Two-Choice Tyranny

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In these United States, we are proud of our nontotalitarian system. We call ourselves a “democracy,” and — good for us! — we have actual choices. But how many of us really know that?

A totalitarian political system is, essentially, an exclusive operation: a done deal. What makes it totalitarian is that it serves a closed system of big-government power. But is our own, in its present condition, so very different? It certainly offers us a proposition more seductive than the mailed-fist slam dunk of power characteristic of North Korea, Nazi Germany, or the former Soviet Union. Since we get two choices instead of one, we are assured that we are truly “free to choose.”

Those choices are, however, very narrowly defined. We are pressed to choose only between the two offered by the powers-that-be. The state monopoly on legalized force still needs to keep us contained within borders enabling it to hold its power without any real opposition.

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney . . . how many millions of people do we have in this country? Yet these are the two candidates between whom we have to choose? Obama and Romney can honestly be said to represent the best, the smartest, the highest to which our chief executive may aspire?

Excuse my sacrilege against popular piety, but I must revise a line from that Lee Greenwood song that’s played every national holiday to get us all glowy: “God help the U.S.A.”

My friends know I’m a libertarian, so they generally indulge my eccentricities. But lately they’ve been getting very tired of me. I simply won’t fall into line and declare my allegiance to either major party. I don’t like either one of them, and I refuse to accept that my choice must be limited to such a gruesome twosome.

I participate in a local group of gay conservatives, and this group generously embraces libertarians. Most of the time. They’re not so sure about us now. I’ve been stirring up trouble on our blog, and have been sternly chastised for being “rude.”

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney . . . how many millions of people do we have in this country? Yet these are the two candidates between whom we have to choose?

I probably could have been nicer to the commenters with whom I tangled — one of whom I’ve since met, and is quite nice — but my blood is up. I’m the oldest member of the group, and I’ve been hearing the same mindnumbing and intelligence-insulting “either/or” ultimatum in every presidential election for 24 years. Ronald Reagan (for whom I voted both times, in the first two elections in which I was old enough to vote) entered office with the very best of intentions. He was thwarted at nearly every turn, not only by those dastardly liberals but by big-government “conservatives” in his own party. George W. Bush was certainly no small-government devotee, but he might have been nudged farther in that direction had he not spent all his time being dictated to by war hawks and religious zealots.

Republicans’ choices are being dictated to them by Republicans, and Democrats’ by Democrats. There is no evil “other side” bewitching them into behaving like soldiers in an army of zombies. We are tyrannizing ourselves.

We get a feel for the narrowing of the funnel — the constriction of the process — in the constant reminders that “we could have been stuck with Rick Santorum,” the GOP’s runner-up for presidential nominee. “No,” I tell my Republican friends, “you could have been stuck with Rick Santorum.” I am only slightly more likely to vote for Mitt, come November, than I would have been for Little Ricky, so I may not choose to stick myself with either of them. But come November, we are all going to be stuck with somebody few of us can stand. Again.

I sense fatalism in my friends’ repeated rationalizations for their conformity. “This is simply the way it is,” they tell me. When I ask them why they think so, they look at me the way they might look at a 3-year-old who’s asked them why ponies can’t fly.

They seem to think that of the millions of Republicans in the United States, the only two of presidential timber were Romney and Santorum. The multitude was scared away from even considering Ron Paul, the evil Doctor No. And Gary Johnson couldn’t get the media to ask him about any subject other than marijuana, so the country has never found out why he would be a possible choice (and, I still believe, the best one). For three and a half years, Republicans have been gathering forces to battle the Obama Antichrist, yet this is the best they can do?

The choice, as always under a two-choice tyranny, comes down not to a fight for principles but to the preservation of power. The only principle that big government mandarins care about is power. Citizens of the former Soviet Union were unhappy because they knew they had no choices. We are pacified in our servitude by the myth that two choices mean freedom, simply because two choices are — theoretically — better than one. But if both choices serve a closed big-government system, we may rightly ask whether our victory in the Cold War was truly all it’s been cracked up to be.

Eventually, Soviet citizens grew so unhappy that they forced a revolution. We may well question what’s become of it, but at least they’ve replaced their old tyrants with some new ones. Perhaps, when people live for too long under tyranny of any sort, they lose the will to be truly free and are content with the illusion of freedom. Like frogs in water brought to a boil too slowly to perceive the rising heat, will we make the leap out of the kettle before we’re cooked?




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Good Film, Bad Economic Theory

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As Arbitrage begins, Robert Miller (Richard Gere), the respected head of a billion-dollar capital investment firm, is being interviewed on a cable news show. “Competition for our limited amount of money causes asset bubbles, and then they burst,” he explains in terms simple enough for even the most casual moviegoer to understand. I rolled my eyes. This common fallacy of limited wealth was debunked in 1776 by Adam Smith in his magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations. But the notion simply will not die. It has been the source of envy, greed, and empire building for centuries.

The mercantilists believed that there was only so much wealth in the world, only one “pie,” so to speak. Thus the only way to increase one’s wealth was to steal someone else’s piece of the pie. Nations did just that, invading other nations to plunder their wealth. President Obama uses this same misguided argument to fuel the flame of class warfare, claiming that the wealthy have somehow stolen goods and services from the poor. It is the foundation of his redistributionist policies.

However, Smith rightly pointed out that wealth is not finite. We are not competing for a “limited amount of money.” Wealth can be created; the pie can be expanded. By adding time, labor, and innovation, value can be added to raw materials, and new products can be created. A pound of copper can be transformed into pennies, electric wire, or computer processors, for example. Wealth expands. It’s simple economics.

But filmmaker Nicholas Jarecki set out to make a movie, not to teach an economics lesson, so let’s cut him some slack and get back to the film. It’s a good one. Arbitrage is an absorbing, fast-paced financial and crime thriller whose intertwining stories and well-conceived characters create growing tension throughout the film.

In the world of high finance, arbitrage is “the practice of taking advantage of a price difference between two or more markets: striking a combination of matching deals that capitalize upon the imbalance, the profit being the difference between the market prices.” In Arbitrage, the protagonist, Robert Miller (Richard Gere), is in a race against time to execute deals that he hopes will restore balance in both his financial and his personal life.

The mercantilists believed that there was only so much wealth in the world, only one “pie,” so to speak. President Obama uses this same misguided argument to fuel the flame of class warfare.

In his financial world the imbalance could lead to prison time. Like the majority of white-collar embezzlers, Robert has not intended to defraud his investors. He made a bad investment decision, and instead of cutting his losses, he threw more company money at the investment, hoping to buy enough time to turn the bad deal around. Down by over $400 million, he is now trying to sell the company, but that means cooking the books. In order to cover up the gaping hole in his asset ledger, he has borrowed over $400 million and plunked it into the company account for the auditors to see. His intentions are honorable; he plans to repay the short-term debt (with interest) as soon as the deal is signed, and then refill the gaping hole with cash from the sale of the company. He will be left with just a few million for his own retirement, but his shareholders will be protected, and that’s what matters to him.

All of this is illegal, of course, despite his good intentions. When wealthy investors borrow money from one source and lend it to another to earn money on the float it’s called “arbitrage”; when ordinary people do it it’s called “check kiting”; and when CEOs do it to cover up a bad investment it’s called “fraud.”

Looming at the end of the week are two major functions: the sale of his company and a hospital charity event over which his lovely and supportive wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon), is presiding. Ellen needs a check to honor their commitment to the hospital; Robert can’t spare a dime until the company audit clears. “It’s only two million,” she reminds him, and the audience chuckles. They are the perfect family — elegant, rich, charitable, and close-knit. Robert’s son and daughter, Peter (Austin Lysy) and Brooke (Brit Marling), are on the company payroll, Peter as an attorney at large, and Brooke as Chief Investment Officer. Brooke can’t understand why her father wants to sell the company when they seem to be so successful. “We make a great living. We give to the causes we believe in. We have a great life. Why sell?” she asks, perplexed. Brooke is a pretty smart cookie, but Peter is only there because of the family connection. One can’t help but think of pipsqueak Don and sharp-nosed Ivanka “playing office” in the Donald’s empire.

And then there is Robert’s girlfriend, Julie (Laetitia Casta). Of course. When high-powered investment types are in the picture, there is always a mistress. Julie’s art gallery opening is another event converging on Robert’s perfect storm. Julie’s petulant texts insisting that Robert attend her event distract Miller during negotiations for the sale of the company.

Robert is on the verge of success when he is involved in a car accident that could sidetrack his buyers and derail the sale if the news of his involvement gets out. Rather than report the accident, he engages a young acquaintance, Jimmy (Nate Parker), to help him cover it up. Robert still hasn’t figured out that coverups never stay covered up (unless, of course, you are Teddy Kennedy). What follows is a tightly written, superbly acted game of cat and mouse as Robert rushes to stay one step ahead of the police, the negotiators, his injuries, his wife, and his own daughter, who has begun to suspect that someone in the company is defrauding her father.

Arbitrage has opened to limited release, and that’s a shame, because it is a well-made film with a great story and well-developed characters. If it isn’t showing at a theater near you, watch for it on Netflix.


Editor's Note: Review of "Arbitrage," directed by Nicholas Jarecki. Green Room Films, 2012, 107 minutes.



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Observations on a Leaking “Social”

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In a recent piece I had a bit of fun with the notice that the Social Security Administration (SSA) had purchased 174,000 rounds of hollow-point .357 caliber ammo, which the SSA later said was for “target practice.” I speculated that the SSA was gunning up to gut-shoot granny when she comes to complain about her benefits being cut, owing to America’s spending and (lack of saving) problem.

Two recent reports provide an interesting new take on the story.

The first conveys the news — totally ignored in the mainstream media — that this year marks a record high for Social Security retirement and Social Security disability benefits paid out. And the fiscal year has a month left to go!

In Fiscal Year 2011 (which ended September 30 of that year), the feds shelled out a record sum: nearly $592 billion in benefits (from the Old Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund). But as of the end of last month, they had already spent about $3 billion more than that — $595 billion in total so far in FY 2012.

Again, in FY 2011, the SSA paid out $128 billion in disability benefits. As of last month, it had paid already paid $129 billion for FY 2012.

As of now, there are a record 45,505,287 retirees or survivors receiving regular Social Security payments, and an additional 10,786,510 workers or their dependents on Social Security Disability. And the wave of retiring baby boomers is just getting underway.

Then there is the fascinating story out of Louisiana of a dude who was denied emergency food stamps. This citizen — one Mark Knight — allegedly returned to his truck and pulled out his handy AR-15 “assault” rifle, apparently to petition for redress of grievances. He was nabbed by national guardsmen before he could use it.

All this conjures up the vision of granny herself gunning up with an assault rifle . . . against SSA agents with .357 magnums . . . not really a fair fight.

My suggestion: the SSA needs to bring in tanks, with hollow-point ammo for the .50-caliber machine guns. This will help the citizenry achieve true moral clarity.




