” in the sense of unworkable nonsense, at least, and sometimes “scams” in the sense of something worse.

Despite the prospect or reality of subsidies, about a half dozen of the firms that were supposed to produce alternative biofuels never got off the ground. And the company that was supposed to provide 70% of the cellulosic fuel to meet last year’s mandate, Cello Energy, went bankrupt last year.

The Cello story is cute. The company was found guilty in a 2009 civil case of making fraudulent claims. It reportedly overstated its production capabilities to investors, and — this is hilarious! — passed off some ordinary (i.e., petroleum derived) diesel as biodiesel. In fact, the company never produced much biofuel of any kind, standard or alternative.

Then there is the unsurprising news that crony green capitalism extends to biofuels as well as wind and solar energy. A recent story recounts how yet another Obama crony is at the center of yet another massive scam on the taxpayer.

It so happens that the Regime’s highly politicized Agriculture Department — you know, the one that has been waging war on non-conventional fossil fuel production — pushed the Navy to purchase nearly half a million gallons of alternative biofuels for their aircraft. This is the largest federal purchase of biofuel ever.

That’s just the beginning of the story. In an effort to create what it calls — dig this! — “the Great Green Fleet Carrier Strike Force,” the Navy is working with the Agriculture and Energy Departments to buy $510 million in biofuels, so that our seaborne fighting force, which earlier made the transition from diesel to nuclear power, can transition back to diesel fuel — but this time to biodiesel rather than fossil fuel diesel.

If that’s not funny enough, consider this: the biodiesel just purchased costs $16 per gallon, which is four times the price of normal (i.e., fossil fuel derived) diesel.

A key beneficiary of this price gouging of our Navy is a California company called Solazyme. Solazyme’s major “strategic advisor” turns out to be one T.J. Glauthier, who was a member of Obama’s transition team and crafted the energy industry section of the Obama Regime’s notorious 2009 “stimulus” bill.

Oh, and lest I forget, Glauthier made sure that Solazyme got $22 million out of that very bill.

Meanwhile, however, there is hope. The renaissance in fossil fuels, and the growing shortage of government funds to subsidize stupidly inefficient industries, is rapidly putting paid to the whole insane, overhyped, profoundly corrupt green energy program.

Thank God!




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What's in Your Wallet?

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Am I the only one troubled by so-called loyalty cards — those wallet-fattening, discount-generating, grocery store-checkout minor irritants? When the cards were first introduced at my local Safeway I was urged to sign up, with the slogan, “The savings are in the card!”

Well, I was skeptical, but I decided to look into it. Right from the start, I was turned off by the information required on the application. It also seemed to me that — as The Economist pointed out in its November 5 issue — the expense of setting up and running rewards programs increases a retailer’s overhead. So I asked the attendant (usually busy manning a checkout till, but now temporarily signing up rewards card customers instead) how increased overhead could generate discounts?She stared at me blankly.

One chief executive from a Canadian firm that runs a card scheme explains, “The real value-added (from loyalty cards) is the data.” As The Economist further elaborates, “By cleverly using the information collected when customers’ cards are swiped at checkouts, the companies can offer them well-targeted discounts. Even small shifts in buying habits, multiplied by very large numbers of customers, can provide a welcome boost to profits.”

I’m not convinced. And neither is Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, which proclaims (through Asda, its British subsidiary): “No Clubcard. No gimmicks. Just lower prices every day.”

Unwilling to sign up at Safeway, I switched to buying groceries at Albertson’s, which at the time had no loyalty cards. But it wasn’t long before both Albertson’s and Fry’s (Kroger’s) — the only other alternatives in Prescott, my home town — also jumped on the bandwagon. What to do?

Club cards come in two forms: a credit card-sized rendition and a key chain-tag mini-card. One day, through sheer luck, I found a dropped mini-card in the Albertson’s parking lot. Voila! Now I could cash in on discounts without revealing personal information.

On my next trip to the grocery store, my favorite checkout gal noticed I’d acquired a loyalty card. She kidded me about capitulating. I told her I’d found the card. So she asked me what the big deal was. I told her I was very skeptical about the whole card concept, explaining that I couldn’t understand how additional overhead could generate discounts, and that I objected to providing personal data and purchasing habits. I summed it up by saying, “Adolf Hitler would have loved to find out who was buying kosher food.”

She responded diplomatically: “I never thought of it that way.”

Then, just as suddenly as it had adopted them, Albertson’s dropped its loyalty card program in Arizona. However, they continue the scheme in Nevada — a sure sign of corporate ambivalence.

