The Brain, Explained

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"Don't think, feel!" Bruce Lee's character exhorts his young son in Enter the Dragon (1973) as he teaches him to trust his instincts while learning to fight. By contrast, Ayn Rand favored "Don't feel, think!" when she wrote, "People don't want to think. And the deeper they get into trouble, the less they want to think." Like Plato, Rand proudly privileged reason over emotion. But which is the better approach for making decisions, Lee's feeling intuitively or Rand's thinking rationally?

According to Jonah Lehrer in How We Decide, they're both right. We humans would make better decisions if we understood how the brain reacts to various stimuli. The frontal cortex accesses different tools within its complex regions and uses that knowledge to choose when we should react intuitively and when we should figure things out rationally. Using fascinating real-life stories, studies conducted by respected psychologists and neuroscientists, and an entertainingly accessible style, Lehrer explains how the uniquely human frontal cortex sorts it all out and helps us decide.

For instance, Lehrer considers how quarterback Tom Brady surveys the position and forward direction of 21 moving players on a 5,000-square-yard playing field, anticipates where everyone will be next, and decides where and how fast to throw a football, all in less than two seconds, while other players are bearing down on him. Brainwave studies have shown that there isn't time for him to process the information and make a rational decision. The neural synapses aren't that fast. A quarterback's decision is made intuitively, through the part of the brain controlled by emotion. As Lehrer quotes Brady, "You just feel like you're going to the right place."

Lehrer also demonstrates what causes athletes, performers, public speakers, and everyday humans like you and me to "choke" on tasks for which we are perfectly prepared and skilled. He tells the stories of opera singer Renee Fleming, golfer Jean Van de Velde, and others to demonstrate the point. The problem comes from overthinking a task that the body has learned to perform instinctively. In short, the brain gets in its own way, as the reasoning synapses block the path of the emotional synapses. "A brain that can't feel can't make up its mind," Leher concludes (15).

Of course, mere feeling isn't sufficient for making the right decisions. A potential juror who says, "I can tell if someone's guilty just by looking at him" is more dangerous than a crook with a gun. Lehrer provides equally fascinating examples to demonstrate when the rational part of the brain needs to be in control. For example, he tells the compelling story of firefighters who tried to control a raging forest fire in the Rockies in 1949. When the blaze jumped a gulch and began racing toward them, most of them tapped into their brain's emotional side and tried to outrun the fire.

The captain, however, evaluated the situation rationally. He quickly took into account the dryness of the grass, the speed of the wind driving the fire, the slope of the hill they would have to run, and their unfamiliarity with the terrain on the other side of the crest. While his emotions screamed "Run!" his reason said, "Stop. Build a fire. Destroy the fire's fuel, and then hug the ground while the fire passes over you." He was the only man to survive. None of his young firefighters followed his lead. Today, building a firebreak has become standard training procedure because of this incident. But at the time, Captain Dodge's brain created the escape route entirely on its own.

Modern scientific tools, such as the MRI, electronic probes, and EEG, have made it possible to see exactly what the brain does when faced with a choice, a risk, or a dilemma. "Every feeling," Lehrer writes, "is really a summary of data, a visceral response to all of the information that can't be accessed directly" (23). This means that you and I will make better choices if we understand which parts of the brain to access for different tasks, and how to satisfy or tone down conflicting stimuli.

For example, one study asked subjects to memorize a list and report to someone in a room at the end of a hallway. On the way the subjects passed a table where they were invited to take a snack. Those who had a long message to remember — one that required them to remember seven things — usually chose a piece of chocolate cake, while those who only had one or two things to remember tended to take a piece of fruit. The practical application? When the rational brain is working at capacity (and according to psychologist George Miller's essay, "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two," memorizing seven things seems to be the capacity), the emotional brain takes over, and the chocolate cake is irresistible. When the rational brain has less to remember, it can overrule emotion and make a wiser choice. No wonder we overeat and fall prey to other temptations when we have too much to do.

So when should we think rationally, and when should we act impulsively? Lehrer ends his book with several practical suggestions.

First, simple problems require reason. When there are few variables to consider, the brain is able to analyze them rationally and provide a reasonable decision. But when the choice contains many variables — as when one is buying a new house — "sleep on it" and then "go with your gut" really is the best advice. Overthinking often leads to poor decision making.

Second, novel problems also require reason. Before reacting intuitively, make sure the brain has enough past experience to help you make the right decision. Creative solutions to new problems require concrete information and rational analysis.

Third, embrace uncertainty. Too often, Lehrer warns, "You are so confident you're right that you neglect all the evidence that contradicts your conclusion." This is especially true in matters such as politics and investment decisions. He offers two solutions: "always entertain competing hypotheses . . . [and] continually remind yourself of what you don't know" (247). Certainty often leads to blindness.

Fourth, you know more than you know. The conscious brain is often unaware of what the unconscious brain knows. "Emotions have a logic all their own," Lehrer says. "They've managed to turn mistakes into educational events" (248–49). The reason superstars like Tom Brady, Tiger Woods, and Renee Fleming can rely on instinct is that they've been there before. Tom Brady has surveyed thousands of football fields and thrown thousands of passes; Tiger Woods has made thousands of putts; Renee Fleming has sung an aria hundreds of times. For them, the brain knows what to do, and thinking just gets in the way.

Fifth, think about thinking. Before making a decision, Lehrer warns, be aware of the kind of decision it is and the kind of thought process it requires. "You can't avoid loss aversion unless you know that the mind treats losses differently than gains," he explains. Knowing how the brain works will help us make better decisions in everything we do.

How We Decide is a book full of real-life stories, scientific experiments, and practical applications. It will help you understand how you make decisions, and will guide you to make better decisions in the future. Returning to Bruce Lee and Ayn Rand's conflict between thinking and feeling, Lehrer makes a strong case for "Think sometimes, feel sometimes. And make sure you know when to do which."


