Green Jobs


The Internet is awash with websites promoting green jobs. Unlike regular jobs, green jobs are socially and environmentally responsible. And they are more rewarding and fulfilling. They give the green-collar worker a sense of belonging to something greater than himself. As a candidate in 2008, Barack Obama promised five million high paying green jobs. To green advocates, these jobs have helped implement the green recovery from the "Great Recession." Many tens of millions more will be created to build a new Green Economy that will bring social justice, environmental harmony, and sustainable prosperity to America.

As the Green Economy emerges, our entire infrastructure must be modernized, to bring our systems of agriculture, transportation, manufacturing, education, housing, and so forth into a mellifluous alignment with nature. According to Bright Green Talent, one of numerous companies established to help the green collar crowd, "we have to change everything — the way we live, the way we work, the way we eat, the way we travel, the way we make things." For those eager to begin green careers, it's "a wonderful time to get a green job or become a green entrepreneur." There's no time like the present to prepare for challenges ahead, such as "species extinction, deforestation, sea pollution, desertification, topsoil reduction, and freshwater depletion." And what could be more rewarding and fulfilling than a pat on the back from humanity for staving off "ecological collapse, major conflict, famine, drought, and economic depression"?

Under the new BLS definition, many coal miners, loggers, bus drivers, iron workers, bike-repair shop clerks, and used-record store employees have green jobs.

But back in the real world, there is a problem. Despite a few years of rapid growth in wind-and solar-generated electricity, there is no demand for green jobs. The ambitious, profligate schemes to create a green economy have gone awry. Sustainability is stagnation, even in the green world.

In his 2012 reelection bid, President Obama boasted about his record of creating 2.7 million green jobs, with many more on the way — ostensibly the result of his $90 billion clean-energy stimulus. In reality, it was the result of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) redefining a green job as any employment with an environmental benefit. Under the new BLS definition, many coal miners, loggers, bus drivers, iron workers, bike-repair shop clerks, and used-record store employees have green jobs.

Based on direct-employment data, however, only 140,000 actual green jobs existed when Mr. Obama was touting 2.7 million. This paltry number included the 910 direct jobs in the solar and wind energy industries that were created by the stimulus program (at a cost to taxpayers of $9.8 million per job). But it also included green jobs that existed before Obama took office. That is, even 140,000 was a gross overstatement. In examining the president's shamelessly deceptive claims, Reason magazine discovered both the paucity and the vapidity of green jobs, and provided a more accurate characterization of our emerging Green Economy:

Surprisingly, the top sector for clean jobs was not installing sleek new solar panels or manufacturing electric cars, but “waste management and treatment” (386,000 jobs). In other words, trash collectors. Rounding out the rest of the top four were “mass public transit” (350,000 jobs), conservation (315,000), and “regulation and compliance,” i.e., government employees (141,000). Should the 21st Century economy really depend on hiring more trash collectors, bus drivers, and bureaucrats?

The growth in legitimate green jobs was embarrassingly grim, even in industries such as solar and wind that had experienced significant growth in installation capacity. According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2012, after two years of a "ninefold increase in solar power . . . solar employment had increased just 28%." In 2008, the wind industry employed about 85,000; by 2012, it employed about 81,000 — a decline of almost 5%.

Today, millions of Americans would be thrilled to land a job producing planet-healers such as solar panels, windmills, or batteries. Unfortunately, most of those jobs have moved to places such as China, where the cost of labor for producing the products is $1.74 per hour — compared to $35.53 per hour for American manufacturers. Thanks to green economists, who didn't think that an enormous labor cost differential would matter, American taxpayers blew $90 billion to create a green manufacturing boom in China, and now pay subsidies to homeowners and businesses to buy China's green products — green sustainability to the geniuses in Washington DC.

True, the present glut of cheap foreign solar panels has benefited many American consumers, as have the generous tax-funded subsidies. And, in recent years, solar panel installation jobs have increased by 20% annually. These jobs, however, pay on average less than $38,000 a year — compared with $52,400 a year, the average pay for manufacturing jobs. On the bright side, installers can think of the $14,400 difference as psychic income, derived from their being socially and environmentally responsible.

Thanks to green economists, who didn't think that an enormous labor cost differential would matter, American taxpayers blew $90 billion to create a green manufacturing boom in China.

Central planners have pushed the green revolution to new heights of crony capitalism — and irony. America's subsidized solar-panel manufacturing industry is unhappy with China's subsidized solar-panel manufacturing industry. Consequently, the US division of solar-panel maker SolarWorld AG, a German-owned firm, is lobbying Congress for protection. But America's subsidized installation industry is happy with cheap Chinese solar panels. In this skirmish, notes a recent Slate article, “The World’s Dumbest Trade War: "one side is wearing an American flag over a German flag, and the other has an American flag draped over a Chinese flag."

Immense subsidies to bring us together in a cause greater than ourselves have, instead, brought the world’s top economic powers to "the brink of a trade war that could cripple a promising industry in both countries, kill jobs, and hurt the environment all at once. It’s a terrible trade-policy trifecta." So much for environmental harmony.

And where's the environmental harmony for our birds and tortoises? Birds crashing into solar panels (or plummeting to their deaths after having their wings "reduced to a web of charred spines" by solar mirrors) are not good for the green image. Nor are dead desert tortoises, whose habitat has been disrupted by tediously sprawling solar farms. And gangly wind farms are worse, swatting more than a half million birds to death annually, including the iconic bald eagle.

After almost six years of throwing billions of taxpayer money at anything green, the excitement is over. Large-scale renewable energy has slowed to a feeble crawl, if not a morbid decline. Of the 365 federal applications for solar facilities since 2009, only twenty are on track to be built; only three large-scale plants are operational. Solar companies are going broke, and projects are being cancelled. Solar energy remains uncompetitive and, for all of the hoopla, contributes less than one half of 1% to the nation's power supply. Declining subsidies (the current 30% investment tax credit, for example, will drop to 10% in 2016) and increasing environmental costs (consider, for instance, the BrightSource Energy solar farm in California's Ivanpah Valley, which has already spent over $56 million relocating tortoises) are driving investors away. The wholesale blade-kill slaughter of birds has jeopardized the wind energy industry's annual subsidy ($12 billion in 2013).

Some green job promoters may be thinking, "Well, at least things can't get any worse." If so, they are wrong. The lawsuits are starting. There's nothing like a lawsuit to increase project costs, scare off financial backers, and kill green jobs. Recently, the Justice Department (taking time from its hectic fossil fuel lawsuit schedule) brought charges against a Wyoming wind farm that had been killing golden eagles, and won. The victory was small (a puny $1 million fine) but ominous. On its heels, the American Bird Conservancy announced plans to sue the Interior Department over eagle-kill permits that authorize windmill companies to "kill and harm bald and golden eagles for up to 30 years without penalty." This is bad news for green job seekers, and for bird hunters, who could apparently get a 30-year permit instead of an annual license. Bird hunter to Fish and Wildlife clerk: "Yeah, I'll have one of those eagle-kill permits, you know, for my windmill."

Five years of "sustainability" have brought stagnation, even to the green economy.

The EPA has spent over $50 million on 237 green job training programs. Of the 12,800 people trained, 9,100 obtained green jobs — at a cost to taxpayers of $5,500 per job. The Department of Energy has spent $26 billion on green energy loan programs that created 2,308 permanent jobs — at a cost to taxpayers of $11.25 million per job. Evidently, none of the employees works on the 20 million acres of federal land that the Obama administration has made available to renewable developers. Last October, in the first auction of this land for solar development, not a single bid was made. However, some of them may work on the millions of acres that Obama has denied to fossil fuel developers, where they search for reasons to suppress fracking. Yet fracking (on private lands) has created 360,000 jobs, at a cost to taxpayers of $0 per job, while reducing America's energy costs by $100 billion and carbon emissions by 300 million tons.

By 2012, fewer than 140,000 (of the five million promised) green jobs had been created, and these at an enormous cost to taxpayers. The number of legitimate new green jobs available today is anyone's guess. But green job seekers might want to dust off their brown resumes. A search at Bright Green Talent returned 14 green jobs — in the entire country. Damn that “talent” requirement! A similar search at Great Green Careers was more promising, returning 196 openings. But only four of them were full-time positions — in the entire country. Perhaps the other 192 companies were using the 29.5 hour work week Obamacare work-around.

Today, five years after the Great Recession, the general economy continues to stagnate. Economic growth has been stifled by feckless healthcare, energy, and financial reform policies. Despite incessant claims of job growth, jobs have been lost. The labor participation rate (the percent of the working-age population that is working) — the most accurate, and the only unambiguous, measure of employment — has dropped from 66 to 63% during the so-called recovery. And, despite equally incessant claims that we need more of them, there is no demand for green jobs. Five years of "sustainability" have brought stagnation, even to the green economy: shrinking profits, decreasing subsidies, project delays and cancellations, lawsuits, an imminent trade war, and widespread tortoise and bird carnage.

