Paul Harvey and the Penguins of Patagonia

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A few weeks ago, Dee Boersma, professor of penguins from the University of Washington, announced that she’d figured out why baby penguins at a place called Punta Tombo in Argentina are dying at a greater rate than they used to.

I’m a sucker for charismatic megafauna, especially when penguins are involved, and that got my attention. The conscientious way penguins stand guard outside their burrows shows them to be better parents than I ever was. Heck, it makes them better parents than Bill Cosby. They swim longer distances in the ocean than Diana Nyad and they’re cuter than Sally Fields and Holly Hunter added together.

Professor Boersma has spent a lot of her career trying to figure out why so many of their babies are dying. Finally, after a decade of effort, she gathered her conclusions, rechecked her facts, and courageously identified climate change as the culprit. It turns out that it rains more in Patagonia than it used to, penguin chicks get wet, and, without their waterproof adult feathers, they shiver themselves to death.

Bad things happening to penguins are, it seems, a leading indicator of bad things about to happen to you.

Since Punta Tombo is the biggest-deal penguin colony in Argentina and climate change is an even bigger deal everywhere else, the news reverberated around the world and back again, like the boom from Mount Krakatoa. Within hours, it had rung church bells as far away as the New York Times,the Los Angeles Times, the Voice of America, the Voice of Russia, the Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, Good Morning America, Bird-Watching Daily, and, undoubtedly, any number of other sanctuaries of learning that I’m not invited into.

As charismatic as penguins are, you may not have thought you’d have to care about their chicks in Patagonia, but you should. Bad things happening to penguins are, it seems, a leading indicator of bad things about to happen to you. And it’s not just rain that’s about to happen. Nowadays, penguins have to swim farther out to sea to find food than they used to. Nobody exactly says this, but the implication hangs in the air like an ash cloud over the Sunda Islands that it has something to do with overfishing in the South Atlantic.

I have no doubt that Ms Boersma knows penguins, that she has accounted for every dead chick with the greatest of care, that she is telling the truth about what she observed, and that she is the leading expert on penguins in general and the penguins of Punta Tombo in particular.

In fact, she is such an expert that she has achieved one of the few immortal indicators of expertness that it is in humans’ poor power to give. The beat-up old trailer she lived in for 30 years while she counted dead penguin chicks isn’t at Punta Tombo anymore. Like Abraham Lincoln’s stove-pipe hat, it now belongs to the ages and is safely lodged in a museum. Which goes to show just how expert she really is. Still, there may be more to this dying-penguin business than we’ve been told. I was at Punta Tombo ten days before the news about the baby penguins got loose and, well, as Paul Harvey used to say, there is a rest to this story.

In the first place, for whatever reason it is that penguins have to swim farther out to sea to find food than they used to, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have much to do with overfishing. These are Magellanic penguins, mostly; what Magellanic penguins eat is krill; and nobody fishes for krill.

As far as anybody knows, even Japanese sushi fishermen don’t fish for krill. But, since the Japanese do sometimes fish for minke, fin, and humpback whales . . . and minke, fin, and humpback whales eat lots of krill . . . every whale that winds up in a Japanese meat market for scientific purposes is one less whale out there depleting the krill supply. A lot of fish eat krill, too, and if the seas are as overfished as we’ve been told, you’d think there’d be so much extra krill floating around the South Atlantic that penguins could just lap it up from the shore. My guess is that the fact they can’t has more to do with the population dynamics of penguins than with anything we humans have done.

And the penguins at Punta Tombo have a pretty dynamic population. If Ms. Boersma’s count is anywhere near correct, something like a million of them spend the summer jostling together on two miles of beach. Penguins are everywhere at Punta Tombo. They stand in ranks, crowded together shoulder to shoulder like spectators at the Rose Parade. Penguins nestle under every bush, and there are lots of bushes. Families of penguins live in every hole, and there are more holes at Punta Tombo than there are in Mr. Obama’s explanations.

Penguins shade themselves beneath the boardwalks that would keep them separate from tourists, except for the other penguins that hop up onto the boardwalks and stroll along, causing knots of humans to stand politely aside and wait for them to pass. At Punta Tombo, penguins have the right-of-way. Sometimes the penguins don’t pass but mill around conducting penguin business while tourists wait for their turn to use the boardwalks, and tour guides fidget about schedules.

Families of penguins live in every hole, and there are more holes at Punta Tombo than there are in Mr. Obama’s explanations.

All along the beach penguins plop into the ocean. Shoals of penguins already in the ocean porpoise through the waves and then pop back onshore, when they can find a vacant place to pop onto. For sheer crowdedness, Punta Tombo is the Daytona Beach of the penguin world, and, since every female penguin lays two eggs, the colony becomes a lot more crowded as the eggs begin to hatch. If all the chicks survived, that would come to two million penguins’ worth of food the colony would go through during chick-raising season. Even with chicks dying, it’s hard to imagine there could be a krill left within hundreds of miles of the place. But there was in the past. Things aren’t what they used to be. Ms. Boersma is pretty clear on that point.

What the articles about dead-penguin-chicks-as-leading-indicators-of-bad-things-about-to-happen-to-you don’t delve into too deeply when they tell us that things aren’t what they used to be, is that things really aren’t what they used to be. Despite all the penguins at Punta Tombo, 50 or 60 years ago the place was a working ranch and there weren’t any penguins at all. Somewhere along the way the ranch turned into a nature reserve, penguins started popping out of the water, digging holes, building nests, raising families, ambling along boardwalks, swimming out to sea, inviting more penguins to come join them — and, in a twinkling of geological time, what used to be a ranch had changed into the largest penguin colony in Argentina.

Which suggests to me that, even if every single chick from this year’s hatching gets rained to death, there will still be a million more penguins at Punta Tombo than there were when I was in kindergarten and the only thing I knew about penguins was when Miss Ridley showed us pictures of them. This must mean something. Maybe, even, about the weather.




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Peripheral Vision

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Does it seem to you that people are losing their peripheral vision? It seems that way to me.

I halt at a stop sign, look to the left, look to the right — and then, just when I start to move, observe with horror that people are jumping off the curb and walking in front of me. I’m looking in their direction, but they’re not looking in mine. Oh no. They’re looking straight ahead, with no indication that they see my car, hear my brakes, or feel the heat of my engine as I screech to a stop three feet away from them. They parade in front of me with the gait of peacocks solemnly treading the Queen’s lawn.

(She does have peacocks, doesn’t she? In the summer? Or is it swans? Very well, with the gait of swans solemnly treading, etc. Swans always seem about as stupid as peacocks, except in Tchaikovsky ballets. And even then, they’re more beautiful than smart.)

There’s a general opinion that this kind of behavior is restricted (A) to persons under 25, and (B) to persons with electronic instruments jammed in their ear sockets. But no, it’s not. It has spread to every demographic group.

They don’t see anything. They just continue. Like those children of all ages, waltzing merrily in front of the oncoming traffic.

Have you ever been in a Whole Foods store? I ask that because Whole Foods is somewhat more expensive than your ordinary supermarket, and notoriously attracts a Better Sort of People — mainly NPR clones and trust-fund babies with tattoos, but lots of libertarians as well. (Like me.) These are sensitive souls, if anybody is. That’s why the baby seal advocates line up outside to get their signatures in support of sensitive causes. But you can’t walk through the aisles without constant attempts to avoid injury from NFL-class shoppers jumping in your way, then stopping dead in front of you, blocking the aisle. When you try to dive around them, boom! There they are again. If you make it to the dairy products, you can expect two or three of them to smash into you while you’re reading the labels, innocently attempting not to buy soy milk. They didn’t see you. They never see you. They have no peripheral vision.

Something of the same effect is achieved by all those people who make your life miserable in restaurants, movie theaters, and other places of public resort — the blithe spirits who yell, shriek, chatter, debate, and conduct lengthy reviews of their private lives for the benefit of everyone within a five-block radius. When you give them the meaningful look that, when your grandparents used it, would shush everyone but the most hardened conversational criminals, they just face you with a glassy stare. They’re not staring at you. They don’t see you. They don’t see anything. They just continue. Like those children of all ages, waltzing merrily in front of the oncoming traffic. Like their fellow hazards to health, the parents who chat idly with each other while their children run about the airport, the parking lot, or the edge of the nearest volcano, endangering their lives and the lives of others. Their parents literally do not see them. They have no peripheral vision.

This is the kind of behavior that was formerly common among those whom our grandparents rudely classified as trash. Only now is it manifesting itself as a mass phenomenon. Its counterpart is the recent, very large increase in loss of peripheral vision about what people are saying while they insist so much on saying it. No one seems to care that it might be embarrassing to tell a roomful of strangers all about one’s effing conversation with one’s effing bedmates, because said effing bedmates are getting fatter than effing hogs, not to mention being bad about their toilet manners. It must be stipulated, however, that loss of peripheral vision is especially pronounced among the self-important classes, who ought, one might think, to take more care about saying things that will disgrace them.

Strangely, this loss has coincided with an enormous increase in the retrievability of verbal gaffes. Nowadays, if you don’t have enough peripheral vision — once known as foresight — to notice that your words may possibly come back and bite you on the ass, it’s much more likely that they will come back and do just that. Digitally embodied, they will wait beside you, visible to all but you, until such time as they are ready to spring upon and permanently discredit you.

Suppose, to take a purely hypothetical example, a racial or sexual epithet should be scrawled on someone’s wall. These are the days of forensic science; it gets easier and easier to determine who did such things. If the action is in fact a fraud — an expression not of racial or sexual hatred but of a sick desire to advertise some cause or issue of the person who scrawled the epithet in order to make accusations about somebody else — chances are large that the fraud will be exposed. During the past few years, scores of these moral disasters have occurred, and have been well publicized. Now why are such fraudulent charges always attended by instant, loud, fanatical declarations of their unquestionable truth, delivered by every school principal, public official, church leader, and college professor in the neighborhood? These people practically crawl over one another to get to the microphone and announce their support for even the most ridiculous accusations. Then, when their charges, the charges they have made their own, prove false, they apparently think all memory of their words will be erased. Things don’t happen that way, but they still can’t see it. They have no peripheral vision. They don’t see the car that’s going to hit them.

Listening to friends of the current administration, one would think the attempt to “end poverty in our lifetime” had been a grand success. Apparently they never heard of Detroit.

To put this in a broader context: were you as astonished as I was when intellectual friends of the current administration began making loud noises about the fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty? Their intention was not to mourn the devastation that the War (apt name) had visited on the poor in America. Their intention was to celebrate the War. Listening to them, one would think the attempt to “end poverty in our lifetime” had been a grand success — and also, curiously, that we need even more of it. Apparently they never heard of Detroit. Apparently they can’t see the neighborhoods that lie directly adjacent to the government zone in Washington or to 50 of those proud universities from which celebratory noises issued. Everyone else can see — so why can’t they?

