Dangerous Mood Swings

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On June 27, appearing on the Hannity show, Karl Rove responded to a question about what would have happened if President Bush had set aside laws in the way in which President Obama set aside the immigration law. “All heck would have broken loose,” Rove replied.

Karl Rove is 61 years old. He was talking on the network that runs the “Red Eye” show (which, unlike the Hannity show, is pretty good once you get used to it). But he wouldn’t say the word “hell.” He said “heck” instead. And “hell” isn’t a coarse expletive. It isn’t even an expletive, really. It is rumored to be a place. Yet Rove was behaving like the clergyman whom Alexander Pope satirized 300 years ago — the “soft dean” who “never mentions hell to ears polite.”

Ordinarily, as you know, this column collects examples of verbal ineptitude, comments upon them, and weaves the commentary subtly into one thematic whole. This month, that can’t be done. There are just too many discrete (in the sense of separate) bits of wreckage flying past us. One can only gaze and marvel as they cross the eerie sky that we call modern discourse.

Look, there’s another one! Have you noticed that every single “public figure” you encounter now says “we” when he or she can’t possibly mean anything more than “I”? People of all parties do this. Ron Paul does it. Barack Obama does it. Mitt Romney does it all the time. Scott Walker, who relieved some of my worries about the future of the republic by winning his recall election in Wisconsin, does it so often and so confusedly that I can hardly stand to listen to the poor guy. It used to be that politicians were laughable because they said “I” all the time. Now they say “I” in a much more nauseating way. They use a “we” that means, simultaneously, “I am too humble to say ‘I,’” and “I am too mighty to say ‘I’ — observe the hosts that follow me.” Actually, of course, the person saying “we” is just that one strange-looking guy, standing at the bottom of the swimming pool, talking incessantly to himself.

On to the next disaster. San Francisco has just experienced a mass landing of verbal flying saucers. There exists in that city a man named Larry Brinkin. Thirty years ago, this man sued his employer, the Southern Pacific Railway, for allegedly refusing to give him three days off to mourn the death of his male lover, the same three days the company allegedly gave straight people to mourn the deaths of their spouses. Because Brinkin kept doing things like that, he was given a job as an enforcer for something called the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, which uses tax money to procure the votes of modern liberals by hunting down private individuals who allegedly treat gay people, “transgendered people,” foreign people, fat people, short people, and probably many other people in “discriminatory” ways. One of Brinkin’s accomplishments, I believe, was spending years worrying a gay bar for its alleged racial discrimination in admitting customers. A larger accomplishment is alleged to have been (sorry, I need to use “allegedly” a lot in a column like this) the invention of a phrase, “domestic partner.” Some accomplishment. Sounds more like a poodle to me.

Let me be clear. If the railway refused to give him three days off, it did an indecent thing. Discriminating against people because you look down on their race, religion, or sexuality is always indecent. But so, in my opinion, is devoting your life to demanding that other people give you stuff, or you’ll send the law after them.

Anyway. Two years ago, for the inestimable work he had done for human rights, and for retiring from his $135,000 a year city salary, Brinkin received a great public honor. The city declared a “Larry Brinkin Appreciation Week” (one day was just not enough), in recognition, it was said, of his “advocacy.” The retired civil servant, about whom you now know 100 times more than almost anyone who lived in San Francisco at the time, was pronounced by all available media a “gay icon,” a “beloved icon,” and every other kind of “icon” that can puff up a lazy text. But after June 22, San Franciscans learned, or thought they learned, a great deal more than they had known before, because on that day Brinkin was arrested for (once more allegedly — and this time the word really does deserve the emphasis), having had something to do with child pornography. He had also, allegedly, made racist remarks pertaining to the subject, although that is not illegal, even in San Francisco.

Discriminating against people because you look down on their race, religion, or sexuality is always indecent. But so is devoting your life to demanding that other people give you stuff, or you’ll send the law after them.

The charges, I am happy to say, are not the business of this column. I have no idea what really happened, or what he really did, if anything. Perhaps I will have a better idea, once the police department’s “forensic” experts complete what has turned out to be a very longterm “study” of Brinkin’s computers. And perhaps I won’t. But the verbal reactions to the matter — those are things within the interest and competence of us all. And they don’t reflect very well on the City by the Bay, which is allegedly so well supplied with intelligence and sophistication.