Nevertheless, earlier this month, at a California Walmart, President Obama proclaimed, "We’re going to support training programs at community colleges across the country that will help 50,000 workers earn the skills that solar companies are looking for right now.” That would be bird carcass removers and tortoise herders.

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Come On — Did They Really Say Those Things?


Normally, I don’t find much entertainment in news reports of off-year congressional primaries in states where I don’t live. But look what fell into my lap while I was reading election reports on May 20. The author is Fox News reporter Chris Stirewalt; the subject is Michelle Nunn, the Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia:

When asked if she would have voted for President Obama’s signature health law, Nunn was gobsmacked in a MSNBC interview. “So, at the time that the Affordable Health Care Act [sic] was passed, I was working for Points of Light,” Nunn says. “I wish that we had had more people who had tried to architect a bipartisan legislation . . . I think it's impossible to look back retrospectively and say, ‘You know, what would you have done when you were there?’” She’s going to have plenty of chances to reconsider over the course of the campaign.

Now that’s entertainment. Just picture Stirewalt scratching his head and wearing out his eraser, hunting for le mot juste, and coming up with “gobsmacked.” What does that mean? And where does it come from? And what’s it for?

A dictionary informs me that it means “astounded,” and that its origin is “smacked” (I know what that means) plus “gob” (oh yes, now I remember: that’s a Britishism for “mouth”). But that doesn’t help very much. As an immediate descendant of one of America’s famous political families (as they are called; I call them parasites), Nunn could not have been astounded by a question about Obamacare. I’m guessing, but I think that Stirewalt means she was badly hurt, hit in the gob, or mouth, by an interview that went badly, from her point of view. He’s using this strange expression to make fun of her.

I must say, I have no reason to like Michelle Nunn, but I don’t relish the image of people being smacked in the mouth. It doesn’t seem, well, exactly right for news reporting. Or even for satire. And the effort to sound folksy by importing British folksiness seems counterproductive.

So there are several ways in which Stirewalt goofed. Now let’s consider the target of his humor, Michelle Nunn. I’m not concerned with the error noted by Fox News’s “sic”: so what if the real name of the Obamacare legislation is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act? But passing beyond all that, the next thing out of her gob was something called Points of Light. She seemed to believe that everyone would know what that means, but I didn’t, until I looked it up. Here’s what Wikipedia says: “Points of Light is an international nonprofit, nonpartisan organization headquartered in the United States dedicated to engaging more people and resources in solving serious social problems through voluntary service.” I guess if you’re professionally employed in figuring that one out, you can’t pay much attention to anything else that’s going on, such as Obamacare.

The dog had been transitioned. Picture that.

So Michelle Nunn, leading light and great political thinker, knew nothing about it.But does she now know what it is, andwhether she would have voted for it? That’s an easy question, too easy for a politician to answer. Politicians want to take on the hard questions, the challenging questions, the questions inspired by their gargantuan hopes and dreams. So instead of saying whether she would have voted for (i.e., now favors) the bitterly unpopular program ruthlessly jammed through Congress by the leader of her party, she entertains a harder question: what kind of people do you wish to inhabit America?

You’ll agree that this is a very hard question. But she found an answer: “I wish that we had had more people who had tried to architect a bipartisan legislation.”

It is possible that, like many abstruse philosophers — Kant, say, or Heidegger — Nunn has thoughts too profound to be expressed in normal language. Therefore she must use “architect” as a verb and “legislation” as the kind of noun that admits the indefinite article, as in such uncommon phrases as “I will introduce a legislation” and “according to a legislation passed in 1958 . . .” Yet on closer inspection, these peculiar words appear not to differ in meaning from the words that any normally literate person would choose instead — words such as “tried to create, shape, invent, agree upon, etc., a bipartisan bill, act, law, scheme, plan, etc.” Can it be that Ms. Nunn, graduate of the University of Virginia and the Kennedy School of Government, is not a normally literate person, that her odd use of words merely signifies her membership in the ignorant tribe that hunts for food and shelter in political boardrooms and committee meetings, aborigines so innocent of books that they derive their patter entirely from the primitive verbiage of “agendas” and “executive summaries”?

The question to be decided is a fundamental one: is it possible to say what you would have done in the past? And the answer is: yes, it is, because you did it.

Every language, every system of discourse, even the most primitive, has its symbols, and it’s pretty clear what Ms. Nunn’s words were intended to symbolize. She wanted to say, without saying it, that she had nothing to do with Obamacare and wishes that it had turned out differently, but the blame lies with the Republicans, rather than her own party (which just happened to have passed the bill), because the Republicans refused to cooperate and make the thing bipartisan. Tribal priests sometime speak in this way, so that only their fellow priests will understand their message and know what to do to any rival priests. Priestly concerns have undoubtedly influenced Nunn’s sentence.

Yet there’s yet another sentence, and in it the impression of illiteracy is overwhelming. “I think it's impossible to look back retrospectively,” she begins, “and say, ‘You know, what would you have done when you were there?”

But as you know, it’s possible to use big words and still not be literate. Children do it all the time. Unfortunately, they are often rewarded for the trick, and many turn out like Nunn, who can’t resist throwing a big word in, despite not knowing what it means. If she knew what “retrospectively” means, why would she pair it with “back,” thus creating the kind of gross redundancy that embarrasses literate men and women?

But let’s not take things out of context; let’s look at her whole sentence: “I think it's impossible to look back retrospectively and say, ‘You know, what would you have done when you were there?’” Here we have passed beyond the world of words; we are treading the marble floors of metaphysics.The question to be decided is a fundamental one: is it possible to say what you would have done in the past? And the answer is: yes, it is, because you did it.

This is the logic, simple though conclusive, that eludes Ms. Dunn. She thinks it is not possible — the reason is evident. She supported Obamacare. She must have supported it. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t be twisting herself into knots, denying that it’s possible for anyone to say what she “would” have done in some mysterious past that neither memory nor imagination can recover. But if she thinks she’s fooling anybody, she isn’t.

Her verbal methods, alas, are not original. Making pretentious verbs out of common nouns (i.e., “architect”) — that’s what bureaucrats and news people do all day. This month we were informed that a dog employed to do some dirty work by the Department of Homeland Security had been “transitioned” out of service. The dog had been transitioned. Picture that. As for pretentious redundancies, the news is always full of those. On May 3, Fox reported that “pro-government supporters” were active in Ukraine. There was no news of anti-government supporters.

Even more insensate language appeared this month. On May 9, there was an awful accident in Virginia; a balloon hit an electric wire, scattering flaming wreckage and human bodies across the landscape. Three people were eventually found and pronounced dead. While rescue workers still searched for them, a spokesman for the balloon-festival sponsors conveyed this sentiment: “The Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival regrets that there was a safety incident involving one of the balloons participating on the evening of May 9.”

Safety incident? A balloon hit an electric wire, and three people died. It was an incident all right, but a safety incident?

This is the kind of language that 21st-century Americans have grown to expect from public sources. Like Ms. Nunn’s remarks, it’s the product of the public relations school of English, which isn’t English at all. No writer of normal English would refer to a deadly accident as a “safety incident,” or even say that balloons — not people — “participated” in something. But for PR people, and those who learn their ABCs from them, this sort of thing is automatic.

Whenever you see “appropriate” in an official announcement, you know that someone is trying to manipulate you.

Of course, the PR disaster of the month has been the response, or non-response, of the Veterans Administration (aka Department of Veterans Affairs) and its head, Gen. Eric Shinseki, to allegations that many people have died at VA hospitals in Phoenix and elsewhere while waiting for a medical appointment. CNN has done a good job of following up on these allegations. For over six months the network has sought an interview with or statement from Shinseki, but its efforts have not succeeded. It did discover that he employs 54 (fifty-four!) press agents, none of whom responded to CNN’s attempts to get them to do their job. Finally, when the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee called for the boss’s resignation, the VA issued a statement:

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) takes any allegations about patient care or employee misconduct very seriously. If the VA Office of Inspector General's investigation substantiates allegations of employee misconduct, swift and appropriate action will be taken. Veterans deserve to have full faith in their VA care.

Under the leadership of Secretary Shinseki and his team, VA has made strong progress in recent years to better serve veterans both now and in the future. The secretary knows there is more work to do.

Tell me, how many people does it take to reach that level of banality? Answer: 54.

Note the sidelong plea for “faith,” even if, in some cases, this faith must be posthumously awarded. Presidential spokesman Jay Carney, the man America loves to hate, indicated that for some unknown reason Obama himself had succumbed to this plea: "The President remains confident in Secretary Shinseki's ability to lead the department and take appropriate action." Whenever you see “appropriate” in an official announcement, you know that someone is trying to manipulate you. But the trick of invoking faith and confidence was worn out generations ago. In 1933, Isabel Paterson wrote, “When any one asks us to have confidence we are glad to inform him that the request of itself would shatter any remaining confidence in our mind.”

But what said Shinseki himself? Here are his words, from the CNN report (Friday, May 23) that I’ve been quoting:

Shinseki said Tuesday that [he] is "very sensitive to the allegations" coming from the Phoenix probe.

“I need to let the independent IG (inspector general) complete his investigation," he told the [Wall Street] Journal.