Like the people at the intersection, they don’t see because they don’t bother to look; and they don’t bother to look because they feel entitled not to look, not to see, not to get hit by the onrushing vehicles — of failure, and of public exposure. They see themselves, of course, but only as the heroes of their inward vision. They haven’t a clue about how they look or sound to others.

And now we come to Secretary of State John Kerry. On Feb. 16, in, of all places, Indonesia, he delivered a speech about “climate change.” By now, almost everyone has observed that climate change is a term used by people who don’t want to admit that their wild predictions of global warming have been falsified. They don’t want to see the falsification, any more than the guy stepping off the curb wants tosee the car approaching. Truths are indeed inconvenient. To admit the existence of the car might require one to change one’s course — and who wants to do that? But the climate change people are in a worse position than the guy in the street. They actually believe that other people don’t see them either, see and rememberthat they predicted a lot of hurricanes, but now there are very few; that they predicted wet days for California, but California is in drought; that they predicted warm winters, but look at the country now. Well, as a satirical friend remarked last night, “the most devastating thing about climate change is its unpredictability.”

Kerry, being an old man and a failure in his real job, now wants another job. He wants the job of prophet. He declared to the Indonesians that “this city, this country, this region, is really on the front lines of climate change. It's not an exaggeration to say that your entire way of life here is at risk." "In a sense,” he said, “climate change can now be considered the world's largest weapon of mass destruction, perhaps even, the world's most fearsome weapon of mass destruction." “The science,” he said, “is unequivocal, and those who refuse to believe it are simply burying their heads in the sand." Like his boss, President Obama, Kerry has a real zest for clichés. And like his boss, he carries the clichés as far as they will go. He believes that climate change, whatever that is, must be regarded as settled science.

Now, Senator, I hate to tell you, but you’re strolling across a busy street. I’d be a little more careful if I were you. Most of the people on this street don’t think that what you’re talking about is settled science at all. Some suspect it’s an unsettled science. Some suspect it’s a pseudo-science. Some suspect it’s a real science that is disgracing itself by its cheap propaganda. Some, including many scientists who are close to the grant-getting game, know that it would look a lot less settled if so much weren’t being done to prop it up. Overwhelmingly, grants go to people who investigate the assumed effects of climate change, not people who set out to examine the process critically (if it is a process, and one process, and a process not competing with other natural processes). Schools and colleges deluge students and faculty with propaganda about the danger of climate change, with no hint of interest in the multitude of debates that attend this issue. Whole communities are mobilized to promote the kind of sustainability and climate friendliness that could be rationally defensible if (A) the theory had been proved, (B) the theory hadn’t changed so, well, unpredictably that right now it’s hard to tell exactly what is being proved or disproved, and (C) doing without paper bags could have the slightest effect on the global climate, no matter what condition it’s in.

Kerry doesn’t see the millions of eyes watching him, and noticing that he’s made a fool of himself.

A theory that you are not allowed to doubt is a theory that has proved its doubtfulness. A scientific theory that needs the support of sermons by such renowned scientists as a former vice president and a former senator from Massachusetts is a theory that confesses it is in serious trouble. Theories that appear to need this kind of assistance merely invite public ridicule. If they turn out to be true, which is always possible in a regime of true science, they have already damaged their own credibility, and the damage may be fatal. I think it is safe to say that only a tiny minority of the American population believes the party-linestatements that Kerry was making in his big, pompous speech, and the majority is even less likely to believe the theory, now that he has spoken.

Kerry doesn’t see the millions of eyes watching him, and noticing that he’s made a fool of himself. His way of avoiding the oncoming cars is by insulting their drivers, braying about “shoddy scientists” and “extreme ideologues” and comparing anyone who disagrees with him to members of “the Flat Earth Society.” And because there is no one this side of North Korea who is more arrogant, humorless, and condescending than John Kerry, no one who is fitter to be called the embodiment of social entitlement, he has done more to harm his cause than an army of deniers could possibly do.

He doesn’t see it. He’ll never see it. But what I saw, next to the news story about Kerry’s speech, was a series of teasers for other news stories:

Another Ice Storm Causes Havoc Across the South

New England Hit with Another Winter Blast

Another Messy Morning in Winter-Weary Northeast

Is this proof that Kerry is wrong about whatever theory of change he has in his head right now? No, probably not; one winter doesn’t make a case (although Kerry claimed individual meteorological incidents as conclusive evidence of change). Is it proof that Kerry is a fool? Oh yes. How hard is it not to look both ways before you cross the street?




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Flu Hooey

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"Scientists sound warning after first death from new H10N8 bird flu reported," blurted the latest flu alarm. A 73-year old Jiangxi Province woman died last December from a new strain of bird flu called H10N8. Following last year's H7N9 scare, ChineseCenter for Disease Control (CDC) researchers admonished that “the pandemic potential of this virus (H10N8) should not be underestimated." Rest assured, US CDC officials will not miscalculate the pandemic potential of any strain of flu. The possibility of an outbreak — even seasonal flu — is an opportunity to shine as our influenza experts and saviors.

But, in terms of what is of interest to the average citizen and what should be of paramount interest to all health officials, surprisingly little — nothing with any accuracy — is known about the flu. Who are its victims? How many of them are there? What is the toll (deaths, hospitalizations, days of lost work, etc.)? What is the ability of the CDC to predict next season's flu strains, let alone epidemics and pandemics? Who should be vaccinated, and against what? How effective (and safe) are the vaccines? And so on.

The CDC answers all these questions, to its own satisfaction, but leaves the layman confused and more than a little suspicious that almost anything it says about the flu is designed to scare, very much more than inform. For example, we have been told for many years that the flu kills 36,000 Americans annually. That number has recently been reduced to about 24,000, and expressed as a range (3,349 to 48,614) to provide "a better way to represent the variability and unpredictability" of seasonal flu-related deaths. Thanks for the clarity, but now we have to worry about the possibility of 49,000 deaths.

In terms of what is of interest to the average citizen and what should be of paramount interest to all health officials, surprisingly little — nothing with any accuracy — is known about the flu.

And what is meant by flu-related? The CDC report Estimates of Deaths Associated with Seasonal Influenza provides the answer in Table 2: Estimated number of annual influenza-associated deaths with underlying respiratory and circulatory causes. But there is a footnote; the numbers include deaths from influenza and pneumonia. Pneumonia! How is my flu shot going to protect me from pneumonia?

And what are underlying respiratory and circulatory causes? These are not defined, but Table 1, which excludes them, provides an estimate of the influenza and pneumonia only death toll. It has a mean of only 14,715 (down from 24,000) and a range of only 684 to 16,347. While this precipitous drop, from 36,000 deaths to less than 15,000, alleviates many flu season worries, where is the estimate for the flu-only scourge? It's not in any CDC influenza reports.

For such a breakdown, the tenacious investigator must consult the latest National Vital Statistics Report (the May 2013 edition). There, hidden in the bowels of Table 10, the decomposition is found for the year 2010 — apparently taking three full years to count up all the carnage: a measly 500 deaths from influenza; 50,097 from pneumonia. That's ripe: 500 flu deaths, 50,097 pneumonia deaths (100 times more), and the CDC sticks 50,597 into its flu report. Is the flu vaccine lobby that powerful? And where's the pneumonia lobby? I want a pneumonia shot.

To some of us, grossly exaggerating influenza threats to expand public vaccination is a despicable approach to conducting a national influenza control and prevention program. But what's a little disease-mongering when you’re saving lives? And there is nothing like an occasional threat of an epidemic, better yet a pandemic, to win over anyone left undaunted by the flagrantly massaged mortality and morbidity statistics of mundane seasonal flu.

An incipient pandemic (or epidemic) unfolds with the discovery of one or more individuals infected by a new flu strain. Next is the one-two punch of scientific mumbo-jumbo uttered over suspicious genetic material, followed by perfunctorily ominous warnings. Scientists studying the H10N8 virus determined that it had acquired genetic characteristics that may allow it to replicate efficiently in humans. In the throes of that Eureka moment, one researcher speculated that "the H10 and H8 gene segments might have derived from different wild bird influenza viruses reassorted to give rise to a hypothetical H10N8 virus in wild birds, which infected poultry and then reassorted with H9N2 viruses in poultry to give rise to the novel reassortant JX346 (H10N8) virus." Yikes (to whatever that means)!

It sounds like we are just a few random mutations away from a more lethal variant with human-to-human transmissibility — aka, a pandemic. But plausibility does not a pandemic make. Last October, a leading Netherlands virologist, who had been tracking the H7N9 virus, hastily announced, "We're bracing for what's going to happen next." What happened next? After claiming 69 Chinese lives to date (from a population of 1.35 billion), H7N9 has shown no evidence of human-to-human transmission, and concerns of an H7N9 pandemic have fizzled. With only one death to its credit, it's a little early, therefore, for panic over an H10N8 pandemic.

The vast majority of the time, the "flu" is an influenza-like illness, not influenza.

On the other hand, it's a little early for disappointment, on the part of CDC officials, healthcare journalists, drug company executives, and others, who may have been rooting for an H7N9 or H10N8 pandemic. Recall that after years of warnings of a bird flu pandemic (following the Avian Flu scare of 2005), the Swine Flu (H1N1) pandemic struck; by August of 2009, the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology exclaimed a winter death toll of up to 90,000. Hope springs eternal.

For the time being, we are left with the less shrill, but more dependable, cries of seasonal flu: those of our health officials, hustling every American over six months old to the vaccination lines. Flu shots, we are told, could save over 22,000 lives annually; modern vaccines are safe, and 62% effective. Moreover, according to a computer model, the CDC estimates that its vaccination program has reduced flu-related hospitalizations by 79,000 and has "prevented approximately 6.6 million influenza illnesses and 3.2 million medically attended illnesses."

A computer model to estimate lives saved and infections prevented? Why not simply count them? CBS News found the answer in 2009, when it asked the CDC for a state-by-state count of laboratory-confirmed instances of flu. After waiting more than two months for its Freedom of Information request (the CDC balked at the initial request) to finally be honored, CBS discovered that "the vast majority of cases were negative for H1N1 as well as seasonal flu, despite the fact that many states were specifically testing patients deemed to be most likely to have H1N1 flu." In California, for example, 86% of the 13,704 specimens tested negative for the flu; only 2% tested positive for H1N1 flu.