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Americana, Boom and Bust

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Making a documentary is a lot like planting a seed you find in the yard; you don't know what you're going to get until after you start filming. When director Lauren Greenfield began filming The Queen of Versailles, real estate was at its height as an investment, and timeshare mogul David Siegel was a billionaire. He and his engineer turned model turned beauty queen turned trophy wife Jackie were building the largest private home in America: 90,000 square feet, 30 bathrooms, two sweeping formal staircases leading to the pillared ballroom, and more bedrooms than Jackie could count.

What could anyone possibly need with 90,000 square feet of house, you might well ask. Well, you have to put the kids' ice skating rink somewhere, right? And maybe someday they'll even take up skating . . . That was the story Greenfield expected to tell. It isn’t quite the story that she ended up with.

At the start, the Siegels were on top of the world as they posed for photographs and preened for their interviews. Siegel’s Westgate Resorts was the largest timeshare company in the world, and its showcase resort in Las Vegas was eclipsing all the hotels on the Strip. Donald Trump complained that he couldn't sleep at night because the Westgate logo shone into his penthouse at the Trump Hotel. David and Jackie both came from humble beginnings, and both were proud of the lifestyle they had come to enjoy: a world full of chauffeured limousines, private jets, celebrity parties, and an overabundance of stuff.

But having "stuff" is not the same as having class. The Siegels’ dream home was patterned (sort of) after Louis XIV's palace at Versailles, but there is nothing regal or even noble about the Siegels themselves. Let's face it: anyone who lives with dog poop on the carpets or takes the limousine to McDonald's is trashy, not classy. Jackie's painfully gigantic breast implants are symbolic of their lifestyle as a whole: overdone and in your face.

The Siegels seem like nice enough people, but I have friends who live in a trailer park who have more class than they do. The film provides a revealing look at this family of ordinary people living in an extraordinary home with unseemly amounts of money to blow on themselves. It's funny, it's shocking, it's sad — and it's fascinating.

A timeshare provides a way of selling the same property 52 times. The purchasers buy one week at a resort and can use that week every year for the rest of their lives, and their children's lives for that matter, as long as the timeshare resort is still operating (which can become a bit iffy). If you get tired of vacationing in that spot, you can trade your week for a timeshare at a resort in another location. On the surface it seems attractive: timeshare resorts are generally nicer and more personal than motels, and it seems like it will save money to own a vacation place rather than rent a room at a hotel. But the purchasers still have to pay "maintenance fees" when they use the timeshares, as well as monthly mortgage payments, since most people just put 10% down when they buy. These "free" vacations get pretty expensive.

Jackie's painfully gigantic breast implants are symbolic of their lifestyle as a whole: overdone and in your face.

So how did the Siegels sell all those timeshares? You can't cheat an honest man, but you can sucker a greedy one. Timeshare operators bait their hooks with the promise of free stuff: free Disney tickets, free Vegas shows, free dinners, free hotel rooms. Like the little fish who thinks he can nibble around the bait and avoid the hook, these potential clients arrive at the timeshare table thinking — knowing! — that they will just spend three hours listening to a spiel in exchange for hundreds of dollars worth of goods. No way are they going to buy anything. But the timeshare sharks know exactly what kind of bait to use for the fish they have in the tank: the ones who feed on “good deals.” So that's how they position their sales marketing — as a very good deal. Taking advantage of the sellers, almost. Very few couples emerge from a timeshare office without a contract — and a mortgage — for a lifetime of vacations.

Of course, the sales reps don't want to think of themselves as predatory sharks. So Siegel gives them a different spiel. He baits them with statistics showing how going on family vacations regularly saves lives and marriages. He conveniently ignores statistics showing that consumer debt strangles families and destroys the same lives and marriages. The thing is, Siegel seems to believe his own statistics, citing the thousands of people who earn a living because of his empire. One would expect him to have contempt for the people he suckers, but he seems genuinely to believe himself when he insists, "I save lives." If he's a shark, he has convinced himself that he is a nurse shark, dosing his patients with the healing balm of a week in Las Vegas or Orlando every year.

Then — with unforeseen effects on the documentary — came the fall of 2008, and with it the fall of the economy in general and of real estate in particular. Suddenly the easy money that Siegel's company had relied on dried up. Without mortgages, new clients could not purchase the timeshares. His existing clients could not keep up with their own mortgage payments. His employees went from the sales table to the collections department. It was not a happy time for anyone at the company, and it shows on their faces as they call clients to ask for payments.

The Siegels got caught in the same overextended net, and found themselves unable to keep up with their own mortgage payments. At the height of his success, David employed 6,000 people (19 of whom were maintaining his house and nannying his children). He needed a constant stream of sales to service all those salaries. But when mortgage money dried up, so did sales. In the post-2008 interviews, he is pensive and withdrawn, no longer the gregarious host. "I never took anything off the table," he recalls. "I put it all into the business."

Even more damning is his admission about the lake property that he and his wife once owned free and clear in pricey Isleworth, an exclusive community in Orlando with the likes of Tiger Woods and Shaquille O'Neal as neighbors. "I paid cash to build our house," he laments, referring to the 26,000-square-foot house where they lived while Versailles was being built. "Then I borrowed against it to expand the business." Siegel did not erect a legal wall between his company and his personal holdings, as wise business owners do. He foolishly did not realize that the house you live in is not an investment. It is a consumer item. A home.

Soon Siegel needs $400 million to save his Las Vegas resort and $100 million to save the unfinished dream home, Versailles. Jackie starts cutting corners by doing her Christmas shopping at Walmart and letting all but two of the domestic staff go. "If I'd known I was going to have to raise them myself, I wouldn't have had seven children," she says, only half in jest, while cooking a dinner of chicken and corn on the cob. She continues to be a compulsive collector of stuff, but it's mostly cheap stuff. She buys three separate "Operation" games for her kids and gives David "Monopoly" and "Risk" for Christmas. (Odd gifts, when you think about it.)

Meanwhile David blows a gasket and refuses to come to dinner when the front door is left open and the lights are left on; "Don't you people care how much electricity costs?" he complains. But the truth is, Jackie's overspending hasn't caused their financial mess; David's overborrowing has. She might have wasted a million, but he has lost half a billion. Jackie repeatedly says that stress is bringing them closer as a couple, but when David is asked point blank if his marriage is a source of strength to him, he responds bluntly and firmly, "No."

Eventually the bank offers the Siegels a way out: let the Las Vegas resort go, so the company will have enough money to keep operating the rest of its holdings, including the house. But David isn’t willing to give up his $400 million in sunk costs, and he is determined not to let the creditors have the crown jewel of his empire. He's stubborn. Or maybe he just believes in fairy dust. At any rate, he seems a broken man. "Aren't we finished with this yet?" he asks the filmmaker. "We're done. I'm done," he declares softly. It's hard to tell whether he means the film, his business, his family, or himself.

When David is asked point blank if his marriage is a source of strength to him, he responds bluntly and firmly, "No."

The Siegels do not appear in what is probably the most revealing and poignant scene of the film. The Filipina nanny invites the camera into "her" house. It is the children's elegant abandoned playhouse, and she has been given permission to use it as her own hideaway. Furnished with a bed, a dresser, and her personal trinkets, it is the place she goes to be alone and enjoy the quiet. In this film about building the largest single-family home in America, she talks about her simple goal: to provide a house for her father. "Owning a concrete house is so important to people in the Philippines," she explains. She has left her own children behind in the Philippines to raise someone else's children and earn money to send back home to her family. "I tried to give that to my father, but he never got his house. Now he's dead. He is in a tomb. I guess that is his concrete house now," she says with a sigh and a tear of resignation.

The juxtaposition of this nanny's simple dream and the dream house of the self-proclaimed queen of Versailles is simple and powerful. The rise and fall of the Westgate timeshare empire is fascinating. The entire film is funny, sad, and revealing. It's an outstanding documentary, one that Greenfield could scarcely have dreamed of when she started making it. Her creation turned out to be the real “Versailles.”


Editor's Note: Review of "The Queen of Versailles," directed by Lauren Greenfield. Evergreen Pictures, 2012, 100 minutes.



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Three Ways of Reacting to the Obvious

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At this writing, no one can say what happened in Benghazi on September 11, when Ambassador Chris Stevens was brutally murdered by a mob of Muslim fanatics, driven to frenzy by an obscure YouTube feature. Or was he murdered by a Muslim army, conducting a well-planned attack? Or was it an inside job, perpetrated by Libyan employees of the embassy? Or perhaps all three?

The administration’s account of the enemy has frequently changed. But what about America’s arrangements to defend its people and property? What about our own operations? What happened with them? Mrs. Clinton’s State Department clearly wants everyone to assume that adequate security was in place. But . . . but . . . what about the obvious? The ambassador is dead.

The badly named Buck McKeon (R-CA), who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, made that point. It’s an obvious point, but he made it, and he did a little something with it: “It’s pretty obvious he did not have adequate security. Otherwise he would probably be here today. . . . I’m really disappointed about that. I think when we put our people around the world at risk and don’t provide adequate security, shame on us.”

This is one kind of response to fact. It’s banal, it’s obvious, but at least it recognizes the obvious. It recognizes things as they are, and allows for some further investigation, and perhaps some redress of grievances.

A second kind of response is represented by President Obama’s bizarre remarks of Sept. 20, about what he had learned as president: "The most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside."

In making this comment, Obama assumed a general recognition of the obvious: he had not managed to fulfill his promises of hope and change. An obvious response would be, “Well, maybe somebody else can fix things.” But that’s not the tack Obama took. That’s not what he said he had learned. He said he’d learned that you can’t change Washington from the inside, that you have to be an outsider to do that.

There’s no way you can make sense out of that. Obama couldn’t be farther inside, and he’s campaigning to stay that way, despite the fact that insiders can’t change anything. But obviously, when he was on the outside, he didn’t manage to change anything, either — because otherwise why would he have campaigned to get on the inside?

This dilemma has no exit. It’s a radical form of conservatism: since no one, either inside or outside, can do anything about anything, we need to stay exactly where we are right now. Obama happens to be in the White House, so that’s a good deal for him. As for the rest of us . . . we’ll always have Social Security to fall back on.

Or will we? On September 20, Paul Ryan addressed the convention of the American Association of Retired Persons, otherwise known as the world’s greatest purveyor of direct mail, and said what is obviously true and admitted by all: Social Security is broke, and getting broker, and if something isn’t done about it, the system will fold. This non-news should, theoretically, be of the first importance to the AARP. The AARP should want to do something about it. But what it did was to boo and hiss Paul Ryan.

This is the third kind of reaction to the obvious — an impassioned resistance to knowing or doing anything. It’s a conservatism so militant that even Jerry Falwell, were he still on earth, might pause and admire it. It’s the kind of conservatism that one sees everywhere in the campaigns of incumbents (and this year, the Democratic Party is the chief incumbent). Every Obama sign and sticker is like a giant billboard reading SO WHAT? The failure is obvious; the intention to fix it, nonexistent. The program is, keep everything exactly the way it is. The fact that this program will probably win is an even ghastlier reflection on American politics than the Republicans’ tedious gyrations between truth, untruth, and sort of truth.