Editor's Note: Review of "How We Decide," by Jonah Lehrer. First Mariner Books edition, 2010 (Harcourt Brace, 2009), 302 pages.



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Memo to Obama: Here’s How the Market Works

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President Obama is running a political campaign as predictable as it is despicable. It is based on attacking capitalism. “Markets never work, government always does” appears to be his meshuggeneh mantra. As it happens, two recent Wall Street Journal stories illustrate the free market (disparagingly called “capitalism” by its opponents) in action. Obama might want to reflect on them, though it is doubtful that he often reflects on anything — he seems to be the epitome of a reflexive instead of a reflective person.

The articles, appearing on the same day and the same page, report on the impact of the fracking revolution in natural gas production, a revolution that has dramatically decreased the price of natural gas — by nearly half in the last year alone.

The first article reports some good news about the rock-bottom prices for natural gas. The price is inducing companies with trucking fleets to switch from diesel to natural gas (NG) — either compressed (CNG) or liquefied (LNG).

For example, Waste Management is now buying NG trucks. It plans to make 80% of the new trucks it buys over the next 5 years NG trucks. The NG trucks cost about $30,000 more than ordinary diesel trucks, but save more than $27,000 a year in fuel expenses. Ryder Systems, a truck leasing company, is making the same move, with one of its vice presidents saying, “The economics favoring NG are overwhelming.”

Other corporations shifting their truck fleets to NG include such huge players as UPS and AT&T.

The article notes the standard problems facing fleets looking to convert to NG, such as the need for bigger tanks, and especially the lack of CNG or LNG fueling stations nationwide. But as the fracking gas revolution continues apace, it is likely that the price of natural gas will remain extremely low compared to diesel, so will tempt more and more gas stations to offer NG fueling pumps. And the article doesn’t note how much cleaner NG is than diesel, which means that as air pollution laws continue to tighten, the cost of diesel trucks will go up. Nor does the article note that as more fleets convert to NG, the price of NG trucks will start to fall as production of them cranks up.

On the bad news side, the companion piece reports that natural gas “giant” Chesapeake Energy has been beaten up by the low price of its product and is now investing heavily in unconventional drilling for shale oil. Specifically, Chesapeake is focusing on the huge Utica shale formation lying under the state of Ohio, betting billions to buy leases for drilling rights to about 5% of the state’s land.

This is either ballsy or balmy, depending on your tolerance for risk. The Utica field is estimated to contain between 1.3 and 5.5 billion barrels of oil, but the company has drilled only 59 wells, and of the nine about which it has released data, the information shows that oil is but a third of what is provided — the rest being mainly that damned cheap natural gas!

All this simply illustrates the view of pricing that Hayek and Kirzner enunciated: that pricing is an information transmission mechanism — more simply, a language. The price of a product tells both producers and consumers how to alter their behavior and plans for the future. When the price of natural gas went up not so long ago, it told producers to produce more, and they did — in spades! Now that it has plummeted while the price of oil has remained relatively high, it tells consumers to switch to it, and it tells producers of natural gas and oil to shift capital from producing the former to producing the latter.

All this would be illuminating to Obama, were he a man capable of illumination. But he isn’t, so it won’t.




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Should the Bank's Loss Be the Law's Gain?

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The great thing about laws is that they protect us when we are unwilling and unable to do so on our own. Laws are great because they make sure no harm is done. So when it came to our attention that JP Morgan Chase just lost $2 billion because of risky investments and hedging, it may have seemed that what was needed was more and better laws, not personal responsibility.

Of course this isn't true.

Laws are necessary but not sufficient. Laws will never be able to keep pace with new developments in the financial sector, or anywhere else, which is why laws will never prevent problems but only react to them. And being reactionary instruments, laws cannot prevent the next wave of risky financial instruments or clever schemes to make money off of money.

In addition to not being able to anticipate problems, laws have unintended consequences that are sometimes worse than the problems they were designed to correct. Look at the laws that led to the housing bubble. For a time, the government, through various policies but primarily through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, infused more money into the housing sector than the market would have on its own. By making loans easy and affordable for people who would have otherwise not been able to secure home loans the government encouraged a misallocation of resources that drove up home prices.

Making loans available to people who would not have qualified without government interference pumped more money into the housing market than the market demanded. This drove up demand, which in turn drove home prices beyond market levels. Housing prices fell because the market corrected itself. This correction is what we recognize as the bubble bursting. The bubble and the burst were unintended consequences of the government getting involved in the housing industry.

In the banking and finance industry the government also distorts risk assessment, thereby forcing a misallocation of resources. Keeping interest rates low discourages saving and encourages investing. Low interest rates make putting your money in the bank an unattractive option if you want a return on your investment. So if you want your money to make money, you put it in the stock market. The government is essentially affecting the supply and demand of money rather than letting the market set interest rates and therefore determine where capital flows. This forces money into circulation that would otherwise not be there.

The banking laws we have in place encourage risk taking in other ways as well. First, banks the size of JP Morgan Chase know they will get government bailouts when they bet wrong, which means they can take whatever chances they want, and there is no risk involved. Second, the FDIC insures traditional deposit accounts up to $250,000, which means that no matter what kind of investments a bank makes with your money, as long as your account is below the $250,000 threshold, no one loses. Banks can fail in any number of ways without anyone involved failing to make money. The unintended consequence of government interference is an increased willingness of banks and their investment arms to take greater risks, which become no risks at all.

Certainly FDIC insurance has many benefits, as did the Wall Street and automotive bailouts, but there are unintended consequences that may have counteracted the favorable effects, if not encouraged the sort of risky behavior that created the need for the laws in the first place. The only solution is for individuals to take responsibility for their own actions. In view of our attachment to laws, this is an unlikely solution, but it is the only one with any promise.