Icon was in every headline, as if Larry Brinkin’s picture, rendered in a Byzantine style, encrusted with jewels, and lit by votive candles, was a fixture of every church and civil-servant cubicle in Northern California. One of Brinkin’s organizational associates got media attention by saying that she was surprised by the charges, because . . . Guess why. Because he was a “consummate professional.” In the religion of the state, the corporations, and all those occupations in which people must conform to the rules of some “peer” association, professional is not the neutral term it was a mere 20 years ago. It is now a term of absolute value, a universal replacement for ”virtuous,” “admirable,” and all those other words for “morally swell.” Coupled with such terms as “consummate,” it offers prima facie grounds for sainthood, for membership in that exclusive order of men and women who have been selected by their peers for the highest forms of recognition they can imagine and bestow: a picture on the coffee room wall, a place in the Civil Servants’ Hall of Fame and Museum of Professionalism, and at last a funeral in the Executive Conference Room, where colleagues will be invited to step forward and voice their memories of how well Old So and So took care of the paperwork when SB 11-353 was working through committee.

Here’s a politician — one Bevan Duffy, a busy bee about San Francisco, and the caring soul who sponsored the Larry Brinkin Appreciation Week — responding to Brinkin’s arrest: "I have admired and respected his work for the LGBT community. . . . I respect and am confident that there will be due process." Grammar flees where professionalism reigns. Mr. Duffy respects that there will be due process.

Here’s another colleague — the “executive director” (how does that differ from “director”? — but I guess that’s a professional mystery) of the Human Rights Commission, as quoted in a report by Erin Sherbert of the SF Weekly:

We put in a call to Theresa Sparks, executive director of the Human Rights Commission, [who] told us this allegation is "beyond hard to believe."

"It's almost incredulous, there's no way I could believe such a thing," Sparks told us. "He's always been one of my heroes, and he's the epitome of human rights activist — this is [the] man who coined phrases we use in our daily language. I support Larry 100 percent, hopefully it will all come out in the investigation."

It’s not surprising that someone who can’t tell the difference between “incredulous” and “incredible” would regard Larry Brinkin as a hero of the English language. But to be a true professional, especially in a governmental or community context, one must have a grasp of all the inanities with which government workers are equipped. And what a parade of them we see here — beyond hard, one of my heroes (of whom there are, no doubt, countless thousands who are yet unsung), epitome, activist, I support, 100 percent, and that indispensable lapse from basic grammar, hopefully. Nothing more could possibly be required. But by the way, what do you think of this apostle of justice declaring that “there’s no way” she’ll believe what the evidence shows, if it doesn’t show what she already believes?

In the religion of the state, “professional” is not the neutral term it was a mere 20 years ago. It is now a term of absolute value, a universal replacement for ”virtuous,” “admirable,” and all those other words for “morally swell.”

There once was a time when a president of the United States, himself an uneducated and, some said, an illiterate man, could respond to legal opposition in a memorable and verbally accurate way. Referring to a decision written by Chief Justice Marshall, President Jackson said, “John Marshall has made his decision: now let him enforce it.”

Contrast our current Attorney General, Eric Holder (you see, now I’ve had to switch to another, unrelated track), responding to the vote by which the House of Representatives charged him with contempt of Congress. “Today’s vote,” he said, “may make good policy feeder in the eyes of some . . .” He then continued with the usual blather. But I had stopped listening. What stopped me was “feeder.” Clearly, the Attorney General has never been around a farm, or wasn’t listening when he was. And clearly, he’s not hip to ablaut, the means by which one type of word becomes another type of word by changing one of its vowels. Farm animals are sometimes fed in feeders, and the feed that some animals are fed is fodder — not feeder. But why worry about ablaut, or exposure to agricultural conditions? Like his boss, President Obama, who got through Harvard Law without discovering that there is any difference between “like” and “as,” Holder just doesn’t seem to read or listen.

But he’s nothing compared to Jerry Brown, California’s version of Joe Biden — except that he’s even worse in the words department. Brown’s utterances are commonly described as “babble,” despite the fact that their purpose is always clear: increase the power of government. His obsession right now is California High-Speed Rail, an attempt to “create jobs” for union employees by building the largest public-works project in American history, a rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Two years ago, he convinced a majority of voters to approve the project. Today, even its friends concede that it will cost three times more than mentioned in the bond referendum, that it will not and cannot be high-speed, and that it may not even enter San Francisco or Los Angeles. Nevertheless, on July 6, the California legislature authorized a set of bonds for what many now regard as the Browndoggle. Ignoring the language of the referendum, which stipulated that the money should go for a high-speed train and nothing else, the solons proudly allocated billions of dollars to such things as buying new subway cars for San Francisco.