CBS should not have been surprised. The vast majority of the time, the "flu" is an influenza-like illness (ILI), not influenza. According to CDC data, of the hundreds of thousands of respiratory specimens lab tested in the US annually, only 15% are found to be true influenza. The remaining 85% includes the 200 or so non-flu viruses (rhinoviruses, coronaviruses, adenoviruses, etc.) that, while producing flu-like symptoms, or ILI, are impervious to flu vaccines. These specimens are obtained from patients already inflicted by an ILI. Virological testing of specimens from the general population tells a much different, and very small, flu season story: the incidence of ILI is only 7%, with true influenza playing a bit part of 1%.

The larger story is the disparity between influenza policy and influenza evidence. That and the inexplicable failure of the CDC to accurately characterize the epidemiology of seasonal flu. What else are we not being told? The final tally for the Swine Flu pandemic was 11,000 deaths. Even this much lower number (down from the 90,000, initially predicted) may be smaller still — perhaps 1,650 (15% of 11,000) or 110 (1% of 11,000) pandemic embarrassments, when the average seasonal flu allegedly kills 24,000.

What are we to make of the CDC's urgent pleas for vaccination and its wild claims of success? To the average person, 62% effectiveness means that only 38 of every 100 people vaccinated would become infected. What if only 1 out every 100 people would become infected by the flu, even if they were not vaccinated? Further, assume a perfect vaccine (one that matches the strains of wild flu in circulation during flu season, and wins every encounter with these strains). Such a vaccine would prevent 1% of the vaccinated population from getting influenza. Period. That's it, 1% effectiveness. It would have no effect on those who acquire non-flu viruses and those who escaped infection by true influenza and ILI — i.e., the other 99%. While my naive, aggregated estimate is in stark disagreement with the 62% effectiveness calculated by a CDC computer model, it is, oddly enough, about 62 times closer to actual vaccine effectiveness.

Statistically speaking, seasonal flu is a rare, relatively benign disease. Vaccination provides little or no protection for the very young and very old — those who may need it most.

A 2012 Scientific American article addressed the paucity of evidence behind pretentious CDC vaccination claims. According to Cochrane Collaboration research referenced in the exposé, vaccines approved for children under the age of 2 “are not significantly more efficacious than placebo.” For older children, "the shot reduces the absolute risk that a child will catch the flu by about 3.6 percent, whereas the live (inhaled) vaccine reduces the absolute risk by about 17 percent." Adults under 65 "have about a four percent chance of catching the flu if they don’t get the vaccine and about a one percent chance if they do." For adults over 65, there is only one vaccine that has been shown to protect against infection or death, "an inhalable vaccine that contains a live, modified version of the virus [wait for it . . .] which is not approved in the U.S. for adults over age 50." Regarding claims that vaccination slows the spread of flu virus, "there are no data showing that this is true."

None of this is vaccination denial. God bless the Jonas Salks of the world. They are saints; their vaccines are miracles. But in the world of seasonal flu, the state of the art for vaccines is pathetic, CDC hubris to the contrary. Statistically speaking, seasonal flu is a rare, relatively benign disease. Vaccination provides little or no protection for the very young and very old — those who may need it most. At best, it provides marginal protection for older children and adults under 65 — those who need it least.

As for the world of pandemic flu, the verdict is still out, waiting anxiously along with hypochondriacs, the obsessively risk averse, and an immense global flu ecosystem (the WHO, the CDCs, influenza researchers, public health officials, the media, and, of course, pharmaceutical companies), for more H10N8 victims. But the poor old woman from China, the only death to date, "also had several chronic conditions, including coronary heart disease." Alas, she might not even have been the first victim.




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The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

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For the world, Saturday, February 22 was a day of historic significance — a day when the government of a nation of 46 million, part of the developed world, was toppled by a revolution. Defying the arrangements of Western diplomats, who are always anxious to impose security, the people of Ukraine took possession of their capital and its citadels of power. Parliament turned on the president. The police deserted him. The army deserted him. He fled toward the border, leaving his Russian allies to determine whether they would try to reinstall his regime in a rump Ukraine of native Russian speakers. There is a chance that might happen; after all, Russophone Ukraine is merely a construct of Soviet dictators who did not care who was part of what province, so long as all were obedient to them.

We will see. In the meantime, what television audience, what television crew, could resist the spectacle? Multitudes in Kiev’s enormous central square, welcoming the archenemy of the ousted president, suddenly liberated from prison, who addressed them from her wheelchair by the light of flaring torches, on the ground where, only days before, protestors had been shot and burned alive on the barricades. Who could resist these scenes as they exploded?

The answer is: the American “news” media.

For Yahoo! News, the big stories were the popularity of hoodies in Sochi and the recapture of a “drug kingpin” in Mexico. For the more sober Google News, they were the kingpin and many other things — Ukraine was way down the list, and no effort was made to separate new stories from ones warmed over. For the three TV networks, Ukraine did not exist; their news is down on weekends, except for the most perfunctory evening readings of press releases from the staffs of American politicians, out on the golf links.

For CNN (“we bring you the world”), the big stories, oft repeated, were a gay football player who remains a gay football player; a racial complaint in Mississippi; how to lose weight; replays of video footage, thought to be “viral,” about a child who might have been injured but wasn’t; and a variety of other non-news features. For Fox News, the stories were the chronic errors of President Obama, a US win at the Olympics (over 20 years ago), how to look good, and a variety of other non-news features. Both cable news networks had correspondents stationed in Kiev, but they were summoned to the camera about as often as brothers-in-law are requested to receive excess funds. After all, there wasn’t room for them, what with all the “news” that’s prearranged for weekends. When the news anchors tried to ask them questions, it immediately became obvious that the anchors had no more idea than a rabbit of what to ask. In the case of CNN, it was apparent that neither the anchor nor her producers had the least conception of what a Ukraine might be.

For the three TV networks, Ukraine did not exist; their news is down on weekends, except for the most perfunctory evening readings of press releases.

As the day wore on, Fox became visibly nervous about its reputation. It dragged in a moth-eaten diplomat who vexed even the anchor with his astonishingly empty statements. Hours later, they found, of all people, Susan Estrich, who made an excellent try at saying what the historical significance and prospects of the events in Ukraine might be. The anchor clearly had no grasp of what was going on, but she was happy Susan showed up. And she was right to be.

Now, what does this all mean? It means that the gross errors and omissions of the American media cannot all be attributed to political cunning, or any cunning at all. Many of them can be ascribed to the simple fact that there are people in this business — many people — who resemble the stupid old editor whom Orson Welles’ character in Citizen Kane fires at the start of his newspaper career. He fires him because the old guy says that his paper is practically closed during a lot of the day. Kane tells him that the news happens 24 hours a day (and on weekends). To let the news be shaped by the fact that you weren’t expecting news to happen on the weekend . . . well, what kind of journalist are you?

And what kind of journalist are you if you lack any sense of drama? Not to mention any knowledge of geography. Because the loss of Ukraine blows a hole through the Russian empire.

What seems to be required in today’s newsrooms isn’t knowledge or a sense of drama but a sensitivity for the drab. Who won the hockey game. Who won the lottery. Who’s complaining that his neighbors don’t like him. Whose child is obese. Whose child is not obese. The big things. The important things.




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Toasted Tweet

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For some years now, I have written in these pages about the zaniness of the modern environmentalist movement. This movement is essentially driven by devotees of a neo-Romantic nature cult, Gaia worship. One of the more amusing aspects of this cult is its lack of logical consistency — but then, religious cults are usually illogical, no? One of the most delicious examples of this Gaiaist inconsistency can be found in energy policy and the protection of animal species.

I refer today to the curious fact that environmentalists tout the saving of endangered species — especially attractive avian species (eagles, hawks, owls, etc.) — but also demand the use of energy producing mechanisms that destroy animals. As I have noted before, enviros just love massive wind farms. They want to see millions of wind turbines spread across the country, no matter how insanely inefficient and costly wind power is. But it turns out that wind turbines kill hundreds of thousands of birds every year, including the aforementioned raptors (eagles, hawks, and owls). I have called this phenomenon “Shredded Tweet.”

So, if an industry that enviros don’t like (which is most industry, naturally) is alleged to kill some birds, it must be shut down. Thus the timber industry in the Northwest was hammered to the wall by the enviro regulators, throwing massive numbers of forestry workers out of work because of allegations that it was hurting the spotted owl population. (It appears the real culprit was a competing species, the barred owl). But it’s OK if a million times more birds are proven to be annihilated by the wind turbines . . . the enviros don’t give a tail feather.

Unnamed regulators cited in the story say that while they expected some birds to be killed once the plant fired up, they didn’t expect the numbers they are seeing.

The latest illustration of this bizarre inconsistency is revealed in a recent report on solar power. The article reported the opening of a massive new solar plant, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station in the California desert. The plant cost $2.2 billion, backed of course with a $1.6 billion federal loan guarantee. The plant includes three towers 40 stories high, supporting boilers at the top. Three hundred fifty thousand large mirrors focus sunlight onto the boilers, driving the generation of power. This new means of protecting the scenic desert is only one of several major solar projects opening in California, where state law now requires that within six years, one third of power must come from so-called “renewable” sources.

The article notes that solar power rightly has been criticized for its grotesque inefficiency. Ivanpah’s electricity costs about four times that produced by natural gas powered plants; the plant uses far more land than what a gas-fired plant would, and provides far less power.

In a stunning display of transparency, neither the California utilities that are going to buy the power nor the regulators who are pushing it will disclose the costs of this solar electricity, which some estimate at twice that of electricity produced by natural gas. The extra costs will simply be dumped on the consumers.

But a new problem has come to light. The Ivanpah-type “tower power” plants are killing birds!

Yes, call this phenomenon “toasted tweet.” The air around the towers hits about 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and as the Wingéd Gifts of Gaia fly past, they get horribly scorched. Many are dying. Unnamed regulators cited in the story say that while they expected some birds to be killed once the plant fired up, they didn’t expect the numbers they are seeing.

This is of course yet another case of statist policies producing unintended consequences, contrary to the policies’ lofty goals. As Eric Davis — who bears the beautifully bureaucratic title of “assistant regional director for migrating birds” at the US Fish and Wildlife Service — ruefully remarked, “When you have new technologies, you don’t know what the impacts are going to be.”

Yeah, tell that to be burnt birds, Gaia guys.




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How Much Ruin, Exactly?

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“There is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” It’s a remark Adam Smith made to a young colleague, John Sinclair, who worried that the cost of quelling the American rebels might lead to the downfall of Great Britain. It’s also a remark Liberty’s founder, Bill Bradford, quoted back to me on several occasions, whenever I was doom-and-glooming about how some country or another was on the road to ruin.

It’s a remark that comes to mind often still, whenever I’m agitated about governmental stupidity or malfeasance. Foolish wars in the Middle East have not ruined the US, and neither have decades of profligacy, proliferations of acronymic agencies, or a succession of villains in our highest offices. Communism did not ruin Russia, and has not ruined China; even Nazism could not permanently ruin Germany, though it did succeed in splitting it for a while.