Somewhat defeating the purpose of the program is another fast-spreading policy among card issuers: complementary card swiping. Many chains, including ones in Canada, now authorize checkout attendants to swipe loyalty cards for tourists, visitors, and folks who forget their card. All a customer needs to do is ask.

When Wal-Mart finally opened up a supercenter in Prescott, it was a mixed blessing. The city council threatened to use eminent domain to evict recalcitrant lease holders from their property to make room for the Wal-Mart. One council member condemned the abuse of eminent domain but justified the council’s actions by rationalizing that eminent domain would not actually be used — just threatened.

But that’s another story. At least now Prescott has some card-free choices.




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Ron Paul at the Iowa Marker

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In Iowa, Ron Paul came in third. Four years earlier, he had come in fifth, with 10% of the party vote. Now he has more than doubled his support, to 21.5%. His new total suggests he has established libertarians as a significant faction within the Republican Party.

This is no certain thing. We will know when Paul retires, and the faction is led by someone else, perhaps his son. In either case, it is not a majority faction, and Paul is not going to be nominated.

Every time I write this, some Paul supporter rises in challenge: “Who gave you a crystal ball?” (My momma did.) When they are done hollering at me, they can holler at Intrade. As I write, on the morning after the Iowa caucuses, the gamblers on the news-prediction web page put odds of Paul’s nomination at between 2 and 2.4%, which is lower than the odds for Jon Huntsman.

In December 2011, Paul’s odds peaked at above 9%, about at the level he peaked four years earlier, in December 2007, regarding the nomination in 2008. After the Iowa caucuses then, and the New Hampshire primary, Paul’s quote fell to 1%. He is likely on the same trajectory now.

What has happened? Paul has been attacked. This was entirely predictable, and it is not just because the mainstream media is against him, though it is. The frontrunner is always attacked.

For months the national press had ignored Paul, treating him, in Andrew Sullivan’s words, like “an eccentric uncle.” Then it changed. In the last half of December anti-Paul columns appeared by Paul Krugman in the New York Times (Dec. 16), James Kirchick in the New Republic (Dec. 22), Dorothy Rabinowitz in the Wall Street Journal (Dec. 22), former New York mayor Ed Koch on NewsMax.com (Dec. 29), Michael Gerson in the Washington Post (Dec. 30), and the editorial board of the New York Times (Dec. 27).

“Who gave you a crystal ball?” My momma did.

Much of this was a regurgitation of the story about the anti-black and anti-gay tone in Paul’s newsletters of the early 1990s. Kirchick had used these to accuse Paul of “hate” in The New Republic in January 2008, and the press corps knew about them. Wrote Shikha Dalmia of Reason, Dec. 25, 2011: “It seems no one wanted to bring them up again until Paul gained so much traction that ignoring them would have been a serious dereliction of duty.”

For some it seemed that way. Others, who detested Paul, saw a chance to chuck the garbage from an open window onto Paul’s head. They had dumped on Palin, Bachmann, Perry and Cain. They had just been trashing Newt. Then, in mid-December, Paul was leading in the Iowa polls, with 23–28% among a field of seven, and he still had a clean shirt.

Then came Kirchick, fanning the “hate” issue again; many Paul supporters, seeing their man as the least hateful of the lot, were inclined to dismiss it as more mainstream media bias. Some of it was, but in a presidential race a candidate cannot ignore charges like this.

And Kirchick had a new take on it. His piece was titled, “Why Don’t Libertarians Care About Ron Paul’s Bigoted Newsletters?” In it, he said Paul’s supporters “don’t base their support on the Congressman’s years-long record of supporting racism, homophobia,” etc. The problem with libertarians, he said, is that they shut these considerations from their minds, letting the free market trump “all considerations of social empathy and historical acuity.”

If they cared about these things, Kirchick argued, libertarians would have been supporting the former governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson, who “can boast executive experience and doesn’t have the racist and conspiratorial baggage.”

The public didn’t know Johnson. They knew Paul. He had run twice before. He had written bestselling books. He had built up a base of fans. He had mailing lists of donors for his “money bombs,” and an organization that in Iowa was stronger than any other Republican’s. He had a US senator to campaign for him: his son.

Others, who detested Paul, saw a chance to chuck the garbage from an open window onto Paul’s head.

He also has a personal aura, a Gandhian quality, different from that of any of the Republicans. On the eve of the Iowa caucuses the Des Moines Register poll found that voters ranked Paul as the least ego-driven candidate. Andrew Sullivan writes of Paul’s “decency.” Dalmia writes of his “remarkable ability to generate goodwill.” Paul is more radical than Johnson. This makes him easier to attack, but also more appealing to the hardcore.