Paterson died (without the help of the VA) some years before the popularity of two press agent ploys that are as bad as demanding “confidence”: (1) claiming that one is “sensitive,” with the accompanying, implicit demand for sensitivity from one’s hapless audience; (2) insisting on the supposed necessity of doing nothing until an investigation is completed.

If you were really sensitive, wouldn’t you be too sensitive to say you were — in an interview that you finally had to give, as a bare-minimum response to deadly accusations? And, regardless of anybody else’s inquiries, wouldn’t you take the first plane to Phoenix and stand by the door of the hospital, asking patients how long it took them to get an appointment? If you could find a plane that was large enough, you could take all your press agents with you and let them turn you into a national hero. And if you didn’t do it, maybe your super-sensitive president could do it himself. After all, it would take less work than flying to Afghanistan, or figuring out how to flim-flam the VA issue.

But maybe it isn’t “sensitivity” we need. Maybe it’s normal words and normal actions.

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Memories of War


Last month I visited the Kamikaze Peace Museum in Chiran, Japan, a small town characterized by cherry-lined streets and what remains of a centuries-old Samurai village. The museum is a moving tribute to the 1,000 or so young men who were ordered to give their lives for god and country (the emperor was considered divine) by flying their planes directly into American targets in the Pacific during the final months of World War II. Chiran was the departure point for most of those flights.

The museum contains photographs of all the men, along with the letters many of them wrote to their families on the eve of their death. These pilots were little more than boys, most of them aged 17–28, some of them photographed playing with puppies as they posed, smiling, in front of their planes. In their letters they urged their mothers to be proud, their sisters to be comforted, their girlfriends to move on without them, and their children to be brave. One man wrote, “I am sorry that Papa will not be able to play horsey with you any more.” Another’s girlfriend leapt from a bridge to her death after she read his letter, and yet another’s wife drowned herself and her children before his flight so he could die without regret. Several of these young pilots were Koreans conscripted into the service against their will. None felt he had a choice; living with the loss of honor would be much more painful than any fear of death. I felt nothing but sadness for these young boys.

Two weeks later I was in Oahu, where over 200 Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor in the early morning of December 7, 1941, killing 2,400 Americans, wounding another thousand, and crippling the American fleet. The attack brought America into war in the Pacific. One cannot visit the Pearl Harbor Memorial without feeling profound sadness for the loss of life that day and in the four years that were to come. Yet, having just visited the Kamikaze Peace Museum, I could not hate the men who flew the bombers into Pearl Harbor. The words of Edwin Starr resonated in my mind: “War: What Is It Good For?”

Perhaps it is good for peace. But at what price? I thought of this as I watched The Railway Man, based on the memoirs of a British soldier, Eric Lomax (Colin Firth and Jeremy Irvine) who was captured by the Japanese during World War II, forced to help build the railway through Thailand that was immortalized by the Oscar-winning film The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and tortured by his captors when he built a radio receiver inside their prison. The title of the film has dual meanings; not only does Lomax help build the railroad through Thailand, but from his youth he has had an obsession for trains and has always memorized details about train schedules, train depots, and the towns that surround train stations. In context, the title also suggests a metaphor for the bridges that are eventually built, through arduous effort, between Lomax and others, including his wife Patti.

None felt he had a choice; living with the loss of honor would be much more painful than any fear of death.

As the film opens, Lomax (Firth) is a middle-aged man who meets a pretty nurse, Patti (Nicole Kidman), on a train. He immediately falls in love with her. (The film implies that this is a first marriage for the shy and socially inept Lomax, but the real Eric Lomax was already married at the time he met Patti. He married Agnes just three weeks after returning from the war, and then divorced her just a few months after meeting Patti on the train. This, and the rest of the story, suggests to me that he returned from the war safe, but not sound.) Eric notes morosely, “Wherever there are men, there’s been war,” and Patti replies with a gentle smile, “And wherever there’s been a war, there’s been a nurse like me to put them back together.”

This introduces the key to their relationship. The war has officially ended 35 years earlier, but it still rages in Lomax’s mind. He will need the kind and patient wisdom of a nurse to help put him back together again. His struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder is skillfully portrayed when ordinary events trigger painful memories that transport him immediately to his jungle experiences as a POW. For example, the sound of the shower triggers terrifying memories of the water torture he endured at the hands of his brutal captors. The unexpected intrusion of these scenes demonstrates the unending aftermath of war and the difficulty of controlling its horrifying memories.

Wise casting adds to the pathos of this fine film. Much of what I know about World War II has been shaped by the films I’ve seen, and most of those were populated by actors well into their 30s and 40s. But in this film Young Eric (Jeremy Irvine) and his comrades are played by slender boys in their early 20s who can’t even grow a stubble of beard after four days aboard a prison train. They are closer to the tender ages of the soldiers they are portraying, and this increases the pathos of the story and our admiration for the strength and resolve of these boys who are thrust into manhood, much like the kamikaze pilots, before they even know what war is.

The Railway Man is a character-driven film that demonstrates the choices we have, even when it seems we have no choices at all. Jesus demonstrated the power of choice when he said, “If a man requires of you his coat, give him your cloak also” and, “If a man smites you, turn the other cheek.” He wasn’t telling his followers to give up and give in, but to take charge and move on, by invoking the right to choose one’s attitude when it seems that the freedom to choose one’s actions is gone. This film demonstrates that same transformative power of choice.

Editor's Note: Review of "The Railway Man," directed by Jonathan Teplitzky. Weinstein Company, 2014, 116 minutes.

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The Apple of Knowledge and the Golden Rule


Russell Hasan is an author who has contributed a good deal to Liberty. Now he makes a contribution to liberty itself, in the form of two extensive monographs: The Apple of Knowledge: Introducing the Philosophical Scientific Method and Pure Empirical Essential Reasoning, and Golden Rule Libertarianism: A Defense of Freedom in Social, Economic, and Legal Policy. Both works are available online, at the addresses that follow at the end of this review. And both are very interesting.

I’ll start with The Apple of Knowledge, which itself starts with an account of the author’s quest for wisdom. He did not find it in the lessons of professional (i.e., academic) philosophers, who venerated the counterintuitive claims of earlier professional philosophers, often echoing their conviction that objective truth could not be found. The author turned to the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand, but found that “it was truly a political philosophy, and not a rigorously reasoned system of metaphysics and epistemology. Rand’s ideas seemed clever and useful, but they contained contradictions and holes and gaps.”

So, as an intellectual entrepreneur, Hasan decided to see whether he could solve crucial philosophical problems himself. That’s the spirit of liberty.

He states his agenda in this way:

The six problems that this book will solve are: 1. Induction, 2. Consciousness, 3. Knowledge, 4. The Scientific Method, 5. Objectivity, and 6. Things in Themselves.

Hasan believes that these problems can be solved by his versions of “(1) the philosophical scientific method, and (2) pure empirical essential reasoning.”

What does this mean in practice? It means a rejection of dualism and radical skepticism, a reasoned acceptance of the world as empirically discovered by the healthy consciousness. An example:

When you look at this book and say “I am looking at this book, I am reading this book, I am aware of the experience of this book,” and you wonder about what it means to be conscious and to have an experience and to see this book, the only things in the picture are two physical objects, (1) this book, which physically exists and is the thing that you are experiencing and are conscious of, and (2) your brain, which is the consciousness that experiences and is aware of the book by means of the perceptions and concepts in your brain. Similarly, when you see a red apple, the red apple itself is the red that you see, and your brain is the subject which perceives that object and is aware of that object. Nowhere in this picture is there a need to deny that consciousness exists. We need not deny that you really see a red color. We need not deny that you are aware of an apple. And there is also no need to believe in ghosts or non-physical souls as an explanation for your being aware of an apple and seeing its red color.

As this example suggests, Hasan has an admirably clear style throughout. His clarity may also suggest, erroneously, that the problems he addresses are easy to solve, or that he deems them easy to solve. They aren’t, and he doesn’t. For every statement he makes there are time-honored quibbles, evasions, and yes, real challenges. The enjoyment of reading through this fairly long book comes from following Hasan’s own path among the challenges, assessing his arguments, and finding out how many of those arguments one wants to buy.

To this process, a statement of my own ideas can add no particular enjoyment. For what it’s worth — and it isn’t directly relevant to Hasan’s essential concerns — his grasp of Christian and biblical theology could be much stronger. Here’s where the dualism that he rejects asserts itself despite his efforts; he tends to see Christian ideas (as if there were just one set of them) as dualistically opposite to his own: Christians are against the world, the flesh, and the devil, while he is heartily in favor of the first two, at least. But it’s not as simple as that. “World” and “flesh” can mean a lot of things, as a concordance search through St. Paul’s epistles will illustrate. You don’t need to believe in God to recognize the complexity of Christian thought. (And, to digress a bit further, “666” didn’t come “from ancient confusion between the Latin word ‘sextus’ which means six and the Latin word ‘sexus’ which means sex.” No, it originated in the biblical book of Revelation [13:18], and it’s a code term, probably for “Nero.”)