“Fact checks” almost always hurt the Republicans, because the Republican campaign is predicated on the idea that facts exist and must be faced. But they do nothing to hurt the Democrats — and that’s the really awful thing.

rsquo;s not the tack Obama took. That




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Dead Cat Bounce

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The Democratic National Convention produced not much of a bounce in the polls for Obama, and the bounce was soon gone. A big part of the reason was the continuing economic bad news that rained on the propaganda parade. This news is worth analyzing, because most people don’t see its significance. Certainly the mainstream media don’t.

First, early in the week of the convention, the feds announced that we officially hit the $16 trillion mark in national debt. This happened during the administration of a man who questioned his predecessor’s patriotism for having spent much less in eight years than his own administration has spent in less than four. The media ignored this, of course.

But much worse were the job figures. The jobs report showed a measly 96,000 net jobs created in August. And the numbers for the previous two months were revised downwards — 41,000 fewer jobs were created in the previous two months than had been reported earlier.

The unemployment rate “dropped” from 8.3% to 8.1%, but only because an incredible 368,000 people simply left the labor force. Yes, four people quit searching for work for every one who found it.

In fact, if the labor participation rate were what it was on the day Obama took office, the unemployment rate would be a whopping 11.2%. Hell, if the labor participation rate had just stayed the same as it was last month, the unemployment rate would have gone up to 8.4%. Count in the underemployed along with those who have given up looking for work, and the rate is really 19%.

Meanwhile, in the last month for which data are available, the number of Americans on food stamps rose by 173,000. Yes, about two Americans applied for food stamps for every one who got a job. More than 45 million Americans — i.e., roughly 15% of the population — are now on food stamps, almost double the 7.9% rate that was the average from 1970 to 2000.

The number of people on SSI (Social Security disability) has now hit 11 million, half signing up under Obama’s enlightened reign.

The fruits of neosocialism are bitter, except for the neosocialists themselves.




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The 47% Solution

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Earlier this week Mother Jones released a video in which Mitt Romney, standing in front of a gathering of prospective donors (that is, rich people whose lives are so impoverished they have nothing better to do than listen to another rich person beg for money), all but conceded the election, announcing that no matter what he did, 47% of the nation would be voting for his opponent. Setting aside how imprecise and impolitic his remarks were — did he really need to make himself appear even more out of touch with the public? did he really mean to lump minimum-wage earners in with the professionally unemployed as “moochers”? — his response to the footage that shows how poor a candidate he is, and how incompetent his campaign has been.

Straight off, Romney took to his domesticated media outlet, Fox News, to answer softball questions that would allow him to get back on message. But he botched even this: saying his remarks were “not elegantly stated” because they were “off the cuff” was an admission that he could neither handle anything approaching a crisis, nor tailor a message to this specific audience while keeping up the phony populist image all politicians are expected to maintain.

Can you imagine Reagan casting aside half the nation at the start of a campaign?

Next, Romney pointed to Obama’s notorious remarks in the 2008 campaign about rural voters “get[ting] bitter and cling[ing] to their guns or religion.” While he’s right about this revealing the president’s (undoubtedly ongoing) contempt for a large percentage of the electorate, he’s wrong that the effect is in any way comparable, or that Obama’s later victory proves that this election is still salvageable. Obama’s remarks came in April, much earlier in the cycle, when he was still battling Hillary Clinton for his party’s nomination; at that time he was running left, trying to gain support from likely primary voters in the Democrat base. Obama still had plenty of time to spin the remarks for a wider audience (and is still doing so today), especially when faced with yet another weak GOP candidate.

Romney is not facing a lame duck candidate, and he does not have months to spare. He may have had that chance if the video had surfaced in May, when the donor event was surreptitiously recorded, but with the tape emerging only now, it’s as if he gave them just last week. And even so the situation was still different: by then Romney was the nominee in all but name; his message should’ve been about how he was going to carve out hunks of that 47% for the GOP. Can you imagine Reagan casting aside half the nation from the very first? Romney's comparison of his callous remarks with Obama’s shows he does not understand the gravity of his misspeak.

Meanwhile, Romney, as well as Paul Ryan, has also tried to call attention to taped footage of Obama speaking in 1998 — 1998! — about how he believes in “redistribution” of wealth. Back then Obama was just finishing up his first term as an Illinois state senator in a very safe seat; he had no reason not to say he believed in the same thing 99% of Democrats have believed in since FDR’s day. The move smacks of sheer desperation; worse, it suggests that this video clip from 1998 — 1998! — was something the campaign had been holding in reserve, a hidden weapon the Romney crew hoped would push their guy over the hump. What’s next, a tape from Obama’s childhood where he would like to get the world singing in perfect harmony?

There are so many ways to hit Obama’s first term performance, yet Romney has missed with every swing.

If Romney had proven himself competent at any point during this campaign, he might’ve been able to mitigate the damage, or at least issue a semi-believable retraction. But this is a candidate who somehow contrived to offend even the English — the Tories, even, past masters at giving offhand offense — when he stated London might not be ready for the Olympics. (It was.) And, to pick just one more among many, he’s also the candidate who, when he was asked how much “middle-income Americans” make, gave a range between $200,000 and $250,000.

The Fox News fools, of course, are trying to rally behind this, encouraging Romney to stick with that line of attack—a great way to lose not only the White House, but any chance of retaking the Senate, as well. Which could be the point: it was enough early on that no Republican with any genuine chance at a two-term presidency wanted anything to do with the 2012 election; I suspect the smart ones among them (and the intelligence of anyone in the GOP should from this point be measured by the speed at which they distance themselves from Romney) realize what a mess the world will be by 2016: global recession, mushrooming unemployment, massive debt burdens, neverending wars . . . how could anyone tossed into that not improve things at least a little?

Which, again, highlights the unfathomable failure of the Romney campaign. There are so many ways to hit Obama’s first term performance, yet Romney has missed with every swing. Obama extends Bush’s imprudent wars, pursues new ones, prosecutes whisteblowers for treason, executes American citizens extrajudicially, and kicks bin Laden’s corpse up and down the campaign trail; Romney calls him soft on terrorism. Obama maintains Goldman Sachs’ disastrous control of American economic policy, bails out underwater companies while deriding solvent ones, exacerbates global starvation through continued agricultural subsidies, and puts forward an unworkable piss-take of a budget; Romney refers everyone to Ryan’s almost equally unworkable budgetary scheme. Obama presides over a prison gulag filled with consensual criminals and an unconscionable percentage of America’s young black men; Romney says nothing on criminal justice reform. Obama holds up trade agreements to benefit his union cronies; Romney calls for trade war with China. It just goes on and on and on.

Going by the president’s approval ratings, this is an election that the Republicans could have won — but not by this candidate, and not with this campaign. Now there’s just one good thing the GOP can hope to take from the Romney campaign: getting a couple months’ jump on the postmortem.



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Backwoods Wars, Front Page Problems

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Responding to the September 11 attacks on US embassies in Libya and Egypt, Fox News correspondent Ralph Peters made this controversial statement: “Obama’s appeasement policy . . . won’t work against these radical Islamists. With people like these, when they kill four of yours, you have to kill 400 of theirs.”

Peters’ outrageous, counterintuitive “defense plan” is more a cynical observation than a suggestion. It reminds me of a scene of hillbilly justice portrayed in Lawless, a movie set in 1930s Virginia, during the Prohibition era. As thugs from one group prepare to kill two bootleggers from another, one young victim cries out his name and where he is from. The leader of the attackers immediately releases the boys and punishes his own men for what they were about to do, explaining in disgust, “The last thing I need is a blood feud coming after me.” We kill two of theirs, they’ll kill 200 of ours. So we don’t kill their two.

The title Lawless obviously refers to the renegade behavior of the film’s moonshining protagonists, but it also refers to the corrupt police officers who look the other way while they get their share of both the hooch and the profits. More importantly, the title refers to the kind of violent thuggery that often erupts in the absence of sensible laws — laws that protect property rights, the freedom to choose, and the freedom to be left alone. Without a legal framework of basic rights enforced by judges, tyrants generally rise up to fill the void and enforce their own “laws.”

Lawlessis based on the true story of the Boudrant brothers, Howard (Jason Clarke), Forrest (Tom Hardy), and Jack (Shia LeBeouf), who operate a moonshine business in the hills of Virginia. Forrest is something of a legend in the area because he has survived so many life-threatening events: for example, injuries sustained during World War I, the Spanish flu that killed both Boudrant parents, and violent attacks by would-be robbers. In the film he is a complex character, fiercely protective of family and friends but with an indifference to pain and just a hint of sadism that makes him unpredictable and dangerous. He is a sympathetic foil for the antagonist in the story, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a fancy-dressed germaphobe with more than that hint of sadism; he’s cold, he’s mean, and he likes it. A big-city lawman from Chicago, Rakes is sent to Virginia to clean out the stills, but instead he demands a cut of the action from all the moonshiners in the area, using the local law officials to enforce his new regime. When the Boudrant brothers refuse to pay, a backwoods war breaks out.

Narrating the story is the youngest Boudrant brother, Jack, a gentle soul who eschews violence and would rather spend his time hanging out with his best friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan) and wooing his Mennonite girlfriend Bertha (Mia Wasikowska). But when his brothers are attacked, Jack defends the family’s honor. He takes over the business, despite the added risks involved in transporting the hooch past Rakes’ mob of outlaw lawmen. Because fewer moonshiners are willing to take that risk, Jack can demand higher prices. Like drug dealers today, he takes advantage of the profits created by the government ban and spends his newfound cash on fancy clothes and fancier cars. Predictably, his gentle character begins to harden.

Rakes is sent to Virginia to clean out the stills, but instead he demands a cut of the action from all the moonshiners in the area, using the local law officials to enforce his new regime.

The film has moments of bloody violence, including a scene reminiscent of the groundbreaking shootout that occurred midway through Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and pushed the limits of acceptability. But Lawless also has moments of sublime beauty, especially in the musical score, which is filled with folk music of the Virginia hills. Tom Hardy continues to stretch his acting muscles with another knockout performance as Forrest. Hardy first caught my attention in Inception (2010), then as the conflicted Ricki Tarr in last year’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. He even stood out as the lovestruck political assassin in the lightweight This Means War. I can’t wait to see what he does with the title role in the upcoming Mad Max: Fury Road.

My favorite part of this film occurs during the epilogue. We all know that Prohibition finally ended, so I’m not giving away too much to let you know that life changes in Virginia when the law is repealed. Mason jars filled with colorless “white lightning” fade into Mason jars filled with colorful fruits and vegetables. It is reported that one character finds work in a cotton mill, while another turns the family property into a farm — a tobacco farm, ironically. “Choose your poison” indeed. Yes, they could have engaged in legal employment all along, but let’s face it: labor follows the profits. Who is going to work in a factory or a fast-food joint for minimum wage when black market profits are so much more lucrative? Governments can ban access to certain products and activities, but they can’t ban the demand for those products and activities. And when supply is artificially limited through government intrusion, prices and profits go up. It’s simple arithmetic.