Laws allow us to relinquish personal responsibility. When we make a bad investment that we did not understand entirely, or get into too much credit card debt because we failed to control our spending habits, it is easier to blame the lack of sufficient laws than to blame ourselves. If we were not motivated to make money we would have no reason to enter the stock market or make risky investments. But if we are motivated to do these things, the least we can do is spend some time understanding what we are getting ourselves into. If we don't understand what others are doing with our money, or understand the risk involved, then we shouldn't get involved. And if we do get involved with something we don't understand, we have only ourselves to blame. Laws can't help this; only we can. More time and energy should be directed toward cultivating character than toward crafting laws.




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Outsourcing: The Inner View

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Many years ago a woman wrote a letter to Ann Landers, asking whether she should go back to school to get a college degree. She worried that it might be a waste of time so late in life, ending her letter with this: “If I go back to college, I’ll be 62 in four years.” I’ve never forgotten Ann’s cogent reply: “And how old will you be in four years if you don’t go back to college?”

We all have choices. We have no control over the amount of time we have in this life, but we do control what we will do during that time. Life is what we make of it. No matter how old we are.

This is the message of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, where a dozen or so fellow travelers have stopped for a while to share their stories, and their lives, to varying degrees. It is a poignant and funny Canterbury tale, Indian style. The young innkeeper, Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel), serves as host and philosophical guide. Bubbly and bumbling, he is an optimistic and likeable fatalist. When the travelers express horror at his falling-down hotel, he tells them, “In India we have a saying: everything will be all right in the end. So if it is not all right, it is not the end!”

The best exotic hotel is exotic, but it certainly isn’t best. The phones don't work. The roof has holes. Some rooms don't have doors. The courtyard is cracked. But Sonny doesn't see it as it is; he sees his hotel as it can be. As it will be. Because if it isn't all right now, it just means it isn't the end yet.

The travelers have come to the Marigold Hotel for different reasons, most of them having to do with money.

Douglas and Jean Ainslie (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) invested their retirement funds in their daughter’s startup company, and it didn’t start up. In their native England,they can’t afford more than a cramped bungalow for old folks, so they have come to the Marigold for cheap rent.

Recently widowed, Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) has discovered that her husband mismanaged their money and left her deeply in debt. She embraces the Indian experience, blogging about it for readers back home and finding a job training telephone operators in an outsourced information company (yes, those infernal IT people you reach when your computer is on the fritz. But here they are earnest and likeable — as, I suppose, they really are).

The film gives us an unintentional inside look at socialized medicine, and what we see isn't pretty.

Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) has traded on her good looks all her life. Now those looks aren't so good any more, and she must face the possibility that she has had her final love affair. She is looking for love, but she is also looking for a lasting sugar daddy. She likes nice things.

Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith) is an old-school racist, and by that I mean she is confident and self-assured in her belief that everyone around her shares her bigotry, including the people whom she considers inferior. As the film opens she is on a stretcher in a hospital hallway, complaining that she wants a “proper English doctor,” not the black man who has just tried to touch her. Because we understand she is an unhappy product of her cultural upbringing, we cut her some slack and enjoy her crotchety rantings, knowing that she will have a change of heart before the film ends. (And if she doesn’t, it will only be because it isn’t the end yet!)

The film gives us an unintentional inside look at socialized medicine, and what we see isn't pretty: cots in the hallways because there aren't enough examining rooms, months-long waits for necessary surgeries because there aren’t enough surgeons. "Six months!" Muriel exclaims. "At my age I don't even buy green bananas!" (I know, it's an old joke — but it always reminds me of the dear friend who first said it to me — just weeks before he died, as it turned out.) When Muriel’s doctor tells her she can have the needed hip replacement surgery immediately in India, she goes there, then repairs to the Marigold Hotel to recuperate.

Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) is the only character who has come to India for non-financial reasons. He is trying to find the love of his life, whom he met 40 years earlier while stationed in India, and from whom he was forced to part. He spends his days in the registry office, trying to track down the friend, and in the streets, playing cricket with young boys. Through him the characters learn the meaning of true love.

Despite the heat, the unfamiliar foods, the smells, and the “squalor,” as Jean describes it, India is still, in this film, a land of exotic wonder and happy faces. When asked what he likes about it, Graham responds, “The lights, the colors, the vibrancy. The way people see life as a privilege and not as a right.” Camels, elephants, and cows line the roads, along with rickety buses and colorful “tuk-tuks,” the ubiquitous three-wheeled taxis. These folks have “come to a new and different world,” as Evelyn writes in her blog, with voice-over narration. “The challenge is to cope with it. And not just to cope, but to thrive.”

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is filled with similar upbeat aphorisms and quotable quotes. “The person who risks nothing, does nothing. Has nothing,” Evelyn tells her readers.“The only real failure is the failure to try. And the measure of success is how well we cope.”

“Most things don’t work out as expected,” she concludes, “But what happens instead often turns out to be the good stuff.” With an outstanding cast of veteran actors portraying couples in various stages of love and marriage, an important message about taking charge of one’s choices, and a point of view that says old age doesn’t have to be outsourced (but it isn't so bad when it is), The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is indeed the “good stuff.”


Editor's Note: Review of "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," directed by John Madden. Participant Media/20th Century Fox, 2011, 124 minutes.



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The New Normal

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Science is the inspiration of those techno-libertarians who hold that evolutions in technology will ultimately lead to revolutions in political freedom. A commitment to the virtues of small business and entrepreneurs is a major inspiration for the ideals of free market capitalism. So it is easy to think that libertarians might feel that our values were being mocked by two primetime comedies, The Big Bang Theory and Two Broke Girls — the first of which is about scientists and the second about two poor girls who start a business. Yet these sitcoms are deeply touching, hilarious, and also well-intentioned shows — because the audience laughs with the characters, not at them.