It’s a familiar feedback loop: the more that’s seized, the worse the economy gets; the worse the economy gets, the more can be seized.

Nonetheless on occasion I read of some insane diktat in one or another corner of the globe and wonder just how far that corner’s leaders are prepared to stretch the maxim. Sovereign debt will likely not ruin Spain, or Portugal, or even Greece, though the EU seems intent on testing that out a while longer yet. Debt (again) and a shrinking population will probably not ruin Japan, but its prime minister Shinzo Abe, with his “Abenomics”—a reheated and desperate Keynesianism—is trying his hardest to make things worse. Unemployment and labor unrest will certainly not ruin France, but French president François Hollande, meanwhile, has yet to pass up a chance to kill off jobs and push companies abroad.

And then there’s Venezuela.

Venezuela, of course, was one of the great experiments: Hugo Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” was supposed to prove the superiority of socialism (economic, of course; its moral superiority was assumed long ago), provided only that said socialism is backed up by seemingly inexhaustible national resources. Chávez, wasting no time after his election in 1998, set about “redistributing income” through land grabs and price fixes, threatening hesitant businesses with expropriation and then often following through on that threat. Under “Chavismo,” Venezuela assumed ownership of much of the nation’s construction, telecommunications, utilities, and food production industries, insisting at each step of the way that the takeovers were necessary to combat the predation of profiteering capitalists.

This sets up a feedback loop familiar to anyone who’s given even the slightest attention to modern government, where every gain (however temporary) is attributed to the extraordinary wisdom and foresight of the government agents, while every loss (all too often permanent) is attributed to the greed of speculators and other enemies of the people. Naturally, the more that’s seized, the worse the economy gets, but on the other hand, the worse the economy gets, the more can be seized. It’s brilliant, really—at least until the shortages of basic goods become too great for anyone but an ideologue to ignore.

Say this in Chávez’s favor: his policies—and those of his successor, Nicolás Maduro—have encouraged innovation in the Venezuelan people; for instance, consider the smartphone app created to help them find toilet paper, in perpetually short supply thanks to price controls. But, as with the more traditional example of broken windows, this innovation isn’t going toward the sorts of things that would convince anyone of Chavismo’s superiority. And as other nations, especially the United States, Canada, and Brazil, have become more energy-independent, Venezuela and President Maduro are finding fewer buyers for their one undoubted asset, while the state-owned oil industry has become ever more wasteful and unprofitable.

With revenues plummeting and prices held artificially low, inflation has, inevitably, kicked in. And here’s where the “ruin” starts coming in: Maduro’s response (other than continuing to threaten or outright seize businesses) was to devalue the currency, and impose controls on currency exchange. As account holders desperately tried to get their money out of the country ahead of impending hyperinflation, Maduro doubled down by devaluing further, attempting to cut off foreign travel. Finally, he enacted a “Law on Fair Prices,” prohibiting profit margins of over 30%—which is to say, no profit, for anyone running an import business—while at the same time enacting long jail terms to punish “hoarders,” or, less insanely, anyone refusing to sell at a loss.

The socialist policies have certainly encouraged innovation in the Venezuelan people—take for instance the smartphone app that helps them find toilet paper.

Now, I’m no expert on Venezuela. I’ve never been there, I don’t know anyone from there, and I can’t get more than the barest sense of any articles written in Latin American Spanish. But I can’t imagine any experience of the place that would convince me that those Venezuelans who protest Chavismo are just, in the words of professional useful idiot Oliver Stone, “sore losers”—though they certainly aren’t winners, either, not while they’re getting gunned down for demonstrating against the ongoing depredation and repression. And so long as the government is willing to arrest the opposition leader, or expel consular officials for so much as meeting with protesting students, things don’t seem likely to improve.

It’s impossible to know where it will all end, or whether it could be enough to ruin Venezuela. I suspect not: prior to Chávez, Venezuela was no more or less stable than any other Latin American nation since the time of Bolívar himself. Oddly enough, in this era of globalization, the idea of a nation may be more susceptible to ruin than individual nations themselves. Those that are nearest ruin are those that were highly unstable and unwanted to begin with: Somalia, Iraq, Yugoslavia—lines drawn on a map as a convenience to colonial invaders or international do-gooders (if you can tell those apart). Yet even those fictions hold up longer than one might expect—just look at Zimbabwe.

So yes, there is likely a great deal of ruin still in Venezuela. But it is a shame, and likely will be a tragedy, to see the depths its rulers are willing to plumb before they hit bottom.



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The Ghost of Elections Yet to Come

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On February 11 a mayoral election took place in my town, San Diego. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and on reflection, I believe it has considerable significance for the nation as a whole. It was a test of current Democratic electoral strategy, and of what may become Republican electoral strategy, if the Republicans are canny enough to adopt it.

The contestants were David Alvarez, Democrat, and Kevin Faulconer, Republican, both city councilmen. They were running to succeed disgraced Mayor Robert (“Bob”) Filner. Filner had been thrown out of office because of serious — though, in my view, overstated — charges of sexual misconduct. Other charges, even more serious, involved political bullying and bribery. These latter charges, unfortunately, have not been so closely considered, given the overwhelming emphasis that our society places on sex in all its forms. Both the sex charges and the political charges were important to Faulconer, who was a leader in the drive to oust Bob Filner. As for Alvarez, he was a Filner confidant who turned against him. In other, less kindly, and perhaps less objective words, Alvarez was a Filner flunky who stabbed him in the back.

Both Filner and Alvarez regarded themselves as Progressives. Both emphasized leftist political programs and played strongly to hardcore ethnic sentiments — Mexican-American and Mexican nationalist. Alvarez ran an ethnically oriented mayoral campaign with a borrow-and-spend platform to attract disciples of “growth,” “jobs,” “planning,” and share-the-wealth. Most importantly, however, he was the inheritor of Filner’s mantle as labor-union apparatchik.

A few years ago, San Diego, like many other California cities, was on the verge of bankruptcy because of the insanely favorable deals that city officials had made with city workers. Now the place is sort of back on its feet, but the unions remain as greedy as ever. Alvarez ran with about 20% more money than Faulconer, and about 80% of Alvarez’ money came from government employee unions. It was an instance of the employees trying to take over the company — except that in this case, the company has the power to make everyone pay for whatever the employees do.

Faulconer’s supposed liability was that he (like all other Republicans, according to the common mythology) was the candidate of rich people. Yet the donations of the rich were only a minority of his campaign fund, which, as I mentioned, was much smaller than that of Alvarez, the friend of the poor and excluded. It was also charged that Faulconer was the candidate of white old men. This wasn’t said in so many words, but it was conveyed in the usual campaign style and with the usual so-called reporting on the usual so-called public opinion polls. When Alvarez seemed, in late polling, to be narrowing the gap with his opponent, it was said in the local media that Faulconer’s fate depended entirely on the willingness of white old men to totter to the voting booth.

Alvarez ran with about 20% more money than "the candidate of rich people," Faulconer, and about 80% of Alvarez’ money came from government employee unions.

Now, Alvarez is only 33 years old, and the Faulconer people made a huge and really silly issue out of his youth and inexperience. Faulconer himself is only 47 — fairly young for a successful politician. Both are reasonably personable. Neither has skeletons in the closet. So far, there’s a rough equality. But what about political customs and allegiances? Like much of the rest of the country, San Diego has a long history of moderate Republicanism. Still, in 2012 Obama won 61% of the city’s votes. Obama endorsed Alvarez; and the Democratic labor unions, both local and national, paid for an immense get-out-the-vote drive. For weeks before the election, people with Spanish surnames and people in left-leaning parts of the city, such as mine, were deluged with propaganda. The calls and mailings came at them from both sides, but it was representatives of Alvarez who came and knocked on their doors, sometimes returning three or four times. On election day I could hear, all afternoon, young men with big voices pounding on the doors of people with Spanish surnames and calling them out to vote. Feeling the muscle of their organization, the Alvarez people became confident of victory.

Then, on election night, their hopes were ended. Alvarez got about 45% of the vote, and his Republican opponent got about 55%. It’s possible to say that the turnout was a few percentage points higher in the Faulconer districts than in the Alvarez districts, but there were exceptions both ways. Republicans are usually more certain to vote than Democrats, despite all the get-out-the-vote efforts on the other side — but not always. As for rich people, the latest polls had shown only a 1% advantage for Faulconer among the well-off. Several wealthy districts went for Alvarez or almost did. As Bill Bradford used to say, “Wealth is liberal.”

So what are the lessons for America as a whole? They are all probable, not definite, but there is some clarity here.

  1. Obama is a detriment, if anything, to Democrats’ campaigns.
  2. Get-out-the-vote has been badly overrated.
  3. Ethnicity has been badly overrated.
  4. As professional pollsters know, though seldom say, Democratic voters often exaggerate their commitment to vote, and other voters often tell people on the phone that they are planning to vote for someone of minority ethnicity, just to sound nice.
  5. The identification of Republicans with “a dwindling number of old white men” is silly.
  6. Unions continue their furious slide downhill.
  7. A Republican campaign that focuses not on “issues” but on “the work to be done” is likely to succeed. This “work” is not “restoring a sense of community” or “addressing income inequality” or “valuing education” but actual stuff you can see getting done, like synchronizing the traffic lights, getting the bums out of the library restrooms, or lowering the tax rate.

San Diego has always been a socially liberal town, informal and discretely religious. Its social liberalism is balanced by the strong social conservatism of its large military population. But these isms are apples and oranges — social liberals in one sense can be social conservatives in another. I often say that San Diego is as far west as the Midwest gets. In that sense, it is a reflection of America.

Faulconer’s campaign was about financing and maintaining a basic San Diego — fixing the roads, paying the bills, and not paying anybody extra just because he’s union labor. It was not about moral or metaphysical issues — gay marriage, abortion, income inequality, whatever. Alvarez probably wished that it had been about those things. His own campaign persistently assumed that all gay people and Mexican American people and female people and workin’ people are or ought to be Progressive Democrats who favor spending money that you don’t have and making social promises that you can’t keep. It additionally assumed that all Republicans are old male white homophobes, and have a moral screw loose, being opposed both to “diversity” and to “unity.” These demographic assumptions now appear not to be true or electorally useful, and why should anybody have thought that they were?

I imagine that if the Republicans can talk about paying bills and fixing roads, they can show that those assumptions aren’t any truer about America as a whole than they were about San Diego. Do I think that talk of this kind is the be-all and end-all of politics? I do not. But I’d rather have the bills paid and the roads fixed than see another Obama elected.