That’s the background. Here, in the foreground, babbles Jerry Brown, who on one of the many occasions on which he “argued” for “high-speed” rail, intoned: “Don’t freak cuz you got a few little taxes. Suck it in.” Brown doesn’t even know the difference between “suck it up” (a vulgar term for “endure it”) and “suck it in” (a vulgar term for faking weight loss).

Jerry Brown’s utterances are commonly described as “babble,” despite the fact that their purpose is always clear: increase the power of government.

Let’s put this in perspective. President Obama, campaigning among morons, or people he regards as morons, drops hundreds of final “g’s” in every speech he gives, and regularly converts “because” to “cuz.” You’ve heard of the hoodlum priest? This is the hoodlum president. But there are people still more vulgar than he, people who speak on serious public occasions in the language of the drug-lost: “Don’t freak out.” Some of them go so far as to omit the “out,” thereby demonstrating that they’re at least as jivy as the jiviest 65-year-old. Other public figures innocently reveal that they’ve gone through their whole lives without a basic knowledge of English-language idioms. Thus the acclaimed Spike Lee, prattling on Turner Classics (July 5) about the last scenes in On the Waterfront, and describing what happens to the Marlon Brando character: “The thugs beat him an inch within his life.” And of course the rich are always with us, in the form of politicized tycoons who lecture us about being a low-taxed people, compared to the Europeans or the Russians or somebody else. Every day of our lives, we in California hear this kind of thing from professors and pundits, politicians and thinktank fishies, despite the fact that our savage sales tax and still more savage income tax put us in the front ranks of slave labor in the United States.

All right. Let me summarize. We’re used to hillbilly talk, and drug talk, and pressure-group talk, and impudent talk, and just plain ignorant talk. Then Jerry Brown comes along, and runs all the bases: “Don’t freak cuz you got a few little taxes. Suck it in.”

Is this what wins the ballgame? What happened to the people on the other team? (No, I’m not thinking about the Republican Party. I’m thinking about people with a normal command of the English language.)

Maybe they’re suffering from the demoralizing condition that afflicts Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. Some weeks ago, Jackson stopped showing up in Congress. For quite a while, it seems, the absence of the nine-term Congressman wasn’t noted. Then colleagues started theorizing that he was being treated for exhaustion, because of all the hard work that congressmen have to do. Others, including NBC Nightly News, entertained suspicions that Jackson was being treated for something much more serious. Finally, as reported by Rachel Hartman on Yahoo News (July 11), the nation learned the truth:

“The Congressman is receiving intensive medical treatment at a residential treatment facility for a mood disorder," Jackson's physician said in a statement provided to Yahoo News via the congressman's congressional office. "He is responding positively to treatment and is expected to make a full recovery." The statement indicated that Jackson's attending physician and treatment center "will not be disclosed in order to protect his continuing privacy."

Privacy? Jesse Jackson, Jr.? That’s funny. Continuing privacy? That’s beyond funny.

Speaker Boehner, always the man with le mot juste, may be right in taking a cautious and distant approach to Jackson’s illness: “This is an issue between he and his constituents.” And it’s good to know that President Obama isn’t the only one who has this curious way with pronouns that follow prepositions. But if you’re laughing about Jackson’s mood disorder, I’m here to tell you that the condition is real, and serious. By the time I’ve finished one of these columns, I too am ready for a residential treatment facility.




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Neo-Socialism: The Results Are In

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Despite his campaign promise to govern as a moderate, President Obama has aggressively pursued what can only be described as neosocialist economics. This is a system of governance within which the government essentially runs business, but not in its own name — so that when failures occur, it can disown responsibility and blame business instead. It is a new and “improved” socialism, so to say.

The program has included outright government takeovers of most of the auto industry and the student loan industry, massive new control of the financial industry, near total control of the health industry, near total dominance of the energy industry, stimulus spending bills (often favoring campaign donors), housing bailouts, cash for clunkers, cash for weatherproofing, and so on. All of this is Obama’s doing. So is the $5 trillion he has added to the national debt — pushing us past France in debt as a percentage of GDP.