The Big Bang Theory, which premiered in 2007 and has now become ubiquitous, with reruns on TBS and new episodes on CBS, is the story of four scientists (two theoretical physicists, an astrophysicist, and an engineer) who work at Caltech. These four scientists are as close to the stereotypical nerd or geek as you can get. They constantly hang out at the local comic book store, play video games, enjoy Star Trek, can’t get girls to date them, and are beaten up by jocks. They constantly make reference to things that only scientists think about. One of them, for instance, dresses for Hallowe’en as the Doppler effect. The producers try to make the science on the show, of which there is a lot, completely accurate, and some episodes feature inside jokes that only scientists can understand.

The characters’ world is turned upside down when Penny (Kaley Cuoco) moves into the apartment down the hall. Penny is an attractive, normal, “popular” sort of girl, who works as a waitress but dreams of becoming an actress. Leonard (Johnny Galecki), the protagonist, instantly falls in love with her. Much of the comedy in the show’s early years focused on Leonard’s feelings for Penny, and the jokes frequently involved the science nerds being totally ignorant of what Penny takes for granted (e.g., the rules of football, the names of such popular bands as Radiohead), or Penny being ignorant of the world of science and geek culture (e.g., online role playing games, the Klingon language). Leonard eventually started dating Penny, and they had a cute, adorable romance for about one season. But their relationships was sundered by the scheming machinations of Star Trek actor Wil Wheaton (who plays an evil version of himself). Leonard and Penny just recently got back together, which makes the show more enjoyable.

The real comedic gold, however, comes from Leonard’s roommate Sheldon (Jim Parsons, who won an Emmy for the role), a brilliant, supremely arrogant physicist with strong doses of OCD and Asperger’s syndrome. Sheldon constantly, and hilariously, insults everyone around him; at the same time everyone else perpetually makes fun of his arrogance and total disconnect from reality. In one episode Leonard calls Sheldon a sphincter, to which Sheldon replies, “The sphincter? A much maligned muscle; did you know there are over twenty different sphincters in the human body?”, and illustrates with an anatomical drawing from the internet.

The writing is usually clever. An instance: Sheldon and Penny are having a fight. Sheldon (threateningly): “You’re playing with forces beyond your ken.” Penny: “Yeah? Well your Ken can kiss my Barbie!” I said “usually.” In a few episodes each season the writing falls flat. This was especially noticeable during the episodes that immediately followed the end of Penny and Leonard’s dating.

But the show is always light-hearted, never serious. It was introduced with the tag line “smart is the new sexy,” yet it never says anything serious about science, or politics, or anything else. The extent of the show’s commentary on religion is Sheldon’s disdain for his Texan Christian mother’s creationism, and Sheldon’s lecturing Penny on the origins of Christmas as a pagan holiday. But the love-hate relationship between Penny, who represents the “normal” popular world, and Leonard, who represents the nerd-geek-science world, is central to the show. Their romance is premised on the idea that the normal, ignorant masses might eventually be able to appreciate the true value of science and technology. The conflict is not precisely between religion and science. It is about the conflict between pop culture and geek culture.

Business doesn’t really look like old rich white men at a corporate board meeting; it looks like two young women in aprons struggling to build a career and reach the middle class.

And, yes, true to its tag line, “The Big Bang Theory” makes it cool to be a geek; it turns smart into sexy. Science has not gotten PR this good since the genre of science fiction was first invented. The show goes a long way toward teaching the public about the details of the type of thinking behind science and what scientists do, so that people won’t just see the magical moving pictures on television and may instead actually get a taste of where the wires and circuit boards inside the TV come from. If Leonard can get Penny to date him, even for a while, then there is hope that all the nerds out there (and the scientific attitude they embody) can find acceptance in this world.

Two Broke Girlsstarted this season, so there is less of a body of work by which to judge it, but every episode I have seen has been hilarious. This show is designed as a microcosm of the Great Recession. Caroline (Beth Behrs), a wealthy heiress and Wharton Business School graduate, is thrust into poverty when her father loses their fortune and goes to jail for running a Madoff-style Ponzi scheme. Caroline is hopelessly naïve about how to cope with low-income life. All she has left is her pet horse. Somehow a Wharton degree does not help her to get a white-collar job. She is taken in by Max (Kat Dennings), a young, snarky, sassy, wisecracking waitress who lives in Brooklyn. Caroline becomes Max’s roommate and gets a job as a waitress at the Brooklyn diner where Max works.

Poverty is the constant undercurrent in the show, which lists an update on the amount of money in the two girls’ bank account at the conclusion of each show (it fluctuates between $200 and $800). But the episodes help the audience, nervous about its own finances, laugh at life and not get beaten down by financial worries. After all, Max and Caroline always find a way to survive. The show is remarkably raunchy (one episode had a running joke about the diner’s horny, seedy chef asking the girls’ Polish friend [Jennifer Coolidge], who runs a cleaning business, to “come to my apartment to clean,” and her replying, “You cannot make me come, I will not come”). Max always has a wise-crack or an insult to shoot at someone. Both actresses are superb in their roles.

What do two broke girls do to cope with the Great Recession? One thing they don’t do is wait around for the welfare state to pay their bills. They start a small business instead. Max bakes cupcakes; Caroline sets up a cupcake business and promotes the sale of cupcakes. Much of the plot involves the girls’ desperate schemes to raise money to fund their cupcake website or find new places to sell their cupcakes. It is just good old-fashioned American effort — people trying to rise from poverty by being productive and selling a product to people who want it.

Unfortunately for the audience’s economic education, nowhere to be seen are New York City health inspectors grading their kitchen, or the IRS auditing their financial records, or any of the goon squad of federal, state, and city bureaucrats who in real life would try to regulate and tax the life out of their startup. The show is not political at all; aside from the implicit feminism of two single girls being very assertive and self-sufficient, it has no explicit message. But the simple yet touching portrayal of two tough, smart-alecky girls, who constantly poke fun at the people around them and use their sense of humor as a way to cope with the sorrows of economic disaster, is an inspiration that everyone stricken by the Great Recession can learn from.