 The Republican leadership couldn’t stand either Johnson or Paul. For Paul, it didn’t matter; he had built his own party. Johnson hadn’t. At the end of 2011 he was so sore at the Republican leadership that he joined the Libertarian Party.

Back to Kirchick: he exaggerates, but he has a point. Paul’s fans liked him so much they were willing to overlook a bad thing on his record.

How bad was it? To Kirchick, as with many liberals, racism is the most important issue there is. If you’re touched by it, you’re dead. If you care about it, but you care about other things more, that’s not good enough. You’re still dead. Any denials are assumed to be false and (especially if they are against you anyway) any mea culpa from you istoo small.

The real issue is not what Paul was then. It is what he is now. You have to judge.

One commentator who tried to think this through is Andrew Sullivan. He had supported Paul for the Republican nomination, but said he would vote for Obama in November. He liked Paul’s stand on foreign war and executive power. To Sullivan, Paul was “the best medicine for the GOP, not the best president.” After Sullivan argued for this, some readers attacked him on the matter of Paul’s newsletters, and he reconsidered. On Dec. 24, he wrote:

“I sat down and re-read some of the Ron Paul newsletters last night. I don’t think he wrote them; I don’t think they represent who he is; I do not believe the man is a racist, although seeing into men’s souls is not something any of us is very good at.”

He has a personal aura, a Gandhian quality, different from that of any of the Republicans.

There are good reasons for believing Paul is no racist. Paul’s associates — even Eric Dondero, who became his political enemy — say he is not a racist. Paul has written a bunch of books, but never a racist book. He has engaged in numerous political campaigns, but never a racist campaign. He is deeply interested in economic and political ideas, but not ideas about race. And he is not an angry person, as so many racists seem to be.

If Paul is not a racist, then what do the newsletters say about him?

The story of the newsletters was told by Julian Sanchez in Reason four years ago. In 1988 Paul had given up his seat in Congress to run for president on the Libertarian Party. After he lost, he went back to his medical practice. But he had a valuable mailing list, and he kept a side business in newsletters. To produce these letters he had several people working for him. Lew Rockwell was one. Another was Murray Rothbard. Both were right-anarchists, radical free-marketeers. At that time, they had a theory, the “paleo” strategy, that libertarians should market their philosophy to the populist Right. For Rothbard, this wasn’t the first strategy of alliance; in the 1960s he had allied with the New Left. As communism crashed, he proclaimed an alliance with the “paleoconservatives,” which ranged from Patrick Buchanan to lowbrow populists. The Ron Paul newsletters were his vehicle; the nastiness towards black welfare recipients, Martin Luther King, gay AIDS patients, etc., was part of a calculated tone.

Exactly who wrote the stuff is unclear. Rockwell is blamed most often, but he says he mainly wrote promotional copy. Rockwell now runs the libertarian website LewRockwell.com, which can be nasty to pro-war Republicans and the “beltway libertarians” at the Cato Institute, but does not market racism. Rockwell is not interested in race. When the newsletter issue came up four years ago, his contributor Karen DeCoster made the same point about him that others have made about Paul: the newsletters didn’t sound like him. She wrote, “Those excerpts making light of immigrants/blacks etc. are way too snappy and attempt to be way too humorous to have been written by Lew . . . His personality is exactly the opposite.”

Rothbard died in 1995. He could be a snappy writer, and he loved to indulge in polemics. But writing like a redneck would have been striking a pose: he was a Jew raised in the Bronx and had a doctorate in economics from Columbia University.

The critics piling on Paul won’t accept his statement that he doesn’t know who wrote the offending copy. I don’t believe it either, but I accept it, and I respect Paul for not naming names. Why does anyone need to know? It was Paul’s newsletter. He is responsible for it, and the stain is on him.

The crucial question is what kind of a stain it is. Does it mean Paul judges people by their race and that one race is to be favored over another? Based on the rest of his life, particularly the last 15 years, you have to say no. It does suggest some other things, though, starting with the Kirchickian notion that libertarians just don’t care about this stuff. Politically it suggests tone-deafness and poor judgment.

The newsletters of 20 years ago were a pose. The Paul of today is who he says he is.

That’s not racism, but it’s not what most Americans look for in a president, either. Then again, Ron Paul is not going to be president. The reason to support him is not that he can win, but that the Republicans, who are America’s nationalist party, need to be reoriented away from war, executive power, deficit spending, money creation and debt toward a more peaceful, constitutional and financially sustainable vision — and the only person who has had any success in doing this is Ron Paul.