The result has been a long, lingering malaise — the Obamalaise — posing as a “recovery.”

The latest jobs report starkly illustrates the failure of Obamanomics. It shows that last month the economy — in the third year of an economic recovery — created a ludicrous 80,000 jobs. Considering that the economy needs to create about 125,000 new jobs each month just to keep up with population growth, this was a profoundly pathetic report card. The unemployment rate stayed at 8.2%, only because — again — more people dropped out of the work force.

Worse, of the 80,000 jobs created, 25,000 of them — nearly a third — were temp jobs.

Even worse, in June, while a net 80,000 jobs were created, 85,000 people went on federal disability! Yes, more people got on the SSDI disability rolls than got productive jobs. Indeed, since June 2009, while Obamanomics has created 2.6 million jobs, it has put nearly 3.1 million new people on SSDI disability. Moreover, a whopping 275,000 additional people have applied for disability. Obama is truly the Disability King.

Add to this the fact that yet more people went on food stamps, cementing Obama’s rightful title as the Food Stamp King. In fact, from June 2009 to April of this year, the number of food stamp recipients exploded upwards by 11.3 million, or nearly a third.

Amazingly, while Obama has his highest support among blacks, followed by Hispanics, and his lowest support among whites, it turns out that white unemployment stands at 7.4%, Hispanic unemployment at 11%, and black unemployment at a gut-wrenching 14.4%.

The general unemployment rate has now been over 8% for 41 months in a row, which sets another new record — one that beats all previous administrations over the last six decades. And the length of time the average person has been unemployed under Obama’s “recovery” has been 20.6 weeks, completely eclipsing the earlier record of 10.5 weeks.

If the labor force participation rate were now what it was when this neosocialist administration took power, the unemployment rate would be 10.9%. It is only as “low” as it is because many people have stopped “participating” (i.e., looking for jobs).

Three years of Obamanomics recovery has created job growth of 75,000 a month on average, or 2.6 million in total. By contrast, Reaganomics (neoliberalism) over the same length of time averaged 273,000 a month, or 9.8 million in total.

Of course, the nation was smaller then. If we correct for population size, the Reagan neoliberal recovery produced the equivalent of 360,000 jobs a month over the same period, or a total of 13 million.

The “recovery” brought by Obamanomics created a total expansion of real GDP of only 6.7% over eleven months. Again, by comparison, Reaganomics brought a total expansion of real GDP of 17.6% in the same period — or well over two and a half times as great a growth rate.

So what shall we call the president: The Disability King? The Food Stamp King? The Long Term Unemployment King? The Slow Growth King?

Perhaps “the clown-prince of neosocialism” will do.




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In the Cloakroom

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Up in Smoke

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With the recent release of yet another dismal jobs report, commentators in the MSM have begun to ask, “Why aren’t jobs being created?” They should have been asking themselves this question for the last 40 months, but, hey, better late than never.

Yet the possibility that the explosive growth in regulation might play a role in deterring job growth is not something they spend much time discussing.

It should be.

A recent story gives us a fresh illustration of the role that regulation plays in destroying jobs. (By “regulation,” I mean all increases in statutory law, rulings by regulatory agencies, and expansions of common law aimed at controlling business activity.) It concerns a business that I, a nonsmoker, never heard of, one that has never been destroyed by regulation.

It turns out that in the face of huge taxes on cigarettes produced by the major tobacco companies, many cigarette smokers started frequenting small stores that owned “roll-your-own” (RYO) cigarette machines. The RYO machines allowed customers to buy loose tobacco, especially pipe tobacco (taxed at a far lower rate than manufactured cigarettes) and paper tubes in the shop, and use the RYO machine to churn out a carton of cigarettes in just a few minutes.

For a devoted smoker, the attraction of RYO shops is clear. They save about half the price of regular cigarettes. And they allow smokers to blend different and more flavorful tobaccos together, and use both tobacco and paper that are free from many of the chemical additives.

But naturally, the attractiveness of the shops angered two powerful groups. First, it pissed off puritan “progressives” who just cannot stand people smoking, and are always conducting an anti-smoking jihad. Not content with insane taxes on people who choose to consume a lawful product, they want to stop it altogether.

Second, it pissed off the major cigarette makers — aka Big Tobacco — who hate seeing customers choosing to buy cheaper in little shops around the country.