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The Keystone Kops’ Kontinued Kraziness

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The State Department has finally released its exhaustive study of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would allow the easy transport of Canadian oil-sands production down to Texas, where it can be refined and shipped abroad.

This has to be the billionth freaking study, and for the billionth freaking time, the study showed that the project will have little if any impact on global warming. (As if to underline the point, the report was issued at a time when most of the country was battling below-freezing temperatures and massive amounts of snow.) The operative point is that this oil will be produced and used no matter what; the only question is whether it will be brought to market in a way that benefits America (with jobs, tax revenue, and so on) or in a way that benefits only other countries — mainly China.

This report is nothing if not thorough — it is 11 volumes long. Alas, however, it isn’t the end of the matter. There will be a final State Department study to see if the pipeline “is in the nation’s best interest . . .”

Duh . . . more jobs (estimated at over 40,000 high-paying blue-collar jobs), more energy independence from terrorist-loving Middle Eastern despots, higher tax revenues for the states, and safer delivery of the product . . . it seems pretty much a no-brainer.

Naturally, the major opponents of the project are the Gaia-worshipping environmentalists, many of whom have lots of money (such as San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer) or lots of fame (such as actress Daryl Hannah), but little intellect.

The report draws no conclusions. It leaves that to the two Keystone Kops — Secretary of State John Kerry and (of course) President Obama himself.

We are in incompetent hands, indeed.

The Republicans in Congress have rightly been pushing this useless administration to finally approve the pipeline. They especially stress the need for more jobs, amid the Obama non-recovery recovery. Obama is also under pressure from the Canadian government, which is rightly tired of his low-level trade war against Canada, one of our most steadfast allies.

But then, pissing on friendly nations is one of Obama’s favorite pastimes. Just ask the Poles, Israelis, Brits . . . no, don’t ask. You don’t want to hear the shouting.

As a recent Wall Street Journal editorial notes, the alternative to moving this oil by pipeline is transporting it by rail or tanker. The State Department estimates that distributing the oil by rail and tanker results in about a 28% increase in greenhouse gas emissions; distributing it by rail to existing pipelines results in a 40% increase; and transporting it by rail to the Gulf of Mexico results in a 42% increase.

But this is logic. And Obama cares infinitely more about collecting millions of dollars in campaign cash for this year’s election than he does for logic — or the jobs of thousands of Americans, for that matter.

Speaking of campaign donations, we shouldn’t overlook the money and advice that Warren Buffett has obtained for Obama — and if the pipeline isn’t built, the oil will keep being shipped (as it has increasingly been) by rail. Buffett just happens to own one of country’s biggest railroads, one that will doubtless benefit if the pipeline remains unbuilt.

This brings up another thing Obama and his billionaire backers care little for: American lives. Moving large amounts of oil by rail increases dramatically the likelihood that there will be accidents and attendant explosions, as happened recently in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. To spell this out clearly enough so that even actresses can grasp the point, pipelines are routed through sparsely populated areas, while railways are routed through cities (because the lines carry freight and passengers as well as oil). Another “duh.”

The latest news is that Obama is passing the decision to that renowned expert on oil and pipelines, Secretary of State Kerry. This is yet another case of Obama’s legendary “lead from behind” approach to governance, and it doesn’t augur well. While the State Department maintains that Kerry will keep an open mind, he has famously written, “If we can put an end to the era of dirty fossil fuels, we can begin an era of sustainability . . . for our nation and our world.” And two years ago, when he was still a senator, he voted against an amendment favoring the pipeline.




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Gobbled by the Blob

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How does one begin to make sense out of the gooey, smelly mess that is today’s Republican Party?

My question must be accompanied by a confession. I recently joined the GOP for the very purpose of screwing it up. I wanted to cause even more chaos within it, or at least my own local corner of it. But my purpose was not to do it harm, but to do it good. I hoped that the chaos to which I contributed would be creative, not destructive.

I keep being told, you see, that to “make a difference,” I must belong to a “major” political party. The term “make a difference” makes me grit my teeth; I’m sure Stephen Cox has exposed it to justifiable ridicule in at least one of his “Word Watch” essays. The term “major” political party will make a great many of our readers grit their teeth, too. But my friends’ incessant arguments that I could be more politically effective as a Republican than as a Libertarian — at this crucial hour, when statism threatens to gobble up this country like the Blob — pushed me over the edge. In one of those deeply desperate moments when craziness seemed like sanity, I switched parties.

Here, however, I must make another confession. Though I do know a lot of very nice Republicans, there are quite a number of others I simply cannot stand. I’d hoped to remain in the GOP at least long enough to vote in its primary later this year. Already I’m not sure that I can last that long.

I was a Democrat from the time I first registered to vote, at the age of 18, until only a couple of years ago. During the eight years when Bush II practically demolished liberty in this country, I found myself moving increasingly in a libertarian direction. I’d hoped Obama would be the anti-Bush, but when he turned into George’s little brother, that was simply too much for me. The cowering, groveling, toadying attitude of so many Democrats to Emperor O just proved unbearable. I couldn’t keep that clothespin on my nose any longer.

Statists both left and right jabber about power, power, power. They are savages, and that is all they understand.

As a capital-L Libertarian, I got a brief chance to breathe again. But now that my mania to “make a difference” in the GOP has been quelled by reality, I find the clothespin pinching me once more. The vast majority of Republicans were very willing subjects to George Junior. As soon as another of their warlords seizes the scepter, they will surely revert to their former serfdom. I’m particularly disgusted by their babble about “libertarianism.” They show no evidence of knowing even the meaning of the word.

Like other politically active people, they love power as a junkie loves heroin. The Tea Party, which started out as a libertarian enterprise, captured the popular imagination and began to exert an influence. Then the social conservatives got hold of it — seeing it as a vehicle to power — and now the movement divides its energies between combatting the leviathan state and attempting to harness it to serve theocracy. They will do anything to get control, while the Dems will stop at nothing to hold onto it. In either camp, principle is nothing but a quaint, outdated notion.

Leftists with whom I regularly spar keep asking me how libertarians — small-L or large — ever hope to “take power.” For a long time, I really tried to take their question at face value and answer it. Then I realized that libertarians, whether in the party that bears their name or outside of it, are interested in something other than power for its own, brutal sake. We want to exert an influence as great as possible, but the direction in which we would steer this country is back toward principle.

Like a missionary from the last civilized land on earth, I try to explain this to statists both left and right, but they merely jabber at me about power, power, power. They are savages, and that is all they understand. We don’t dare abandon our enterprise to these people. They will tear the body politic limb from limb.

I am being too kind to today’s GOP to describe it as savage. It is no longer even human. It is, indeed, a B-movie monster. It may have honestly attempted, at one time, to fight the Blob, but it has long since been devoured and digested. I deeply fear that its bright, young, libertarian-ish stars will be unable to save it.

They still have to genuflect to lunatics. Perhaps to avoid being torn limb-from-limb himself, Rand Paul accompanied his assertion that the gay marriage issue should be decided by the states with a joke so blatantly in bad taste that even professional homophobe Tony Perkins claimed he’d gone over the line. “The president recently weighed in on marriage,” Paul told a gathering of Iowa’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, “and you know he said he views were evolving on marriage. Call me cynical, but I wasn’t sure his views on marriage could get any gayer.” Though Perkins, head of the notoriously anti-gay Family Research Council, said “this is not something to laugh about, to poke fun of other people about,” Paul’s joke drew plenty of yuks from the crowd.

“He said the biblical golden rule caused him to be for gay marriage,” Paul went on to say about President Obama. “I’m like what version of the Bible is he reading?”

As a gay person of faith, I could have told the senator that Obama was reading from the same Bible I do. The same one I thought the people at that conference read from, because I know of no other.

The atmosphere in the Republican Party has gotten so sulfurous that rhetoric like this is represented to us as fresh air.But I find it next to impossible to vote for a politician who says such things. Nor do I believe I can stand to remain in a party that requires every successful candidate to say them.

I am being too kind to today’s GOP to describe it as savage. It is no longer even human.

I’m glad that Senator Paul doesn’t want to throw me in jail for loving someone whose genitalia don’t meet with his approval. Perhaps it is overemotional on my part, but I simply don’t want to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in sweaty rooms packed with people who think like the “base” he still feels he needs to appease. My unease is based not on some childish fear that I might catch a disease, but on a sense that the whole party is headed over a cliff with the rest of the country.

Libertarianism offers an alternative that does something better than win the latest round in the tournament of big-government power. “Together,” writes Max Borders in The Freeman, “whatever our moralistic stripes, we are simultaneously creating a new order while rendering the old order obsolete. And now we’re aided by technology. This is not a libertarian ideology, but a libertarian reality carved out by people who simply refuse to be controlled by peers who purport to be superiors.”

That’s right — it’s what I really cared about all along. Perhaps the only difference I can make is by being different. We’re oddballs, and it may be inevitable that the savages won’t understand us. But every day new converts are joining us — if for no other reason than disappointment with the two major parties. Principle is roaring back.

We may need to opt out of the game. To “go Galt” on the system. The major-party minions may not like us, but we have probably already become too numerous not to count. The time may be coming when — dare I say it? — we may no longer be so odd.

Wherever I go, I will do good. That choice is mine, and as long as I insist on exercising it, I retain at least that much power. I refuse to accept savagery as the new normal. I will not be gobbled by the Blob.




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Hoffman Dies, War on Drugs Revives

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On February 2, Philip Seymour Hoffman, a movie actor, died with a needle in his arm in his home in New York City. To me, his death from a heroin overdose was regrettable, and regrettable in the same way in which deaths from the effects of overeating and overdrinking are regrettable. I felt no extra stirring of dramatic emotion.

In this, obviously, I am very unlike my fellow Americans. To the celebrities who flocked to his funeral, and the larger mobs who flocked to the websites and “news” sources mourning his death, his way of leaving this world appears to have ennobled him, given him, somehow, the rank of tragic hero. People who had never heard of him, or (like me) had heard of him and even liked his performances on screen but never considered his name as something to be remembered, suddenly found that their worlds were poorer because of Hoffman’s drug-related death. Policemen, working with a dedication rarely seen in cases of actual mayhem and murder, identified and arrested four people whom they suspected of possible responsibility for his death.

Responsibility? This is like arresting the employees of a fast-food restaurant because an obese patron died from the effects of his last Big Mac. Did anyone say “double standard”? Did anyone say “human sacrifice”? No. You heard it here first.

Granted, the Demonic Four may not be deacons of the church and pillars of the community. They may be disgusting members of the criminal class. (Or they may be wholly innocent.) But who created that criminal class? Who put the profit in illicit drugs? Who put “illicit” in drugs, and keeps it there?