Wrote Sullivan: “I stand by all the things I wrote about Paul’s views, his refreshing candor, his happy temperament, his support for minorities, and his vital work to undo the war on drugs and the military-industrial complex. I don’t think he’s a racist; in fact, I think he’s one of the least racially aware politicians I’ve come across in a long while.”

And Shikha Dalmia: “I have never met Paul. But everyone I know who has likes him. They can’t believe that he is capable of harboring the kind of vile sentiments expressed in the newsletters. He seems just too mild and innocuous and decent and well meaning.”

He does. Maybe it’s a pose, but I don’t think so. I think the newsletters of 20 years ago were a pose. The Paul of today is who he says he is.

That he has racked up 21.5% of Republican caucus votes after challenging some of the ruling ideas of the party, means he has achieved something, and not only for himself, and not only for 2012.




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What’s Interesting about Iowa

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By the time the Iowa caucus finally happened, even political junkies were sick of it. It was a contest of doubtful influence on anything, and this year it was virtually impossible for anyone to “win” the thing. (A “win,” I believe, should constitute something more than 25%.) CNN and Fox News kept saying that “excitement” was “building.” Right. One Lego block at a time. And those debates — Good God! Why? How many dull parties must you attend? I say none.

But I was surprised and amused by the circus animals who were paraded through the streets of Sioux City, each with its own fleet of trainers and guard of clowns. It wasn’t the greatest show on earth, but it was a show.

Michele Bachmann, who demonstrated that illiteracy need be no handicap to a person’s self-esteem.

Newt Gingrich, who consistently delighted me with his screwiness and bitchiness. Every one of his “new ideas” had me rolling in laughter. (My favorite was the one about summoning local juries to determine whether illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in this country. As you probably know, I am no friend of open immigration, but if ever there was a court invented by a kangaroo, Gingrich’s immigration jury was it.) I loved the perfect zingers he scored on the other candidates. When an outraged Bachmann demanded to know whether he had called Mitt Romney a liar, Gingrich calmly asked, “Why are you so horrified?” I’m going to miss Newt.

Herman Cain, a good orator, and an intelligent person, who somehow lacked the rare and peculiar kind of intelligence that’s necessary to recall embarrassing incidents in one’s personal life. Of course, this is the kind of intelligence that almost everyone else possesses, but why should it be expected of a presidential candidate?

Jon Huntsman, the candidate from the New York Times.

Rick Santorum, the former Senator from the Roman Catholic Church. Who else would have complimented George Bush, a Methodist, on his performance as a politicized Catholic? “From economic issues focusing on the poor and social justice, to issues of human life, George Bush is there. He has every right to say, 'I’m where you are if you're a believing Catholic.’” The surge that Santorum experienced in Iowa was initiated by conservative Catholics who realized, at last, that this hapless, obscure person was actually a Knight of Magistral Grace of the Knights of Malta.

Mitt Romney, the man who everyone loves to hate. You’ve got to appreciate a candidate whose aides run a Mittness Protection Program.

Rick Perry. You’ve got to love a guy who, being revealed as an ignorant fool, funded an ad campaign in which he admitted to being an ignorant fool, yet urged everyone to vote for him.

I’m going to miss these acts — the acts that go away, of course. The ones that keep going inspire no such nostalgic feelings.

But what of Ron Paul? I am sorry to say, from the dramatic point of view, that I was not surprised by anything that happened with him. I expected him to suffer attacks. And I expected him, notwithstanding the attacks, to achieve about 20% of the vote. He got 21%. That’s about what he usually gets from Republicans (and independents acting as Republicans, as in Iowa) when noses are counted or buttons are pushed.

Believe me, I would rather see myself as part of Paul’s 21% than as part of the less than 1% in which I am placed whenever Libertarian Party registration or voting is measured. But — call me a traitor if you want to — I’ve never believed the results of the Nolan survey or any other questionnaire purporting to show that more than 20% of people in America are really libertarians. They aren’t. If they were, they’d have plenty of opportunities to show it, but they don’t. What they are is people who believe in legalizing drugs and raising taxes on “the wealthy,” or lowering taxes and pursuing a bellicose foreign policy, or some other combination of views that seems, from libertarians’ perspective, incoherent and ridiculous. But America has always been an essentially libertarian country without a libertarian population. It’s the triumph of structure over “the people.”

Would Paul attract more voters if he recognized this? Here’s my reason for asking that question. Paul is a preacher, and he preaches largely to the choir. His rhetoric assumes that “Americans want” what he wants. He seems honestly surprised that anyone should care that Iran has an atom bomb, or worry about his desire to dismantle the Federal Reserve system. But even I care that Iran has the bomb, and I well remember having to be convinced that the Fed was a bad idea. Every libertarian can say the same about his or her experience with libertarian ideas. But Paul has the preacher’s style, not the educator’s, or the conversationalist’s. He talks to people, not with them.