So in a classic case of rentseeking (businesses manipulating the regulatory system to hurt their competition, rather than producing a better or cheaper product) Big Tobacco found a politician — the truly execrable Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) — to insert a small amendment to a massive transportation bill that redefines RYO shops so that they fall under the same category as Big Tobacco cigarette manufacturers, thus imposing a massive tax increase on them — one that is intended to destroy them, and probably will.

Baucus of course was happy to do this for the campaign cash Altria and other Big Tobacco companies shoveled at him. And those Big Tobacco companies are happy to stomp out of existence a group of little competitors. And Obama — who never met a regulation he didn’t like — was happy to sign the bill.

But the small businesses that bought the RYO machines have been screwed. Over a thousand of these machines (they cost over $36,000 each) were purchased, but are now virtually useless.

So, for example, Robert Weissen and his partners, who own a chain of six RYO shops in Las Vegas (cheekily named “Sin City Cigarette Factory”), says he will have to shut down the machines and lay off 40 people.

There are eight million regulations in our “progressive” (i.e., neosocialist) economy. This has been the story of just one of them.




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Fungible Semantics: The Roberts Decision

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Tax: A contribution for the support of a government required of persons, groups, or businesses within the domain of that government.

Penalty: A punitive measure, regulatory in nature, established by law or authority, to deter certain conduct.

A Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the healthcare mandate based on the government’s taxing authority?

Well, why not? The tax code has been dragooned into service to influence and shape social behavior for over a hundred years, from a dollar-a-pack cigarette tax, to mortgage relief to encourage home ownership. In addition to the collection of revenue to bankroll government it evolved into an instrument for social engineering and stealth workarounds to advance social policy. Which of the following statements is true?

A tax raises revenue, a penalty raises revenue, therefore a penalty is a tax?

A tax influences behavior, a penalty influences behavior, therefore a tax is a penalty?

That’s right — neither is true. These syllogisms illustrate a well-known logical fallacy that can be found in any college textbook on logic. How, then, could a superior jurist like John Roberts persuade himself that a penalty is a tax? Well, the Chief Justice opined that the penalty for noncompliance with the mandate ($695) was too weak to constitute a deterrent, and must therefore be a tax! This left many to wonder if he had intentionally confounded these two concepts, and thus rewritten the mandate so the Affordable Care Act would pass constitutional muster.

The logic was so bizarre and flawed that some, like Charles Krauthammer, suggested that Roberts resorted to this semantic legerdemain to avoid politicizing the Court and weakening its prestige. But this is to forget that the Constitution was born in crisis and the Court has weathered more violent partisan storms than those of the current climate: just read some of the broadsides in newspapers written one hundred to two hundred years ago. To my knowledge, no Congressmen have been caned to within an inch of their lives in the well of the Senate (though, no doubt, some have deserved it), and no cabinet secretaries killed in duels in the past 100 years. A good rule of thumb: follow the law and let the chips fall where they may.

Misconstruing what is obviously a penalty as a tax may seem a harmless bit of hocus pocus, but playing hard and fast with meaning and general disregard for semantic precision has resulted in a Supreme Court decision that could have unfortunate consequences for the American economy. Or as one editorialist (James Delong) put it:

The ACA is a complex and incoherent law drafted in haste and secrecy, written largely by the healthcare industry to promote its own profits by bringing more people into a government-administered system open to capture and looting. It is defended by an administration trapped by the imperative of defending its handiwork. The product is a Rube Goldberg regulatory system that cannot be made rational, workable, or intelligible, and is a delicious (to Republicans) promise of an endless stream of outrages.

It is all very well for the Chief Justice to defer the issue of constitutionality back to elected officials, but as Ronald Reagan once remarked, “The nearest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth is a government program,” and it will be difficult to impossible to repeal the healthcare law even if Mitt Romney is elected president, unless there are significant Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. The stakes were high, very high. This could be the worst Supreme Court decision since Kelo v. City of New London, and it is fair to ask if, during his stormy sessions with the brethren, Justice Roberts experienced some sort of mental lapse.

In the last century or so, no Congressmen have been caned to within an inch of their lives in the well of the Senate — though, no doubt, some have deserved it.

The original sin was, of course, using the tax system as a quick-and-dirty tool to improvise policy, to encourage (say) petroleum exploration or to discourage the use of tobacco, thereby exempting government from the strenuous work of writing carefully crafted long-term programs to advance a coherent policy. The Constitution says that

The Congress shall have Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States . . .