Lawless is a timely reminder of the unintended consequences that inevitably arise when governments try to mandate social behavior. Do-gooders in the early 20th century deemed drunkenness socially unacceptable, and outlawed the sale of booze. Crime syndicates, corrupt police, and shooting sprees were the unintended results. Missing the point, do-gooders followed in the footsteps of Prohibition with the War on Drugs, and untold misery has resulted: violent drug cartels, corrupt police, countless men and women languishing in prisons, and more shooting sprees. This week, Mayor Bloomberg brought the war against individual choice to new lows when he banned the sale of large sodas in New York City. Large sodas! Doesn’t he have more important things to worry about in the face of burgeoning welfare rolls, massive unemployment, and the skyrocketing price of public transportation? What new market distortions and legal corruption will result from this ridiculous ban on large soft drinks?

As a film, Lawless may not prove to be a timeless classic. But its themes are certainly timeless and, unfortunately, timely.


Editor's Note: Review of "Lawless," directed by John Hillcoat. The Weinstein Company, 2012, 115 minutes.



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Bernanke’s Thanks

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Among the myriad other disputes between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is a deep disagreement about Fed head Ben Bernanke. Obama loves Helicopter Ben, who is as prodigiously profligate monetarily as Obama is fiscally. Romney has already said publicly that (if elected) he would look to someone else when Bernanke’s term expires.

I have no doubt that’s a big reason why Bernanke announced a massive and open-ended new “QE3.” The Fed will pump $40 billion into the economy (buying mortgage-backed securities) every month until jobs are finally created. Given that the past massive injections of fed cash into the economy — you know, QE1 and QE2 — have not exactly created an employment explosion, the Fed may be buying those securities forever.

Short-term, the Fed’s announcement has resulted in a boost to the stock market. When you keep interest rates near zero, you basically drive capital into stocks. Raising the stock market higher is Bernanke’s gift to Obama, a big, wet, sloppy monetary kiss he hopes will get Obama reelected (and guarantee himself another term as well).

The bad thing, for everyone else, is that the value of the dollar will plummet downward. Both gold and oil prices therefore went up on the news.

The ratings agency Egan-Jones responded by dropping America’s credit rating from “AA” to “AA-“. In April, the agency had cut the rating from “AA+” to “AA.” In both downgrades, the agency cited concern about the rapidly growing deficit and declining dollar.

Egan-Jones VP Bill Hassiepen has said that the Fed’s “massive monetization” of debt is causing “sluggish to stagnant economic growth.” Hassiepen expects a rapid increase in the prices of energy and food, but, he wryly noted, “Unfortunately, we have a Federal Reserve that simply does not recognize the inflationary impact of food and energy prices any longer.”

No, what the Fed recognizes is that if Obama isn’t reelected, heads will roll, starting at the top. It will spend as much of our money as it feels it needs to do the job.




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Talking to an Empty Chair

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I keep hearing some people say that Clint Eastwood’s hilarious skit at the National Republican Convention was in poor taste. I am reminded of Marshall McLuhan’s famous quip that "good taste is the last refuge of the witless."

Indeed, I found it comical watching media insiders, even conservative ones, agonizing over Clint Eastwood's "disrespect" to President Obama as he mimed him telling Mitt Romney to perform an anatomically impossible act.

This is disrespect? To the president who by proxy or surrogate has accused Mitt Romney of schoolyard bullying, murder, lying, felony, dog-whistle racism, and income tax evasion, and who ran a video that showed Paul Ryan pitching granny into a ravine? When did we get so finicky and reverential about the president, particularly this president, who was tutored in the political graces in the corrupt down-and-dirty precincts of Chicago?

The insider campaign wonks who are expert in the art of manipulation claimed that Clint interrupted the touching emotional sweep of the painstakingly choreographed narrative leading up to Mitt Romney's acceptance speech. Mika Brzezinsky, co-anchor of "Morning Joe," said that Clint's shtick was "absolutely disgusting." And even Ann Romney claimed she "didn't know it was coming."

Such sensitive souls!

Governor Scott Walker said that Eastwood's speech made him “cringe,” and Roger Ebert added that he found Eastwood’s performance “sad.” But as the cameras scanned the convention floor I didn’t see anyone cringing or sad. What I saw was the uproarious laughter of an audience previously about to die from an assault of cloying sentimentality. The majority rose to their feet in cheering approbation, and many were laughing so hard they seemed on the verge of crying, if not rolling in the aisles. I have a hunch that many of these embarrassed and shocked TV newsmen were secretly laughing up their collective sleeves as well, and will wake up in the middle of the night and burst out with geysers of uncontrollable laughter.

There was a subtext to Eastwood’s funny, roguish skit: it covered some pretty deplorable behavior of President Obama and his dysfunctional administration; it was, in fact, a serious bill of indictment. But what Clint Eastwood really brought to the proceeding was some much-needed irreverence in a too carefully scripted presentation. It's called comic relief.




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The Non-Political Side of Life

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At times like this, we all need to be reminded that there is a world outside of politics — a world of wonders that has nothing to do with Mitt Romney or Barack Obama. I was recently reminded of that when I spent a few days on Isle Royale.

If you’re like all of my friends but one, you have never heard of Isle Royale. So think of Lake Superior, the way it looks on the map. It looks like a wolf’s head, pointing west. The eye of the wolf is Isle Royale. It’s 50 miles long and 10 miles wide, and as Grace Lee Nute wrote in her book about the greatest of all lakes, “It is not really an island at all, but a miniature continent, surrounded by its own islands.” Isle Royale is part of Michigan, the land of shibboleths, so its name is naturally pronounced differently from what you would expect. It isn’t “roy-ALL”; it’s “ROY-ull.” (In Michigan, Charlotte is “shar-LOT,” Lake Orion is “Lake OH-ree-on,” Mackinac is “MACK-in-aw,” and Sault Ste. Marie is “the Soo.”)

Nobody lives all year long on Isle Royale; it’s a national park with a lodge and places to camp and a lot of not-very-well-frequented trails into forest, steep, and swamp. There are moose, and I saw their tracks. There are fox, and I saw their spoors. There is a tribe of wolves, and I didn’t see any part of them. The Lake is perfectly clear, and at dawn the planet Venus shines not like a star but like a silver door left open in the sky.

Very little has ever happened on Isle Royale. Starting 5,000 years ago, Indians mined copper there, and it’s a big thrill to see the little pits where they did that. The stuff traded all over North America, and perhaps beyond. But they didn’t live there, either. In the 19th century white people tried large-scale mining, and failed; the ores weren’t good enough. Independent souls established outposts where they fished and sold their catch to ships that called at the island. The biggest excitement was the occasional ship that managed to wreck itself, running into Isle Royale. In the 1930s, do-gooders decided to protect the island from the nondevelopment that was taking place, and the national park was established.

Nobody I encountered, even the loudmouths in the bar and grill, showed the slightest interest in politics.

Why am I telling you all this? Because there’s no television on the island; there’s no cell phone service; and there’s only one hot spot for the internet — which I saw nobody using except me. I didn’t even know it existed until my last day on the island. And nobody I encountered, even the loudmouths in the bar and grill, showed the slightest interest in politics, or curiosity about what was happening in the desperate electoral war being waged in The Battleground States.

This attitude continued in evidence when I took the boat back to Houghton, Michigan (80 miles away). Nobody there — even, again, the loudmouths, and they’ve got a few of them in Houghton, too — had anything to say about politics. In Houghton’s twin city, Hancock, I saw a huge Ron Paul sign hanging from someone’s porch, but that was it. This indifference to civic virtue didn’t seem to have any harmful effect on people’s moral stature. During the long boat ride, I noticed that everyone, ultimately including me, left all valuable articles — computers, purses, cameras, small but expensive gear — just lying around on the seats: no crime was anticipated. In Hancock, I attended one of the local churches, which like everything else in Upper Michigan is seriously down on its luck but in which the tiny congregation frankly and cheerfully discussed its history, prospects, and current business with the chance visitor from Southern California. After a long conversation over coffee in the basement social hall, the last person left (I had exhausted all the others) asked whether I’d had a chance to study the century-old carvings around the altar, upstairs. “No,” I said. “Do you have a couple of minutes to show me?” “Oh,” she replied, gripping her walker and swiveling herself up from the table, “my ride is here, and I have to go. Just look around, and close the door behind you when you go.” No problem; I probably wouldn’t hurt anything. So for the next two hours I had the opportunity to enjoy some of the most remarkable works of art I’ve ever seen. No advertising words had been used. Nobody talked about “Houghton’s iconic church” or claimed that its décor was “legendary,” “famous,” or (heaven forfend) “infamous.” It was just there, if you wanted to see it. Take a look.

Wonders of the nonpolitical world.

Unfortunately, however, I need to be fair. I am not one of those libertarians who think that all would be well if the state would just wither. The world of nonpolitics has its heavens, but it also has its hells. Liberty’s observant managing editor, Drew Ferguson, located two of them the other day. They are visions from which even Dante Alighieri would turn in horror.

Of course I’m exaggerating, at least about the first one. But it does involve dying. It’s the headline that TV station WBTV (wherever that is) gave to one of its stories: “MAN KILLED TO DEATH.” It’s possible, barely possible, that whoever wrote that headline had in mind the words of the Revelation of St. John the Divine (2:23), in which Jesus says of an ideological enemy, “I will kill her children with death.” But probably not.

Drew’s other find was much worse, and much more elaborate.

Georgia Tech, I am sorry to report, has been going through a spiritual crisis. It has felt the need to “reenergize its look, while staying connected with its past.” It is, therefore, doing what other collective souls in crisis have done. It is “showcasing” new football uniforms.

To me (but what do I know?) these new football suits look exactly like all the others. But the ramblin’ wrecks from Georgia Tech know better. Among the “Jersey Highlights” are the following (and I quote):

• New custom Georgia Tech sublimation pattern on the neck front, sleeves and back insert
• New custom stretch twill numbers that reduce jersey weight and provide a leaner fit as compared to standard fabric numbers
• New custom sublimation number pattern and font featuring "GT navy" honeycomb
• New "GT gold" banded edge offsets sublimation pattern for sharper contrast at stitch borders
• Extreme Compression tight fit fabric minimizes grab capabilities by opponents
• Lower mesh insert on front and back for ultimate breathability

“I’m sold!” was Drew’s remark.

But what, you may ask, is a “sublimation pattern”?

I would remind you that every art has its lingo, and that technical words, which look like nonsense to the uninitiated, must often be used by professionals. “Sublimation pattern” is a perfect example. I haven’t the faintest idea what that could mean. If you know, please contact Liberty. I do know, however, because the manufacturers have divulged this information, that the outfit as a whole “catalyze[s] a spirit of enthusiasm for the season ahead.”