Legalize drugs, all drugs. It’s none of your business, anyway, what other people ingest, but at least by legalizing drugs you can take the real crime out of so-called crime.

The answer is: the same kind of people who are beating their breasts over Hoffman’s death. It is these people — and they appear to be the majority of Americans, made snazzier by the presence among them of loquacious celebrities and soi-disant humanitarians — who create the illicit profit, and the correspondingly illicit drama, of heroin, cocaine, and all the other “hard” illegal drugs. They profess themselves to be so concerned about the fate of, say, wealthy actors that in retribution they are willing to spread the plague of crime, gangs, violence, and the corruption of the profit-seeking young across the continent, despoiling whole cities in a mad attempt to realize their dream of a Drug-Free America.

For a century, America has been waging war against drugs. According to CNN, heroin is now selling at $10 a unit on the streets of Philadelphia. If this, unlike other CNN reports, is actually true, then I say good, because the lower the price, the lower the real crime rate. Real crimes are crimes of fraud and violence, the kind of crimes that you create when you practice prohibition.

The solution is obvious: legalize drugs, all drugs. It’s none of your business, anyway, what other people ingest, but at least by legalizing drugs you can take the real crime out of so-called crime. Some people who don’t use drugs will then be able to use them. Maybe they’ll use them only on weekends. Maybe they’ll become addicted (like Philip Seymour Hoffman, who got that way despite the fact that hard drugs are illegal). Libertarians should not pretend that these bad effects won’t happen. But call me heartless — this is a small price to pay for the enormous heartlessness of the War on Drugs.

And the really horrible thing is that I’m not saying anything new. Everybody knows these facts. Everybody is capable of making these deductions. If you somehow manage to avoid making them, don’t tell me how much you mourn the death of people like Philip Seymour Hoffman. You have a lot more to regret than that.




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All in the Tribe

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A clear warning was sounded by the Republican national convention of 1996. Determined to nominate Bob Dole, a Republican elder statesman of the “moderate” variety (otherwise known as a Real Pro, the Great Insider, and One of Ours), the Grand Old Party turned its national deliberative body into a television soundstage, allowing no debate on anything. Only happy talk was permitted, and when the popular hero of the conservatives, Pat Buchanan, suddenly appeared in the convention hall, his entrance was distinctly without the permission of the tribal leaders. As Liberty’s reporter observed at the time (November 1996, p. 22), the ruling council feared that real people would have their way and nominate Buchanan. Meanwhile, the big chiefs did their best, and that was a lot, to remove all evidence of testicles from Jack Kemp, the quasi-libertarian whom they nominated for the vice presidency.

I am not saying that Pat Buchanan is a libertarian. Far from it. I am commenting on the behavior of his adversaries. Since their powwow, there hasn’t been a major-party national convention that has behaved as a deliberative body. They have all been like the First Vatican Council (1870), which was devised by Pope Pius IX as a stage set on which he could declare himself infallible. Pio Nono refused to allow the attending bishops to initiate any proposals, or even to know what their agenda was supposed to be. When some tried to protest, they found that the acoustics in the meeting room were so bad that almost nobody could understand them. When a few tried harder to protest, they were threatened with the loss of their sees. And so the invincible Pope was declared infallible.

There were many strong and learned people in the church who exposed the fallacies of Pius IX’s new doctrine, but the majority of bishops were so ignorant, stupid, frightened, or greedy for power that they went right along with it. They were not a congregation; they were a tribe, subject to their tribal rulers, just as American political parties are today.

Tribalism is now a leading characteristic of our politics, and perhaps the leading one. You see it in many forms, most of which are never mentioned in the information media — another sign of the ignorance and acquiescence that are inseparable accompaniments of tribalism. Ignorance and acquiescence are fit companions for each other. Why should anyone want to know anything, if no one is prepared to act on the knowledge that he or she might acquire?

Nepotism is another salient characteristic of tribal rule. In most tribes, leadership passes almost automatically from one member of a family to another. The more frightened and ignorant people are, the more they fear diversity of character and opinion; they want to keep what they have, or something closely related to it. Hence, the ruler’s son or grandson or son-in-law will be seen as having a direct claim on power. Once the unworthy person has gained power, he will be conscious of the ability of other persons to uncover his weaknesses or wrongdoings, and he will therefore seek to govern by loyalty, not information. He will continue to trust family ties more than the ties established by a common pursuit of rational goals.

Why should anyone want to know anything, if no one is prepared to act on the knowledge that he or she might acquire?

And, of course, tribal government is intensely small-scale and personal. Where power depends on charismatic personalities, the safest and easiest method of passing it along is by an irrational association with family. The Bible tells us that Samuel, judge and prophet, tried to appoint his sons as judges — as inheritors, in his place, of the divine charisma. It is noteworthy, however, that on this occasion the people rebelled; they were aware that the sons were no good, and they acted on that knowledge, and threw them out.

With us, all such processes of rational choice ended with the Kennedys. The Kennedy clan always did and always will act on tribal principles. And their tribe was originally embedded in a larger tribe, the Irish New England Catholics who would vote for anyone so long as he was not “English” or “Protestant.” The real problem arose when the whole country began acting in this way, accepting Ted Kennedy and even greater idiots, such as Patrick Kennedy, as natural successors to the bright and charismatic JFK. Robert Kennedy was a more competent bearer of charisma, but his position in the Kennedy clan was the only thing that really mattered to his success. Here was a man who had made himself stink in the nostrils of organized labor and the FDR liberals, a man who enjoyed a relationship with Joseph McCarthy, a man who was noted for his nastiness and ruthlessness — do you think his political career could possibly have gone anywhere if he had not happened to be a president’s brother?

Since the 1960s, no revelations of the gross immorality and stupidity that have abounded in the Kennedy family have proved capable of destroying the tribal loyalty felt for it by large segments of the American populace. Even more disturbing is the fact that the original tribe, the Irish Catholics, and the larger tribe, Americans in general, neither cared nor noticed that the ideology of the Kennedys — the thing about their political leadership that was subject to rational debate, pro or con — evolved into something almost directly opposite to what the voters had originally found attractive. Jack Kennedy was mildly-to-very “rightwing” in most of his public positions; his successors have ranged from very leftwing to crazy leftwing. This made no difference to the tribe.

The Clintons and the Bushes have built their political lives on Americans’ new susceptibility to tribalism. No objective judge of personal merit and fitness to attain the presidency would ever come close to regarding such people as Bill and Hillary Clinton, or the two Presidents Bush, as fit for any office of public trust, above, say, the level of notary public — and any notary whose standards of truth were similar to theirs would soon lose his seal. The Bushes are basically nice people; the Clintons are basically not; but that doesn’t mean that the Bushes had an inflexible habit of telling the truth. They didn’t. As for the Clintons, it’s hard to see that they have ever given the truth much value. Hillary has lied enthusiastically, even when there was no reason or occasion to lie. The revelations of the Clintons’ misconduct (has there been any other kind of conduct with them?) have never shaken their hold on an enormous tribe of voters, donors, and subject officials.

It’s not just my 12-year-old-kid ideal of America that leads me to see inheritance of political office as a bad omen for the republic. If there were something intellectually or morally distinguished about the nepotists, I would not object to one Bush or Clinton following the other. But neither morality nor intelligence has anything to do with it. There are millions of Americans who are smarter than the Bushes, the Clintons, and the Kennedys (yes, even the Kennedys). As for morals: the moral character of the Bushes was about par for American presidential politics, but the character of the Kennedys and Clintons came from another universe — the universe, perhaps, of the old Germanic tribes. At the presidential level, the notion that personal morality is politically irrelevant, the notion that “they all do it” and therefore I should do it too, is an innovation, and a most unhappy one. Say what you will about the hypocrisy of old-fashioned moral standards, I would rather have a pretense of morality than the assumption that it is meaningless.

In what society other than that of a warlike band of hunters and gatherers would Kathleen Sebelius still have a job?

What, you might say, about earlier instances of presidencies passed from one member of a family to another? Well, what about it? John Quincy Adams was the son of the great John Adams, and he benefited from the connection, but his intellectual attainments and his enormous experience as a diplomat would have made him an important political figure even without his relationship to his father — who was, by the way, not much liked in the early 19th century, if ever. Quincy Adams wasn’t a good president, but his father wasn’t to blame for that. Benjamin Harrison was the grandson of William Henry Harrison, who died a month after his inauguration; the family connection appears to have had no significance in his career. The same might be said of Franklin Roosevelt, in respect to his distant relative, Theodore Roosevelt. Tribalism had nothing to do with FDR’s popularity; it has everything to do with Mrs. Clinton’s.

But tribes do not consist merely of biological families; there are also the allies and subordinate chiefs, the official families and political families of the rulers. The Kennedys and Clintons maintained (and maintain) vast numbers of flacks, fixers, hangers-on, speechwriters, ghostwriters, media allies, and just plain dumb-loyal employees of government whose real job is to maintain the power of the tribe. Their loyalty is their most important asset, and it is repaid in kind. The tribe takes care of its own.

One of the most ominous signs of tribalism in our political life is the paucity of expulsions from the central hearth. The Bushes were very loath to fire anyone, and Obama is still more loath. In what society other than that of a warlike band of hunters and gatherers would Kathleen Sebelius still have a job? It may be that Obama is afraid of releasing people because they know too much (although the example of Sebelius argues otherwise, because she obviously knows nothing about anything). Fears of untoward revelations were a strong factor with Bill Clinton’s administration, as they will be with any administration conducted by his wife; the Clintonistas, like the Kennedyphiles, have always behaved like a mob bound by blood oaths. In any case, recent administrations have placed the chief virtue of tribal society, which is loyalty, above every other virtue. The example has been imitated by every political group subsidiary to them. No spokesman for feminism, environmentalism, veterans’ assistance, ethnic causes, or even non-drunken driving can be driven from the podium by anything less than video proof of heinous crimes; at the first sign of trouble, the protective ring of loyalists shuts tight around them.

The result is that loyalists increase and prosper, and independent and critical minds are driven from politics. Tribes can be conquered (usually by other tribes) or they can starve themselves out of existence, but they cannot be reformed. The barbarian tribes that destroyed the Roman Empire either wiped one another out or were reduced to poverty and impotence by the devastation they had caused. It is sad but all too plausible: the American republic will perish in the tribal wars of Kennedys and Bushes, Clinton clones and Obama clones, pressure groups of elephants and pressure groups of donkeys.




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Logic and Liberty

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A key instrument of political persuasion is the logical argument. Advocates of every ideology back their ethical and political beliefs with arguments based on premises that reflect their fundamental views of the nature of reality and the nature of man.