So could he attract more votes if he were a different kind of campaigner? The good thing and the bad thing is that it’s hard to tell whether he could or not. I want to believe that the libertarian philosophy can be conveyed with even greater effect. Yet Ron did very well at holding his 21%, no matter what. And twenty-one percent isn’t a percentage to scorn. There’s leverage in that.




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Why Choose Less?

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A recent story in the WSJ caught my eye, since it bears on a topic that is of much practical importance but hasn’t been much investigated. The issue is: why do college students choose the majors they choose?

As I have reported elsewhere, there is now a detailed economic study about what students of various college majors earn later in life. Not surprisingly, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors do better financially than, say, humanities majors. But this study only confirmed what was widely understood all along. It’s not as if students (and parents) hadn’t already understood the disparity of incomes, ranked by major.

But this recent WSJ piece reports that students are picking the easier majors, even though they know that those majors offer lower financial payoffs. It tells the tale of one young Chinese American who enrolled at Carnegie Mellon as an electrical and computer engineering major, only to switch to a major in psychology and policy management (whatever the hell that is!). Psych majors average about $38,000 a year less than computer engineering grads. She explained her decision by saying, “My ability level was just not there.”

The authors raise the issue of whether the continuing bad economy will persuade more students to major in the STEM subjects. But the trend hasn’t been good in that regard. From 2001 to 2009, while the number of college grads increased by 29%, the number of engineering grads only increased by 19%, and those with computer science degrees actually dropped 14%.

In fact, the full stats are even grimmer. As the estimable Sol Stern has recently noted, over the last 50 years, technological innovation was responsible for over half of all American economic growth. However, bachelor’s degrees in engineering (awarded to American students, not foreign nationals) peaked in 1985 and have dropped ever since. We are now down 23% from that peak. Only 6% of American college students major in engineering, compared with 12% in Europe and Israel, not to mention the 20% level in Japan and South Korea. We are near the bottom of the industrialized world when it comes to the percentage of college grads with STEM degrees.

Returning now to the WSJ article: it notes that one problem is the perceived disparity in difficulty between STEM courses and those in the humanities and social sciences. Ms. Zhou found that she went from earning C’s and B’s in engineering to A’s in psychology. There is nothing new here, of course. Students have noticed for decades how much easier it is to score much higher grades for much less work in non-STEM majors. Science and math majors average three hours more per week in study time. That difference may seem trivial, but students are increasingly less inclined to work. The article notes that the average time students spend studying has dropped by half since 1960.

It also notes, with evident approval, the efforts of some STEM departments to stem attrition by “modifying” their classes to make them — what? more palatable? — to students from other majors. In his class for liberal arts majors, one computer science prof cut down on the theory component in favor of practical programming. Now 85% of the students pass. What his pass rate was before this, the story doesn’t say. Presumably lots, lots lower.

Whether any of this constitutes dumbing down the subject, the story also doesn’t say.

It is also silent about what to my mind are the biggest issues here.

First, to what degree are humanities, social science, education, and other non-STEM departments inflating grades to attract students, or — given the pervasiveness of leftist thought in those departments — out of a loopy egalitarianism? Grade inflation, no less than monetary inflation, is a profound pricing problem.

Hayek and Kirzner urged us to understand pricing as a language. In a free market, if something fetches a low price, it tells the producer not to produce so much of it. I think that grading is pricing. If a student has to work and winds up with low grades, the grades are telling him that he may need to work still harder, or find another major. The STEM instructors are just doing their jobs and telling the truth to students.

But if (as I suspect) the grading standard has been inflated by many non-STEM professors, they are doing something immoral: they are lying to students about their real abilities. If I give A’s to all my philosophy students, I’m telling them that they are excellent at a subject, when most are not. I may encourage them to pursue a career when they shouldn’t, or — more to the point — not pursue a career they should.

Second, to what extent is this problem another example of the dismal failure of America’s public K-12 educational system — a failure that ramifies into the post-secondary educational system? I have suggested elsewhere that part of the reason many employers look to hire college grads for jobs that really require only a high school education is that a high school diploma from most urban public school districts no longer means a thing in terms of basic educational competence.

If students are switching to easier subjects, might that not be because so many of even the most technically talented young people were so badly instructed in math and science during K-12 that they face extra challenges learning the introductory college-level material? Similarly, if these students were never forced to work diligently in grade school or high school, might this not be the reason why they flee majors that require hard work, and in fact are studying less than ever before in college?

All of this is as disquieting as it is ignored by the mainstream media.




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