Of course, this stuff is benign, compared to political oratory.

Not quite so benign, but similar in effect to the football-uniform puffery, is the allegedly technical language of social scientists. A grad student at Princeton, who wishes to remain anonymous, obliged this column by reporting the following sample, taken from an academic disquisition of some kind. The mighty problem that engages its author is the old issue of whether people can be attracted to each other, despite their differences. He concludes that they are attracted, until they aren’t. In other words, you may think I’m fun because I’m different, but you’ll tell me to get lost if my difference gets too large. Here’s the great social scientist’s way of putting it:

Consider “Like attracts like” versus “Opposites attract each other.” . . . [I]f attractiveness is an inversely U-shaped function of novelty or similarity, each of the two opposing mechanisms might simply describe different parts of the curve. . . . [U]ltimately, some optimal level is reached, whereafter increases in the independent variable are held to give rise to reductions in liking.

 

Ya gotta love it.

I’m told that the paper from which this sample is drawn gets handed out frequently in classes at famous colleges like Princeton, and that students think it’s hilariously funny. I hope that’s why the professors hand it out. Where would we be if they actually thought it meant something?

Among the entirely nongovernmental institutions I cherish is the peculiarly American phenomenon of the fortune cookie. (No, they don’t come from China; they are as American as you and I, whoever we are.) But have you noticed that their quality has been declining? This decline is, in fact, disastrous; it represents a total misunderstanding of the genre.

A fortune cookie is supposed to give you a fortune. Picture yourself going to a fortuneteller. She (almost all of them are she’s) looks into your hand and says, “I foresee there will be problems in your life from the young ambitious one, and also from the lady with gray eyes.” She blathers on like that for a few minutes, then indicates that this is the point where you’re supposed to leave, or give her another 20 bucks and get your other palm read too. So you give her the other 20, and she starts in about how the man from southern parts will bless you with his business, but there will be much danger from accidents with cars.

No, this isn’t specific enough to ruin your day, but at least you feel that she’s given you some of your money’s worth.

Apparently, however, the fortune cookie people figure that by the time their product arrives at your table, you’ve already eaten the meal and have to pay the check, so why should they bother to come up with a fortune? So they give you something else.

This is what passed for a “fortune” on one of my recent visits to Chinese cuisine:

Your future looks bright.

What? That’s a fortune? No, it’s not.

My friend Mehmet, who was with me on that expedition and therefore had to put up with my rant, made this suggestion: “Maybe it should say, ‘Your October 12 looks bright.’” Well, yes. That would be an improvement.

On another recent occasion, Mehmet and I were both handed that most pathetic of all substitutes for a fortune — good advice.

Let’s think for a moment. Suppose there’s something wrong with you. You keep having these blinding headaches. So you go to a doctor. Or maybe you go to a “spiritual counselor” of some kind. No difference. You want to know what’s going on, and what’slikely to result. In short, you want your fortune told. And suppose the person whom you’re consulting looks you in the eye and says, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

“Huh?” you ask.

“A stitch in time saves nine,” he continues. “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.”

You would, I am sure, be tempted to commit assault and battery, not to mention stiffing the jerk when he presented the bill.

So you can imagine my feelings when, on that other recent occasion, I looked at my fortune and saw:

A good beginning is only half done.

What the . . . ? What kind of human being would write crap like that, and put it in an innocent lump of dough?

As I looked at the squirrely little slip of paper, my whole life flashed before my eyes. I vividly remembered the summer when my parents, who were very averse to travel, actually took me on a trip to New York City. In the restaurants along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which were then very nice, and fascinating to little kids from Michigan, there were scales into which you could insert a quarter and receive, along with your weight, a long, narrow, tightly rolled piece of paper that contained your fortune, reckoned according to your astrological sign. The thing was vastly specific; it must have had 2000 words in it, with all sorts of numbers and figures and days of the week and months of the year and forecasts about what would happen to you on every day of the next month. It was wonderful. I cherished it, and hid it in my hands in the back seat of the car, because if my parents saw it they would not only scoff but probably take it away from me, as a warning against superstition. I have no faith in divination whatsoever, but I wish I had that fascinating object now. It was a work of art.

I do know, however, because the manufacturers have divulged this information, that the outfit as a whole “catalyzes a spirit of enthusiasm for the season ahead.”

Soon after that, The Old Farmer’s Almanac swam into my childish field of vision. In those days, it wasn’t a bland modern-liberal throwaway, as it is now. It not only presented wonderful astronomical data, full of weird symbols and funny expressions (“ecliptic,” “the moon rides low”); it had Features that were real Features, by God. My first acquaintance with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner came from its reprinting in the Old Farmer’s Almanac, which also ran the Doré illustrations — mysterious, tantalizing, unforgettable. In those times, the OFA still asserted that it had a secret algorithm for predicting the weather, and it gave out its meteorological forecasts in rhymed poetry. Oh my! What a wonderful thing.

But here, sitting on the table, amid the ruins of the cookie I destroyed to free the verbal genie from its bottle, is a “fortune” that says:

A good beginning is only half done.

That doesn’t even make sense. What would it mean to “do” a “beginning”? And how would a beginning be “good” if there was only “half” of it?

As always, Mehmet came out with a cogent comment. “It’s like the Donner Party,” he said. “This isn’t so bad; it’s only begun.” At first, the people in the Donner Party may have thought that a couple more inches of snow wouldn’t really mean very much . . .

Come to think of it, that comment — “it’s like the Donner Party” — is a pretty good summary of political discourse. It tempts me to drift back to what might, with too much generosity, be called the rhetoric of the present campaign. So I’ll quit while I’m ahead — or, in fortune cookie language, leave while my good beginning is still half done.

rsquo;t seem to have any harmful effect on people




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Hoosiers Show the Way

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A nice piece recently published in the venerable Economist reports some good news out of the state of Indiana. The Hoosier state, under the enlightened leadership of Governor Mitch Daniels, has enacted a series of school reforms — reforms that are paying off handsomely for the children of the state.

The reforms crafted by Daniels and his superintendent of schools are interesting, among other reasons, because they are so wide-ranging. They include:

  • creating a voucher program for poor students;
  • encouraging and empowering more charter schools;
  • enhancing the autonomy of school principals to fire the obvious deadwood and respond to parents’ legitimate pressures;
  • requiring that teacher evaluations incorporate data on actual student performance.

Naturally, the rentseeking teachers unions hotly oppose these reforms (as they oppose almost all reforms, of any kind). Their position is: how dare these miserable, ungrateful, unwashed parents of kids in failing public schools insist on their right to send their kids elsewhere — or gain the right to see pertinent facts about the performance of the public schools?

The piteous cry is, “What is this country coming to?”

Of course, the deepest of the Indiana reforms is the establishment of a voucher program — which may well become the biggest in the country. Despite the unions’ vicious (and also morally vile) jihad against school reform in general and school choice in particular, there are now 32 voucher programs spread over 16 states. These programs educate only a small portion (210,000 students in total) of all America’s K-12 students, but they represent a growing threat to the dysfunctional status quo.

The anti-voucher forces trot out the usual lies: vouchers drain resources from public schools; they violate the separation of church and state. The replies are obvious. For every student who leaves a public school to attend a private one, yes, the district loses money, but it also saves the money it would have spent on that selfsame student. Apparently, unionized teachers can’t do simple arithmetic. Big surprise.

Further, the Supreme Court has already ruled that vouchers given directly to parents (who can decide to use them at religious, or atheist, private schools) do not violate the separation of church and state — no more than Pell Grants and the GI Bill of Rights, the benefits of which have always been usable at religious colleges. Apparently, unionized teachers don’t know history, either.

In fact, the voucher amount is usually much smaller, per student, than what is spent by public school districts. The Economist draws the obvious conclusion: vouchers save taxpayers’ money.

But I regard that as the least important advantage of vouchers. The most important, the crucial, advantage is that voucher programs (and other forms of school choice) rescue kids from stultified lives of needless underachievement.




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Another Surprise Endorsement

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In a recent Reflection, I noted that Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), son of libertarian Ron Paul (R-TX), caused something of a stir among “movement libertarians” (a phrase rather ironic — sort of like “organized cats” or “conformist rebels”) when he endorsed Mitt Romney, aka the Rich White Mormon.

Even more fascinating is the recent announcement by Wayne Allyn Root that he is resigning from the Libertarian Party’s National Committee to switch to Romney and Ryan &‐ albeit with some understandable reservations: “I don’t deny that Romney and Ryan aren’t libertarians, but Romney is a pro-business capitalist and Obama is a Marxist-socialist.”

He added, “The economy has been trashed. This is about my kids’ future, it’s about my businesses. There is no hope for America if Obama is re-elected.”

Root was the Libertarian Party’s VP nominee in 2008, running with Bob Barr. (Barr has signaled that he, too, will support Romney.)

The move has aroused a lot of criticism. One blogger called Root a turncoat who sold out after a rich Mormon helped him pay off campaign debts. Another said that Root is just angling to take a run at replacing Harry Reid (D-NV, and ironically yet another Rich White Mormon). Root seems to confirm this when he says that he “plan[s] to join Tea Party U.S. Senators like Rand Paul, Jim DeMint, Marco Rubio and Mike Lee in the near future, representing the great state of Nevada.”

What’s the old (and probably apocryphal) Chinese curse? “May you live in interesting times.”




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Ronald Hamowy, R.I.P.

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Ronald Hamowy, who honored Liberty by becoming one of its Contributing Editors, died at 11:30 a.m. on September 8, in a hospital in Baltimore. The final cause of death was sepsis. Ronald had suffered for years from heart and kidney problems, and he had been hospitalized for several months.

He was one of the libertarian movement’s most important and vital scholars. An historian of the 18th century, he was known for his impeccable standards of research and writing. To discerning researchers of the Enlightenment — left, right, or center — his word was law. If there was a scholarly myth or illusion, he was the one who was trusted to puncture it. He was the person who meticulously set things straight. Many times, when I have mentioned his name in an academic conversation, the reply has been, “Ronald Hamowy! You know him?!

For libertarians, Ronald will always be recognized as a bright star of the post-World War II generation — but unlike many other grand old men of this or that era, he never became a Grand Old Man. He retained to the end his youthful joy and sense of first discovery. To him, any new fact — or any old movie, viewed on his constant friend, Turner Classics — was a pleasure to be greeted as if it were the first one in the universe. Even when ensconced as chairman of an august intellectual conference, Ronald let his eyes sparkle and his mouth crinkle with laughter, and with some little Count Basie-like verbal gesture he set the whole house laughing with his infectious wit.

Ronald was born in 1937, in Shanghai, China, the scion of a cosmopolitan Jewish family. His father was born in Syria; his beautiful and beloved mother in Egypt. He grew up in New York, where he supported himself with a number of jobs (one of them was running the streets, selling pop records). During his graduate work at the University of Chicago, he co-edited (with Ralph Raico) the New Individualist Review, a lively, beautifully produced libertarian intellectual journal. If you read it today, you will be sure to enjoy every word of it. Liberty — this journal — was consciously modeled on the American Mercury and the New Individualist Review.