The framers did not say that the collection of taxes could or should be used to influence economic behavior or placate special interests, and in this they showed some foresight: broadening the concept of taxation to, for example, provide incentives for certain economic entities, has resulted in a Byzantine tax code so complicated and unwieldy, so corrupted by influence-peddlers and lobbyists, it has become a national embarrassment, and a general disincentive to business and entrepreneurship. Using the sacrosanct tax code as an ad hoc tool to implement policy (rather than enact problem-specific programs) has produced some very bad tax law.

Another institutional casualty, perhaps more fatal than the debasement of the tax system, has been the English language. A general contempt for the elegance and precision of English, e.g. twisting of meaning out of all recognition, demonstrates the dangers that George Orwell warned us about over 60 years ago in his essay, Politics and the English Language. The decline of English, he observed, had entered a deadly spiral:

it becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

It was Orwell’s belief that words and semantic distinctions matter, that mangling language to suit one's purposes eventually leads to a world where black is white and up is down. How prophetic! We need language to map the world as it is, not as we would like it to be, and a breach of semantics can be even more lethal than a breach of law. Using imprecise language to conceal real meaning is a sure path to chaos. Orwell was talking about communist pamphleteers and flannel-mouthed journalists at the time, but it applies equally to any abuse of language, and that includes the recent decision by Chief Justice Roberts to call a penalty a tax.




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Eight Million Regulations

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There is a classic film noir called The Naked City (1948). The film’s plot is the investigation of a murder, and the story takes place in New York City. At the end of the flick, a narrator intones a famous line: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”

Reading a recent report on the latest regulations laid down by the Justice Department for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, I thought of a new take on that line: “There are eight million regulations in the Obama state. This is just another flock of them.”

In an effort to ensure perfect “fairness” for all the “disabled,” the feds now dictate the following.

  • Amusement parks must provide at least one seat for the wheelchair-bound on any new or altered ride.
  • Miniature golf courses must make at least half of the holes “accessible,” defined as having a surrounding ground space that is “48 inches minimum by 60 inches minimum with slopes not steeper than 1:48 at the start of play.”
  • Regular golf courses must now have “an accessible route to connect all accessible elements within the boundary,” and must also “connect golf cart rental areas, bag drop areas, teeing grounds, putting greens, and weather shelters.”
  • Gyms must now position at least one of each type of exercise machine so that it is accessible to the wheelchair-bound.
  • Saunas must now provide accessible turning spaces and an accessible bench.
  • Shooting ranges must now provide accessible turning spaces “for each different type of firing position.”

My favorite is this one: all public accommodations must allow miniature horses as guide animals, because some handicapped people have moral or religious problems with dogs.

The good news is that the feds rule out full-size horses. Why, I don’t know — couldn’t some handicapped people have moral or religious problems with both dogs and miniature horses?

The miniature horse rule brings to mind another line I remember from the past: Frank Zappa’s song about Montana — “Just me and the pygmy pony, over the dental floss bush.”




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The Metaphor to Nowhere

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Recently I was invited to attend a national educational conference for college teachers and administrators. I was also invited to send a proposal for a presentation at the conference. I was slightly doubtful about the value of the conference when my proposal was accepted without any vetting — I wasn’t asked to supply my credentials, my background, my experience in the field, or the literature (if any) that I would be using for my presentation. As a matter of fact, I have no specific training in the subject. I have been working in an administrative position for less than a year, and it is not in the field for which I earned my degrees. In short, although I’m a pretty good speaker and I think I have gained some valuable insights from my experiences this year, I have absolutely no qualifications to make a presentation.

I was even more troubled when the conference schedule was sent to me. It offers ten sessions per hour for three days. Just for kicks, I asked the conference coordinator how many people are expected to attend. “Between 200 and 300,” she responded. You do the math: just about every attendee is a presenter! Who knows whether any of them have anything valuable or cogent to say to me? How should I choose which of the ten sessions per hour to attend?

Titles might be helpful, right? So here are some of the offerings during the first couple of hours:

A Self Sustaining Village. A Village of Volunteers. Bringing Online Students into the Village. It Takes a Village to Raise a Budget. It Takes a Village to S-T-R-E-T-C-H a Budget. Developing a Drop In Village. Let the Editorial Village Help you Decide. It Takes a Village: REACH . . . Building a Village to Market Learning Services. Our Students are a Village. And here’s a little twist: Build it and They Will Come. Stream it and They Will Come.