A lot of people are talking about “the new normal” in connection with the Great Recession. But what do The Big Bang Theory and Two Broke Girls say about American mainstream culture? These shows are on CBS, which touts itself as “America’s most-watched network,” not a niche market like Fox Business Network. Both shows have consistently received high ratings (although Two Broke Girls had some unfavorable reviews). A show about nerds coping with the world of pop culture has become a symbol of the world of pop culture assimilating nerd culture. From World of Warcraft to urban fantasy novels such as Harry Potter and Twilight, to the popularization of social media on electronic devices, to the omnipresence of the internet, the technology-obsessed geek world of the techno-libertarian has become, well, how shall I say it . . . normal. And a realization that poverty is the new normal, but it is necessary to take a can-do attitude to rise out of it — that is also catching on.

The libertarian angle is clear: business doesn’t really look like old rich white men at a corporate board meeting; it looks like two young women in aprons struggling to build a career and reach the middle class. Inspired by these two shows, I dare to speculate that if technology continues to evolve and shape the world in which we live, and if prolonged financial desperation forces America to wake up to economic reality and embrace free market principles as the path to recovery, then maybe a few decades from now libertarianism will also be . . . dare I say it? the new normal.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Big Bang Theory," CBS, Thursday, 8:00pm; and "Two Broke Girls," CBS, Monday, 8:30pm.



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Social Insecurity

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I feel remiss in not reporting lately on the most recent news concerning the crown jewel of the progressive liberal welfare state: Social Security. It is the ur-program from which all the other major programs (such as Medicare) were spawned. Over the years, I have periodically reported on its looming fiscal crisis, but I haven’t said much during the past year.

So it’s time to check up on the program that has elected so many generations of Democratic politicians. Surprise, surprise — it is accelerating downwards!

Start with that cesspool of fraud, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). A report in the estimable Investor’s Business Daily informs us that Obama has set another new record. Not only is he the Debt President (having added more to the federal deficit in his short time in office than any other chief executive — nearly $5 trillion, more than the big-spending Bush spent in 8 years), the Food Stamp President (having added to the rolls of food stamp recipients more than twice the number of new recipients per year — over 4 million — than even the prior record-setter, Bush, who added 1.84 million yearly), and the Emigration President (having presided over a political economy in which a record number of Americans renounce their citizenship — nearly 1,800 last year, compared to about 200 in 2008). In addition to those titles, Obama is now the Disability President.

Yes, a record number of people have gone on SSDI during Obama’s benighted reign — a whopping 5.4 million. And the number is growing at a rapid clip: from January of this year through last month, an astonishing 540,000 more have been granted disability, and more than 750,000 have applied. Of the total (10.8 million) now on SSDI, half joined under Obama. America’s seemingly endless high unemployment is clearly taking its toll. Doubtless this will hasten the projected day of SSDI’s insolvency, scheduled already for 2018.

Turning to the Social Security retirement program (i.e., the main one), the news is grim again. As recently as 2007, the Social Security program ran a surplus of $186 billion. This dropped to a mere $3 billion the next year, and became a $49 billion deficit in 2009, in the depths of the recession. However, last year — a “recovery” year — Social Security ran a deficit of $45 billion. The program’s trustees now forecast a deficit of about $66 billion on average for the next six years. After that, the trustees project triple-digit billions in deficits. In 20 years — three years earlier than projected last year, the so-called trust fund (a bogus pile of IOUs from the federal government to itself) will be gone, at which point benefits will have to drop by 25%.

Strange to say, the Obama administration is far more concerned about whether Romney engaged in a mean prank half a century ago than about Social Security’s lack of solvency. Obama’s economic record is so wretched that one can see why he refuses to discuss the entitlement crisis. But why do the mainstream media refuse even to mention the government’s own report? Surely this report should be of immediate and vital concern to all the public. . . Oh, yeah — I forgot. The mainstream media, formerly noted for “investigative journalism,” has become the Amen corner of the Church of Obama.




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Ron Paul and the Future

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Four years ago, when Rep. Ron Paul suspended his campaign for the Republican Party’s nomination for president, he would not endorse the party’s nominee, was not invited to the party’s convention, and held a counter-convention of his own. By all appearances, he’s not going to do that this year.

At Antiwar.com, Justin Raimondo urged Paul to run as an independent, “because a third party candidacy will leave a legacy, a lasting monument to your campaign and the movement it created.” I can’t see a lasting monument in it, or the sense. I note that Paul’s forces are continuing to push in the caucus states for convention delegates, which confirms that Paul expects to attend the convention as a loyal Republican.

In 2008, I wrote in Liberty that Paul ought to endorse the party’s nominee, John McCain. Paul wouldn’t have to campaign for McCain, I said, and he could remind people how he was different from McCain, but to preserve his influence in the party he’d have to endorse McCain as preferable to Obama. Well, he didn’t. Paul endorsed Constitution Party nominee Chuck Baldwin, a pastor and radio talk show host whom few Americans had heard of, and who received 0.15% of the general election vote.

Paul’s forces are continuing to push in the caucus states for convention delegates, which confirms that Paul expects to attend the convention as a loyal Republican.

This year Paul turns 77. He is not running to keep his seat in Congress. His career as an elected politician is at an end. But since January 2011 he has had a son, Rand Paul, in the Senate. There is talk of the junior senator from Kentucky being Romney’s vice-presidential choice and more talk of him running for president in four years, or eight. Either way, for Ron Paul, having a 49-year-old son in the Senate changes the calculus about party loyalty and his movement.

Again, I say: endorse the nominee. It doesn’t mean you agree with everything the nominee says. It means that in a field of two, you prefer your team’s candidate to the other one’s. It means there is a Republican label on you and your supporters. And that is important, especially regarding them.