The most important thing was Ronald’s ability to distinguish pseudo-individualism from the real thing. Nothing could be too real for him.

Ronald’s advisor at Chicago was Friedrich Hayek, but Hayek contributed little to Ronald’s studies. Hayek was above it all. Ronald was on his own, as students of Great Academics always are. His first dissertation topic required him to do research at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, where he found the research conditions impossible. Migrating to Oxford, which had resources adequate to another topic in which he was interested, he needed the sponsorship of some Oxford academic, to get permission to exploit the library. He approached Sir Isaiah Berlin, who rebuffed him. Berlin was “taking no more students.”

Ronald, who was only half as tall as other people, looked up at the great Sir Isaiah. “Listen,” he said. “I’m very smart. I’m very hard-working. And I’m funny.” All that was true. Sir Isaiah looked down at the small student in front of him, laughed, and said, “All right.”

Ronald was hard to resist. And he knew it. But he was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known. If Ronald couldn’t make you laugh, you really weren’t worth the effort. And his wit was always . . . intellectually understood. No vulgarity. No easy laughs. Nothing but fun. But not coy, either.

One person who resisted Ronald was Ayn Rand. As one of the young libertarians (Ronald’s friend Murray Rothbard was another) who were invited to her apartment for intellectual discussions, he was cast into oblivion after a difference of opinion about . . . Rachmaninoff. Guests were asked to say who their favorite composers were, and when Rand’s turn came, she said “Rachmaninoff,” with specific reference to his second piano concerto. “Why?” Ronald asked. “Because he was the most rational,” Rand responded. At which Ronald laughed, thinking it must be a joke. He knew that the composer had dedicated that concerto to his psychiatrist — and anyway, rationality had nothing to do with its greatness. But Ronald’s laughter resulted in exile, and the loss of friends who were dear to him.

Ronald was a professor in the Department of History at the University of Alberta from 1969 until his retirement in 1998, at which time he immediately moved back to the United States. He detested conformist cultures, and he regarded both his department and, it is fair to say, Canada itself as epitomes of conformism. I once asked him what was wrong with Canada, and he said, “I’ll tell you. If you walk into a store in Canada, and you find a customer having a dispute with a sales clerk, 90% of the other customers will immediately side with the clerk. That person is regarded as an official, and therefore the one to obey.” He attributed this defect of Canadian culture in large part to the migration to Canada of people opposed to the American Revolution. They set the tone.

Ronald himself was always a revolutionary. He was outraged by any offense to individualism, so much so that he engaged in a ferocious online conflict with other gay libertarians who regarded the movie Braveheart as a tribute to the heroic individual. Ronald pointed out that the movie was historically ridiculous and anti-homosexual to boot. He argued, convincingly, that works of art really do need to be judged by their fidelity to historical truth, whenever they recommend themselves as historically true. But the most important thing was Ronald’s ability to distinguish pseudo-individualism from the real thing. Nothing could be too real for him. One day, when he and I were discussing various versions of libertarian thought, I asked him where he stood, and he replied (knowing I would not sympathize entirely), “Basically, I agree with Murray” — meaning with Murray Rothbard’s very radical libertarianism.

I believe that the antiwar strain of libertarian thought was important for Ronald. I remember accompanying him, when he visited San Diego, to the Adams Avenue (used) Bookstore (where else would you entertain Ronald Hamowy?). While browsing the stacks, I heard a voice muttering curses, somewhere else in the establishment. I found Ronald in a side room, seated amid stacks of books he was examining, and holding a copy of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August in his hand. Tuchman justified British intervention in World War I. “Damned British crap,” Ronald exclaimed, putting the book down as if he were giving long-overdue punishment to a whole school of thought. Which he was.

His life demonstrated that we libertarians are right: the individual, complex and whole, is the mysterious and unending source of all that is vital in our world.

Ronald’s works include The Scottish Enlightenment and the Theory of Spontaneous Order (University of Southern Illinois Press, 1987), Canadian Medicine: A Study in Restricted Entry (Fraser Institute, 1984), Dealing with Drugs: Consequences of Government Control (edited, Lexington Books, 1987), Government and Public Health in America (Edward Elgar, 2007), The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism (edited, Sage Publications, 2008), and many articles, including one that was especially valuable for Liberty, on the intellectual argument about the American Revolution (Liberty, July 2008, pp. 37-42).

After his retirement, Ronald and his companion Clement Ho moved into a pretty, three-story house in the Washington suburb of Rockville, MD. There Ronald completed his magisterial edition of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty (University of Chicago Press, 2011), which straightens out a great deal that Hayek left, shall we say, unstraightened. Ronald was already in poor health, requiring the use of a cane and, eventually, one of those personal elevators that take you from the first floor of your house to another floor. He had countless near-death experiences — frequently being rushed to the hospital, with only a half hour available to save his life. Yet he bravely undertook a long journey to Greece and Italy, which he enjoyed, and he lived with equivalent bravery from day to day. To see Ronald sitting at his desk, surrounded with computer wires, like a snake-charmer among his clients, watching his computer with one eye and Cary Grant (Turner Classics, again) with the other, was to imagine a cultural world that was, for once, under intelligent control.

Ronald was a combination of supposed opposites. He was a fiery combatant, yet a generous and lenient friend. He was sensitive and nostalgic, often to the point of tears, yet an unflinching judge of the written word. He struggled, year after year, against the uncountable illnesses that racked his body; yet he was always as valiant as a soldier undertaking his first combat mission. But there was no contradiction. His life demonstrated that we libertarians are right: the individual, complex and whole, is the mysterious and unending source of all that is vital in our world.

Ronald is survived by his friend Clement Ho, who was with him every step of the way. Anyone wishing to contact him is invited to do so, at cho@american.edu.




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Stop the Convention

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No, I’ve had it; and I think the nation has had it too. This business of national political conventions has got to stop.

As my colleague Drew Ferguson recently demonstrated, the Libertarian Party convention is still of human interest. It is, after all, a place where ideas matter, and personalities too — the more colorful, the better. But as for the Republicans and the Democrats . . . sorry, we’ve reached the end.

As a reporter for this journal, I attended what I believe to have been the last real nominating convention of a major party, the Republican National Convention of 1996 (Liberty, November 1996, pp. 18–25). The event was almost entirely staged in advance, and the huckster room — the place where people sell pictures and trinkets and “literature” and elephants (or donkeys) — was by far the most interesting thing about it. But there was a moment when Pat Buchanan, the idol of the right-wingers, appeared unauthorized on the convention floor, and almost took the assembly away with him. From the point of view of political interest, that almost made the convention legitimate.

But nothing like that could have been expected of the Romney and Obama séances. In place of real drama, or real decision-making, what we witnessed — and very, very few Americans could be cajoled into witnessing it — was two dopey, incompetent infomercials, filled with obvious lies and the kind of product demonstrations that would make any seller of male restoration medications blush.

The trappings of old-fashioned, drama-filled conventions were retained — the platform report, the roll call, the nominating speeches — all useless, all precrafted by nameless political hacks, or discredited former office-holders (Bill Clinton, of all people, masquerading as the sage elder statesman). And all a gigantic bore.

I swear to God, after Obama’s speech at his convention, the folks on CNN actually said, “Let’s get some reaction from the delegates on the floor.” As if the nation needed to hear the “reactions” of the loser religious fanatics who populate these mobs, people regarded with sovereign contempt by the leaders of their own parties.

“Excuse me, Ms. Four Hundred Pounder, esteemed delegate from East Overshoe, Ohio, ‘employed’ as a ‘union representative’ in a public ‘school,’ and currently decorated from toe to top with goofy political buttons, can you tell us what you thought of the president’s speech?”

What’s the probability that Ms. Pounder will say, “I thought that guy was the biggest tool that ever afflicted our country”?

A synonym for “boring” is “predictable.” Now, what can be more predictable than 40 hours of astute political commentary by Democratic office-holders and other parasites about the virtues of the preordained Democratic nominee? (Substitute “Republican” in the appropriate places, and you’ll get the same effect.) Answer: speeches by the spouses of the nominees, extolling (what a surprise) their hubbies’ qualifications to be president.

In ages past, the very idea of such a speech would have been regarded as the kiss of death for any political candidate. A man is on trial for stealing from the collection plate (which is what all politicians do), and his best witness turns out to be . . . his wife? Good God! And the speeches of Mrs. Romney and Mrs. Obama, as bad as they were, were regarded by some professional political commentators as the best ones at the conventions.

There are so many awful moments to remember . . . I’ll single out just one: President Obama, apparently having nothing better to do, entering the convention hall to listen to himself being extolled by former President Clinton — who is, according to David Gergen, “the most effective speaker in America.“ Clinton, by the way, is universally known to be Obama’s bitter enemy, because of Clinton’s desire to have his (own) wife elected, so the whole affair was an exercise in what everyone knew to be in-yo-face hypocrisy. What a picture! — rivaled only by that of Mr. Obama, rushing out to hug Mr. Clinton at the end of the latter’s address.

What we witnessed was two dopey, incompetent infomercials, filled with obvious lies and the kind of product demonstrations that would make any seller of male restoration medications blush

But listen: this business of relatives is completely out of hand. First there was the Kennedy family (creeps). Then the Bush family (dolts). Now the Clinton family (real, dedicated weirdos). But to return . . . This notion of a person listening to his own nomination speech, then going onstage to hug the speaker, would have filled any previous candidate with horror. It just wasn’t done. By anybody. It wasn’t even thought of. Why? Because there was (often) a reality, and (sometimes) a decorous pretense, that real business was being conducted at a national convention, that real people were deciding whether to nominate this real person or that real person for a real and important office, and that before the nomination was made, it behooved that person to show respect, and stay away.

For whatever reason, Barack Obama couldn’t stand to do that. He had to take the stage in his own infomercial. Following which there was a roll-call “vote” of the “delegates.” What do you suppose would have happened if a group of those common people, so much extolled throughout the two parties’ conventions, had arisen to cast a vote for somebody besides the preordained candidate? There would have been a lynching, at the least. Yet these are supposed to be deliberative assemblies.

I say, away with them all. They are nothing but attempts at cheap publicity, and like all such attempts, they get cheaper and cheaper. From now on, hold your silly primaries, cast your votes in your corrupt state party committees, tabulate the results by computer, and nominate your person. Stop the masquerade. It isn’t funny anymore.




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The Obama Movie

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2016: Obama's America has been filling theaters and surpassing box office expectations across the country — no mean feat for a documentary. The film is based on the book The Roots of Obama's Rage by Dinesh D’Souza, an Indian immigrant and popular conservative spokesperson who also co-wrote, co-directed, narrated, and executive-produced the film. It provides a well-reasoned, well-researched exploration of the philosophical underpinnings that motivate Barack Obama.