Libertarians promote freedom-oriented values using closely reasoned arguments based on widely accepted social and ethical norms. Yet few people newly exposed to such arguments become libertarians. Why is this the case? Is it moral failure on the part of the listeners, failure such as envy or the desire for the unearned? Is it a refusal to accept rational arguments, putting faith or feelings above reason? Is it peer pressure, favoring the traditional and conventional?

Or is it something else entirely, something we’ve missed?

To understand why communicating the value of libertarian principles is often so difficult, we need to reexamine the nature of logical argumentation and the role it plays in political and ethical debate. Classical or Aristotelian logic is a powerful tool for grasping and organizing concepts and defining their relationships to one another and to reality. But decades of experience have shown that logic, by itself, is not an effective tool for marketing libertarian ideas. Indeed, when used improperly or in an inappropriate setting, it often achieves the opposite of its intended result.

Decades of experience have shown that logic, by itself, is not an effective tool for marketing libertarian ideas.

A widely held belief among libertarians is that, aside from direct perception, the primary way that people acquire knowledge or beliefs is by using their rational faculties, employing either classical logic or mental processes that are reducible to classical logic. This is not true; and even if it were, the use of logic alone would not be an efficient means of promoting a libertarian worldview. Here are several reasons why.

When dealing with concepts, people construct mental models of these concepts. These models are mental images representing typical examples of the concepts under discussion, based on previous encounters with instances of them. For example, when one is presented with the concept “bird,” the image that comes to mind is likely a “generic” bird such as a robin or a sparrow, rather than a less typical bird such as a penguin or an ostrich.

Once an image has become associated with a specific concept in an individual’s mind, that image becomes the standard by which he or she judges any instances of that concept encountered at a later time. When presented with a logical statement — for example, “if A, therefore B” — a person will evaluate not only whether the statement makes logical sense, but also how well “A” and “B” match his or her mental images. If two or more competing arguments are presented, people usually accept the one most strongly in accord with their preexisting images.

This leads to difficulties in the realm of political discourse. Taking an example from the libertarian playbook, consider the following syllogism: “Taxation is theft. Theft is morally wrong. Therefore, taxation is morally wrong.”

As libertarian arguments go, this one is relatively straightforward, easy to explain and understand. However, a listener’s response to this syllogism and its embedded concepts will be heavily influenced by the images that these concepts generate in his or her mind. For a non-libertarian listener, the word “theft” is likely to conjure up the image of a conventional criminal rather than a tax collector.

By itself, logic cannot successfully compete with emotion-laden appeals to voters’ ingrained beliefs and habits of thought.

Since the argument presented by the libertarian conforms to the rules of logic, the listener will evaluate the validity of the argument based upon the degree to which the image of “tax collector” corresponds to the image of “thief” in the listener’s mind. If the listener’s mental images for “thief” and “tax collector” are too far apart, the listener may conclude that the libertarian is attempting to stretch the definition of the word “theft” beyond its appropriate boundaries, and as a consequence may reject the argument entirely.

This is more than a trivial issue regarding the effectiveness of libertarian outreach. Mental images can be much more influential than logical arguments in shaping and maintaining a society’s character, laws, and customs. The history and political culture of the United States at present provide a case in point.

For many Americans in the revolutionary era, the exemplar of a person fully entitled to liberty was a white male, preferably a landowner and farmer. Native Americans, African-Americans, and women were seen as inferior in various respects when compared to this idealized image, and thus not entitled to enjoy the same rights as white males. These images or mental models were widespread in colonial and revolutionary America, reflected in policies such as expulsion of Native Americans, enslavement of African-Americans, limitations on women’s (especially married women’s) property rights, and exclusion of all three groups from meaningful participation in the political process. The pervasiveness of these mental images partially explains how so many white landowners were able, in their own minds, to justify owning slaves while simultaneously fighting a revolution based on “inalienable” human rights.

Political and cultural images are no less powerful today. Most of them (though not all) help to sustain the perceived legitimacy and effectiveness of government intrusion into all aspects of a supposedly “free” society, even in the face of massive evidence to the contrary. Statist politicians take full advantage of these images to bypass rational debate as they advance their agendas. Virtually all political advertising in the mainstream media attempts to influence voters by appealing to their established mental images in order to manipulate their emotions.Experience has shown that such advertising is effective. By itself, logic cannot successfully compete with emotion-laden appeals to voters’ ingrained beliefs and habits of thought; if it could, libertarians would have won the ideological battle long ago.

People assign measurement parameters to qualitative concepts, based on how well particular instances of these concepts match their mental images. The relationship between concepts and measurement is a tricky one. Many concepts, such as height, require some form of measurement when applied to a concrete example. Concepts that are more abstract, such as motivation, can be given descriptive forms of measurement (“highly motivated”, “barely motivated”), allowing specific instances to be compared to one another. Finally, there are concepts, such as “bird,” that apply to a specific set of entities and appear to be purely qualitative and not subject to measurement — either a particular entity is a bird, or it isn’t.

But people apply measurement parameters to qualitative concepts also, in terms of the degree to which a specific example matches a person’s mental image. A penguin may have all the formal characteristics of a bird and yet be too different from a “typical” bird to be considered a full member of the “set” of birds. Faced with this conundrum, people often give only partial or qualified recognition to a penguin’s status as a bird (“a penguin is sort of a bird”).

When qualitative concepts such as “bird” are assigned a measurement component, their inclusion in logical statements becomes problematic. If this type of concept is used in the premise of a syllogism, the measurement component will also carry over into its conclusion, and in some cases will diminish the perceived validity of the entire argument.

Revisiting our previous example of taxation as a form of theft, a non-libertarian is likely to assign the concept “tax collector” only partial membership in the set of conceptual entities denoted by the word “thief.” Depending on the listener’s perspective, the concept “tax collector” will correspond to the concept “thief” anywhere from 100% (if the listener is a hardcore libertarian) to 0% (if the listener is a hardcore socialist who does not recognize any right to private property). Most people will estimate the percentage as somewhere in between, depending upon the degree of legitimacy that each person assigns to the concept of taxation and how reasonable the person considers a tax rate to be. The extent to which a person believes that a tax collector is a thief is the extent to which that person will agree with the libertarian’s position regarding the morality of taxation. Only rarely will such agreement be total.

The higher the level of abstraction, the more widely a population’s mental models of a concept will vary. Higher-level concepts are derived from multiple lower-level concepts. The same holds true for mental images. Each lower-level image varies from person to person, increasing the overall variation in a population’s higher-level mental images. As an analogy, consider a contest among several chefs preparing a meal from the same recipe. The recipe itself is identical for all chefs, but each chef’s interpretation of that recipe will make each final product unique. The more complex the recipe — the more ingredients used and the more steps required in the meal’s preparation — the greater will be the variation in the resulting dishes.

Propagandists for big government find it almost impossible to demonize the phrase “free market.” Both words in this phrase resonate favorably with the public.

Variation among high-level images greatly increases the difficulty faced by libertarians seeking to change people’s minds through the use of logic. Most concepts relating to libertarian principles and values — concepts such as justice, morality, property, and individualism — involve high levels of abstraction. But the more abstract the concepts employed in a libertarian’s argument, the less likely is the listener to share the libertarian’s interpretation of those concepts. To convince people to adopt a libertarian view of high-level abstractions such as justice, one must also convince them to revise their mental models of the lower-level concepts that give rise tothese high-level abstractions. Often this can be achieved only by a complete overhaul of a non-libertarian’s core values. Logical arguments, no matter how elegantly structured, are not sufficient by themselves to accomplish this task.

Because of evolutionary pressures, people are “hardwired” to resist change, an attribute that logic alone cannot overcome. In his recently published book What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, David DiSalvo identifies a widespread human trait — one that helps explain why it is so difficult for libertarians to be successful in challenging the political status quo. He writes: “The brain lives on a preferred diet of stability, certainty, and consistency, and perceives unpredictability, uncertainty, and instability as threats to its survival — which is, in effect, our survival.”

This universal human tendency — developed in a much more dangerous world to cope with ambiguous threats, and now part of our evolutionary heritage — raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the methods we use to advance our political philosophy. In employing an “educational” strategy using logical argumentation, we are constantly outmaneuvered by the hardwiring of the human brain that craves “stability, certainty, and consistency.” Our political agenda is not an obvious fit in any of these three categories. However, most libertarians do not recognize this as a serious problem, and ignore or downplay voters’ concerns regarding stability, certainty, and consistency, preferring to focus almost exclusively on the advantages of liberty and less intrusive government.

In doing so we make it difficult to gain adherents, because we are urging people to take a leap into the unknown and untried — at least in their experience. The prospect of instability triggers a perception of heightened risk and uncertainty in listeners’ minds. Most people are risk-averse, especially in matters concerning their own survival, their livelihood, and the wellbeing of their families. In times of crisis such as now, they gravitate toward solutions that promise stability, and shun proposals that are fraught with uncertainty, even if such proposals promise a greater level of individual freedom.

Given these reasons why logic alone cannot convince most people to adopt a libertarian philosophy, it might appear that our most potent weapon in the battle for liberty is inadequate to the task. But each of the limitations described above can be overcome by employing logic carefully and in combination with other means of persuasion. Here are a few suggestions in this regard.

If two words or phrases mean substantially the same thing, choose the one that is most likely to evoke the desired mental image in the listener’s mind. For example, defenders of economic liberty often use the terms “capitalism” and “free market” interchangeably. Strictly speaking, the two concepts are nearly identical in meaning. But to the general public, the word “capitalism” evokes a multitude of unfavorable associations and images that do not arise when the term “free market” is used.

For many people, “capitalism” conjures up images of politically connected financial institutions receiving government favors; multinational corporations “outsourcing” American jobs to cheaper and less regulated labor markets abroad; giant retailers crushing helpless smaller competitors; exploitation of conscientious workers by uncaring employers; and the awarding of multi-billion-dollar bonuses to rich Wall Street executives.

Although most of these undesirable events result from massive government interference in the economy, the public at large perceives them as failures of capitalism. This happens because of the pervasive influence of the media and the public education system, both of which are overwhelmingly friendly to “activist” government and hostile to business.

However, propagandists for big government find it almost impossible to demonize the phrase “free market.” Both words in this phrase resonate favorably with the public, and “free market” is familiar to many people as shorthand for a system of voluntary exchange. While “capitalism” can readily be personified and caricatured (“evil capitalist,” “plutocrat,” “exploiter,” “monopolist”), the term “free market” does not lend itself to such verbal distortion — we never hear statists castigating “evil free marketers.”

If our objective is to gain wider support for our views, insisting on unconditional acceptance of our policy proposals is a losing strategy.

When we promote our ethical and political principles through the use of logic, we are evoking people’s mental images as we attempt to appeal to their rational faculties. Our arguments can be much more persuasive if we strive to use words and phrases that evoke the most favorable images and associations in their minds. In this instance, promoting the “free market” rather than defending “capitalism” is more likely to achieve this goal.