It makes no difference whether you’re smarter or richer than I am, because it requires the same effort — that is, none — for both of us to leave each other alone.

About the philosophical problems that Hasan treats I can say that he usually appears to make good sense — very good sense. His education in the objectivist tradition is evident; his respect for the real world — which is, after all, the world that all philosophy is trying to explain — is still more evident. Both are valuable, and essential to his project. Indeed, Apple of Knowledge can be viewed as a particularly interesting and valuable addition to the objectivist tradition of philosophy that begins with Ayn Rand.

Golden Rule Libertarianism is an exposition and defense of a variety of radical libertarian ideas — about victimless crimes, war and peace, government intervention in the economy, and so on. Few libertarians will be surprised by the results of Hasan’s inquiries in these areas — but what does “Golden Rule Libertarianism” mean?

This represents what I take to be a new approach, though one that is nascent in the libertarian concept of the great “negative right,” the right to be left alone. From this point of view, it makes no difference whether you’re smarter or richer than I am, because it requires the same effort — that is, none — for both of us to leave each other alone. The Golden Rule, most famously enunciated by Jesus but, as Hasan points out, hardly foreign to other religious and ethical teachers, yields a more “positive” approach. “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” Yet nobody wants his neighbor to do certain things — to prohibit him from speaking or publishing his views or sleeping with whomever he wants, even on the pretense of helping him. In this sense, the Golden Rule turns out to be just as “negative” as libertarians could wish. As Hasan says in one exemplification of his theory:

if you let me be free to make economic decisions, including what wage to pay and at what price to buy services from other people, then I will give you the same freedom to make your own choices instead of me making your choices for you.

There is a pragmatic dimension to this. In case you are wondering whether letting everyone be free to make his or her own decisions would leave the poor in the lurch, or, to vary the metaphor, in the clutches of an exploitative capitalism that the poor are not capable of turning to their own advantage, Hasan adds:

The best thing you can do for me is to get the government out of my way and let me be free, because capitalism helps the poor more than socialism.

Libertarians understand this, and Hasan provides plenty of reasons for everyone else to understand it too. His book will be valuable to nonlibertarians, because there is something in it for every interest or problem they may have. As he says, in another exemplary passage:

The liberal concern for civil liberties, e.g. my freedom to write atheist books, and the conservative concern for freedom from regulation, e.g. my freedom to buy and sell what I want on my terms, is really two sides of the same libertarian coin, because if the government claims the right to be the boss of your beliefs then it will soon usurp the power to be the boss of your place in the economy and take total control over you, and if the government is the boss of the economy then it will inevitably take over the realm of ideas in order to suppress dissent and stifle criticism of the economic planners.

I believe that Hasan is right to pay particular attention to what he calls “the coercion argument,” which is one of the strongest ripostes to libertarian thought. It is an attempt to argue against libertarian ideas on libertarian grounds. The notion is that if I leave you alone I permit someone else to coerce you. As Hasan says,

Some version of the coercion argument underscores a great deal of anti-libertarian sentiment: poor people will be coerced into selling their organs and body parts, which justifies denying them the right to do so. Poor people are coerced into accepting dangerous, low-paying jobs such as coal mining, or are coerced into working long hours for wages that are lower than what they want. They are coerced into buying cheap high-fat fast food, or are coerced into buying cheap meat, packed at rat-infested plants, and so on. The coercion argument is a thorn in the side of laissez-faire politics, because socialists argue that poor people aren’t really free in a capitalist system where they face economic coercion.

Hasan’s insight into the legal history and ramifications of the coercion argument is enlightening:

An example of the grave seriousness of the coercion myth is legal scholar Robert Lee Hale’s famous law review article “Coercion and Distribution in a Supposedly Non-Coercive State” (1923). Hale brainwashed generations of law students with his argument that capitalist employers exert coercion upon workers, and socialism would not produce more coercion or less freedom than capitalism.

This is a powerful myth, but Hasan has little trouble refuting it. Others are yet more formidable; I would be surprised, however, if even a hostile reader could emerge from a serious consideration of Hasan’s arguments without admitting serious damage to his or her own assumptions.

For libertarian readers, the fun is in seeing what Hasan will do with various popular topics of libertarian discourse — natural rights versus utilitarianism, racial discrimination, gay marriage, an interventionist versus a non-interventionist foreign policy, privatization of education and banking, disparity of wealth, etc. Even well-informed libertarians will be surprised, and probably grateful, for many of the arguments that Hasan adduces.

Hasan is one of the few questioning occupational licensing, which exacts immense costs from society, and especially from the poor, who must pay dearly for even the simplest services.

I was such a reader — and for me, the book gained in stature because I did not always agree with it. For me, libertarianism is more a matter of experience and less a matter of moral logic than it is for Hasan; but even within the large area of our philosophical, or at least temperamental, disagreement, I found myself admiring his intrepid and intricate, yet nevertheless clear and cogent progression of thought. I suspect that anyone who shares my feeling for the great chess match of political economy will share my feeling about this book.

Not all of Hasan’s many topics can possibly be of intense interest to everyone, but that’s just another way of saying that the book is rich in topics. My heart rejoiced to see a chapter on the evils of occupational licensing — a practice that virtually no one questions but that exacts immense costs from society, and especially from the poor, who must pay dearly for even the simplest services of licensed individuals. And I was very pleased to see Hasan take on many of the most sacred cows of my fellow academics.

One is game theory. Readers who are familiar with game theory and with the part of it that involves the so-called prisoner’s dilemma know that for more than two decades these things have been the favorite pastime, or waste of time, among thousands of social scientists. (If you ask, How can there by thousands of social scientists? or, Why don’t they find something better to do?, see above, under “occupational licensing.”) The tendency of game theory is to deal with people as objects of power, not subjects of their own agency. Its effect has often been to emphasize the statist implications of human action. Hasan cuts through the haze:

The specific refutation of Game Theory and the “prisoner’s dilemma” is that the solution is not for the group to impose a group-beneficial choice onto each individual, it is for each individual to freely choose the right choice that benefits the group. If the benefits of the supposedly right, good-for-the-group decision are really so great, then each individual can be persuaded to freely choose the right, optimal, efficient choice.

My advice is to get the book, which like the other book is available at a scandalously low price, read the introductory discussion, then proceed to whatever topics interest you most. You may not agree with the arguments you find, but you will certainly be stimulated by the reading.

Editor's Note: Review of "The Apple of Knowledge: Introducing the Philosophical Scientific Method and Pure Empirical Essential Reasoning," and "Golden Rule Libertarianism: A Defense of Freedom in Social, Economic, and Legal Policy," by Russell Hasan. 2014.

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John Kerry Speaks!


At many colleges and universities across this great land of ours, graduation weekend has just passed. Amid the festivities and regalia and good-hearted celebration, that meant the return of one of our most dreaded civic traditions: the commencement speech. For those fortunate enough to have avoided these in recent years, the commencement speech has become the chief opportunity for would-be public intellectuals to spout truisms and feel even more self-important than usual.

Case in point: one of this site’s favorite bloviators, John Kerry. Invited to speak at Yale’s Class Day, presumably on the strength of his sterling undergraduate record, Kerry produced a masterpiece of vacuity, making a case for how urgently the students needed to trust their “instutitions,” by which he meant the government. In addition to the expected lame jokes and the kinds of cultural references that dads make to try and pretend they’re still cool, Kerry indulged in his habitual verbal offenses:

  • word salad, such as rallying students to “galvanize action to recognize felt needs” (translation: “we need to spend lots of money meddling with people”);
  • doublespeak, such as “We cannot allow a hangover from the excessive interventionism of the last decade to lead now to an excess of isolationism in this decade.” (translation: “especially meddling with people in other countries”);
  • bumper stickerism, such as “None of our problems are without solution, but neither will they solve themselves” (translation: “our meddling can solve anything”); and
  • dubious assertions, such as “Participation is the best antidote to pessimism and ultimately cynicism” (translation: “never doubt even for a moment that meddling isn’t the right thing to do”).

Thing is, by graduation-weekend standards, Kerry’s speech is only half bad—I’ve survived much worse. What’s happened this year that has given me hope is students finally getting fed up and fighting back. At a number of schools, the student body banded together to reject the speaker being foisted on them. This move has brought howls from the sorts of writers who hope themselves one day to deliver commencement addresses. But why submit yourself to listening to a half hour from an architect of the Iraq War, like Condoleeza Rice, or a defender of forceful police coercion against nonviolent student protestors, like Robert Birgenau, if there’s any alternative? Graduations are a time for students to celebrate with friends and family, a chance to reflect on years past and look forward to years future. Nothing about that requires the importation of big-name outside speakers—especially those whose fame depends on the degree to which they’ve intruded themselves into the lives of others.

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The Babies are Booming


According to the Census Bureau, a government agency and therefore one of the sources from which all knowledge proceeds, the post-World War II baby boom lasted from 1946 to 1964. I squeaked in right at the tail end of it. This meant I missed the good stuff: the Summer of Love, Woodstock, all the best riots. Roseanne Conner well summarized what the era meant for those lucky enough to have been born earlier: “Well . . . there was a war going on! Everything was just a lot more fun!”