D'Souza begins with a simple premise, which is emblazoned across his posters and promotional material: "Love him. Hate him. You don't know him." He then takes viewers on an investigative journey across four continents to discover what makes Obama tick, concluding that the ticking we hear could very well be a time bomb set to explode the minute he is reelected. As Obama told Premier Medvedev in an infamous open-mic incident, "This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility." Well, flexibility to do what? That is the question D'Souza tries to answer. What is Obama's ultimate goal for America?

According to D'Souza, Obama is motivated first and foremost by intense anticolonialism inherited from his parents, grandparents, and academic mentors. D'Souza understands this anticolonialism. He grew up with it in India, where his grandfather's mistrust of British colonialists included mistrust of whites in general. He could not understand why young Dinesh wanted to go to college in America, where there were "so many whites."

In some respects this film is the biography of an intellectual immigrant, written by an actual immigrant. D'Souza begins the film by telling his own story: raised in relative poverty in Mumbai, he came to the United States as a teenager to attend Dartmouth College. When he was barely 20 he was offered a job in the Reagan White House, not unlike the young Obama being elected to the Senate. Both Obama and D’Souza are passionate speakers. Both ended up as presidents — Obama as the president of the United States, D'Souza as the president of The King's College in Manhattan. D'Souza and Obama were born in the same year, graduated from Ivy League colleges in the same year, and married in the same year. Both spent their childhoods in third-world Asian countries. Yet ideologically they are polar opposites.

This background is important because it shows that D'Souza is specially, perhaps uniquely qualified to understand Obama's history. It also demonstrates that one is not controlled by one's environment; we all have choices. Obama himself said, "My destiny wasn’t given to me; it was constructed by me."

Obama, of course, was born and schooled in Hawaii, the 50th state in the union. (D'Souza dismisses the birther argument without even addressing it, noting simply that Obama's birth was reported in two local newspapers.) But Obama’s Hawaii is an island state, far from the mainland, where anticolonialist sentiment is strong among ideologists, such as the people who brought him up. He has the background of an immigrant, having lived in Jakarta as a child and among Hawaiian anticolonialists as a teenager. He arrived on the mainland at the same age as D’Souza, with the mindset of a non-American, and perhaps something more.

D'Souza takes viewers on an investigative journey across four continents to discover what makes Obama tick, concluding that the ticking we hear could very well be a time bomb set to explode the minute he is reelected.

Obama spent his childhood in Jakarta, not America, and was nurtured by a mother who was decidedly anti-American. It was almost laughable to hear Kathleen Sebelius claim Obama as a Kansan during her speech at the Democratic National Convention. His mother may have been born there, but she was certainly not in Kansas anymore when Barry was being brought up. Obama titled his biography Dreams from My Father, but it was his mother who taught him those dreams; Obama met his father only once, when he was 10 years old. Most people don’t realize that.

Of course, in many ways an absent father is more powerful than a father who comes home from work every day. The absent father is never seen making a mistake, losing his temper, drinking too much, or disciplining his child. He can be whatever the child dreams him to be. D’Souza asks, “What is Obama’s dream? Is it the American Dream? Martin Luther King’s Dream? Or another dream?" To answer that question, he focuses on the preposition in the title of Obama's book: dreams from, not of, the father. Whether consciously or unconsciously, Obama seems to have adopted the dreams and aspirations that were his father’s. These include an African anticolonialism that led to a rabid anticapitalist, anti-American mentality. Although, by his own admission, he hides it well behind a carefully crafted, winning smile, Obama embraces his father’s third-world collectivism, a collectivism he learned at his mother's knee.

In addition, Obama had a series of philosophical fathers. In his education years he met a stream of radical mentors. These included Frank Marshall Davis in Hawaii, Edward Said at Columbia, Roberto Unger at Harvard, and Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright in Chicago — all self-proclaimed radical leftists. Unger recently complained that Obama has not been progressive enough! It was Obama’s campaign strategy to distance himself from these mentors (although the distance from Wright had to be forced on him by publicity). Yet their influence, D’Souza suggests, is already deeply embedded in his philosophy. And Obama’s obscured friends and influences are likely to come out of obscurity during a second term, when he no longer has to worry about reelection.

One of Obama's goals is to "level the playing field" by disarming the United States and other Western nations. Yes, it would be great if all the countries in the world agreed to destroy their weapons. Weapons have a way of being used eventually. But America seems to be the only country that is actually following through with Obama's idea of reducing defense (!) missiles from 5,000 to 1,500 to an eventual goal of hundreds.

Meanwhile, right under our noses, Obama has been cagily stockpiling his own "weapon of mass destruction." This weapon is the burgeoning mountain of debt that has accrued during his presidency and about which he seems to care absolutely nothing at all. D'Souza suggests that the unprecedented increase in the national debt has been a deliberate tactic, designed to destroy America's position as a leader of the world. "We will collapse into bankruptcy, and our creditors will have the upper hand," he concludes, adding prophetically, "Nothing shapes the future like the debts of the past."

The tone of this film is neither shrill nor bombastic nor even particularly emotional. It doesn't make wild accusations or offer unfounded rumors. In fact, it uses Obama’s own words in his own voice to tell Obama’s own story. (To make money, Obama produced a self-narrated audio version of Dreams from My Father.) This gives the film an unexpected voice of authenticity, a voice that cannot be denied, even by those who love and admire Obama, because it is his voice. The film is all the more frightening and convincing because of its calm and reasoned approach.

It is, simply, one of the most powerful and important films of the year. It may not win any Oscars, but it may just win an election. Congratulations are due to Dinesh D'Souza for this courageous documentary — as well as my own thanks for letting us premier it at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival this July.


Editor's Note: Review of "2016: Obama's America," directed by Dinesh D'Souza and John Sullivan. Obama's America Foundation, 2012, 89 minutes.



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Civil Noncompliance

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As a piano technician I come across many unusual requests, but none so bizarre as one I received some time ago from a man whom I’ll call Mr. Green. Could I, he asked, strip the ivory from the keys of a Steinway grand piano?

I was appalled. Applying ivory to piano keys is a fine art. The ivory on each key is two separate pieces that have been color matched, cut, and glued together so carefully that there is no visible seam, then clamped exactly over a special wafer of cloth impregnated with white pigment that gives the translucent ivory a white, lustrous hue. To ask me to undo this fine craftsmanship was preposterous. It would be like asking me to slash the Mona Lisa or blow up Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. I asked Mr. Green why he wanted me to perform this sacrilege.

His answer was the law demanded it. After searching all over North America, Green had found precisely the right piano for his concert pianist wife. It was located in Canada’s province of British Columbia. As he made arrangements to have it shipped to his home in Connecticut, he learned that the piano would not be allowed into the United States because the ivory of its keys is prohibited by a law that bans the importation of ivory. Hence the need to remove the ivory from the keys.

“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “The piano was made in 1970, twenty years before the ban came into effect. Surely there is an exception for things made before the ban was adopted?”

“I can’t find out about that, it’s really crazy,” he sputtered. “I’ve called and called. I’m going out of my mind, I’m not getting any sleep. It’s a nightmare.”

Unable to get any straight or useful answer from U.S. Customs, he had retained a customs broker, who wasn’t able to find a way around the problem, either. The seller of the piano had, for his part, contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which supposedly administers the ban, and had received only a vague and equivocal response. If there was a way of applying for an exception, it was buried so deep in the bowels of bureaucracy as to be inaccessible to human beings. At his wit’s end, Green decided to have the ivory stripped off the keys, ship the piano to Connecticut, and then have the keys recovered with plastic.

The Death of Common Sense

The problem Mr. Green faced is familiar. The accumulated weight of regulation today is so great that we bump into its inane and counterproductive demands all the time. Author Phillip Howard focused on this problem in his 1995 book, The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America. “Modern law,” he says, “has not protected us from stupidity and caprice, but has made stupidity and caprice dominant features of our society.” His book surveys the mountain of regulations that “crushes our goals and deadens our spirits.”

To ask me to undo this fine craftsmanship was preposterous, like asking someone to slash the Mona Lisa or blow up Buddhist statues in Afghanistan.

Social scientists have also noticed the issue. Their research into the many ways that laws go awry has prompted them to formulate the “Law of Unintended Consequences.” This generalization, first popularized by sociologist Robert Merton in 1936, ranks along with death and taxes as one of the few certainties of social life. It holds that every government effort to improve life has unexpected and harmful side effects. In many cases, these harmful effects are so severe as to defeat the original purpose of the law.

The ban on ivory is a good illustration of this dysfunctional pattern. From a distance, the problem seemed simple. Poachers kill elephants for their tusks, thus reducing the numbers of elephants — and, in certain areas, possibly driving them to extinction. The theory was that a law against the importation of ivory would deprive poachers of their market, and the killing of elephants would stop.

Alas, the world is always more complicated than it seems to those who make laws. Now, poaching and overhunting of elephants still takes place, but thanks to scarcity the practice is more lucrative than ever. Before the ban, ivory was selling for $200 a kilo; now the black market price is over $2,000.

But this is only part of the problem. Some African countries have too many elephants. These beasts overgraze and destroy the habitat in wildlife preserves, threatening plant and animal species with extinction. In these cases, wildlife experts recommend culling elephants to reduce their numbers. In other places where elephant population is too high, these animals destroy crops of poor farmers. This problem is managed by cooperative arrangements that cull some elephants, and reimburse farmers for crop losses with money gained from selling tusks of the culled animals. A ban on ivory undercuts these arrangements and thus encourages farmers to kill them secretly.

Before the ban, ivory was selling for $200 a kilo; now the black market price is over $2,000.

Another point that the ban does not take into account is that ivory has positive, non-substitutable human uses. Piano and organ keys are a case in point. Plastic piano key tops do not give the same feel as ivory. When dry, they are too “sticky,” not allowing the fingertips to slide from note to note. When wet with perspiration, plastic key tops become too slippery. A total ban on ivory, then, means that musical performances at the highest level are compromised.

These are just a few of the complexities that the law against the importation of ivory overlooks. Distant publics and shallow-minded legislators suppose that such a law is like a meat axe, and that one swing will fix, simply and finally, the problem they have in mind. But in its actual operation, it is more like a grenade, doing damage in many different directions that no one could predict when it is first put into effect. That the ivory ban would require the sacrilege of stripping ivory from the keys of a Steinway grand piano illustrates the kind of unanticipated, harmful side effects that come with every law.

Democratic Dead End

How do we fix this problem of laws that make a mockery of common sense? One answer might be to use the democratic process. That’s what the civics books recommend: if you don’t like a law, then you write a letter to the editor, or to your congressman. This advice might have made sense in an age of small government and few laws, but it is painfully unrealistic today. The mass of regulations now in place represents the accumulation of many decades of lobbying, coalition-building, administrative interpretation, and judicial precedent. The idea that an individual could even be noticed in this quagmire, let alone clear it up, is fanciful.