Is an endorsement a betrayal?

What was the point of the Paul campaign? To put Ron Paul in the White House? That was never possible. In public, Paul had to pretend that it was, because those are the American rules, and his supporters have been pretending it even harder. But it was a fairy tale. Ron Paul’s purpose has been to advance the cause of liberty, sound money, and a non-imperial foreign policy. He could do this even if he fought and lost, depending on how he did it. He was introducing new ideas (or old ones) into political discourse, creating a new faction that aimed to redirect the mainstream of one of the two great national parties.

That is not a defeatist notion. It may be a task with a lasting monument, though it is too early to say.

A political leader changes the thought of a party by persuading people to embrace new ideas. To do that, he needs the media’s attention, and in politics, equal attention is not given an outsider. It has to be earned by such things as polls, the size and behavior of crowds, money raised and, ultimately, by electoral results.

Endorse the nominee. It doesn’t mean you agree with everything the nominee says. It means that in a field of two, you prefer your team’s candidate to the other one’s.

Paul achieved none of these things in 1988 as the nominee of the Libertarian Party. He was nobody, and he went home with 0.47% of the vote. But in 2008, in the Republican Party’s primary campaigns, he did unexpectedly well, measured by straw polls, crowd behavior, and campaign donations. Unfortunately, the media pegged his support as narrow-but-deep (they were right) and mostly ignored him. He took 5.56% of the Republican vote — one vote in 20.

This year they still slighted him, though less than before. And he received 10.86% — one vote in almost nine. His support was still narrow-but-deep, but wider in almost every state. He was not the top votegetter in any of them, but he came close in Maine and garnered more than 20% of Republican support in six caucus states: Maine, 36%, North Dakota, 28%, Minnesota, 27%, Washington, 25%, Alaska, 24%, and Iowa, 21% — and in three primary states: Vermont, 25%, Rhode Island, 24% and New Hampshire, 23% (not counting Virginia, 40%, where his only opponent was Romney).

Paul’s support is not typical for Republican politicians. He is from south Texas, but seems to do best in states on the Canadian border. Most of his best states are Democrat “blue” rather than Republican “red.” He was the oldest candidate in the race, but exit polls showed in state after state that he had the youngest supporters. In New Hampshire, a Fox News exit poll showed Paul winning 46% of Republican voters 18 to 29 years of age.

Enthusiasm among the young is a special political asset, but with a liability: the zeal of believers can go over the top. Some believe that Ron Paul is the only man who can save America, and that anyone who opposes him is evil. They don’t see themselves as joining a party; they aim to take it over. In the unfamiliar turf of parliamentary procedure, they are quick to cry foul and sometimes are right. At the moment, their strategy in the caucus states is to outstay the Romney supporters and snatch the national delegates away from them.

And that makes for nastiness.

This is from a Politico story by James Hohmann, May 14:

Those close to [Ron Paul] say he’s become worried about a series of chaotic state GOP conventions in recent weeks that threaten to undermine the long-term viability of the movement he’s spent decades building. In the past few days alone, several incidents cast the campaign in an unfavorable light: Mitt Romney’s son Josh was booed off the stage by Paul backers in Arizona on Saturday, and Romney surrogates Tim Pawlenty and Gov. Mary Fallin received similarly rude treatment in Oklahoma.

Booing is the public stuff. I know a political operative who crossed the Paul forces and received death threats — so many, he said, that he turned off his phone for two weeks.

Enthusiasm can become something else. (For more examples, google “Ron Paul supporters are”.)

Given the strength — and sometimes the immaturity — of his supporters, what is Paul to do? Endorse Romney or not, he will soon be a non-candidate and a non-congressman.

Enthusiasm among the young is a special political asset, but with a liability: the zeal of believers can go over the top.

What then? One poll asked Paul supporters whom they would vote for in November. The answer: Obama, 35%; Romney, 31%; Gary Johnson, 16%. The Paul movement splinters.

How they vote in November might change if Paul made an endorsement; and anyway, how they think is the more important thing in the long run. If a large number of the young ones went into one political party and stayed there, they might change that party — and that could be the lasting monument.

All this is something for Ron Paul to think about as he ponders whether to endorse, what to do with his 100-plus delegates, and what to say if the party gives him a chance to address the national convention.




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Model Citizen

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Bernie Tiede was a model citizen in the small city of Carthage, “behind the Pine Curtain” in eastern Texas, as one resident calls it. As an assistant funeral director, Bernie took gentle care of the deceased. As a member of a local Protestant congregation, he taught Sunday School, sang in the choir, and made people weep with his lovely tenor solos. As an amateur thespian, he directed local musical revivals. As a trusted friend, he escorted a recently widowed curmudgeonly dowager to concerts, dinners, and even trips abroad. He was generous and kind. Everyone loved Bernie. Even after he killed the curmudgeonly dowager. By accident. Oops.

Bernie is a dark, deadpan comedy in the style of the Eugene Levy-Christopher Guest mockumentaries. But this is no mockumentary; the people being interviewed for this film are real citizens of Carthage, Texas, all dolled up for their close-ups and spouting colloquialisms you couldn’t get away with as a scriptwriter. “She had her nose up so high in the air, she would have drowned in a rain storm,” one snippety resident says about Marjorie Nugent, the deceased dowager. Another gives a detailed explanation of the five sections of Texas, ending with “I sort of skipped over the panhandle — but everyone does.” “The Gossips” (as director Richard Linklater affectionately calls them in interviews) do their best to support their friend Bernie and explain his motives. No one could ask for a better jury of his peers.

Linklater has carefully crafted a combination documentary and fictional bio-flick about this famous (at least behind the Pine Curtain) case. He interviewed dozens of people who knew Bernie Tiede, and then used their stories to write a script about it. Jack Black is perfect as Bernie, inhabiting the role with a distinct waddle, a beneficent smile, and a sincerity that invites endearment. You just want to reach out and hug him, or be hugged by him. Early in the film we join Bernie in his car as he drives through the town, singing a country hymn about his walk with Jesus. That long cut, interspersed with occasional interviews, tells us everything we need to know about his personality.

Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) is the kind of nasty, critical, overbearing old woman whom everyone wants to avoid. Her own grandchildren haven’t seen her in four years, and for good reason. At first she is charmed by Bernie’s attention and becomes charming as a result, but eventually she reverts to type, assailing Bernie, too, with her browbeating and criticism. MacLaine is wonderful in this role, tapping into her ingénue days to charm Bernie and then digging deep into her nastiness. But she never revels in the role or tries to steal a scene — she is convincingly Marjorie throughout. Wisely, MacLaine has resisted the Hollywood collagen-botox mania, so she can still move her face. She doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, but she doesn’t need it. Her body language and facial expressions tell us what Marjorie is thinking and feeling without words.

Bernie is one of those unexpected little gems that surprise and delight us in every scene, despite its macabre subject matter. It asks us to sympathize with someone who should be utterly unsympathetic — and we do. Linklater’s melding of actors and townspeople is brilliant — actors could never have convinced audiences to empathize with Bernie, but these real residents who know and love him do. Moreover, the actors seem to have taken their cues from the interviews, matching their cadences and movements to the local residents. The result is a seamless blending of fact and fiction. Matthew McConnaughey is particularly good as Danny Buck, the preening peacock of a prosecutor. The film is a delightful piece of work, with a delightful protagonist. Too bad about Marjorie. Oops.

The film also inadvertently highlights a growing problem with the criminal justice system: the tendency for prosecutors to overcharge, with the hope of forcing a plea bargain. Let’s suppose a young man gets into a fight, and someone ends up dead. The fight may have been premeditated, but the killing was not. The prosecutor charges him with first degree murder and scares the bejeezus out of him with the maximum sentence of 25 to life. A plea bargain to manslaughter would get him a sentence of 8–10 years. Frightened about the potential risk of a jury trial, he takes the deal.

But what if he isn’t guilty at all? What if he has been wrongly accused? He already doesn’t trust the system; after all, they got the wrong man, and he knows it. Nevertheless, facing a potential sentence of 25 to life, and knowing that juries are wont to convict poor kids like him who have been assigned an overworked public defender, he might be convinced to plead out. If he does go to trial, he’s facing the higher charge of first degree, even though the prosecutor knows it should be manslaughter or, at most, second degree murder.

Any film that causes us to take a closer look at the criminal justice system is a good film in my book. And Bernie is a very good film. Don’t miss it!


Editor's Note: Review of "Bernie," directed by Richard Linklater. Millennium Entertainment (2011), 104 minutes.



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Green Grief

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Periodically I like to review the news from the gay world of Gaia worship — that is, to pass along the latest stories on all matters green. And there is a lot to report.

Start with some interesting news from the animal kingdom. Despite sad sagas of emperor penguins disappearing as Antarctica allegedly melts (allegedly because of our greedy species’ greenhouse gas emissions), a recent story reports that more studies — ones that use satellite imagery to count the nattily attired birds — reveal that the penguins are doing just fine. By former estimates, there are about 270,000 to 350,000 of the waddling beasts. Now it appears that in reality, there are 595,000 of them! The aerial survey discovered a whole flock of new colonies. If the ice is melting, it doesn’t seem to be harming these birds.

Moving quickly to the other pole of the Earth: polar bears are also in great demographic shape. The bears have been centerpieces in some of the most lurid global warming tales: remember the infamous shot of a miserable looking polar bear clinging to a tiny ice floe. Because of such tales, the US put polar bears on the endangered species list. This, in spite of the fact that the beasts are far from cuddly — they are one of the few predators with a taste for human flesh, especially the human liver (with or without Fava beans).

But another recent story reports that in the crucial Nunavut region of Canada, the polar bear population — which in 2004 had been estimated at around 935 (22% lower than estimates made 20 years earlier), and was projected to fall even further, to 610 animals by 2011 — has now been more accurately counted. The Canadian government did aerial surveys and found 1,013 cute but vicious carnivores in that region alone. The population, far from dwindling, seems to be thriving, despite global warming and illegal hunting. (polar bear pelts fetch up to $15,000 in Russia and China, and about 450 bears are illegally killed each year). Despite the heat and the hunters, the polar bear population now appears to have reached the highest peak ever recorded — something like 25,000 across the Canadian Arctic.

Reports such as these are continually coming in. They may be the reason that no less a green guru than scientist James Lovelock, the fellow who came up with the whole “Gaia Concept,” now admits that his earlier warnings about a rapidly heating, life-killing earth were alarmist.

Turning now to green energy, here too a slew of politically incorrect reports continues to gut the Great Green Narrative. Start with the fascinating news that a recent survey of hybrid car owners (conducted by R.L. Polk and associates) indicates that hybrid owners of any model are unlikely to buy another hybrid — either the same model or any other. These are not good tidings for the future growth of the hybrid car market, as it shows that actual experience with the product tends to make consumers dislike it. Hardly a good omen.

Despite the heat and the hunters, the polar bear population now appears to have reached the highest peak ever recorded.

The Polk data show that only 35% of hybrid owners of any brand bought another hybrid of any sort. At the high end was the Prius, but only 41% of Prius owners bought another hybrid (again, of any sort). At the other end of the scale is the Honda hybrid: only a pathetic 20% of Honda owners went on to buy another hybrid of any sort. And the aggregate numbers bear this poll out. At their peak in 2008 (when domestic gas prices hit their highest level ever), hybrid sales were only a miserable 2.9% of the American car market. Last year they dropped to 2.4%.