When I was little, there was a Saturday morning cartoon about the Beatles. I was very surprised when I found out they were real people. In 1968, when Bobby Kennedy was shot, I was genuinely confused. Having already heard quite a lot about the Kennedy assassination, I didn’t see how it could happen to the same man twice.

I like these kids. They don’t take anything at face value. When they spot an injustice, they capture it on their ever-present smartphones and send it into viral immortality.

Those were chaotic, frightening, fascinating years to be a kid. Though I was only 7 when the decade ended, the spirit of freedom had gotten into my blood. I couldn’t wait to become a teenager and do all the great things that had made youth so exciting for my sister and the older siblings of my friends. But high school throbbed to the inane beat of disco, and in my college years, former flower children advised me that all the fun was over, so if I really wanted to have a meaningful life, I’d need to make piles of money. Our elders would yell at me and my friends about “you kids” and how horrible we were — not because of anything we’d ever done, but because of the antics of those who’d gotten there before us. They kept vigil over us like vultures, just to make sure we never got to do any of it.

Eversince the ’60s crashed into the ’70s and burned to cinders, the baby boomers have been pining for the era’s rebirth. When each new generation comes of age, they urge the youngsters to restart the revolution. The boomers are getting old, but their hope remains forever young.

They think they may be seeing the resurrection among the “millennials.” I agree, but I doubt the wilting flower children will recognize themselves in the current crop. The spirit animating today’s youth is one that the oldsters long ago disowned.

According to one of those ancient sayings the boomers love to quote, we can never step into the same river twice. As a fresh generation sets out to reform the world, it looks very different from what’s been expected by those who grew up in the shadow of the Second World War. These aren’t the children of the GIs who battled tyranny overseas; they’re the grandchildren of those children. The boomers pretty much depleted the store of goodies lavished upon them, and left little for those who come after. Today’s youngsters have to make their own breaks.

I see the Age of Aquarius as a time of promise yet to be fulfilled, though I disagree with the boomers about what that might mean. They evidently imagined it would signal the complete takeover of society by a big, benevolent government, run by Those Who Know Best. There’s always been a strain of that in their thinking. They seem to have forgotten that all through the ’60s, running parallel to that river was one of an altogether different color.

Whatever happened to the maxim that all authority should be questioned? What happened to a wide-eyed inquiry into the world, which accepted no truth secondhand? I haven’t seen very much of that until lately, but more and more I see it in today’s youth. I’m happy to say I probably won’t turn into one of the sour old people who grouse about “those kids.” When I spend time around teens and twenty-somethings, I come away feeling hopeful.

I like these kids. They don’t take anything at face value. They’ve been using computers since they were in diapers, and they connect to each other, via the Internet, with a facility that seems almost occult. Nobody’s going to put anything over on them. When they spot an injustice, they capture it on their ever-present smartphones and send it into viral immortality.

They’re not much impressed because some tired, graying frauds burned their draft cards 40 years ago. Haven’t these same onetime antiwar crusaders complacently permitted a war to drag on in the Middle East for over a decade? A war that has taken the lives and limbs of many in the millennial generation? That war was, evidently, only bad when a Republican was Commander-in-Chief. Since its headship switched parties, there’s been nary a grump from Gramps.

Today the Boomers as likely to reminisce about the cool concerts they attended as they are about the protests in which they marched. Many never showed up at the protests at all.

Kids have a built-in BS detector. They can see through a sham. I always wondered why the big kids had so many obviously great ideas, but squandered every chance to make themselves coherently heard. They never seemed to decide whether they wanted to drop out or fit in. Whether to change the world, get laid, or get stoned.

Today they’re as likely to reminisce about the cool concerts they attended as they are about the protests in which they marched. Many never showed up at the protests at all. Getting their heads busted would have been a bummer. Better to let government change the world. As they surrendered more and more of their self-confidence to Big Brother, they settled into a state of complacency they’ve never left.

This hardly seems the same bunch who gave us “Alice’s Restaurant.” Alice has closed her doors and boarded the windows. Perhaps her grandkids will reopen the place as an Internet café. If they do, I’ll be at the corner table.

Maybe it took a kid’s eyes to see the promise of the ’60s clearly. I was too young to get laid, or stoned, or to go to any of the really far-out concerts. I’m just old enough to remember.

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Vox Populi


At almost every really snazzy party I’ve been allowed to attend during the past few years, the conversation lagged until one among the elegant guests brought up American Idol — the TV show on which people compete by displaying the “skill” of shrieking in falsetto voices and manifesting faux emotions. As soon as that subject was introduced, everyone became enthusiastic. At last, they had something to share. Everyone, it seemed, was rooting for one or another of the contestants, although there was general agreement that all of them were wonderful and deserved the highest praise. This was enough to dash any illusions I might have harbored about the cultural level of the wealthy and powerful.

Imagine my horror when I found that someone named Clay Aiken was running for Congress and attracting attention, for no other reason than the fact that he had been a contestant on American Idol. What next, I thought — Hillary Clinton running for president?

On May 13, the electorate of North Carolina — working folks, mostly, not members of the mentally idle rich — laid my fears to rest. At least my fears about Clay Aiken. The media, ever zealous for the cause of Democrats, heralded his victory in the Democratic primary. What many stories didn’t mention was that he won by a mere 400 votes, beating a man who had died the day before.

Aiken may not get elected.

In fact, he will not get elected. His Republican opponent, now running for a third term, got 56% of the November vote last time. Even if she dies of campaign injuries, she’ll stand a very good chance of beating him.

As for Hillary — even if the Republicans nominate a dead man, which they probably will, chances are she’ll get beat.

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An Amish Funeral


R.W. Bradford, founder of this journal, loved the unusual features of America and its people, and always sought articles about them. When he didn’t find good articles, he wrote them himself. Liberty has always been especially interested in the variety of communities Americans have created. As Isabel Paterson observed, even “closed communities” can succeed in America, because they are embedded in an open society. Paul Hochstetler is a descendant of an Amish community. He presents an inside-outside view of a place and a people in northern Indiana, observed when he took his 91-year-old father to the funeral of his father's sister-in-law.

— Stephen Cox

“Sis kalt du-miha,” said the man as he and his two small sons sat on the bench next to me. In my brain began the 1-2-3 count as I processed this statement. Then, recognizing the meaning ("It's cold this morning") and breaking the flow of Deitch, I agreed, and indicated that was why I was still wearing my hoodie. Though it was dark blue and I was wearing a white shirt (heavy, not dress) and black jeans, the clothing still looked a bit too flashy — too Anglish.

That wasn’t the first Deitch addressed to me that morning. One of Uncle Lonnie’s boys greeted me with “Hochstetla” as he shook my hand. I thought of Number Two at work who often barks out a last name as a greeting. Or was he playfully introducing himself? Perhaps he was identifying me as “one of them.” I thoughtfully raised my finger to my cheek as I replied in Deitch, “I believe I am.”

Roads that day were much clearer than I had anticipated. Still, getting there had adventure potential. Service begins at 9:00 a.m. on January 3, at Herman Miller’s, I was told. Yet, the location was a mystery even as my father and Iset out at 7:20 for the funeral of Aunt Katie.

Visions of crisscrossing LaGrange County roads appeared before me. We’d stop at every house that looked funereal, eventually staggering in ten or 20 minutes late. But Dad had his plan . . . revealed as we drove. Go to where Willis and Katie, my aunt and uncle,had lived (at a son’s home) and see if anything can be learned there.

The plan’s flaw was that he couldn’t remember exactly which road east of LaGrange led to this home. So we went several miles too far and zigzagged our way back in the bright morning sun. Soon we saw a buggy and assumed it was headed where we wanted to go. We passed it, and over a hill was another buggy. Dad suggested hailing them, but their side curtains were tightly drawn against the cold.

Then a van came down a crossroad — probably an Amish-transporter. We were not surprised because there are many who make money by taking groups of Amish to reunions and funerals. Many cross state lines with their cargo. He turned in our direction, so we stopped him. Yes, we were very close. In fact, the house was about one-quarter mile from the Hochstetler place we had originally sought.

When the last two rows behind me returned, one man began to sing a mournful phrase and “suddenly there was a multitude” — the choir.

The service began at 9:30 and this was not the Herman Miller place. The (apparently added-to) shed used for the funeral had three rooms and a cement floor. Scattered about were several radiant heater discs attached to propane tanks. A large tent had been erected next to the shed area (how did they get those stakes pounded into the frozen ground?), but the tent was not used for the funeral. Perhaps it was part of the viewing that had begun on New Year’s afternoon. Surely not overflow, because anyone in there would not have been able to watch and listen through closed-circuit TV. A port-a-potty was outside and I was reminded of an outhouse.

Dad was seated next to Aunt Ellen in the siblings’ area near a stove. People continued arriving and the rooms became warm enough. A group of teenaged Amish boys slid into the row behind me at about 9:25. I wondered if they had been outside being young or perhaps helping with the incoming horses and buggies. The last two rows in “our” room were filled with what was later revealed to be the male choir.