Furthermore, the democratic process gave us these laws. Politicians promised them as the solutions to problems. Sure, they ignored the harmful side effects, but this is the way the system works. The modern politician’s goal is not to make things better. It is to display good intentions, to gather kudos from a shallow media and curry favor with single-minded pressure groups. Politics has become theatre, where the politician-actor struts upon the stage playing the hero, and the audience applauds his performance.

The modern politician’s goal is not to make things better. It is to display good intentions, and to curry favor with single-minded pressure groups.

Thus, within democratic politics, there is no way of stemming the tide of shortsighted laws. If you go to the legislators and point out that a certain law has backfired, they are not going to repeal it. Lawmakers passed the ban on ivory in order to look good. They are hardly going to agree to offend the environmental pressure groups by reversing themselves (Headline: “Senator Endorses Slaying of Elephants”). If the politicians do anything, they will pass additional laws to try to fix the problems they caused with the first law — giving rise, of course, to more unintended consequences.

In the Tradition of Thoreau, Gandhi, and King

Is there nothing that we can do to counteract foolish and destructive laws?

In 1849, Henry David Thoreau elaborated the principle of civil disobedience, the idea that it is right for an individual to disobey an unjust law. Though a familiar concept for abolitionists and others who objected to government power on religious grounds, Thoreau's work proved revolutionary in separating civil disobedience from specific religious traditions, allowing men to appeal not to any higher power, but to the reason of his fellow man. Following in Thoreau’s footsteps, Mohandas Gandhi developed civil disobedience into a method of political reform. With his mass protests in South Africa and India, Gandhi showed the world that law need not be treated as a god. When laws contradict our sense of morality and decency, it is right to disobey them. Later, Martin Luther King, another of Thoreau’s disciples, grounded the American civil rights movement on the same principle.

Civil disobedience points the way to a tactics of reform, but it will not itself address the problem of overregulation. Civil disobedience is a tactic of mass protest. It assumes a single, objectionable law so prominent that large numbers of people can be marshaled to demonstrate in the streets against it.

The problem we face with law in the modern state is that there are tens of thousands of silly regulations, and no single one merits a high-profile campaign. To take Mr. Green’s case, imagine the difficulties we would have in trying to attract crowds, and the media, to a “piano-importing protest” at a U.S. customs check point on the Canadian border. To resist and counter the regulatory regime, we need a small-scale, convenient strategy that can be applied in thousands, even millions, of instances. I call it “civil noncompliance.” Its aim is to counter a destructive law by finding a quiet way to evade it. This was what I used to counter the unjust effect of the law on ivory importation affecting Mr. Green.

To resist and counter the regulatory regime, we need a small-scale, convenient strategy that can be applied in thousands, even millions, of instances.

My sister and I drove to Canada for a round of golf. While she played, I visited the home of the seller, took the piano apart, removed the keys and put them in a cardboard box which I put in the back of my station wagon. Then I put the piano back together, ready to be shipped to Mr. Green in the ordinary way, sans ivory. I picked up my sister at the golf course, and drove to the border.

The U.S. customs agent was friendly. What was the purpose of our visit to Canada?

“We played golf.”

“How did you do?”

I said, “Don’t ask!”

He laughed and waved us through. The next day I shipped the keys to Mr. Green, to be put back in the piano when it arrived. Travesty avoided!

The Polite Reform

By calling the tactic “civil” noncompliance, I mean to emphasize the element of social responsibility. I do not advocate disobeying laws just because one can get away with it. One must have a helpful, socially constructive purpose in mind. For example, you shouldn’t run red lights as a general practice. Even if there were no policemen to notice it, that behavior would be both rude and dangerous; that is, uncivil. But if you were driving an injured child to the emergency room late at night when no other cars were about, driving through the red light would be an act of civil noncompliance.

By using the term “noncompliance,” I mean to emphasize that this is a polite disobedience. It is not confrontational, and certainly never violent. Civil noncompliance does not presume a battle with government officials enforcing the law. The idea is to be unnoticed by them, or to receive their tacit support in avoiding a regulation’s requirements. The idea that officials may be willing to “look the other way” is an unusual point, for we are accustomed to portray bureaucrats as rigid, power-mad enforcers who enjoy making life difficult for ordinary people. There are undoubtedly some in this category, but most government employees are ordinary human beings who want to be friendly and helpful.

Government officials often see that regulations are irrational and harmful. Out of sympathy, or embarrassment, they can become allies.

I’m sure readers can cite cases of officials who helped them evade some destructive regulation. My favorite episode took place years ago in Peru when, as a student, I was applying for a residency visa. After filling out the form, I went to the cashier, who said the charge would be $1,800! Of course I couldn’t pay this astronomical fee (which had been set with oil company executives in mind). I was directed to the head of the agency. After hearing my plight, he looked at my form.

“Since you’re not 21 years old, you only have to pay the fee for a minor of age, which is $25.”

“Oh, but I’m afraid I’m over 21,” I replied. “My birthday was—”

“You don’t understand,” he said firmly. “Look here,” he tapped his finger on the form. “See, you’re not 21.”

I finally got it through my thick skull that he was trying to help me. “Oh, yes. I see. Right! Thank you!”

He called over to the cashier and told her, “Es menor de edad.”

She nodded and told me the charge was $25.

Government officials often see that regulations are irrational and harmful. Out of sympathy, or embarrassment, they can become allies in the tactics of civil noncompliance. In fact, sometimes they can be the leaders. Take the case of wolves in Idaho. The state’s environmentalists, hunters, and ranchers had worked out a modus vivendi for dealing with wolves, a system that involved compensation for ranchers who lose stock to wolves, and some hunting to cull the wolf population. This system ran afoul of the federal courts and the Fish and Wildlife Service, which in 2010 banned wolf hunting in Idaho. That decision no doubt made urban treehuggers happy, but it thoroughly disgusted Idahoans. In response, Idaho governor Butch Otter practiced civil non-compliance: he ordered state officials to stop investigating wolf kills.

A Quiet Revolution

Civil noncompliance is more than a strategy for getting by in an age of over-regulation. It affords an avenue for remaking social governance along new lines.

The political approach to addressing problems and managing social life is running out of steam. Generations ago, idealists believed that politics held the key to building a new society. Candidates, parties, and revolutionary movements — from communists to progressives, fascists to democratic socialists — were energized by the conviction that control of government would give them the power to set the country on the path to their dreamed-of Utopia.

No informed person now looks at politics in this way. Government today is more like an ineffectual goo, a spreading blob of noise and hypocrisy that can be neither directed nor reformed. Journalist Jonathan Rauch made this point in his 1994 book Demosclerosis (revised and expanded in1999 as Government’s End; Why Washington Stopped Working): “Government has become what it is and will remain: a large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients, but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform.”

It is also clear that the system cannot be overthrown. At bottom, the public wants big government. Yes, most people are aware that government fails miserably time after time, and they realize that most of the politicians who make the laws are shortsighted and hypocritical (when not downright corrupt). Nevertheless, the public clings to government as an object of worship. Government fills the human longing to believe in a higher power that cares for us, a God-like force that can answer our prayers in troubled times. Government also fills the need for heroes to worship, for famous figures the public can ooh and aah over. Finally, politics provides the excitement of competition for a nation of bored, media-hungry couch potatoes. To get an idea how difficult it would be to do away with big government, imagine trying to abolish God, Santa Claus, and the Super Bowl all at once.

We will have the show of politics, then. We will have candidates promising, lawmakers denouncing, and pressure groups nagging. But as civil noncompliance is increasingly practiced, this posturing will have less effect on the real world. The end point — Utopia, if you will — would be a society where politicians provide entertainment with their posturing, passing laws that promise this and prohibit that. Meanwhile citizens quietly ignore these laws in their daily lives and do what is right and helpful.

Such sensible times may yet be far off. But as I drove away from the customs checkpoint with those ivory piano keys rattling in the back of my car, I thought, I have seen the future, and it works!




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Geothermal Currency

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Governments Finally Outsourcing

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A report out on a small Michigan city points the way for other school districts to deal with their looming fiscal problems.

The city is Highland Park, which faces a major problem with its school district, consisting of three schools and 1,000 students. The system ranks near the bottom in the state academically, and it is facing a fiscal fiasco.

In fact, only a wretched 22% of the system’s third-grade students passed the state’s reading exams, and a pathetic 10% of them passed the math exams, last year. Only 10% of its high school students tested proficient on reading, and 0% — yes, precisely none of them — tested proficient in math.

This, in a district that last year spent over $16,500 per student, which is 80% more than the average per student expenditure for the state (which last year was about $9,200 per pupil)!

Moreover, despite the fact that its student population has plummeted by two-thirds in the past five years, the district’s deficit has exploded — reaching over $11 million last year.

So the Highland Park school district has taken a bold step: it is borrowing a tool commonly employed in private industry, outsourcing — the process by which one company hires a second company to handle some part of its operations. For example, a major retailer (such as Walmart or Costco) will often hire industrial janitorial firms to handle the cleaning of their stores, rather than hiring janitors within their own companies.

Outsourcing has a number of benefits, most importantly improving efficiency and increasing accountability. It improves efficiency because the company that outsources operations will be able to hire a company that specializes in that aspect of business. It improves accountability, because if the company outsourcing doesn’t see an improvement in that aspect of its business, it can terminate the service and hire another contracting firm to do the job. This puts pressure on the contracted company to do the job properly and within the price negotiated.

Highland Park is outsourcing its entire school system to the charter school company Leona Group.

The Leona Group runs 54 schools in five states. While almost half the students in them don’t score at standard levels, that is on average better than the public schools they replace. And in Michigan, 19 of 22 schools that Leona runs do meet state standards. Moreover, Leona’s contract is for five years, so if it doesn’t dramatically improve student outcomes, it can easily be replaced. That is the missing factor in district-run schools: accountability.

Charter schools have some major advantages over district-run schools. While the charters are overseen and funded by the district, they have substantial freedom when it comes to setting union contracts, curricula development, and teacher standards. And precisely because they are not controlled by teachers unions, they are usually much less costly to the taxpayer.

Indeed, Leona Group will charge the district only $7,100 per student, plus an annual management fee of $780,000 — dramatically less than what the district is currently paying.

Public school outsourcing is a growing trend. Highland Park is the second district in Michigan to outsource its schools to charter schools. Several districts in Georgia have also done the same thing. Of course New Orleans has already converted most of its schools to charters (which has already produced a dramatic increase in graduation rates) and even allows its students to use the newly issued state educational vouchers.

Other districts are now eyeing this novel idea — novel, that is, only in the world of government; it has been a staple of private industry management forever. In Michigan alone there are 48 districts in fiscal peril (with a collective $429 million in annual deficits).

Naturally, the teachers unions are fighting outsourcing fang and claw, but given the looming financial disaster, the pressure for extensive education outsourcing is increasing rapidly.

Outsourcing district-run schools to charter school companies is a tool that many districts can and should consider, especially as more and more of our cities declare bankruptcy.




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