Sheesh!

These faceless “colleagues “of mine seem not to have a creative thought in their brains. This tired old metaphor they’ve trotted out harks back to the wife of a president from three administrations ago! It’s nearly 20 years old! And these folks are supposed to direct me into the future of education?

Sigh. What a waste of time and travel money. I’ll bet most of it is funded by Title V grants. Don’t even get me started on that.

I sent my regrets.




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Vast New Possibilities for Government Control of Our Lives

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Now that we know that the key for politicians to make unconstitutional demands on us is simply to levy a tax on those of us who are recalcitrant, vast new possibilities open up for people who are certain they know better than we do how to run our lives.

For instance, Michelle Obama can begin promoting a Healthy Eating Act, whereby we will all be forced to buy a requisite amount of veggies each week, including my unfavorite, broccoli. I suppose if the fine, er, tax, is not too onerous, I will find that paying the tax is still preferable to filling my garbage bin with things I can't tolerate.

And while the liberals among us are wetting their pants in anticipation of getting to impose those and similar rules, I will be proposing the Affordable Police Protection Act to my representative and senators. It will require every head of household to buy a personal defense handgun and maintain it in an easily accessible place in the home, thus warding off various criminals and reducing the costs of police forces and criminal courts. Or maybe it could be made even stronger and require every adult citizen to carry a handgun at all times, thus reducing crime even more.

Either way, people who absolutely refuse to do their part in the anti-crime and cost-of-policing-reduction effort will be required to pay a tax to offset the costs of dealing with criminal types who continue to operate, hoping to take their own chances with such scofflaws. Of course, the police can spend some time checking random citizens to verify that they are carrying their weapons and weapons permits at all times. Oh, I suppose that proof of purchase might be filed with our 1040s each year, but still there would have to be some way to verify continued ownership. Which should take precedence, though, the Fourth Amendment or the power of Congress to tax?




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The Second Hander

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In my last article on the legal challenge to Obamacare I expressed optimism that Obamacare would be struck down. However, in an earlier Liberty article I had said it had only a 1% chance of being overturned. As it turns out, Obamacare was upheld, in a 5–4 decision that is a devastating loss for libertarians and the death of hope for saving the US healthcare industry from a slow decline into socialized medicine.

What happened? In my last essay I said that Justice Kennedy was the swing vote, and he was expected to vote against Obamacare. And that's what he did. With his vote we should have won. But he was not, in fact, the swing vote. Chief Justice John Roberts, whom George W. Bush appointed to be a conservative bulwark, turned traitor and voted with the court’s liberals. Why?

When I was in law school the chief justice was still newly appointed, but he had already gained notoriety as a person deeply concerned with how the public viewed “the Roberts Court” (Supreme Court eras are often named after the chief justice who presides over them — the Rehnquist Court, the Warren Court). Roberts has proven himself a conservative in other opinions. He is reported to be a brilliant man, and surely knew what was at stake in the Obamacare case. But it appears he was so deeply worried that the public, influenced by both the Citizens United and the Obamacare decisions, would perceive the Roberts Court as an extremist ultra-Right court that he cared more about what other people thought of him than he did about his own ethical convictions. Judges do not face reelection, but the famous ones often care deeply about how history will view them. To simplify things, he was too embarrassed to be a principled conservative.

In that sense I liken him to Peter Keating, the “second hander” in Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. Peter Keating has no conviction or integrity, but “selflessly” lets other people create and define the goals and aspirations that he then pursues with ruthless ambition. Chief Justice Roberts has no internal principles, but simply goes with the public sentiment, or what he perceives to be other people’s perceptions of his court. The Supreme Court was designed by America’s founders to be a check on the actions of Congress in order to protect the American people from unconstitutional laws. The Court has failed, and the commerce clause has now lost all meaning. But the origin of this crisis lies with human psychology, not legal doctrines.