The problem is several-fold. First, regular internal combustion engines keep getting better and better gas mileage. The 2013 Nissan Altima is rated at 38 mpg, and the Ford Fusion is rated at 37 mpg — both quite close to what hybrids deliver. Second, hybrids are more expensive than similar internal combustion engine models. Indeed, it can take seven to ten years of ownership merely to recover the extra cost, and many Americans like to change cars more often than that.

And, by the bye, hybrids actually seem to get lower gas mileage than the EPA estimates. A recent piece reports that the EPA overestimated hybrid gas efficiency by 20% before 2008 and is still overestimating it now. This report also notes that as much as 40% of any real gas savings by hybrids is nullified by the extra driving done by the owners. The report reminds us that hybrids have batteries with lots of acid, lead, and other toxic crap, all of which requires enormous amounts of energy to mine and manufacture, and which subsequently fouls the environment when the batteries wear out and must be disposed of.

Finally — and this the article doesn’t note — most Americans view hybrids as cramped, clunky, slow, and butt-ugly.

Checking now on green power, we discover the great news that First Solar, maker of solar equipment, is cutting a third of its work force — over 2,000 jobs — closing a factory in Germany, halting another in Vietnam, and postponing the opening of yet another in Arizona. The company has lost 83% of its market capitalization over the past year, while losing nearly $40 million in the same period. The problem in this case is simple and clear. It is cheaper for power companies to buy solar panels from China. More importantly, countries around the world are cutting subsidies for solar power — and without government aid, solar is generally uncompetitive.

We confiscate money from taxpayers to build inefficient, wasteful plants that kill tortoises and birds — and we do it all in the name of ecology!

Grimly ironic is the report that BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah solar power project, located in the Mojave Desert, is killing desert tortoises — an endangered species! The Ivanpah project is huge: it will use 3,500 acres of public land — six square miles! — and cost $2 billion to produce only 400 megawatts of electricity at max (i.e., when the sun is shining overhead and no clouds are present). BrightSource says it has paid $56 million to help protect the environment, but tortoises are still dying. They die because even after BrightSource moved them out of the way of the construction, they still got crushed under truck tires or became vulnerable to predators. One research ecologist — Jeff Lovich, who has studied the impact of “renewable” energy projects on desert tortoises — notes, “What I determined is science is playing catch-up to energy concerns. . . . This is all a grand experiment and we need more research — both on the short-term effects and the long-term effects that projects like these are going to have on the wildlife and the ecosystem.” But he concludes ruefully, “For the desert tortoise, it really is death by a thousand cuts.”

So, surprise, solar power farms destroy flora and fauna. No surprise here, really — remember, wind farms also destroy massive amounts of wildlife — specifically, birds. American wind farms shred about 400,000 birds a year. The problem again is physics. Solar and wind power are just power derived directly or indirectly from the sun, and they collect only feeble amounts of solar radiation. Thus either form of energy requires a huge footprint — you need many acres of solar collectors or wind turbines to get appreciable amounts of power, compared to a small nuclear or fossil fuel powered plant. And bigness is bad for small animals.

About wind power there is a spate of bad news. Start with the report out of Nevada on the results of one of the state’s programs to get people to install wind turbines (especially outside of cities). The report points out that one of these programs, started five years ago, is already proving a costly, miserable failure.

Specifically, Rich Hamilton of the Clean Energy Center testified to the state Public Utilities Commission about the program’s problems. For one thing, the PUC gives rebates to customers who put up turbines, whether or not they actually generate appreciable energy. Under the 2007 law, the state has paid $46 million for 150 wind turbines. But in Reno, for example, the $416,000 it spent on wind turbines resulted in its receiving $150,000 in rebates but a laughable $2,800 savings in electricity costs. The bureaucrat who runs Reno’s renewable energy program, one Jason Geddes, had an amazing suggestion: accurately research wind patterns before building turbines. Obviously, this hasn't been done up till now.

The breathtaking brilliance of all this! We confiscate money from taxpayers to build inefficient, wasteful plants that kill tortoises and birds — and we do it all in the name of ecology!

Then there is the hilarious news that wind power may be harming the environment in a hitherto unsuspected way. We’ve known all along that wind turbines massacre birds. But it turns out that wind power actually increases ground temperature around the turbines. This is the result of a study published by Liming Zhou in the journal Nature Climate Change. Apparently the turbine blades pull down warmer air, displacing the cooler air on the ground.

The reason this is bad news is that heat can hurt crops and cattle, or the native ecosystem. This is especially troublesome for Texas (where the study was done), because it is already suffering from a drought and uses night irrigation, which may be affected by the action of the turbines.

Add to all that the Reuters report about Obama’s green energy jobs program. Despite his promise that his green energy push would create “millions” of jobs, it has been a costly failure. Since 2009, for example, during a period when the oil and gas industry created 75,000 high-paying blue-collar jobs — even in the face of a regulatory blitzkrieg by the Obama administration — the wind industry lost 10,000 jobs. Obama's $500 million green energy “job training” program was guaranteed to produce 80,000 jobs by 2013. So far, it has trained a miserable 20,000, to what lame standards we can only guess. Even the administration’s own Labor Department’s inspector general recommended last year that the department should end the boondoggle and give the unspent money back to the treasury.

The report gives figures that show a paradigm deflating. In 2008, Obama boastfully promised that if the taxpayers spent $150 billion on green energy, it would create five million jobs. A year later, VP Biden more modestly promised that the $90 billion in tax dollars then put aside for green energy jobs would buy 722,000 of them. A year after that (November 2010), the administration could show only 225,000 jobs created, and even that estimate appears to have been overly optimistic.

The green statist worldview faces a huge and swelling number of anomalies. That wouldn’t normally be so bad — every worldview faces some anomalies, after all. But the enviro worldview is the one being shoved down our throats. That is, it is the one that is being used by the state and federal governments to limit our liberties and prosperity, and to do so in a massive way.




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Not-So-Secret Service

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