The first preacher stood, beginning tentatively but becoming stronger. His style made me think of a chant. Not a lulling chant, but more of a harangue. It clearly was not his conversational voice. Uncharitably, a passage from Elmer Gantry sprang to mind: “What a rotten pulpit voice the poor duck has.”

He spoke for 35 minutes, and the next man — much easier to listen to — went on for 50. Of course, only the occasional word or phrase was recognizable, along with several Bible stories.

Suddenly there was a swooshing of clothes and scraping of feet and benches as all rose, knelt, and flung themselves across the benches for a prayer. I reacted as quickly as I could. After that there must have been a scripture reading, because twice everyone genuflected (“at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow”). This too took me by surprise, because I didn’t properly hear the words. (I also remembered that at the funeral of Aunt Ellen’s husband, Dad was next to me and when the appropriate moment came, he placed his knee behind mine to make me “go down.”)

It was during this reading that all the women on our side turned around. I didn’t see it happen on the other side (and the third, smaller room was completely out of sight) but Ellen seems to think it did. Some inquiries did not yield a definite answer about this practice but two persons thought it dated back to early Anabaptist gatherings in Europe when it was important to watch for persecutors. The second preacher said that was probably why, but (and this seemed the compelling reason), “we’ve always done it this way.”

The minister continued with a reading of the obituary (“gross-kinna”), and the “undertaker” removed the top portion of the lid. That was the signal for all to file past. When the last two rows behind me returned, one man began to sing a mournful phrase and “suddenly there was a multitude” — the choir. It was a four-line song (I was later told the last two lines were the same on every verse). At the end of the verse, without a break, the next phrase was soloed, followed by the entry of the choir.

They sang while the rest of the gathered made their pilgrimage. Then the undertaker came to their row and gave a sign (though not the dramatic finger across the throat that I anticipated), and they stopped at the end of the verse. The family had their final viewing, the lid was replaced, wraps were brought to the family, the pallbearers picked up the casket, and the service was over.

Dad went to the cemetery in a van — red with a front license plate proclaiming “Mama’s Fire Truck.” This was another van which had been used to carry Amish to the funeral.He told me later that a tent had been erected that reduced the wind, but there was a bit of a battle to loosen the frozen top of the dirt when they were refilling the grave.

In gazing over the group I was reminded of penguins: all the dark dresses and white coverings and the white shirts with dark suits.

Immediately after the departure of the Amish hearse (a two-seat buggy with an extension on back for carrying the casket), tables replaced the benches in the smaller room and the food was arranged on both sides of the tables. This setup became the dual assembly line as each woman filled a compartment of a Styrofoam tray and passed it forward for the eventual recipient.

I’d like to say, quoting Dickens’ Christmas Carol, “O the pudding,” but there was none. It was the standard Amish funeral starch festival: white bread bologna sandwich (lightly coated with mayo or, more likely, sandwich spread), a slice of cheese on the side, a cup of chicken and noodles, potato salad, a hunk of jello with fruit cocktail, and a cupcake. Still, very good on a cold day.

I told Dad not to be rushed and stay as long as he liked. Meanwhile, I wandered around and talked to a few people — most of whom began with the question, “Are you Paul”? I also re-met Paul Hochstetler — one of Uncle Omer’s sons and was reminded of how Uncle Omer copycatted Mom and Dad with the names Lamar and Paul for his kids.

In gazing over the group I was reminded of penguins: all the dark dresses and white coverings and the white shirts with dark suits. Two other impressions: too many women looked stoop-shouldered at an early age and too many men had bad teeth. But whatever else one thinks, they do have a strong community.

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Imagined Community


Fudan University, Shanghai: Photograph by Joseph Ho

Fudan University, Shanghai: Photograph by Joseph Ho

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Equal Pay for Equal Work


Once again equal pay for men and women doing presumably equal work has become a live political issue. If Congress can achieve fair pay by passing still another law, why not?

But what is equal work? Is it the same numbers of hours spent? Is it work in the same industry or other category, broadly or narrowly defined?  Is it work typically done by people with similar levels of education as proxied by diplomas and degrees? Are what economists call “compensating differences” unfair — differences in pay for work considered particularly risky or boring and work found attractive in itself? More plausibly, does fair pay mean equal pay for work appearing to promise the same addition to the revenue or profit of a business firm? If so, as judged by whom? Without attention to availability, productiveness, and costs of materials, energy, and other things bought, including the many kinds of labor, a firm would go broke.

More equal-pay legislation will add to the burdens already borne by business firms, perhaps especially small businesses.

An economic system coordinated otherwise than by market transactions and the interplay of prices, profit, and loss would be very different from the system that has brought prosperity to the Western world. A market economy puts to good use vast amounts of knowledge both specific and widely dispersed. This knowledge, as well as informed conjectures, exists in the minds of millions and billions of consumers, employees, job candidates, entrepreneurs, and owners and managers of business firms and other organizations. Knowledge of how to conduct and mesh their activities simply could not be centralized for effective use by planners and regulators. The writings of Mises and Hayek (and, earlier, Henry George), reinforced by experience in Communist countries, have taught us this lesson. Even if, per impossibile, this knowledge could be centrally deployed, politicians would have incentives to disregard much of it.

Business owners and managers, sometimes aided by specialist consultants, can best judge how to structure their workplaces and employ the people most likely to contribute to profits. Supply and demand interacting on markets, including the labor market, contribute to these judgments. Business losses tend to weed out bad judgment of these kinds, while profits tend to reward good judgment.

Employers must judge how likely employees or job candidates are to fit in well with their businesses. How likely is a person to be available for working long or irregular hours on short notice or for shifting among assignments and geographical locations? How committed is the person to a career, or how likely to quit or interrupt work for family or other reasons or to request many hours or even months of paid or unpaid leave? How likely is the person to generate profitable new ideas? How likely to get along well with customers, colleagues, and supervisors? Or how likely to prove obnoxiously litigious? A good matching of jobs and employees benefits all concerned.

Realistically, of course, employers cannot have all the detailed and ineffable knowledge necessary for ideal decisions. They must make judgments based on categories, experience, probabilities, statistics, and hunches, and perhaps sometimes even on stereotypes. These regrettable gaps in knowledge are not blameworthy or avoidable, although detailed experience and practiced intuition may shrink them. The system of markets, profit, and loss tends, at least, to reward or punish good or bad business judgment; nothing similar weeds out bad legislation.

Government regulators drift into thinking that their own work is important.

More equal-pay legislation will add to the burdens already borne by business firms, perhaps especially small ones. These will include the burdens of keeping records of and reporting on job interviews held or not held, performance reviews, job categories and modifications, and innumerable other things. Risks compound the burdens, including risks of being second-guessed about honest judgments and of dubious statistics being manipulated to infer violations of rules even in the absence of evidence. Government regulators drift into thinking that their own work is important and into eagerly receiving and investigating complaints. Aggrieved employees have additional ways to browbeat their employers by threatening to file complaints or lawsuits. Opportunities for lawyers multiply.

The burdens placed on job creation are heavy already. They apparently help account for the disappointing growth in employment as recovery from the recession continues only sluggishly.

Yet far from being morally obliged to bear such burdens and risks, businesspeople are under no obligation to be in any business or hire any workers at all. Even employing job candidates willing to work for less pay than others appearing similarly qualified is a service to workers and the public (even if a less noble service than one might wish). Employing anybody increases the scarcity value and the job and pay prospects of the rest of the labor force. Employers practicing discrimination unrelated to the value of employees’ work suffer the penalty of reduced profit and lose ground to firms showing sounder business judgment.

Speaking of fairness, how fair is it to draft businesspeople more and more into unpaid and thankless service as social-welfare agencies and as scapegoats?

Making a political issue of “fair pay” expands opportunities for politicians and demagogy. It illustrates how superficial bright ideas can get casually inserted into laws, notably into laws running hundreds or thousands of pages. As Thomas Sowell has explained, being both economically literate and honest is a disadvantage for a politician. (An economically illiterate one can honestly advocate bad but popular legislation, while a dishonest politician may gain votes by concealing his economic understanding.)

My message, in summary, is dismay at ignorance or disregard of how essential using widely dispersed specific knowledge is to a prosperous economy.

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It’s Smart, It’s Exciting, It’s Fun


The specific details of a superhero movie plot seldom really matter; all we usually need to know is that an evil superpower, sporting a foreign accent, is out to destroy the world as we know it, and it is up to the superhero not only to protect the community from destruction but also to preserve our way of life. Dozens of superheroes have been created in comic-book land, and all of them have been sharing time on the silver screen for the past decade or more, with half a dozen of their adventures released this year alone. So far audiences are flocking to theaters with the same enthusiasm that kept our grandfathers heading to the local cinema every Saturday afternoon to see the latest installment of Buck Rogers.