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Still Entertaining, After All These Years

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What is with all these superhero movies? Iron Man. The Hulk. Captain America. Thor. Do we really need yet another version of Spider-Man? Okay. We get it. Peter Parker gets bitten by an enhanced spider while visiting a science lab. His uncle is killed by a criminal whom Spidey could have stopped if he hadn’t been self-absorbed. He's misunderstood and mistreated. He gets the idea for his costume from a wrestling match. And he can't have a girlfriend because he has to save the world. The story has become so familiar, it isn't even Amazing anymore. So why do we have a new Spider-Man every other year?

The cynical answer is that superheroes are box-office gold. But I think there is more to the superhero craze than simple economics. Every culture has its myths &‐ larger-than-life stories that reveal the community's values, hopes, and fears. Superheroes are the American equivalent of the Olympian gods. Like the Olympians, they have human desires and human foibles. They can be lusty, angry, vengeful, and capricious. But today's superheroes are quite different from the gods of old. They no longer want to be worshipped. In many respects, they just want to be left alone.

Much can be revealed about our evolving culture by examining the evolving superhero. The latest version of The Amazing Spider-Man is quite good. The special effects of Spidey flying through the sky, somersaulting onto ceilings, and hanging from buildings are — OK, you knew it was coming — amazing. His arch nemesis, a lizard-man mutant, is well-developed and complex. The story is satisfying, amusing, and tense, especially in 3D. The casting is superb, especially Andrew Garfield as the new Peter Parker. His gangly youthfulness and spindly physique evoke the angular appendages and lightning speed of a spider. He’s cute, but somehow creepy and unpredictable too.

Even more interesting, however, are the metaphoric and mythic underpinnings of the new story. In many ways the superhero is a metaphor for adolescence. It's no coincidence that Peter is experiencing his first romance at the same time that his body is developing new powers and abilities. He is literally growing new organs, with goo that shoots out of his hands unexpectedly when he gets excited. Like many teens, he doesn't know his own strength, slamming doors and breaking handles with his new muscles. Moreover, he is self-absorbed and self-interested, experiencing pure joy in his own new powers. Superheroes of the previous century had an innate, almost Christlike sense of mission and nobility, but today's young superheroes revel in their newfound abilities. Like the teen mutants in February's Chronicle, Peter reacts joyously as he combines strength, speed, and gymnastic agility to fly from the rafters and swing from the buildings.

Myths always include a conflict between good and evil. A close look at mythic heroes and villains will therefore reveal much about the cultural fears and character values of a generation. In the original comic, Peter is bitten by a spider that has been exposed to radioactive particles. Like other mid-century science fictions, Spider-Man embodied a generation’s fear of the atomic bomb and radiation. In the 2012 version, the laboratory is studying interspecies genetic engineering, revealing a new generation’s fears and concerns about unintentional consequences to genetic meddling.

Another mythological mainstay is the quest for self-discovery. A moment of such discovery occurs directly as Peter enters his English class. His teacher tells her students, “A professor once told that there are only ten stories in all of fiction. I contend that there is only one: ‘Who am I?’” She may be wrong about the number of storylines, but she is certainly right about the importance of self-discovery in literature. It reaches all the way back to 500 BC, and Sophocles’ foundational play, Oedipus Rex. Oedipus discovers who he is by discovering who his parents were. The current story also starts as a quest for self-discovery, as Peter sets out to uncover secrets about his father.

When Peter settles down to thwarting criminals, his motives are far from altruistic. He is no Superman, fighting for “truth, justice, and the American way.” He just wants to find the man who killed Uncle Ben, and if he ties up a few other criminals along the way and leaves them for the cops to arrest, so much the better. Eventually, however, he accepts his mission to fight crime and protect his community. Could we really expect to see a superhero who is not expected to “give back”? As a voice from the dead, Uncle Ben tells Peter that when you are given a great talent, you have to share it with the world.

But this time he doesn’t have to do things all alone. Most revealing is director Marc Webb's treatment of the community at large — the people of New York whom Spider-man is trying to protect. Unlike the inhabitants of Superman's Metropolis or Batman's Gotham or the Avengers' Manhattan, they don't stand around looking up and pointing while the superhero does all the work. They get involved, helping Spidey help them. I love this newfound push toward self-reliance, even if it is a self-reliance that “takes a village.” (How I hate that metaphor!)

Over all, Webb has created a satisfying new version of this cinematic mainstay. I still don’t know why we needed a new one, but it held my attention, even though I know the story inside and out. Myth has a way of doing that.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Amazing Spider-Man," directed by Marc Webb. Columbia Studios, 2012, 136 minutes.



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