Avoid the use of higher-level concepts when lower-level ones will address the issue at hand. For example, in casual conversation with non-philosophers, it is usually not helpful or appropriate to invoke natural rights theory, Austrian economics, or high-level abstractions such as individualism when discussing issues such as Wall Street bailouts and Obamacare. Most listeners will more readily connect with everyday libertarian talking points about freedom of choice and the unfairness of income redistribution.

Demonstrate that our policy proposals promote “stability, certainty, and consistency.” This means toning down the language of “radical upheaval” in favor of the language of “sensible reform.” As noted earlier, most voters are risk-averse when faced with the prospect of major changes in the social or political landscape. Such voters will be more receptive to arguments promoting a libertarian agenda if these arguments are presented in a manner that is reassuring rather than unsettling.

When proposing policies based on libertarian principles, avoid the temptation to insist that such policies be applied in every case. Although principles are not contextual, policies are. For most policies there are exceptional circumstances, such as “lifeboat” situations, that make it appropriate to modify them temporarily, or waive them. If we treat our political principles as axioms and our policy prescriptions as moral absolutes, our arguments become fragile; any real or perceived exceptions will weaken such arguments in the minds of listeners.

In libertarian circles, an unfortunate but common example of this phenomenon is misuse of the non-initiation-of-force principle (really a policy prescription rather than a principle), which states that no one may initiate force against another person. This policy is appropriate in most adult-to-adult interactions. However, in other contexts exceptions come readily to mind, such as dealings with children or persons afflicted with severe mental problems.

If our objective is to gain wider support for our views, insisting on unconditional acceptance of our policy proposals is a losing strategy. We can more effectively promote our principles, and receive a more respectful hearing from a non-libertarian audience, if we do not overstate our case by insisting that our ideas be put into practice regardless of any circumstances that may arise. Libertarian proposals for public policy are aimed at maintaining or defending values, and can legitimately be overridden when higher or more fundamental values are at stake.

Ultimately, our success in promoting a libertarian worldview depends not only on presenting well-reasoned logical arguments, but also on making sure that we employ language and concepts that are appropriate to the particular issue and the particular audience we are addressing. Putting in this extra effort can go a long way toward making libertarianism accessible and attractive to those we seek to reach.




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Confessions of a Sports Fanatic

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As a libertarian, and a nonfollower of sports, I often wonder why people get deeply involved in America's great community project of watching games, cheering for teams, keeping track of trades, remembering statistics, and all the rest of it. To be honest, I simply don't understand why anyone would follow sports. So I asked a libertarian sports fan, Russell Hasan, to explain it to me. Here's what he said. See what you think.

— Stephen Cox

Ancient Greece held the Olympics. In ancient Rome the Emperor held gladiator games at the Coliseum. In modern America we have the Super Bowl. Given the broad fan base of sports, from baseball and football in the USA to soccer in Europe and South America, to rugby and cricket in England, Australia, and Asia, there must be something about sports that appeals to a deep and fundamental need in human nature.

Why do people like sports? The appeal of sports is not complicated, so I think I can explain it, although it reduces to basic emotions that you either feel or do not feel. Being a fanatical fan of the New York Yankees, and also following the New York Giants football team closely, does several things for me. I’ll list them.

1. Enjoyment. Watching sports is fun. If you don’t enjoy watching sports, then you are never going to be an avid sports fan (unless you play sports, which is a different article altogether). I like watching baseball and football, so it is natural for me to be a sports fan. Having been born and raised in New York, I root for the Yankees and the Giants. Sports gives me something to do when I am bored. There are 162 games during the baseball regular season, and more games when the Yankees make the playoffs. The Giants play 16 games in the football regular season. When you enjoy watching sports on TV, there is always something to watch. Factor in parties to see a game or seeing a game at a sports bar, and one can build an entire life out of watching the Yankees.

2. Tension. But why do I enjoy watching my Yankees play against another team, especially against the accursed, vile, rotten, Red Sox (their division rival)? Well, if you don’t see what I see then this might be like describing music to a deaf person, but something articulable can be stated about what it is like for a sports fan to see a game. I would describe a good game as “tension, adrenaline, excitement, and suspense.” Baseball and football are designed so that the games are usually a close contest between the two teams. A few crucial plays can determine who wins. When the Yankees are ahead by one run, and a fly ball goes to the outfield, I root for the Yankees outfielder to catch it. He does so 99% of the time, but there is a little sting of excitement to see the ball shoot over to him, and then a small but pleasurable sigh of relief when the baseball is caught.

The appeal of sports is not complicated, so I think I can explain it, although it reduces to basic emotions that you either feel or do not feel.

When I root for a team it means I want them to win, so I am happy when my team scores. I am elated when the Yankees win, and I feel horrible when they lose. I enjoy the adrenaline rush of being in a nerve-wracking high-stress situation when my team is in a key situation in a close game. To feel that, and then to see my team make a play and win the game, is thrilling.

3. Personality. So I enjoy games because I get to see my team win and the other team lose. But why am I a fan of the Yankees and Giants particularly? Each sports team has its own personality, which can only be seen when you follow the sport as closely as I do. For example, the Yankees are the equivalent of a rich successful businessman who dominates his competition and buys mansions and yachts, while the Red Sox are the equivalent of lovable loser underdogs who have recently changed their bad luck and become winners after decades of being horrible. The Mets (and also the basketball team the New York Knicks) are the pathetic loser that you feel sorry for and root for because of a deep, committed passion to be there for them no matter what, even though they constantly lose despite having every opportunity to win. It’s as if the Mets were your alcoholic brother who puked on your bathroom floor on a regular basis.

In football, the New York Giants’ personality is defined by their quarterback, Eli Manning, who once stood in the shadow of his more successful brother Peyton but later emerged and developed into one of the best quarterbacks in the game, crowned by two victories over the Patriots in the Super Bowl, victories that gave New York bragging rights in the perpetual New York vs. Boston sports feud. That sort of success story can be found at some point in the history of most teams. The flavor of the Yankees dates back to the trade for Babe Ruth from the Red Sox, which trade made the Yankees and the Sox what they are: the Yankees became winners and the Sox became lovable losers. The personality of a team comes from its players and its fans, but it grows into a spirit that surrounds the team; and team personality is a great basis upon which to choose whom to root for. In the 2014 Super Bowl, the personality of the two teams is easy to see: the Broncos are Peyton Manning’s team as he fights to be recognized as the greatest football player of his era, while the Seahawks seek to give Seattle sports fans their first championship in a major American sport and reward Seattle’s fan base, which is known as the “Twelfth Man” because it is so loud that it’s like another member of the 11-man Seattle defense.

4. Regional Pride. Sports teams bring together a city or region and provide a bonding experience. The Yankees and Mets give New Yorkers something to talk about. I have had experiences at the dentist and the grocery store in which someone saw my Yankees cap and I had an interesting talk with a total stranger. In ways like this, sports gives a community something to discuss, something in common. Each city and region has a team that it is passionate about. New York has the Yankees and Mets, Boston has the Red Sox, Dallas has the Cowboys, Seattle has the Seahawks. These teams give regional identity and cultural flavor to an area, and this is good for the community.

The flavor of the Yankees dates back to the trade for Babe Ruth from the Red Sox, which trade made the Yankees and the Sox what they are: the Yankees became winners and the Sox became lovable losers.

5. Discussion. As I mentioned, sports give people something to talk about. Every day of the year, I suspect there are a multitude of conversations about sports, and in the absence of sports these would be mere awkward silences between people who have nothing to talk about. There are millions of Yankees fans across America, and if I need to chat up any of them, I immediately have something that provides content for a friendly conversation. I can talk about the recent Yankees seasons for hours, and make intelligent observations about the team. I can talk about the decline of pitcher C.C. Sabathia’s arm strength, the ineptness of general manager Brian Cashman’s minor league talent scouting system, Robinson Cano’s greed, Babe Ruth’s stats (interesting fact: Babe Ruth has some of the best stats as a pitcher in baseball history, despite being better known for hitting over 700 home runs), and I could pull a dozen other conversation topics out of my Yankees hat. People need something to discuss when making friendly small talk, and sports is an easy, fun, enjoyable topic for them to discuss. I have found this to be true even among libertarians; for example, the famous Objectivist philosopher Chris Matthew Sciabarra is as avid a New York Yankees fan as I am.

6. Bonding. Sports brings friends together, and it brings families together when they share the same favorite team. Watching a baseball game together, or playing baseball in the backyard of your house, is a common father-son bonding experience. In my own case, if not for the fact that I and my mother and father are all Yankees fans, I would have very little in common with my parents, neither of whom are lawyers and both of whom are liberal Democrats.

7. Achievement. Sports, particularly baseball and football but also tennis, soccer, hockey, basketball, and most other sports, are almost unbelievably difficult for the athletes to play. Coaches and players require a chessmaster-like grasp of strategy, especially at the quarterback position in football. The quarterback needs to identify the defense’s scheme in about three seconds and find the right hole through which to throw the football. Major League pitchers need to be smart in deciding which pitch to throw to fool the batter. Intelligence is necessary. But athletic prowess is obviously also needed, and today’s professional athletes have almost unbelievable muscles. Some professional football players can lift a refrigerator, while there are baseball players who look like statues of the Greek gods. It is fun to watch people be good at something very difficult and challenging.

Also, a lot of success in sports is psychological. As Yogi Berra remarked: “Ninety percent of baseball is half mental.” To me, it is motivating and inspirational to watch the players on the team that is losing cope with the challenge of a deficit in the score and overcome their problems for a come-from-behind win. Both times the Giants beat the Patriots in recent Super Bowls, the Giants were the underdog and rallied to defeat a New England team that had more talent and was supposed to win. Stories like that are heartwarming. I was ecstatic when the Giants beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, and especially the second time they did it, when at the end of the game the Giants defense made a play against New England quarterback Tom Brady, who is probably the single most dangerous player in the NFL.

Some professional football players can lift a refrigerator, while there are baseball players who look like statues of the Greek gods.

Why do I like sports? I like sports because I enjoy watching the Yankees and Giants play. Why do I like watching them? Because it is fun to root for the home team. Why do I root for them? Because I am a Yankees fan and a Giants fan. Why am I a fan? I guess it really all reduces to a personal decision about how you choose to express yourself and what sort of personality you want to create for yourself as a human being, and what you enjoy in life. If I wanted, I could be a “foodie,” obsessed with sushi and sashimi. Then I would be writing about Japanese food instead of sports. But that isn’t who I am. Who I am is a New York Yankees fan and a New York Giants fan. And a lot of other Americans feel the way I do.




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