These films tend to reflect the fears and values of whatever may be the current culture, which is one of the reasons for their lasting popularity. We see our worst fears in the threats posed by the enemies, and our hopes and fears in the characters of the heroes. But lately those heroes have been somewhat reluctant and unsure of their roles as heroes, and the people they have sworn to protect have been less trusting and appreciative — they complain about collateral damage and even question the heroes’ loyalty. In an era of relativism and situational ethics, a full-on hero with overwhelming power seems hard to support.

The Avengers share conversations praising freedom and choice, and they reject blind obedience in favor of making their own decisions.

This month it’s Captain America’s turn to save the day. Created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon in 1941, Captain America (alter ego: Steve Rogers) is a WWII fighter pilot who is transformed from a 5’4” wimp to a 6’2” muscle man through a scientific experiment intended to create an army of super warriors. He ends up being cryogenically frozen and is thawed out in modern times. Part of his appeal is his guileless naiveté, especially as he reacts to modern technology and mores. He uses his virtually indestructible shield to fight for truth, justice, and the American way (okay, that’s the other superhero, but their morals are virtually the same). I like Captain America’s shield — it signifies that his stance is defensive, not aggressive.

As The Winter Soldier opens, nothing is going right for the Avenger team led by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Captain America (Chris Evans). Police, government agencies, and even agents of SHIELD (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, the organization that oversees and deploys the superheroes) are attacking them and treating them as national enemies. The Captain and former Russian spy Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), aka the Black Widow, have become Public Enemies number 1 and 2, but they don’t know why. They spend the rest of the movie trying to clear their names and save the world, without any help from the government they have sworn to uphold.

While the specific plot isn’t particularly important in these movies, motivation usually is. Why do the characters do what they do? Meaningful dialogue inserted between the action scenes reveals the values of both good guys and bad guys, and away we go, rooting for the guy who is going to save us once again.

I’m happy to report that Captain America: The Winter Soldier, lives up to its potential. As a libertarian, I can agree with most of the values it projects. First, politicians, government agencies, and the military industrial complex are the untrustworthy bad guys in this film, and for once there isn’t an evil businessperson or industrialist in sight. Additionally, the Avengers share conversations praising freedom and choice, and they reject blind obedience in favor of making their own decisions. For example, The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) aka Sam Wilson, tells Steve about his buddy being shot down in the war, and then says, “I had a real hard time finding a reason for being over there after that.” Captain America admits, “I want to do what’s right, but I’m not sure what that is anymore.” Like Montag in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, he is ready to think for himself and determine his own morality. (Compare that philosophy to Peter Parker [Spider-Man] being told by his wise Uncle Ben that responsibility is more important than individual choice in Spider-Man 2, followed by Uncle Ben’s death when Peter chooses “selfishness” over responsibility.)

Meanwhile, the Secretary of State (Robert Redford — yes, Robert Redford! He said his grandchildren like the franchise, so he wanted to do the film for them) says cynically of a particular problem, “It’s nothing some earmarks can’t fix.”

The mastermind behind the assault on freedom (I won’t tell you who it is, except that it’s someone involved in government) justifies his destructive plan by saying, “To build a better world sometimes means tearing down the old one” and opining that “humanity cannot be trusted with its own freedom. If you take it from them, they will resist, so they have be given a reason to give it up willingly.” Another one adds, “Humanity is finally ready to sacrifice its freedom for security,” echoing Ben Franklin’s warning. These power-hungry leaders boast of having manufactured crises to create conditions in which people willingly give up freedom. This isn’t new, of course. Such tactics are as old as Machiavelli. Yet nothing could feel more current. I’m happy to see young audiences eating this up.

Captain America first appeared on film in 1944, at the height of WWII. He has never been as popular as Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man. A made-for-TV movie aired in 1979, and a dismal version (with a 3.2 rating) was made in 1990. However, the latest incarnation, with Chris Evans as the wimp-turned-military powerhouse, has been highly successful, with three films released in the past four years: two self-titled films (Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011, and this one) as well as one ensemble outing (The Avengers, 2012).

These power-hungry leaders boast of having manufactured crises to create conditions in which people willingly give up freedom. This isn’t new, of course.

One of the things I like about the Avengers is that they aren’t born with innate super powers à la Superman or X-Men; for the most part their powers come from innovation, technology, and physical training. They’re gritty and real, and they bruise and bleed. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo were determined to make this movie as real as possible too, so they returned to live action stunts whenever they could instead of relying on CGI and green screen projection. Yes, they use stunt doubles when necessary, but, as Anthony Mackie (the Falcon) reported in praise of the Russos, “if they could build it [a set piece], they built it. If we [the actors] could do it [a difficult maneuver], we did it. . . . That’s why the movie looks so great.” Many of the action scenes are beautifully choreographed and often look more like dancing than fighting, especially when Captain America’s shield is ricocheting between him and a gigantic fighter plane.

Of course, the film has its share of corniness too. When you’re a hero named Captain America, you’re expected to be a rah-rah, apple-pie American, and Captain America is. He even drives a Chevy, the all-American car. So does Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who brags about his SUV with a straight face as though it’s a high-end luxury vehicle. In fact, all the SHIELD operatives drive Chevys, as do many of the ordinary commuters on the street. That’s because another concept that’s as American as apple pie is advertising. Product placement permeates the film, but most of the time it’s subtly and artfully done. Captain America wears an Under Armour t-shirt (which is pretty ironic when you think about it — under armor beneath a super-hero uniform), and the Falcon, whose superpower is a set of mechanized wings that let him fly, sports a small and subtle Nike swoosh on his after-hours attire. (Nike — the winged goddess, get it?)

Captain America is a hit, and for all the right reasons. The dialogue is intelligent, the humor is ironic, the action sequences are exciting, and the heroes are fighting for individual freedom. It even contains a theme of redemption. And for once, the bad guys aren’t businessmen. Ya gotta love it.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. Sony Pictures, 2014, 136 minutes.

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Inequality: The Democrats’ Defining Issue


Those of us who have been troubled by issues such as economic decline, unemployment, public debt, healthcare, foreign policy, and federal power should know that our worries have been misplaced. President Obama now tells us that income inequality is the principal concern — the "defining issue of our time," he says. It's a timely discovery, what with America's victims of inequality looking ahead to the November congressional elections.

The Democrat Party (protector and savior of all such victims) had to choose between inequality and the unfolding Obamacare debacle. That was a no-brainer. Naturally, Joe Biden made the call, counseling that "income inequality is our issue this year." After six years of rewarding the rich and punishing the poor and middle class, newly impassioned Democrats declared inequality as their battle cry for 2014. Why not? Six months of melodramatic hypocrisy spent on attacking plutocrats is wildly preferable to six months of cognitive dissonance spent on defending Obamacare.

In a speech last December, Mr. Obama launched his new crusade against patrimonial wealth, promising to devote the remainder of his presidency to this "dangerous and growing inequality." It is a phenomenon he has observed for many years — perhaps as early as his first reading of Das Kapital. His monologues on the subject (e.g., his notorious December 2011 Osawatomie, Kansas speech) voicethe deeply felt, though tacit, theme that capitalism is to blame for the widening income gap between the rich (the bourgeoisie) and the rest of us (the proletariat). He presents his observations as evidence both of capitalism's failure and of his fervid concern for correcting its excesses. And there is what he doesn't say, what he would like to exclaim with glee: that Karl Marx was right.

It is difficult to imagine any set of policies that could punish our economy and darken our future as much as the Democrat policies have.

Because of capitalism, the president tells us, "the basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed." To Obama, free market capitalism is a mysterious, chaotic game in which the winners prosper through deceit and theft, allowing but a meager share of their vast wealth to trickle down to the poor and middle class. It's a "theory," he says, that "fits well on a bumper sticker," but "it doesn’t work. It has never worked." Who — apart from Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, Fidel Castro, and Paul Krugman — could have put it better?

In his economic homilies, Obama excoriates capitalists who tell us that "the market will take care of everything" and that "if we just cut more regulations and cut more taxes — especially for the wealthy — our economy will grow stronger." He laments that "a family in the top 1% has a net worth 288 times higher than the typical family," while"a child born into the bottom 20% has a less than 1-in-20 shot at making it to the top." He reminds average Americans of deep frustrations "rooted in the nagging sense that no matter how hard they work, the deck is stacked against them." Marx could not have taken a more sinister view.

But the capitalism Obama decries is not free market capitalism. The latter predated his selective observations, performing marvelously well for America's first two centuries. The capitalism that Obama rails against is the patriarchal, democratic crony capitalism that politicians of his ilk (including every president from Lyndon B. Johnson to George W. Bush) created. That system — which is precariously held together by the political influence of the rich and the "fatal conceit" of central planners — has failed, and failed chronically since the advent of the "Great Society." Today, after five years of eco-socialism, Obama outshines all his predecessors. The inequality gap has become so intolerably large under his stewardship that he himself declared it as a national issue. Well, somebody had to do it.

During his 2012 reelection campaign, Obama told audiences what the weak regulation of the Bush administration had accomplished: "Insurance companies that jacked up people's premiums with impunity and denied care to patients who were sick, mortgage lenders that tricked families into buying homes they couldn't afford, a financial sector where irresponsibility and lack of basic oversight nearly destroyed our entire economy." As 2014 election campaigns begin, voters who were among Obama's cheering crowds in 2012 may ask what the strong regulation of the Obama administration has accomplished. They, and Democrat candidates, won't like the answer.

In 2007, the share of the nation’s income earned by the richest 1% was 18%. Today, that elite group's share has increased to 22%. Ninety-five percent of the income gains since Obama took office have gone to the top 1%. Yet, during that period (aka, the "recovery"), median annual household income dropped by 4.4%, the number of people in poverty increased by 6,667,000, and Democrats, with a new battle cry but still blaming George Bush, gained 100% of the nation's inequality bullshit.

The tax and regulate policies of Democrats (Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, EPA and DOE regulations, to name a few) are wreaking havoc on the very groups they are supposed to help. A March 2014 report ('The Irony of ObamaCare: Making Inequality Worse”) declared that Obamacare "threatens the middle class with higher premiums, loss of hours, and a shift to part-time work and less comprehensive coverage." It was published by a labor union — one of many angered by Obamacare. With the Dodd-Frank reforms, minorities, low-income people, and the young are being shut out of mainstream banking. The economic impact and regulatory compliance cost, estimated to be $1.9 trillion annually, will be passed on to people in the middle class, who haven't been shut out — yet.

For black Americans, the poverty rate has increased from 12% in 2008 to 16.1% today; their unemployment remains twice the rate for white Americans. According to radio talk-show host Tavis Smiley, "the data is going to indicate sadly that when the Obama administration is over, black people will have lost ground in every single leading economic indicator category."

Meanwhile, the stock market is doing well, for the rich; the S&P 500 is up 52.8% since the passage of Obamacare in March 2010. How have health insurance companies fared — companies that were allegedly jacking up people's premiums with impunity and denying care to the sick? The top five are up 100.7%. And what about banks, which were allegedly tricking families into buying homes they couldn't afford? According to a February 2014 FDIC report, their profits are at an all-time high.

Democrats argue that the inequality gap would grow wider under Republican leadership. Not to defend Republicans, but it is difficult to imagine any set of policies that could punish our economy and darken our future as much as the Democrat policies have. When it comes to the advancement of inequality, Democrats are unrivalled. Clowns could do no worse.

For black Americans, the poverty rate has increased from 12% in 2008 to 16.1% today.

Clowns would come up with better ideas than Obama's latest offerings: inequality busters such as “equal pay for equal work,” universal preschool, and raising the minimum wage. They would know that impoverished burger flippers making $7.25 an hour would remain in poverty at Obama's recommended pay of $10.10 an hour, as would the half million people who, according to the CBO, would lose their jobs as a result. Clowns would reject the assertion that women earn only 77% of what men earn for the same work. Male clowns would worry about the wholesale job losses and wage cuts that would ensue if employers acted on the idea that they are overpaying men by 23%.

Then there are Democrat anti-inequality panderisms such as the "Stop Subsidizing Multi-Million Dollar Corporate Bonuses Act," sponsored by Senators Blumenthal (CT) and Reed (RI). Can an Occupy Wall Street pleaser such as the "Use Congressional Authority and Oversight to Ensure that Appropriate Federal Agencies Fully Investigate and Prosecute the Wall Street Criminals Act" be far behind?

The policies of Democrats, however well-intentioned, have backfired. They have exacerbated inequality, a result that, after almost six years of economic stagnation, high unemployment, staggering debt, grinding income decline, etc., clowns would notice. If for no other reason than comic relief, they would reject Democrat ideas — all two of them: redistribution of wealth and regulation of everything.

Clowns would tease us with a little free-market capitalism and tickle us with our own newly discovered energy bonanza, especially the vast taboo region lying fallow beneath federal land. After all, there is no clown ideology against fossil fuels. Besides, clowns would be awestruck by the giant nodding donkeys erected on private land, producing enormous wealth and prosperity in places like Texas and North Dakota. Think of the chuckle that clowns would get from telling a burger flipper that, while he waits for Obama's $10.10 an hour to kick in, he could work at a MacDonald's for $18 an hour . . . in North Dakota. Then there's the sidesplitter involving a blue-collar guy who makes $80,000 a year driving a tanker truck full of Bakken shale oil from the Williston Basin to refineries in the South . . . because Obama won't use his pen and cellphone to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.

The rich do very well under Republican or Democrat administrations. Has it ever been otherwise? But under the Obama administration, the rich have grown extraordinarily wealthier, and the inequality gap has grown extraordinarily wider, than under the Bush administration. The stimulus, Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, EPA and DOE regulations, and other Democrat policies — all big (federal) government efforts, promising to humble the rich, uplift the poor, and strengthen the middle class — have nefariously combined to produce the opposite effect. As the mid-term elections near, "Redistribute and Regulate" bumper stickers won't make many voters think that Democrats will do any better than clowns to shrink the inequality gap. The real challenge for Democrats is not to stamp out inequality, but to escape from the dark shadow of Obama's anti-capitalism, anti-fossil fuel, eco-socialist ideology, where most candidates are discovering a "nagging sense" that "the deck is stacked against them."

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The Road to Potential


How I hate the word “potential”! While acknowledging innate abilities with faint praise, it reeks of withering disappointment, talents wasted, opportunities lost.

Transcendence is a film with tremendous potential.

It begins with a talented cast of discriminating actors that includes Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman, and Paul Bettany. (OK, scratch Morgan Freeman from the list of “discriminating actors.” Freeman is a fine actor, but he has become as ubiquitous as Michael Caine.) Add a postapocalyptic setting, an army of zombified robotic post-humans, a love story that transcends death, and the time-honored “collision between mankind and technology.” Mix in some dialogue about challenging authority and questioning the meaning of life, and create a metaphor suggesting the thirst for power in the form of the World Wide Web. It seems like the perfect formula for an exciting sci-fi thriller.

Yet Transcendence barely gets off the ground. The story, about terrorists who attack the world’s computer hubs simultaneously in order to stop the Internet, should be powerfully engaging, but it lacks any building of tension or suspense. Instead it is a dull, slow-moving behemoth emitting loud, unexpected bursts of explosive violence.

Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is a computer programmer working on ways to heal the planet through nanotechnology. When terrorists attack his computer lab and infect him with deadly radiation poison, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and his research partner Max (Paul Bettany) convince him to let them upload his consciousness onto a hard drive that will allow his sentient self to continue to live within the machine. It’s an interesting concept that ought to cause one to reflect on what makes us human: is it the physical body of flesh and bones that can move and act? Or is it the non-physical collection of memories, thoughts, and personality? Many people have had their heads cryogenically frozen after death, in hopes that someday their minds can be restored within a synthetic body and they can regain life. But that isn’t what this movie is about.

“Transcendence” is a dull, slow-moving behemoth emitting loud, unexpected bursts of explosive violence.

The plan works, and Will speaks from the computer screen after his death. However, Max immediately and inexplicably regrets having uploaded Will to the machine, so he joins forces with the terrorists (who also join forces with the government — it’s hard to keep all the factions and their motivations straight) to stop Will from doing what he was uploaded to do. Meanwhile, Evelyn joins forces with Will and together they build a solar power grid in an isolated Nevada desert to give Will enough juice to mingle with every scintilla of the Internet.

Yes, this makes Will omniscient, omnipresent, and all-powerful. And that’s a definition of God, right? Will is treated like God’s evil twin, set on sucking up all the power in the universe (there’s that metaphor of the power grid.) But he doesn’t do anything evil. He doesn’t steal power from others; he creates his own from the sun — and he pays the Nevada residents a good wage to work for him. He doesn’t kill anyone, destroy anything, or even growl menacingly. In fact, he uses his power to refine his work in nanotechnology, and soon he is able to heal the blind, make the lame walk, and restore life to those who have been killed. (In case you hadn’t noticed, this is godlike too.) As they are healed, his new followers become like him — imbued with the Internet and able to communicate with Will through his spirit — that is, the Cloud.

This storyline has the potential for being eerie and scary, à la Invasion of the Body Snatchers; but Will’s followers don’t do anything wrong either, and they aren’t at all zombie-like. They are just humans who once were disabled and now can see, walk, lift, run, hear, and produce. How is that different from living with a pacemaker or a titanium hip, and carrying around a smart phone that keeps one constantly connected to the Internet? Nevertheless, the government is determined to take them out, simply because they are now created in Will’s image and have the ability to communicate worldwide.

All of this has the potential for philosophical discussion, but I had to use all my creativity as a literature professor to reach the potential message I’ve described here. The message is beyond subtle — so subtle, in fact, that I think it went over the director’s own head. I’m not sure what he intended to suggest, except possibly that the collision between mankind and technology is usually good for a studio green light. I doubt that he was even aware of the potential metaphor or deeper meaning of the film he created.

Ah. There’s that word again. “Potential.” A film that had transcendent potential is instead fraught with withering disappointment, wasted talent, and lost opportunities. Insomniacs will love it.

Editor's Note: Review of "Transcendence," directed by Wally Pfister. Alcon Entertainment, 2014, 119 minutes.

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